By Toh Hsien Min
One of the benefits of developing a career at my current employer is that one has access to some very good developmental resources. For instance, just a couple of weeks ago, my organisation flew in a neuroscientist from London to, among other things, give a course on neuroscience and management. It's not as far out as it might seem at first glance. I used to think my biggest challenges at work came from wrapping my head around mathematical technicalities, but however challenging that might be those sorts of problems are surmountable through sheer bloody-mindededness. As I've grown in my role, I've come to think that my biggest challenges in my work revolve around understanding how people think rather than what they think.
The trouble of course is that learning about neuroscience theory helps little with how we actually think - and I say this not just in relation to other people but even with oneself. For instance, one of the ideas taught at that course was Hebb's law, which was originally rendered as such:
Expressed more bluntly but more memorably, this simply means "neurons that fire together wire together". The general idea is that the first time we embark on any task is the most difficult it is, and as we do it more and more and the task becomes increasingly habitual, it gets wired into our brains and we both expend relatively little brainpower on it and indeed do it much better for it. Our neuroscientist gave the example of how Barack Obama is almost always seen in the same kind of shirt and suit, not because he doesn't have the wherewithal to afford more varied tailoring but because decisions - even as mundane decisions as what to wear - are psychologically expensive and Obama is saving his mental energies for much more important decisions.
It throws into a strange light even the smallest things - like how I have about five different routes to get to work each day because of where I live in relation to my workplace and how I pick which one to use each day depending on the smallest fluctuations in my circumstances or mood. It seems that this small decision can draw on resources that might prove insufficient to break through spells of indecision later in the day. (Which, for that matter, might include deciding what to write for an editorial.) The basic concept there is apparently an old one in psychology; the human animal is a habit-forming machine, particularly with behaviours that keep us safe, which means in part the more that we can shove down the route of habit the more resources we actually have for difficult problems. This has given rise to ideas like "habit chaining", whereby the habits we most want to acquire are most easily obtained by linking it to something we have no problem motivating ourselves to do, such a brushing our teeth.
Yet the paradox of the habit machinery within us is that it is to an extent antithetical to neuroplasticity, which I shall too bluntly summarise as what keeps our brains active. In that respect, the brain is like a muscle, for it is challenging the brain that helps it to stay fit and keep making connections between neurons; as it happens, there is a negative correlation between neuroplasticity (or activities that encourage neuroplasticity, such as learning a new language or how to play an instrument) and the onset of debilitating conditions such as Parkinson's. It seems there is a virtue with grappling with the unfamiliar and making those psychologically expensive decisions.
How to square the circle?
I'm not sure, but even though my instinct is towards the new and unfamiliar, which I think is essential for poetry to thrive, I have to say I found an answer of sorts in a different learning experience within my organisation when Jim Lawless came to give a motivational talk on exceeding our limits. Act boldly today, he says. Do something scary every day - which is a little more than just the new and unfamiliar. I'm not sure I'm anywhere close to that, but I've started trying to do something scary every week - writing to people on projects that might never see fruition or not putting off the unpleasant tasks that conjure mental images of failure or embarrassment, just to see where that gets me. It's too early to say if it might be working, but what I can say is that it does put an edge to life that makes it just that little bit more exciting.
On a somewhat different note, Cyril Wong has been working with QLRS since Vol. 1 No. 1 all the way back in 2001, with a range of responsibilities that has covered Criticism, Extra Media and of course the Acid Tongue, for which there is possibly no more suitable editor. He has just decided this year to retire from the journal for his own personal reasons. In the light of the above, I hope that it's a decision that will engender more excitement and more edge for Cyril. More than that, what I want to make sure I say in this editorial, which marks the last issue Cyril is involved with, is how much we have appreciated his ever-efficient efforts towards helping QLRS to run smoothly. Thank you Cyril, we'll miss you!
Perhaps it is that element of the habitual being perturbed, but I found this issue a little more peculiar to work on than most. There was a reasonably sized crop of poetry, but I found the quality uneven and had some challenges making the psychologically expensive decisions on which ones to use. Kai Chai had another bumper harvest, and I wonder if it's only his being away at the International Writers Program at Iowa that has allowed him enough time to wade through all the short stories. He's evidently used his writing getaway as well in putting together more Proust Questionnaires than we've had in a single issue. Meanwhile, we've had our first entry in Extra Media for a while, and the essays Shu Hoong has chosen have provided more food for thought, without forgetting that this is the last Acid Tongue under Cyril's stewardship. We hope that the issue sets your neurons on fire.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014