Reading versus Active Experience -
The Doctor's Dilemma

@16 August 2006 


Preface: This is not a researched academic document. However it is a topic is of broad general interest which raises issues worth thinking about. I have therefore posted it as a discussion starter in the hope that others might find worthwhile.



In a Sydney park called The Domain there is (or used to be) a tradition for the opinionated or foolhardy to stand on a box and say their piece on Sundays. It was a harmless form of democratic expression tolerated and even indulged by the big end of town. Everyone knew very well that no Domain speaker was likely to spark the next revolution. Each mini demagogue was always outnumbered by a large crowd of passive spectators who never ventured beyond a little safe heckling.

Well, things have changed quite a bit. By some estimates there are now around 40 million blogs out in cyberspace 24/7. That's a lot of mini-demagogues. By and large they too are ignored, though from time to time surprising things happen. Most of them actually don’t have too much to say. However, both the park speaker and the blogger have taken the crucial step of engaging the world more or less actively. It is a fair bet that they get more out of the experience than spectators and passive readers ever do. Yes, Thor too is an accidental guru of this semi-activist kind, mercifully ignored by the world most of the time, but occasionally challenged to think things through by a probe from without....

Some time ago a medical doctor wrote to me for some ideas on thinking things through. His particular problem was the meagre twenty-four hours we have in a day, and the brief few years we have to live. With a mind hungry for understanding, how much of that time should we turn over to learning through books what others have already discovered, and how much to building street cunning, and perhaps wisdom, from a life of direct experience? Hell, I’m still trying to figure this stuff out for myself, but I did my best to throw some thoughts his way. Make of it what you can. 


Dear Thor,

My name is Trevor and I am a doctor by profession. I always wonder about how I should be spending my time. Like you I enjoy figuring out how things work, particularly for me with the human body. I have lots of books I would like to read but at the same time I haven't seen much of the world. There is only so much a person can do in a lifetime. How do you decide how much time you will spend reading and how much time getting out and discovering what is happening in the world ?

Yours sincerely, Trevor.


Hello Trevor,

Thanks for your note. Nobody has patented a pill to fix your problem yet. It's a chronic syndrome for anyone with an inquiring brain. The only thing I'm sure about is that everything has an opportunity cost.

Like most things, you can think about allocating time systematically and rationally (whatever that means). In the end, most of us only do that in bursts (like going on a diet), or under the constraints of a finite overriding goal (like finishing a course of study). Looking back, I have to say that much of my most valuable life learning came from taking a leap in the dark, an unpredictable gamble, then adapting to the consequences. Marriage (one gamble I've never taken) probably falls into that class for most people. Formal mass educations systems work on the premise that entirely predictable methods and outcomes are ideal. I have my doubts.

You can also ask what the purpose of reading is, or what the purpose of exploring is. For example, my 83 year old mother has been reading pretty good books for most of her life, several at a time. That sounds promising. If I ask her what she was reading three months ago, or try to get her to discuss any 'idea' systematically I hit a blank wall. She has always been like that. For her, reading is equivalent to taking a warm bath or perhaps opium, just as TV seems to be for most folk. Other people read to show off their cleverness at dinner parties. Seems foolish to me, but that's their scene. Their objectives are evidently social. I tend to read for what could be loosely called personal growth - to understand and synthesise my knowledge of the world around me, and where possible arrive at new insights. Given that, I'm also sensitive to whether good ideas are expressed badly, or whether a tale told with great craft is ultimately vacuous.

Long ago (1967) in a freshman literature class, in response to one of my jabs the tutor asked sarcastically if I thought I was an educated person. For her that meant quoting a canon of classic English literature. Even then I thought that like the rest of us, she was an 'uneducated person'. I was damn sure she wouldn't have a clue how to start her car with a wet distributor. I remain irredeemably uneducated in vast areas of human interest, some by choice (spectator sport) and many because I know that dabbling would lead me into whole new worlds that my lifetime is too short to accommodate (e.g. mathematics). We are all condemned to remain amateurs in the world at large, and even in our professions, though offered respect on the strength of some diploma we claim expertise as confidently as every man knows he is worth his salary and probably more.

For those of us involved in exploring some area of systematic knowledge - medicine in you case, linguistics in mine - there are whole new classes of distracters to evade. It will be no news to you that universities, among their many functions, are holding pens for clever twits. One of the basic paradigms of generative linguistics (arguably the dominant flavour of modern linguistics, which I no longer subscribe to) is that given a finite vocabulary + a finite set of recursive rules, you (or a machine) can generate an infinite number of sentences. Unfortunately most of the sentences, though grammatically correct, are likely to be garbage.

Almost every area of academic inquiry could be described by a paradigm like this : someone invents a theory/model with finite assumptions and a finite number of rules for working with those assumptions. Thereafter generations of imitators will use the theory/model to produce infinite reams of complex, clever garbage. Visit any university library. The rub of course is that amongst the huge overburden of dross, there is some true gold. We have to labour mightily to find it. That labour, that drudgery, though often called scholarship, is only sometimes productive.

In recent years, many of us have sought new paths, sometimes bypassing institutions altogether. For example, a large part of my reading in pursuit of systematic knowledge nowadays in online following Google trails. Somehow it is easier to scan and cherry-pick ruthlessly from hypertexted online documents than it is from a pile of text books and paper journals. I wouldn't want to read a good novel that way, or for that matter a brilliant and coherent book on some area of scientific specialization, but for assembling the links and hints that help to crystallize my own ideas into a paper (for example) it can't be beaten.

Having extracted what we feel to be some useful assembly of knowledge from a source, the question remains what to do with it, and how to retain it. Are we just in it for the opiate experience, like my mother with her books? Are we after social or professional recognition? Are we trying to rewrite the canon, as I often like to try to, and find the hours or even days slipping away ? The answer to these questions will greatly affect our sense of guilt or virtue in allocating time.

As a doctor, the education system has probably selected you for an excellent declarative memory; (we use our declarative memory to retain and regurgitate facts). Having formally succeeded in that system, you have probably embraced values that venerate declarative knowledge. You may know that a Sydney doctor, Adrian Ternouth, has developed an excellent software program for force-feeding stuff like this:  Recall Plus ). Your medical practice on the other hand may depend a great deal upon procedural skills, deriving from subconscious, autonomic procedural knowledge. Riding a bicycle depends upon procedural memory, and so largely does the production of language from second to second.

Formal education systems are generally very poor at fostering or measuring procedural memory. For example, foreign language students spend years performing classroom tricks of declarative recall, yet by one well known estimate, in countries like the USA and Australia the real failure rate in procedural foreign language performance is around 95%.

Similarly, I have thought fairly systematically about my encounters with the medical profession over the last 60 years and come to the conclusion that doctors have been occasionally life saving, but that around 80% of the diagnosis, advice and proffered treatment was useless to dangerous. As a human animal interested in self-preservation I have developed my own procedures for moderating medical issues (which as a doctor, you probably don't want to know about ^__^ ).

The point is, the balance of time you allocate to the acquisition of declarative facts, as opposed to the much more subtle and difficult to measure business of acquiring real procedural knowledge, is likely to depend a great deal upon the tangible rewards that society offers you for either choice.

Trevor, you worry that you have "not seen much of the world". That can mean many things. I know expatriates who have spent years teaching away from their native land, but who will probably never see much of the world. They have never learned to blink. They eyes they see with are super-glued to the suburban street where they grew up, no matter that their bodies may be residing in Seoul or London or a Third World village.

Yes, of course, I too filter experience through Australian eyes, yet I find that gradually the 'mental enzymes' that latch onto sensations have modified their shape. The naturally Australian form of things no longer looks quite natural - sometimes it seems bizarre - and I come to find that some things Korean (for example) make a certain kind of sense. This trick of seeing a different world out of the corners of your eye can be learned of course without leaving home. Artists depend upon it. Travelling, or changing jobs, just makes it a little easier. Once, as a postgraduate at Newcastle University, I became fed up with the narrow world of clever twits and decided to take a holiday. I caught a train to Sydney, booked into a hotel under a false name, and for the next week pretended (even to myself) to be someone else entirely. It was a refreshing experience.

When it comes to seeing something of the world in a geographical sense, there are two basic approaches. You can build it into your job, or you can surgically cut up your career to find the time and opportunity to risk new environments. I have done both, paid a price for both, and enjoyed a kind of (non financial) reward for both. Most people settle for the bondage of a family, a mortgage, a job to be clung to as long as possible, and a couple of week's annual vacation. As a doctor it may be easy to persuade yourself that working sixteen hour days, ten minutes a patient, is a community service with the pleasing spinoff of adding to your bank balance. To me that sounds like someone who is a menace to themselves and society, and a fool to time. But is takes all kinds of people to make the world go around... The choice is yours. Everything does have an opportunity cost.

 Best regards, Thor


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names are changed where they might embarrass the owners.

" Reading versus Active Experience - The Doctor's Dilemma" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2005

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