From personal experience I can attest that introspection can be extremely counter-productive. But clearly it is already too late. Today I’m thinking about how people learn and process information over the course of their lives. Basically, it is a play of the specific vs. general; an oscillating shift of the focal lens.

Start from the young child. Here the learning of concepts and language happens simultaneously, and so you get overextension and underextension – two phenomena inherent to a healthy linguistic development. A child may learn about what a “cat” is at home, and then call all four-legged animals “cat” (overextension), or conversely, may only call his pet cat Stubby “cat”, and refuse to accept that there are other cats in the world (underextension). But with age children learn to differentiate between general and specific, get a better understanding of groups and subgroups (Stubby is a cat, which is a mammal, but not all mammals are cats, and not all cats – Stubby.) Childhood is filled with such fun games of sorting and arranging, but at this point it is still on a physical, material landscape.

But once you hit teenage hood, things get interesting.

Did you ever notice how with teenagers, everything takes on EPIC proportions? “The whole world hates me!” “This is the machine man, we have to fight against the machine”, “Nobody understands…” I think this happens because here, for the first time, the lens is able to focus out on the distant, the general. For reasons that would take tomes to describe, people at this age are able to take a set of specific observations and experiences that they’ve had, and draw general conclusions about the way the world is. You know: metaphysical, self-awareness stuff.

This is a time of profound discovery. In part because you’re starting to read the literature and get acquainted with the thinkers that talk about Big Important Things, in part, because you’re finally able to think abstractly; to look at yourself from the outside.

This stage can last well into your twenties, or maybe indefinitely. Or maybe you don’t ever get there. That is fine too.

But upon reaching that all-encompassing general understanding of the world, those more philosophically inclined oscillate back to the specific. It is easier and more productive to talk and dig deeper with specifics. Being well-read and familiar with most of the philosophical/literary concepts and ideas, theirs is a conversation peppered with casual references to Occam’s razor, Zeno’s paradoxes and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle the way ours would reference the latest episode of House. And when you try to comment on the elusive “Life” or “Death” or any other opaque concept that you discussed in your senior year lit. class, you suddenly feel juvenile.

At this point, the focusing in and out can go on indefinitely.

It’s as if you’re looking at a painting. Let’s say it’s Raphael’s School of Athens. As a child, you’re standing up really close. You don’t even know that you can see more if you move away. You don’t know what a person is, or a large lecture hall, or marble steps, or that Raphael painted himself and the other Renaissance men into the masterpiece. As you learn more and more, you’re able to stand further back and ultimately take the whole painting in. You understand it, more or less. It’s not (that) overwhelming. But then you think, “Gee, I wonder where everyone is looking, and what the scribes are writing…and how DID Raphael get that translucent drapery look…” You move back up to the canvas, really close.

You realize that the secret is in the details. You see that patterns repeat themselves on various scales. And in studying the function of the mitochondria in the cell you see that you can gain understanding into the mind of God. The concept of a galaxy enclosed in a charm hanging “on Orion’s belt” (from Men in Black, Orion being a magical cat) gains a humorously profound meaning.

This is the point where, I can only imagine, a person is able…

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour… ”

– William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

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