Sunday, December 16, 2012

Caves, Cognition, and Feeling Our Way Toward the Light

My first mentor in botany, a wonderful woman named Alix Wennekens, told me that before she learned botany the world was like a green tunnel to her, uniform and indecipherable.

I carry those words with me all the time; when I introduce my students to scientific problem solving, when I visit a new place and the plant families are like old welcoming friends, and whenever I set out to learn something new about my world.

Alix spoke those words to me when I was first engaging the world of plants and practicing botany in the sense that's truest to the etymology of its name, studying the shape and growth dynamics of buds. Soon after that I was using more sophisticated empirical tools like the light microscope and the scanning electron microscope, but the intuitive aesthetically-derived ways I first learned botany never left me.

I think all learning is intuitive. Each of us has our own way of intuiting the world but I think we also share some unifying cognitive characteristics of learning. All of these learning pathways, call them problem solving if you will, can be considered in a broad sense as aesthetics. I've been playing around with the idea that aesthetics, as broadly defined here, is an algorithm for taking the abstract world-- for example Alex's green tunnel, and making it into something understandable.

This brings me to the question of caves. In the past few years I have visited many places where I observed caves both natural and man-made. How did our ancestors use these caves? Were they temporary encampments? Permanent residences? Sacred spaces? Defensive posts? Perhaps all of the above?

And why did our ancestors decorate them, embellish them, build them? Could caves have been a place of meditation, enlightenment, inspiration? Might they have been something like the libraries or museums of today?

We have so much to learn about our relationship with caves. Whether in present day Spain, Mexico, or the desert southwest of the US (all caves pictured at the end of this post), our ancestors engaged with these places at some level beyond the pure physicality of shelter or protection.

Today's New York Times featured an article about caves in the Brazilian rainforest, now threatened by mining, that provide archeological clues to the earliest peopling if the Americas. It seems that not only our ancestors used caves aesthetically as a way to figure out their world. There's so much we can still learn from them.

So, thinking about intuitive ways of learning, aesthetic approaches to problem solving, using caves in all their darkness as a way to pursue the light.

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