Soil

I’ve an exam coming up in a few days, which naturally means I’m spending all my time thinking how nice it would be to sort the garden out. Part of this has been driven by my housemate ordering in a wormery, which has re-ignited my childhood love of horticulture (yes, I was a peculiar child – and all the better for it). ¬†Cue me spending lazy evenings browsing gardening blogs like the party animal I am. Cue also a realisation of just how awesome soil is – a whole massed microscopic ecosystem which we’re almost totally unaware of, yet which sustains every form of life on land.

I’ve an exam coming in a few days, which means my mind is mulling over all this information – I’ve a terrible habit of only revising the subjects I love, so it’s mainly mulling over cortico-striatal circuits, schizophrenia, dopamine and drugs. I’ve been on this course a year now, and this final introductory module has definitely been my favourite. At first there’s so much to learn, cell biology and genetics, which isn’t obviously ‘neuroscience’ but which sits under and around it, and for folks such as I whose first degree isn’t cell biology it’s often felt like running to stand still. However, the information acted not only as an essential scaffold but also as an important background in which to place this huge, sprawling multidiscipline into context.

And I got thinking about the two; revision and compost, knowledge and soil. Memory is interesting; when you first learn a fact outside your experience, it sits there, alone and sharp. At first bright, likely to dull if nothing’s done with it. But keep adding, and give it time, and you’ll eventually have a rich substrate of self-sustaining knowledge.

Keep adding, and give it time. This is why cramming is such a poor strategy, it’s like trying to grow a garden from yesterday’s scraps. All the information sits out, alone and bright and sharp, in a jumbled pile that’s of no immediate use to anyone. But take all those scraps and build the pile slowly, give it time, let the knowledge bed down, and you have something¬†generative. Each scrap of information decomposed to its essentials and operating in a cognitive ecosystem which requires little work to maintain, just so long as you keep adding to it.

I tend to think of knowledge as a structure (see I used a scaffold metaphor above), or a puzzle – especially a puzzle like a crossword, where the more you’ve solved, the easier it is. But I think a lot can be gained from switching metaphor frames occasionally – structures and puzzles have purpose, they’re human centric, have an end point. Knowledge needn’t be any of these things; it can be sprawling, messy, and creative. It needn’t be strong and showy, or even clever. Knowledge can just be soil, unassuming and underfoot, improbably brilliant.

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