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Martin LeFevre: The Brain Need Not Grow Old

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

The Brain Need Not Grow Old

By the time I take my seat beside the little creek that runs along the perimeter of the town, there’s only ten minutes of direct, warm sunshine left in a bright autumn day in northern California. The earth’s rotation slowly turns down the burner, and one feels the temperature drop as the sun slides toward the horizon.

The lamp of lamps seems to sit on the horizon for a minute, speaking of death and dying without a single tear. Deep lavender bathes the foothills to the south and east. On turns to look at the sun setting, and when one turns backs toward the hills, they hold only their flat, late-fall hue.

The sun and another day are gone. Does one let go completely, or look to tomorrow, and so wear the chains of a thousand yesterdays?

A pale white sheet of light covers the flat surface of the creek upstream. The sound from a washboard section directly below the great, bifurcated sycamore tree washes over one. The stream competes with the road a half-mile away for aural predominance, and despite the traffic din, prevails.

The fading light in the western sky holds back the night, and whispers through the nearly leafless trees of mysteries beyond the power of language to convey.

Without introducing a dichotomy, there are two kinds of learning, but most people are aware of and only experience one. Learning, as we know it (pardon the redundancy), is a matter of accumulation. Knowledge is not knowledge unless there is accretion. Even when something is discovered to be false in science, and is thrown out, it opens the way to the enlargement of a body of knowledge. In other words, subtraction is part of a larger process of addition.

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Inward learning is of a completely different nature however. It is a process of negation, with no intention or action of accumulation. Inward learning is like science in its rigor of questioning and observation, but it grows through a process of negation, not addition.

Understanding has no content. That insight is so foreign to most people that it may make no sense, but once one understands it, it makes more sense than anything.

The positive movement, essential to science, prevents spiritual growth. Inwardly, in negating the false, the true is.

The two kinds of learning are not opposed however. As long as the negative movement of inward learning is held first, the accumulative processes of science are in harmony with it, and the unfolding of the human being and the human prospect.

Another kind of knowledge that we all recognize is experience. It too is accumulative, and though universally seen as a positive movement, experience is actually the greatest impediment to inward learning. As we age, experience grows like algae in the brain, clogging the spaces of the mind, preventing fresh perception, and eventually destroying the plasticity and elasticity of the brain itself.

It isn’t that experience has no value; it’s that when it’s given primary value, and not attended to and negated on a daily basis, memory subconsciously accretes and slowly suffocates the individual, and the brain.

The brain does not need to grow old. All the mental exercises in the world make little difference if one doesn’t understand this one thing—negation of experience.

Given the growing glut of information bombarding us from all sides, and because useful knowledge can now be stored in computers, the art of unlearning has become an urgent necessity for the individual.

Children can and must be taught both kinds of learning. But to learn the art of unlearning, a child has to see it operating in a primary caregiver. Unlearning cannot be positively taught, and speaking about it without actually doing it sets up another conflict in the child.

To question these things together and ignite shared insight is a tremendous thing, the highest action human beings are capable of socially.

What brings about such enquiry? First, the intent (not intention) by all participants to follow the thread of a question as it unfolds, not a leader as he or she directs. Second, there has to be a willingness to hold beliefs and opinions, and even knowledge and experience, in abeyance.

That is the most difficult thing for many people to do, but if one plays with it, enquiry is fun. Of course, fun is in the eye the beholder.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: martinlefevre@sbcglobal.net. The author welcomes comments.

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