Dry November: Day 18

November 18, 2019

The paperback edition of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind came out a few months ago. For a little while now I’ve been lugging around a podcast with him from this summer, and today I finally got round to listening to it. I recommend it.

This interview was a lot less formal, and less specifically about the book than many of the podcasts and talks he did last year. (I attended one; I wrote about that talk, and his book, here.) It was more personal and more personable, less technical. Nonetheless it was quite insightful, and Pollan is invariably enjoyable to read and to listen to.

I liked his idea that a single question, in his case about man’s relationship to nature, defined his whole career, though he could not quite have known that at the outset — even though his first book contained an uncanny number of seeds for his later ideas. (He says offhandedly that Michael Lewis’ “single question” is about unlikely success stories.) I also liked his idea of his first book as a point in space, the second as another point, and from the conjunction arises a line, a sort of trajectory for the third.

He says he does a longform article on any topic he’s tempted to write about. After writing an article, he gets a fairly binary feeling:

  1. “I’m so glad that’s over,” or
  2. “I’ve barely scratched the surface.”

He says, as a friend of mine sometimes says, that most nonfiction books should really be articles or blog posts. He doesn’t undertake any book until he can see that there are many perspectives that a topic requires.

He feels himself to be weak on narrative. (So, incidentally, do I, about myself. I am inattentive to it, and perhaps this is one reason I like his style.) I need to think a bit more about his idea of the subject as landscape, the story being the path through it.

His claim that the construction of the first-person is one of the hardest parts — of which “I” to use, since we each have too many aspects of our personality to include them all — was fascinating as well.

Pollan wonders why more authors don’t use their own education as a narrative arc, as in his conceit of beginning as a naïf and describing his own learning process. I especially liked his impression (which I too have felt) that ideas are at their freshest and best when they are new to your mind. Afterwards, from a position of expertise, it becomes harder to describe, to recreate that ingenuousness.

Ericsson’s overview of deliberate practice has some insights into why this might be the case. But this also seems to be related to fact-free learning, a topic I’ve become interested in since a mention in REBUS, on the anarchic brain.1 This is the idea that many breakthrough insights seem to come in the absence of any new information, and therefore may be actually from a stripping away of detail to reveal an underlying truth.

Pollan may prefer to write from the neophyte’s perspective because, at that stage, before he has digested the knowledge, he literally has richer information in his brain about a topic. Familiarity may be, in quite a fundamental way, a process of digestion, a simplification of the specific underlying knowledge into something more abstract and more general. It is not just that, as he says, people don’t like experts; it may be that a certain kind of expertise actually obstructs explanation.

  1. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I first encountered Carhart-Harris’ work through Pollan’s book.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.