Human Capacities

I started writing this in January 2010 and for some reason abandoned it. Lemme see if I can pick it up and complete the thought, with the caveat that the person completing it is living in a completely different decile of his life.

For whatever reason, a theme has emerged for me in the last couple days: fragmentation. Specifically, of consciousness. The sense that life events are disconnected, that memory isn’t real, that each moment stands alone and isn’t configured to a particular past or future. I’m not even really complaining. I’m reasonably satisfied with the way multiple aspects of my life are going. There’s just this feeling of being stretched out over too much territory, both in terms of interests and knowledge and in terms of prior time.

My sleep has been irregular recently and I’ve been taking the 12-hour Mucinex to get over a chest cold, so there is some of that going on, but I don’t want to chalk up these thoughts to being groggy or high. Actually, I have a burgeoning psychological conviction that the things we feel and the thoughts we have when we’re in extreme circumstances that “take us out of ourselves” are representative of feelings and thoughts we have all the time, but somehow repress and forget. Okay, I know, not that radical, but what I envision is that everyone who isn’t nicely adjusted is going around doing normal things while simultaneously reiterating various forbidden thoughts, as it were, under their breath. Again, I know, Freudian repression, but I like the sense of an active process. I have a horror movie in my mind about a guy who sees everybody along with the repressed aspects of their psyches, so instead of a “What Women Want” scenario, where everyone’s inner voice is speaking straightforward desires, it’s people walking around shouting down shrieking pleading voices.

So I’d like to make explicit a model of human activity that I’ve recently realized is at the basis of a lot of my thinking about my own personal endeavors. You could call this the quantitative model of human capacity or something. It’s not so much a viable theoretical model as it is a mental construct that one might find oneself employing without knowing it. Here is how it is made:

  • There is a finite number of seconds, minutes, hours in one’s life.
  • In any moment we can be attaining a skill, gaining some knowledge, resting, indulging ourselves, or “other”.
  • As a general rule, the more moments you spend the more you will have of expertise in a skill or mastery in a knowledge subject.

Here is where I broke off. What’s remarkable, and what stands as a partial validation of the starting thesis, is that I’m really not sure where I was going with this. I guess I was going to say that you end up with a distribution of intensities across your personality, and that they can either be tall in a few places or bristly across a wide range of subject matters, with a reduction into absurdity where you are just a smooth surface of uselessly short but expansive knowledge and expertise. Which is just “jack of all trades…” so I don’t know why I thought this was important. I think I also wanted to express the idea that as you invest in certain areas you close off the possibility of excellence in other areas1. But again, what of it?

Well, the complaint at least is that you can reach a point where you have many memories and no narrative line to connect them, and you literally doubt whether they all belong to you. I can certainly sympathize with that.



  1. Like, of course, a technology tree in a game like Civilization or Master of Orion[back]