Curiosity

I like the way libraries smell. I like the way everything feels accessible, organized. I like to see the grids of books on shelves and grids of shelves on floors and to think about the weight of the floors on top of floors in a humming Rubik’s cube of information. Letters lined up in words, lined up on pages, tucked into covers. All the information feels present, possible, suspended—like quiet dark birds sitting up on telephone wires.  

Clara McClenon,    Treetops (McCarren Park),    2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”

Clara McClenon, Treetops (McCarren Park), 2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”


Growing up, I had a sense that I’d real all the books in the library one day. It just seemed inevitable. I’d check out towering loads at a time, hauling them home in bulging tote bags and stacking them on my bedside table. I figured I was on track. I got top grades. I liked all subjects. I read mountains of books. Devouring information, I felt assured that, by the time I was older, I’d have it all figured out.  

I’d thought that books were bricks. In reading, I thought I was building something I could climb, like a pyramid ascending to knowledge. It felt sturdier to build a wide base, so I read widely, pulling from biology and history, music and chemistry, literature and art. I read about dreams, cooking, magic, robots, etiquette, psychology, and economics and always felt eager for more.  

No one told me how much I’d forget.

It started with novels. College friends would ask for recommendations and titles would come to mind…. but I struggled to recall even basic plot points. Around the same time, I was struck by panic when I looked back at my Latin American History syllabus and realized I couldn’t remember what I’d written my midterm on (though I’d earned an A in the course).

As a student, learning about things meant having the answers for the next level. You memorized and took a test. You passed Pre-Cal and went on to Calculus. You rose from Freshman on to Sophomore. Learning was to get you past thresholds: final exams, semesters, grades, graduations. It all conveyed a sense of accumulation and ascent. But with a leaking brain, forgetting as fast as I was learning, I worried that I wasn’t qualified to level up. I secretly hoped there’d be a final exam before graduation. Shouldn’t there be a checkpoint to make sure I really knew everything?

There wasn’t. My GPA and course credits awarded me my degree without question. I sold my textbooks back to the bookstore, lugged my library books back to the library, and ripped my notes from their spiral bindings so I could lay them in the recycling bin.

I’d hoped learning meant reaching a high point where I could look out and understand everything at once, but my years of study hadn’t built me a pyramid and I certainly didn’t feel like I had anything figured out. Graduating, I felt disappointed, disillusioned, and a little bit lost. Not only was I no longer a student for the first time in 17+ years, but my whole sense of the purpose of my education felt shaky. It wasn’t just the forgetting that bothered me. I ached to know the world, but every step into a subject had only revealed the immensity of what there was to learn. More than ever, I felt the futility of accumulating knowledge from an infinite pool. What had been the point of my relentless curiosity?

A few months back I came across a study that sought to understand the impact of exposure to the humanities (music, visual arts, literature, theater, etc.) on medical students. Analysis of the study’s survey data revealed a significant correlation between exposure to the humanities and positive qualities like empathy, wisdom, and tolerance for ambiguity. The researchers noted that, of course, correlation is not causation. We can’t say that exposure to humanities made the students wiser. (Or visa versa.) In fact, the author suggested that there could be an underlying factor linking exposure to the humanities and the positive personal qualities they’d measured. One such factor they suggested? Curiosity-- the desire to know and learn.

I don’t always like curiosity. It’s sent me down strange paths to seemingly dead ends. It’s left me with dry, scratchy eyes from following too many links through too many articles on my phone. It’s led me in circles of indecision. But it’s a spark.

I sit in front of a tree and look up at its thousands of leaves, and the flicker of light, and the branches and twigs. It’s a library and I can’t read it all. Paper and pencil in hand, I’m saddened and humbled and awed-- overwhelmed, as ever, by the immensity of information.

But I begin. Line by line, mark by mark, look by look… and somewhere along the way I stop worrying about how I’ll ever get to the finish because I’m just in it. I’m beyond my intellect. In drawing, I’m reminded that the real fruit of curiosity isn’t accumulation, but presence.

I don’t think of learning as an ascent anymore. When I read, which I still do, hungrily and widely, it’s because I want to keep coming home to what it feels like to be here. And that’s a million contradictory things, and that’s too big to know, and it’s achingly familiar.  I keep learning (reading, looking, drawing, listening) because I yearn for not for mastery, but mystery. I keep learning because I love the world and I want to be close to it.






A Weird Thing I Worry About

A little bit of nothing?

A little bit of nothing?

Vision depends on context. At a basic level, what you see depends on what’s around what you see. This is essential in drawing— just take a segment of one of my favorite drawings by Van Gogh.

What is it of? Dots? Boredom? Nothing?

 Put back at home in the lower right corner of a drawing of a cottage garden it’s – ta da! – a pebbly path.

Vincent van Gogh, Cottage Garden, 1888. Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19 ¼”.     [1]

Vincent van Gogh, Cottage Garden, 1888. Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19 ¼”. [1]

Ebbinghaus Illusion. Although the two orange circles are the same size, the one on the left appears smaller due its context.     [2]

Ebbinghaus Illusion. Although the two orange circles are the same size, the one on the left appears smaller due its context. [2]

In Psychology 101, perception is often explained through optical illusions.  For example, the Ebbinghaus illusion presents two circles, one surrounded by larger circles, the other by smaller. Although the two central circles are the same size, the one surrounded by the little circles appears larger. It’s a context effect, and it breaks my heart every time. If even simple stuff like this is warped in my mind, how can I hope to see anything truly?

The Ebbinghaus Illusion is a textbook example, but context effects in early visual processing are something we experience all of the time. Walk out of a dark theater on a summer afternoon and you will be blinded by the sun. The colors you perceive in the evening are different than the ones you perceive in the morning, as Monet captured in his series of the cathedral at Rouen. In the Ebbinghaus Illusion, you can measure the circles and verify that they are equal, revealing the truth that ought to be perceived. But what’s the true color of Monet’s cathedral?   Your experience in place and time inevitably affects the information you get from your environment.

Composite of Claude Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen, 1892 – 1894.     [3]

Composite of Claude Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen, 1892 – 1894. [3]


Context effects are an issue that extends beyond early visual processing into every level of perception and cognition.  Working at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, I assisted with research on the relationship between visual attention and visual working memory. Experiments documented that the context of vision isn’t just visual information. It’s also experience. The things we pay attention to enter our memory. Memory, in turn, guides attention. You know what you see. You see what you know. It’s a chicken or the egg kind of thing—context effects mean there’s never a clean start.

 History is full of examples of the ramifications of context effects. For example, during the 19th century cholera epidemics, physicians saw their cholera patients’ symptoms through their experience with poisons. Patients, afflicted with vomiting and diarrhea, looked like they were trying to get a poison out of their body, so physicians gave them substances to further encourage the exit of fluids. The patients nearly always died. Now, with our contemporary understanding of the disease, we see that they were killed by dehydration.

During the epidemic, one physician went against all accepted thought and gave his patients something to drink. The death rate plummeted. Thrilled, he called his colleagues to report his results. When they arrived and saw the healthy patients they said, “If these people had really had cholera, they would be dead.” They couldn’t see the cure. Their context was blinding them.[4]

To not be blinded by context, we must become aware of it. Malcolm McCullough writes in his book Digital Ground, “‘[C]ontext’ is not the setting itself, but the engagement with it as well as the bias that setting gives to the interactions that occur within it. ‘Environment’ is the sum of all present contexts.” [5]  To avoid being blinded by context, we must understand our environment, and the biases guiding how we are informed by it. But how?

 Understanding context requires understanding our place in the world. Knowing means knowing how what we know shapes what we know. Nothing is alone. Nothing is simple. Not a fact, not a thought, not a mark.


[1] http://artcritical.com/gelber/images/gogh1.jpg

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebbinghaus_illusion

[3] https://rmankoo.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/tumblr_m55ieg9rx81qzorveo1_1280.jpg

[4] Sonia, Shah, Pandemic (New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books, 2016).

[5] Malcolm McCullough, Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 48.