Early Intellectual Influences

The "Life of the Mind" (such as it was) In My Early Years.

My Early Exposure to Books, Ideas, etc.

My parents were intelligent people with sound High School educations. There were always books around; a modest bookshelf full or so; nothing challenging intellectually. My parents got the monthly Readers Digest Condensed Books for a long time, and from early years, I was taken to the library. Early in my childhood, they bought the World Book Encyclopedia; later -- perhaps around my Junior High School years, they got the Encyclopedia Britannia, which I loved (My mother recently teased my Dad about getting it for himself). They also subscribed to a Life-Time science series, with loads of glossy illustrations. They provided visually interesting overviews of different sciences, but were not very deep or challenging.

My mother's father is uneducated and exceptionally intelligent, extremely social, driven to accomplishment, and fun loving. He is still running around and soon to be ninety. He grew up on a farm and, I gather, only went to school when there was no farm work to do. He often posed riddles for me to work out, and as my college career went on and on, he would sometimes say "Well, get all the education you can. If they can make penicillin out of mold they can surely make somethin out of you."

My family belonged to the Methodist church, and all, including me, regularly attended Sunday School and Church services until my mid-teens (when I stopped believing in it, and no longer attended regularly if at all). Sunday school was a good time to discuss the state of the world and our responses to it, which I took very seriously. I remember a kid who always wanted to discuss "Big Time Wrestling" in Sunday school, partly, I'm sure, because it would annoy the teacher. I developed some of my earnestness about "the world", and penchant for thinking long and hard and saying "deep" things in that atmosphere. I was secretly pleased if someone said "Hal doesn't say much, but when he does, you should listen (or some such thing)".

Early Reading Habits, and Discovery of "Science"

I read some of the usual boy's adventure stories through elementary school (up to 6th grade), but my reading and interests took a special turn when, around the second grade, someone subscribed me to a monthly series of kids science books, called "All About" books -- they were all titled something like All About Butterflies and Moths, All about Volcanoes and Earthquakes, and so forth. I took to these books, and began to think I'd be a "scientist" when I grew up. I always had the ambition to somehow comprehend everything (perhaps the "All About" books helped plant that idea), and so it never occurred to me, in the years that I thought I wanted to be a "scientist", to be some particular kind of scientist.

My notion, as a child, of wanting to be a scientist really was a cover for sky-high spiritual and intellectual ambitions.

More "Scientific" Encouragements

I also got quite a few science oriented gifts at Christmas and birthdays -- one or two chemistry sets, a microscope, in the elementary or Junior High school years. My use of the chemistry sets was very limited. Much of the problem with these, as with books of "experiments", and with the way science was mostly taught in school, was that I disliked reproducing other people's experiments. I was interested in exploring and understanding naturally occurring, not contrived, things; the challenge of understanding new things about history stimulates me, but the guessing of "who did it" in a mystery novel has no appeal for me. Anyway, I quickly got bored with performing "cookbook" sequences, mixing one part of this with two parts of that, heating the test tube, and "voila", it turns blue. I remember, in Junior High and High school, being taught a little about theoretical models of atoms and molecules, but no way at all to test any of the theories, or relate them to experience. The laboratory experiments were not designed, I think, to reveal how theory meets reality. Rather, they were exercises in following somewhat intricate and precise procedures (using sensitive scales and tiny scoops to get a gram of this and two grams of that), with, in the end, a recognizable result (like the combination of two colorless liquids into a red liquid, or producing something that smells like bananas (or rather like a poor quality artificial banana flavoring -- which depressed rather than impressed me). I remember fairly well a set of electronics projects I was given, one of which was to build a microphone (out of, little more than fiberboard, graphite, some kind of thin diaphragm, and screws and/or glue for putting it together). I associate this electronics set with my father, who, I believe got involved with me in it, helping me learn some of the skills of soldering, etc. One of the projects was to construct a sort of "analogue computer". I think it was kind of a crude slide rule that operated on electronic principles. I even did a half-hearted "science fair" project based on this "analogue computer". There was little or no real thought put into it.

Another project was to make a "strobe light" - which blinked on and off rapidly at an adjustable rate (using it in the dark, one could point it at a rotating phonograph record, and adjust it until the record appeared to stand still, and - in theory at least - by reading off the speed of oscillation of the strobe light, check the speed of rotation of the turntable). I liked the strobe light particularly. Unlike the microphone (I think one could make a crude radio too), it was unfamiliar; conceptually new, and at the same time, once the concept was revealed, easy to grasp. I suspect its relating to perception also attracted me; I was also fascinated by the method by which an illusion of movement is produced in movies; I was able to understand, through that experiment (or demonstration), why tank treads in war movies often appear to be moving in the wrong direction (i.e. backwards), as the tank moves forward.

Thoughts about Thought, and the History of Science

I never realized it until today, but those "All About" books gave me my first taste of history of science. Furthermore, I'm getting what feels like an exciting insight -- that the history of science taught me however much I grasp of the real nature of science, while books, classes, etc., whose purpose was to teach science to children and youths gave me far less of a sense of what science really is.

Those little "All About" books dealt largely with the scientists themselves, giving some sense of their grappling with the facts and how they arrived at their discoveries. The books and classes gave, very schematically, some of the end results of those endeavors -- those facts that seem to have left us little to do except crank out extrapolations.

Hypnosis, "Split Personality", and Exploring the Nature of the Mind

I must have had a particular fascination, for a while (in elementary school is my guess) with hypnosis. My mother likes to recall that I stepped into a conversation once, beginning with "Speaking of hypnosis", when nobody was, in fact, speaking of hypnosis. It is hard for me to imagine myself doing that; perhaps I only interrupted another topic and began, out of the blue, talking about hypnosis, and the incident got embellished. Anyway, this seems like the earliest clear evidence of an interest directly in the workings of the mind. I think people have, since the discovery of hypnosis, been disturbed by this sort of interruptability of our consciousness. The first hypnotists, like Mesmer, seem to have (see Asimov's Biog. Encyc...) stumbled across the use of hypnosis to relieve psychosomatic disorders; thus they were at the threshold of discovering the multiplicity of beings (shades of the Trinity) that exist within a human being. Freud would later apply hypnosis to what he properly saw as some kind of mental problem (what they called hysteria, or psychosomatic paralysis), and would give respectability to the notion of multiple beings (or consciousnesses) within a human being.

Some time in my junior high school years (about the age of 13, it seems to me), I did a little investigation on my own (a "literature search" through encyclopedias, etc.) of schizophrenia. I had more than half a notion that I was schizophrenic. Schizophrenia, as far as I could make out then, was a tendency of the mind to fragmentation. The word is often misused as if it stood for the much rarer phenomenon of multiple personality disorder, where 2 or more basically coherent (though usually maladjusted) personalities seem to inhabit the same body. It is very common, at any rate, to speak, for instance, of a self contradictory government policy as "schizophrenic", as if "schizophrenic" denoted a double nature, or "split personality" rather than a quite fragmented personality.

Anyway, I continued to think often of schizophrenia, and to look into other psychological topics, to read books (and in a few years to subscribe to Psychology Today). One thing I knew at that time was that I was in a lot of mental or emotional anguish, so, like many people who get into the study of psychology, I was trying to help myself. Over the years, I read The Three Faces of Eve, about the author's own experience with multiple personality disorder; read about megavitamin therapy, which was supposed to be having phenomenal successes with schizophrenics through the use of massive doses of niacinimide; about Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy, and, of course, the many approaches reported on in Psychology Today.

Looking back, I can also view it as part of an emerging fascination with the notion of two or more beings in one. This extended to a fascination with symbiotic relationships. That is, in biology, when two species have formed some kind of bond, each performing a needed service for the other, and getting something in return. In some cases, at least, they appear to be one organism.

For a time, beginning in junior high school (7th-9th grades), I read a lot of science fiction. I particularly (perhaps mainly) liked the many stories and novels that explored the nature of the mind. They might deal with telepathy (exploring the question "What would it be like for two minds to be in direct contact with each other; perceiving the other as directly as one perceives oneself?"). Or "What would it be like for one person's mind to pass into another's body?" Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clark, plays with the supposition that there are many races of intelligent beings throughout the universe, and that they all, or nearly all, pass from one important stage of development to another -- from childhood to adulthood; the childhood of an intelligent species being characterized by separateness of being; adulthood, by a merging of all the consciousnesses into one. Actually, I think all the children on Earth merge and lose their separate personalities, while the adults, unable to do this, are left behind. All of this is assisted by a race of "midwifes" who know how to assist other races in their transformation, but can't achieve it themselves. Solaris, by Stanislov Lem -- though I only read it a few years ago, is about a planet, discovered by Earth astronauts, whose whole surface seems to be covered with water, but a water which is in constant, restless movement; the momentary creation of intricate formations. Much more than could be explained by the action of wind and tide. The Earth astronauts who were sent to explore the planet set down on its surface in some kind of floating vessel, but one after the other went mad as the planet, in some way, interacted with their dreaming selves, creating physical embodiments of the beings of their imagination, and turning their lives into a waking physical theatre of their dreams.


[Summary of school days stretching all the way to High School:] I developed into a bright child who hated school, testing at or near the top for my school on all those computerized tests, but grade wise, ranking, near the middle of a class of 500+ students (I had a mixture of high and low grades; I would get caught up in a subject, for a while, while stubbornly ignoring others).

Until my teen, or pre-teen, years, I wanted to be a "scientist", but in my early to middle teen years (1964-69), I sort of didn't see that as a profession for a right-thinking American; I had a strong and generalized drive to challenge the world as I found it. From my unwillingness to gravitate towards, or form a sustained interest, in any particular specialty, it seems I really had more of a philosophical than a scientific (in today's world of science) bent.

It eventually became clear to me that I really cared about the question "What is this thing, or process, called 'science'?". What distinguishes this mode of thought, or of investigation, that constantly leads to such drastic changes in the way we live?.