January 27, 2010

Proving Contraries to Jiggle the Synapses

It was Eugene England who called my attention to Joseph Smith's terse declaration: "By proving contraries, truth is made manifest."1 I must have seen the quote when I plowed through the History of the Church during my mission, but the meaning must have completely escaped my missionary brain. England placed the quote in the context of Joseph Smith as a "tragic quester." The quote encapsulates "the heart of the tragic quest." England made me stop and think about it in a way I wouldn't have on my own, and the idea was not unique to Joseph Smith:

We do indeed live in a universe where it is only by proving, or testing, contraries or paradoxes, that truth is made manifest. Fifty years earlier, William Blake, certainly another prophetic tragic quester, had said, "Without contraries is no progression," and warned, "Whoever tries to reconcile [the contraries] seeks to destroy existence."2

There are a few questions I like to believe I have a definitive answer for, but there are others I don't mind wrestling with sometimes. Thinking through contradictions, puzzles or paradoxes may very well be at the heart of the tragic quest of mortality, but I doubt all of us are consciously pursuing that quest day by day. Interestingly, proving contraries also makes for good brain exercise, if Kathleen Taylor, professor at St. Mary’s College, can be trusted. Taylor questions the old adage that old dogs can't learn new tricks by studying ways to effectively teach adults. In a recent New York Times article Taylor argues that thinking about and proving contraries exercises the brain and helps adults stay sharp.

She isn't recommending a continuous mental rehash of conclusions people arrived at previously, or extended efforts to stash the brain full of bits of information: 

“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”3
Taylor makes suggestions as simple as taking a different route home from work. People can also "nudge neurons in the right direction [by challenging] the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young." This doesn't necessarily mean people must overturn prior beliefs to get a good workout, but "confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own" can "jiggle their synapses a bit.”4

The suggestion that we read a contrary opinion might seem silly, especially if we barely even get the chance to read opinions we agree with. The rise of alternative media sources has increased the potential to encounter different opinions, even as it seems to have decreased the likelihood that we will. We have our favorite sites, writers and opinions securely bookmarked. Sometimes I prefer to turn on a news station that I know will be preaching the sort of gospel I want to hear; I'm tired and don't feel like wrestling. Sometimes wrestling is exactly what I need, regardless of what I want. An added bonus to Taylor's brain benefits is that, during the workout, truth is made manifest—perhaps even a truth "I never had supposed" (Moses1:10).

History of the Church, 6:428. Image credits: "Gray Matter," istockphoto.com; "Pillars of Creation," Hubble Telescope, 1995; "Children - Wellington - NZ 1998," Julian Ward. 

Eugene England, "Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest," Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience, Signature Books (1984), p. 10.

Barbara Strauch, "How to Train the Aging Brain," The New York Times, 3 January 2010.