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Exploring the Most Enigmatic Line in American Literature

Melville's sentence exposes the fiction between employers and employees that employees have any choice in the matter. 

Melville is so profound.  That’s not to say that he offers easy solutions.  In fact, the more profound Melville gets, the more elusive the solutions he arrives at.  In a story called Bartleby, the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street, Melville gives us a portrait of a copyist - a thin, efficient, anonymous figure named Bartleby, who is in a sense a human photocopy machine.  And in this story, Melville follows the benign, kindly reflections of an employer.  An employer of a man who at a certain point decides he just doesn’t want to be a copy machine any more.  But he can’t protest because he’s actually become too traumatized and frozen by what life has brought him so far.  


And so he becomes instead a fixture in the office, a burden, a constant moral reminder of all that’s wrong in the world, a symbol of a world turning people into human copy machines. The narrator of this story does everything any of us would do, and more, to try to solve the problem of this man he has employed who will no longer work.  He’s just a burden on the payroll.  What would you do if someone you fired wouldn’t leave? 

Melville tells the horrible, horrible story of a guy who’s laid off and is told to collect his belongings and leave.  And he won’t leave.  He’s there the next morning. In fact, he not only won’t leave his job; he won’t leave the office, and he begins to live there.  

And Bartleby doesn’t say, "I will not leave," he says, “I prefer not to.”  

Now that “I prefer not to” is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic sentences in American literature because just what it means to say, is not "I won’t do it, try to make me do it," but I “prefer not to.”  Really, that’s a sentence that really does ask questions about coercion in the work environment and how important it is, how much we cherish that code of manners and courtesies that create a pretense between employers and their employees, create the fiction between employers and employees that the employees have any choice in the matter. 

Can you imagine if your boss said "Would you mind getting me coffee?" The discourse of our work world has evolved in such a way that it’s impossible anymore to say, “I’d prefer not to.”  

Well, Bartleby, the Scrivener presents the sort of nightmare scenario of your employee not getting it or deciding no longer to get it and no longer to say either, “Yes, of course, I’ll do your copying for you” or “Hell no, I won’t do your copying,” but instead appealing to you in a more human way. 

The story of Bartleby is of course a terrible one.  Our narrator not only offers Bartleby the option of coming home to his own home. Because he cannot get rid of Bartleby he moves out of his own office. But Bartleby won’t leave then either and the next people who rent the office have Bartleby hanging around on the stairs.  Bartleby is eventually sent to the tombs in New York, where imprisoned, he dies.  

Melville’s not kind to his readers.  He doesn’t feel the obligation to pamper us, in fact, probably because by the time Melville wrote Bartleby, the Scrivener, he was almost as poor as Bartleby.  And he wasn’t sure he had any readers anymore anyway, and so he just spoke the truth.  

What Melville says to us, reminds us of, is that our systems produce persons so damaged that although we may put them out of our minds, evict them from our offices, they are still there.  And in some way we are accountable to them.  And the sign that Melville has no terrific solution is that he ends the story, “Ah, Bartleby; ah, humanity.”  Right? 

He directs our attention to a kind of cruelty that is the human condition.  I’m looking for some cheer to offer in that story.  I think what Melville does though, is he takes us further and further into the dark heart of modernity, where a growing complexity of the world produces more and more dysfunction and victimization.

Melville also admires the complexity.  How amazing is it that we can light all of our lamps and we can all be reading all night because one thing you can’t do if you don’t have any light at night, is you can’t read.  It was for readers that the oil industry was so important.  

How amazing that we can – that we can illuminate whole cities out of out of these complex systems and at the same time – how amazing that we can create paper that gets shipped all over the world and at the same time what – what human cost this productivity leads to.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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