Like many of you, I do some of my best thinking in the shower. Have you ever wondered why?
Last night, my attention turned to the simplicity around me. I was standing in a tub, with three walls and a shower curtain bounding my world. Before me, four items of chrome: the shower head, a control plate, a faucet, and a drain. At my side, a soap dish, a bar of soap, and a bottle of shampoo. Once I’d turned the water off, there was nothing more.
When I opened the curtain, there was plenty more to see: a vanity, a mirror, a toilet, a pair of towel racks hung with towels, a bathrobe hanging from a hook on the door. But as I inventoried this expanded-but-still-small world, I realized there was no end to the counting: three pictures on the walls, light fixtures, a light switch, a door knob, brass hinges, a toilet tissue dispenser, baseboards, two floor mats, a patterned linoleum floor, and no fewer than twenty-six items on the vanity, from deodorant and toothpaste to a tub of raw African shea butter. Two of the twenty-six items were ceramic jars, filled with scissors, tweezers, nail clippers, cotton swabs, and other modern necessities. Most of the items were labeled, little sheets of paper glued on them, each little sheet bearing product names, ingredients, and warnings in tiny fonts and a wide array of colors.
Early in fifth grade, Paul Czaja had our class use a sheet of paper, telescoped into a tube, to survey our surroundings. The idea seemed too simple – easy to dismiss because we already “knew” the result. But actually trying it proved us wrong. Paul insisted that, one eye shut, we keep the other at one end of the scope for five minutes; he wouldn’t let us stop or look away. Forced to view our classroom from these new perspectives, we were amazed at how different it became. Desks, windows, blackboards and classmates disappeared, replaced by a tiny spider web that trapped an even tinier bug in a corner; the pattern in the grain of a piece of wood; a piece of lint trembling in an unseen movement of air like a piece of desert tumbleweed.
As I toweled dry after my shower, the world of things too small to notice most of the time came into sharper focus. My attention turned to things I go through life ignoring. From the confines of my bathroom, I took stock of the unseen.
The room, I supposed, and no doubt my own body, were covered with bacteria. (I might have found that thought abhorrent once, but today, nourished by probiotics and kombucha tea, I find it comforting.) In the empty space between me and the mirror, I imagined all the even smaller things I couldn’t see, the atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, the muons and the quarks, the billions of things that swirl around me, unseen, though I breath them in and out, and though they sustain me.
I thought of things in the bedroom and the hall, and the things out in the yard, and things so far away that I couldn’t see them, even in the vast night sky beyond the bathroom’s walls because I don’t have X-ray vision and can’t see things more than a few million miles away.
But it wasn’t a matter of distance, size and walls alone that limited my sight. I thought of all the colors I’d never be able to see, because the cones in my eyes don’t react to all the wavelengths of light that exist. And moving past the limitations of sight, I thought how oblivious I am to odors; that every one of those ingredient labels lists chemicals and molecules easily distinguishable by dogs, probably despite their containers, but all those stray molecules float into my nose unnoticed.
I hear but little of what there is to hear. Some sounds are simply too quiet. Others are loud enough to make dogs and teenagers come to attention,but too high pitched for my adult ears to discern. Others are at frequencies too low. And even dogs and teenagers hear but a tiny fraction of the oscillations that twitter, snap and buzz in the world around us.
Taste? Surely, the world has more complexity to taste than five types of gustatory cells whose highest achievement lies in their ability – acting as a team –to distinguish between sweet, sour, bitter, salt and savory.
And what about the things we call “forces”? How often are we conscious of gravity? If I focus on it, I can imagine that I feel the gravitational pull of the earth, but have I ever felt the pull of the moon? And have I ever once thought about the gravitational pull of the vanity, the toilet, and the doorknob? How often do I focus on the domino effect of the electrons hopping and pushing, connecting the light switch to the fixture? And do I ever think of the magnetic fields surrounding them? Unless I’m shocked by the sudden release of static electricity, I go through life completely oblivious to its existence .
Perhaps most of all, I’m unconscious of myself – the flow of hormones that affect my mood; the constant traffic in my nervous system that never reaches my brain, much less my conscious thought; the processes of liver, kidney and thalamus that keep me going.
In short, the world I experience, through my senses, is but a tiny fraction of the real world in which I live.
Yet that’s not all. I haven’t even begun to count the ways my brain deceives me. In fact, it wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t distort reality. The tricks my brain plays on me take the already small portion of reality I’m able to sense, and make it appear to be something other than it is.
My eyes see two different views of the world, but – as if it’s afraid I couldn’t handle multiple points of view – my brain tricks me into thinking I see only one.
When I turned off the shower, my world was completely silent – or so it seemed. I’d heard the cessation of the water coming down. It being late at night, there were no voices from downstairs, no television blaring, so my brain told me – convincingly – that the bathroom was silent. Only when I closed my ear canals by pressing flaps of flesh to cover them did I realize that the hum of ambient background noise was now gone. That noise had been so normal, so much a part of the ordinary, that my brain had convinced me it wasn’t there. (My highly evolved brain still wants to know: What’s the use of listening to background noise?)
Early on, my brain tricked me into thinking that some things are up and others are down, and that up and down are the same everywhere. (I spent a lot of time as a child worrying about the people in China.) And it was so intent on perpetuating this deception that when my retinas saw everything in the world “upside down,” my brain flipped the world around to be sure I saw everything “right side up.”
One of the brain’s most convincing tricks is what it does with my sense of touch. It has convinced me I’m doomed to a life in touch with the ground; I’ve often regretted my inability to fly. But in fact, I’m told, the stuff of which I’m made has never come in contact with the ground, or with any other stuff at all – if it had, I’d have exploded long ago. The sense of touch might better be called the pressure of proximity. All that time I dreamed of flying, I was floating all the while!
How about my sense of who I am? I wonder if that’s not the biggest trick of all. When my body changes with every bite of food, every slough of skin, every breath of air I take, no present cell or atom there on the day I was born, is my very sense of self an illusion, created by my brain “for my own good”?
And so I surveyed the bathroom. Having first considered the things too small to notice, or too quiet, or too far away, or at not the perfect frequency, and having then considered ways my brain tricks me, I next encountered a whole new category of deception. As my eyes fell on various objects, I noticed something else my brain was doing. For example: on the toilet tank was a vase full of flowers, but not real ones— pieces of plastic, molded and colored to look like real ones. Another example: one of the pictures on the wall was of a swan and her cygnets – not a real swan, but a mixture of acrylics applied to a canvas, a two-dimensional image designed to give the illusion of life in a three dimensional pond. The painting was designed to make me think of something not there, and it did. I didn’t think “acrylics,” I thought “swan.” And as soon as it had done that, my brain had me thinking of the artist – my wife, Karen – and of her skill with a brush, and of her sense of color, and of some of the many ways in which she’s blessed me through the years. And I realized that all these mental associations, these illusions, these memories, form an extremely important part of the reality in which I live, despite the fact that they don’t reside in the space between me and the mirror (at least not literally). The flowers in the vase are just molecules of colored plastic, but my brain gives them a fictional existence – a story of smells and bees and fresh air and blue sky, and all the associations that “flowers” evoke in my brain. The swan and her cygnets remind me not only of a wife who paints, but of our children, and of times we walked together, along water banks, watching swans and cygnets swim by. My mind, I realize, is a factory, churning out a never-ending assembly line of associations, all of which are things that “aren’t really there.”
And so, I conclude, I’ve spent a lifetime in a shower of a different sort –bombarded by atoms, muons, quarks and dark matter, things so small I call them emptiness, all the while pulling associations, memories, and narratives into my world that aren’t really there.
When I say they aren’t really there, I don’t mean to deny that Karen, and swans, and flowers, are real – but that memory itself is reconstructive. My memories are hardly exact replicas of things I’ve experienced; they’re present creations, constructed on the spot in a crude effort to resemble prior experience. The result is affected by my mood, and by error, and by all sorts of intervening experiences.
And so, I live in a world that isn’t the real world, but one extremely limited by my meager human senses; one corrupted by a brain that’s determined to distort things, for my own good; one filled with the products of my own defective memory and my own boundless tendency to imagine things that aren’t there. Somehow, I’m able to deal with the shower of inputs so created, over-simplified, distorted and augmented as it may be – in fact, I’m pretty well convinced that I can deal with it a lot easier than I could deal with the vast complexity of the “real thing.”
I woke up this morning hoping that I never lose sight of the difference between the two.