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Dictionopolitans versus Digitopolitans

I've been meaning to write an entry on propensity toward mathematical and scientific "versus" verbal thinking for some time. As those of you in neuroscience and cognitive neuropsychology know, cerebral hemispheres and handedness ("left-brain, right-brain") only give us part of the story: namely, the locus and activity level of cortical loci for various output lexicons. Of course, there's a lot more left unexplained as yet.

Some questions I've been mulling, the answers to which may be in the back on some cognitive science, educational psychology, or even classical psychology book I have yet to read:

  • What explains the rest of the propensities: development or conditioning? (This is not just a "nature vs. nurture question; I'm really leading into the next four questions.)

  • If development plays the greater role, how much does gene expression affect neural plasticity for purposes of "changing modes"? Whether it's a career change across disciplines (from one science to another or across sciences), or just "switching hats" at the end of the work day or work week, I think this is not so trivially done, and it gets harder as one gets older. Some people are clearly better than others a it, though, and I wonder why.

  • If it's conditioning, is there a curriculum that helps to "exercise" the brain for flexibility? Most of us have heard the old adage that musical thinking is good for mathematical thinking and that musical skills (performance and composition) tend to transfer to mathematics at commensurate levels. Yet I know very few musician-mathematician colleagues. There are a few, such as Chris Raphael and Ben Perry to an extent, but much more often, one discipline becomes a hobby or is set aside.

  • Either way, can we spot "ambidextrous" people for purposes of quantitative/verbal interchangeability? I don't think this is just a matter of actually being ambidextrous, though I hypothesize that that's correlated with being able to switch gears easily.
  • Does everyone have the potential for "using both halves of their brain" ad libram - just some to an unrealized extent? Talking with some friends such as David Salo about "Da Vinci types"1 and the aspirations of some modern-day scholars to be Renaissance people has made me curious.

Please note: By no means do I subscribe to the notion that "scientific" and "linguistic" thinking are disjoint, i.e., mutually exclusive.2 That goes for so-called "hard science" or "STEM" fields as well.

I'd like to think I have a modicum of ambidexterity myself: a miniscule amount, but enough to justify a few "side interests". Those of you who know me well know that this has been a bit of a hang-up of mine over the years, especially when it comes to recreational versus professional writing. In CS, the old saw is that it's a "selfish discipline" and we often cannot spare the CPU cycles to think and write and do things that are "intellectually off-topic". (Yes, those are the actual words of a senior colleague, who took up watercolor painting shortly before her recent retirement, but didn't really have the time for it even during phased retirement.)

What do you all think?

1 The title of the post comes from a discussion David and I started about a year and a half ago. Does anyone know the origin of the terms "Dictionopolitan" and "Digitopolitan"? cavlec? David told me once, but it must have gotten wedged between cortices. ;-)
2 ge2 hang2 ru2 ge2 shan1, goes the old Chinese aphorism: "The divisions between lines (of work) are as mountain ranges." I grew up hearing that one more often than I'd like to recall. I deplore the stereotypes it foments, even as I fume at its occasional accuracy and the grain of truth it represents: that we generally can't do it all, nary a one of us.



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 25th, 2004 10:50 am (UTC)
If I don't say a lot in response to this at some point, I'm going to kick myself, because this is the sort of thing that I love pondering in odd hours.

Only vaguely relatedly: you're friends with David Salo? I have not met him outside of a mailing list, but am friends with a guy who knows him well from Madison. Small world! etc.
Sep. 25th, 2004 11:12 am (UTC)
oh my gosh, so funny
David told me once, but it must have gotten wedged between cortices. ;-)

I had no knowledge of those two words until you used them today, but I sure do love the idiom. ;-)
Sep. 25th, 2004 11:14 am (UTC)
Re: oh my gosh, so funny
Well, "Digitopolis" and "Dictionopolis" are two cities in Norton Juster's excellent The Phantom Tollbooth, which everyone should read and which I should re-read if I can find it on my shelves.
Sep. 25th, 2004 05:10 pm (UTC)
The Phantom Tollbooth
... sounds like a George Lucas retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, complete with Darth Maul under a bridge.

... but I digress.


Sep. 25th, 2004 07:25 pm (UTC)
"There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself--not just sometimes, but always."


I take it that you haven't been paying attention to teuncmail recently, because there is a poll about this. Topic: "What part of the Lands Beyond do you live in?" (Castle in the Air for me!)


Seriously, you should read it. A lot of fun, and a fairly quick read. (256 pages, with a fair number of illustrations. (By Jules Feiffer, if you wanted to know.)) Many puns.

Just... read it.

Sep. 25th, 2004 07:34 pm (UTC)
Re: The Phantom Tollbooth
Do not fear "children's books".

Read it. I highly recommend it.
Sep. 25th, 2004 11:26 pm (UTC)
Fear children's books?
Hah! I read The Chronicles of Prydain, Narnia, etc. with alacrity as an actual child, and the only reason I haven't read HP yet is that jereeza has recommended that I wait until they're all out.

I'll read it. Thanks to all for the tip.

Sep. 25th, 2004 11:14 am (UTC)
I am ambidextrous between visual, quantitative, and verbal reasoning. Unfortunately, I have no focus: my overall productivity goes "splat" unless I have five or six subprojects in the air at once.

Neural plasticity:
We're obviously talking the relatively mature brain here. Early on, we're hardwired for extreme plasticity; there are several rare epileptic syndromes whose most effective treatment is a functional or complete hemispherectomy conducted before age 3. [No, linguistic skills and vision do not get annihilated]

I wouldn't rule out plasticity being critically limited by various factors that are RDA-none via biosynthesis.

Observe that classical music composers process music with the language centers. Training is important, but it can do some severe reorganizations.
Sep. 25th, 2004 11:55 am (UTC)
some anecdotal information
well, I am ambidexterous. not by your definition--I mean I am actually skilled in writing with both my left and right hands. I know two other people who are ambidexterous, and they are both also mildly dyslexic, as I am.

I am musical. I play trombone, euphonium, and trumpet, and prefer improvisational music to written music. I like modal music like jazz.

my interests have always been in right-brained activities like philosophy and logic, computer science, physics, and math, but recently I have also become interested in softer writing. people think that i am intelligent, and I can do a wide variety of brain-engaging things, but I wouldn't say that I've mastered any of it. I consider myself mediocre in many fields.

recently I've undergone a phase change. i used to find math incredibly difficult and boring, but now I find the "aha!" principle exciting and invigorating, and I have decided to pick up a math degree. I think I was frustrated with it in high school because the results of algebra seemed intuitive, overly complicated (proofs), and boring.

I know no one who is both good in some liberal art and math. I tried to teach patina some trigonometry, and she seemed very interested in it, but it was difficult for her to grasp a lot of it.
Sep. 25th, 2004 11:56 am (UTC)
Re: some anecdotal information
patina is in an english degree program.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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