Monday, June 07, 2004

On banana skins... 

Years ago, I read this little story in one of those anecdote slots that Reader's Digest uses to fill up the white space at the end of it's articles:

From time to time, a man would wake up in the night with flashes of inspiration; great "A-Ha!" moments of insight; truths that could change his life for ever. He'd smile to himself with pleasure at the wonder he'd discovered, then with sleepy anticipation of how next day he'd build on this new learning, he'd go back to sleep.

Of course, by morning he'd always forgotten. The insight had dissolved into nothingness. Frustrated, he resolved to keep a pen and a notebook by the bed and next time one of these nocturnal revelations occurred, he'd be ready for it and write it down. And one night, sure enough, he awoke convinced he'd uncovered a deeply significant truth. So he wrote it down, and went back to sleep sure in the knowledge that that this time his piece of wisdom would not be lost.

In the morning, as soon as he awoke, he reached eagerly for his notebook. In it were scrawled just seven words: "The skin is tougher than the banana".

And there the anecdote ended. It's easy to dismiss it as just a mildly amusing story; something we can identify with perhaps, but not holding any great significance. I wonder though... It would seem this particular "insight" was a metaphor, but for what? I'm quite convinced that there's a huge, unconscious, non-verbal part of our intelligence that remains largely inaccessible to our rational, verbal, conscious minds. This part is a lot smarter than we might think. But we're not aware of it, because it finds it difficult to communicate with the verbal part of our reasoning, whose capacity for understanding is so limited by the constraints of language.

Just to be clear, this isn't quite the same thing as intuition. I believe that intuitive understanding is simply the same processes as rational, evaluative, logical, linear, understanding, but happening invisibly, and often very rapidly, just below the level of consciousness. So we know something without knowing why or how we know.

My guess is that the insights this guy was trying to capture were messages from the non-verbal part of his intelligence. Messages that could only be heard when the verbal part of his reasoning was stilled by drowsiness or sleep. But something was lost in the translation; language proved inadequate to contain the understanding, rather like those literal translations you used to see from Japanese instruction manuals.

I suppose meditation is also intended to still the incessant babble of this noisy verbal self. I have to admit I've rarely seriously attempted meditation, and by all accounts it's a skill that has to be learned, so it's hardly surprising that occasional attempts haven't got me very far. Maybe I should try properly. I'm convinced that this non-verbal part of intelligence has some messages it's desperate to get across.

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