Saturday, May 15, 2010

Contingencies are sometimes very personal.

When we are talking about contingencies, we should always remember that it is ultimately the nature of cognition of each subject that determines their nature, although certainly affected by the objective statistics of events.

The same situation can be the source of different contingency for different people. For an experienced skier, a snowy slope would not present a high degree of contingency. For a novice wearing ski boards for the first time, even standing still on the snow slope can be a problem.

For a patient being told that she has cancer, the life suddenly becomes full of contingencies. For the medical doctor who is treating her, the diagnosis of cancer should be accompanied with less uncertainties, based on his expertise and accumulated experience as a specialist in the field.

Thus, contingencies are sometimes very personal. In order to encounter an interesting case of contingency, one sometimes needs to actively search for it.

Appropriately presented contingency is a necessary "food" for the brain's learning process. One should always be "contingency aware" in the course of one's life, always assessing in a metacognitive process the nature of contingencies that one is currently encountering in life.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Contingency and learning.

Contingencies, the mixture of predictability and unpredictability in the occurrence of events, has an important significance in nurturing our brains. If everything follows some already known rules, there is nothing to learn any more. If, on the other hand, the events occur in a random manner, as in the case of thrown dices, there isn't anything to learn either, except for the realization that the statistics of dice indeed exhibits randomness. Any "learning" beyond that would be due to a gambler's fallacy.

Thus, it is always the case that a mixture of predicable and unpredictable elements provides an opportunity for learning. It is not that the unpredictable elements monotonously decreases as the learning progresses. It is rather that learning new regularities leads to a structuring of the world, in which newly unpredictable aspects of events emerge in our cognition. Thus, the brain is playing an incessant game of pursuit and chase, in which the unpredictable is never diminished to nothingness.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

People are mirrors.

Reflecting on my own life, I find that people are often mirrors on which I see my own reflection. This particular viewpoint, obviously, is related to the recent discovery of the mirror neurons. But the idea is not necessarily based on, and restricted by, the neurophysiological findings of today.

When I meet someone with whom I resonate, I discover and confirm what kind of person I am. The counterpart then becomes a magnifier of my own personal traits. When my counterpart finds pleasure in the same kind of things, I feel that my own dispositions are socially approved and consolidated.

On the other hand, I do sometimes meet people with polar views and sensitivities. Even when I present something valuable and dear to me, they would receive it with cool and sometimes even disdainful reactions. When I was young, I found myself unduly hurt by such a behavior. But gradually, I came to realize that such an occasion of miscommunication actually provided a significant opportunity to recognize my own self.

People are mirrors, when they are resonant, AND when they are dissonant. Every day, with the encounters with various kinds of people both young and old, passionate or quiet, I see millions of reflections of my own image. I recognize my own self. I am generally very grateful for these encounters, even when they hurt me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Healthiness test" for your brain

In my opinion, the "healthiness test" for your brain is simple.

"Are you enjoying the uncertainties that you encounter in life?"

If the answer is "yes", then your brain is in a healthy state. If you are able to welcome every opportunity in which you meet new challenges, experience the unexpected, and learn things, then the state of your brain is satisfactory.

If the answer is "no", then you need to reconsider the status quo. If you are unable to meet new challenges, and tend to avoid circumstances where you are likely to encounter the unexpected, then your brain is missing opportunities for learning and growth.

In this respect, the recent tendency among Japanese to avoid the unexpected and follow the trodden road is worrisome.

Why don't you jump into the great ocean of uncertainties? It might be frightening at start, but you will get used to swimming soon enough.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The "operating system" of Japan is most probably out of date.

It is with a deep sadness to acknowledge that the "operating system" of Japan is most probably out of date. The nation is lagging behind, and I would like very much to do something about it, but judging from the daily encounters with people, especially those in the "elite" positions within the nation such as the academia and the media, the national disease is a deep and serious one, albeit not incurable.

I find some hope and solace in the fact that young people are increasingly disillusioned with the status quo. There are mounting pressures, still invisible but certainly going up, to change the current situation. One should have one's principles, and do daily chores, to bring about the change however gradually.

In Japan, the more established a system or an institution is, the deeper the problem lurks. Take University of Tokyo, for example. I have been a proud graduate of this prestigious academic institution, but recently I have my serious doubts about the nature of its constituting principles. The overwhelming majority of its undergraduate students are Japanese. Entrance to the university has been considered as a ticket to success for many years. Some weekly magazines even carry articles about how many students have entered the university from which high school.

Compared to other excellent universities in the world, however, the closed nature of the university is scandalously singular. Harvard University in the United States, for example, gathers its graduate and undergraduate students from all around the world, as a natural reflection of the global nature of today's world.

In the Times Higher Education Ranking (2009) , the University of Tokyo is ranked 22nd. The University is performing very poorly in "International Staff Score" and "International Students Score". Should the university amend this defect, the ranking position would be improved considerably.
When I discussed this point with a few University of Tokyo professors, they invariably answered that "the entrance examination for undergraduate is sacred, and cannot be changed". According to their views, the current entrance examination, conducted in Japanese, effectively limiting the undergraduate students to Japanese or people brought up within Japan, is the raison d'etre of University. If they change the entrance exam, the constitution and the nature of the University will be transformed beyond recognition. And they have no plan to do that. What a shame!

Probably it is not fair to single out University of Tokyo, but the status quo of the academic institution is the symbol of the sinking nation of Japan. University of Tokyo has been traditionally producing high officials in the government, the cream of Japanese system. There was a time when the world marveled at its efficiency. Sadly, no more. The cream is rotting.

It is never too late to bring about the necessary changes. As an alumnus of the university, I would very much like to see its entrance exam changed, so that it is at least partially based in English, to admit more international students. The time is ripe.
It is now time to rewrite the "operating system" of Japan. I hope those people in responsible positions would realize the need, and act quickly.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The radio spirit

I appear on the radio program "All Night Nippon Sunday" from time to time.

Yesterday evening, I went to the radio station in central Tokyo and chatted in the program as the host, for 90 minutes.

I like speaking on the radio. There are rough storylines and a list of music to be played during the program, but apart from that, you are quite free to organize your talks. You can touch upon your recent encounter with the World Memory Champion, discuss how to love your mother with the listener, and consider how one may deal with the post-vacation blues. What you say is quite spontaneous and on the spot, and nurtures a great spirit of gaiety.

I recall, when I was in the low-teens, it was quite the thing to listen to the radio. The discussions in school on the day after was quite dominated by the funny things that the host had said in the evening. I think the ethos of the radio was resonating with our youthful dreams and anxieties.

So here's to the radio spirit. I am looking forward to my next opportunity to chat on the air. I expect that to happen sometime in June.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Living among the tropical plants in Indonesia.

After the Keio University lecture yesterday, several students came up to me and chatted. One of them was a graduate student studying computer science. He said he was from Indonesia. When I asked which city, he said "Bandung". "Oh, that's where the famous conference was held, isn't it?" I said. He smiled and said "Ah, you know that!"

I have been to Indonesia several times. On these occasions, I visited the island of Bali, Jakarta, and Yogyakarta.

A visit to a market in Jakarta still remains vividly in my memory. I was in the early twenties. At that time, I happened to be very keen on tropical plants, the orchid family in particular. I tried to cultivate some of them back home, but in the climate of Tokyo this venture required special cares, particularly in the winter months.

So it was quite an inspiration to see the treasured plantations breathing free air in the market, apparently enjoying carefree lives in a climate that was so benevolent to their physiology.

Ever since this revelation, one of my dreams was to live in Indonesia, and have pots of plants scattered around my residence, and sip tea in the afternoon looking and admiring the exquisite beauty of the curve of their leaves.

As I was chatting with the Indonesian student, all these memories swelled in me. I did not, of course, have time to discuss the art of horticulture with the young gentleman, as our topic was on the relation between computers and the brain.

In any sense, the chat gave me ideas and dreams. Wouldn't it be lovely to put the plants just so, and do nothing further about it, letting the weather take care of them through naturally appropriate humidity and temperature?