Musings on education, neuroscience, and whatever else happens to be going on
  • Externalization of the Senses

    October 25th, 2010HillaryUncategorized, baylor_nmfs_f10

    Last week for our New Media Seminar, we talked about a couple of  essays/excerpts from Marshall McLuhan. I’ve been a little late on my posts for the seminar, but there’s one particular point that we talked about that has sort of stuck in my head all week. Now, just as a fair disclaimer, there’s a fair bit of nerd-dom up ahead here, so proceed at your own risk.

    We spent some time talking about the following quote from McLuhan:

    “Sense ratios change when any one sense or mental function is externalized in technological form.”

    At first, the conversation was primarily consumed with what McLuhan meant by “sense ratios” (a valid question, if you ask me). We landed (I think) on the concept of, say, a person who loses their sight and therefore begins to notice and use much more audible information than they did previously. Or a less dramatic example would be perhaps a person turning down a stereo in her car to concentrate on directions – that changing what is happening inside or outside our senses changes the way we think about and perceive what is happening.

    So I have something written down in the margin of my book right where this quote came from. I almost brought it up in the seminar, but then it wasn’t really relevant – just sort of a tangential thought, but since I’m still thinking about it, I suppose it’s worth writing down (at least for me).

    Here we go – for those of you out there who have read the Harry Potter series, you’ll be able to follow just fine. For those who haven’t, first of all, quit reading this and go read the books – I promise you won’t be sorry (and no, watching the movies doesn’t count). This idea of mental function being externalized quickly brought me to one idea – (do you know where I’m going with this yet?) – The Pensieve.

    The Pensieve is a magical object that Harry stumbles upon in Dumbledore’s office one day as he is waiting to meet with the headmaster:

    “A shallow stone basin lay there, with odd carvings around the edge: runes and
    symbols that Harry did not recognize. The silvery light was coming from the
    basin’s contents, which were like nothing Harry had ever seen before. He could not
    tell whether the substance was liquid or gas. It was a bright, whitish silver, and it
    was moving ceaselessly; the surface of it became ruffled like water beneath wind,
    and then, like clouds, separated and swirled smoothly. It looked like light made
    liquid – or like wind made solid – Harry couldn’t make up his mind.”

    He then learns (by falling into it) that the Pensieve seems to contain old stories and memories that Harry then sits in and witnesses. When Dumbledore arrives, he pulls Harry out of the pensieve and the following conversation ensues:

    “What is it?” Harry asked shakily.

    “This? It is called a Pensieve,” said Dumbledore. “I sometimes find, and I am sure
    you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories
    crammed into my mind.”

    “Er,” said Harry, who couldn’t truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the

    “At these times,” said Dumbledore, indicating the stone basin, “I use the Pensieve.
    One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the
    basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and
    links, you understand, when they are in this form.”

    “You mean . . . that stuff’s your thoughts?” Harry said, staring at the swirling white
    substance in the basin.

    “Certainly,” said Dumbledore. “Let me show you.”

    Dumbledore drew his wand out of the inside of his robes and placed the tip into
    his own silvery hair, near his temple. When he took the wand away, hair seemed to
    be clinging to it – but then Harry saw that it was in fact a glistening strand of the
    same strange silvery-white substance that filled the Pensieve. Dumbledore added
    this fresh thought to the basin, and Harry, astonished, saw his own face swimming
    around the surface of the bowl. Dumbledore placed his long hands on either side
    of the Pensieve and swirled it, rather as a gold prospector would pan for fragments
    of gold…

    Now I’m going to get even nerdier – so the Pensieve is an object that allows you to store your memories when you have too much filling up your head, right? So you pull them out and place them somewhere else and come back to them with, perhaps, a new perspective later. Do you know what this is starting to sound like? That’s right: blogging! Our own little personal Pensieves (although, I have to say, I kind of wish blogging was as easy as the swish of a wand…plus, I think a Pensieve would look great on my coffee table). We can get our ideas out even if we’re not sure what to do with them, and they’re just there waiting for us when we come back to them.

    I’m apparrently not the first person to think of this, either. There is, in fact, a blog named “The Pensieve” that’s full of Harry Potter trivia and cool insights on where Rowling came up with character names, etc. So, to sum up: 1) McLuhan really got me thinking last week, 2) blogging is good, and 3) Harry Potter wins.

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2 Responses to “Externalization of the Senses”

  1. I completely understand your point about the Pensieve, and I have a suggestion. My class just read “Will There Be Condominiums in Space?” by Bill Viola, and he elaborates more on the concept of memory as it relates to space and infinity. I also just blogged on it, and seeing your comments tells me you may be interested in reading my post, so here it is!

  2. This post is way beyond cool. Love it. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, and for letting that nerd flag fly! (It’s the flag of my pirate ship too.)

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