Life of the Mind

Professor Carolyn Meltzer, nature photographer; Shades of Gray

There’s a stray dog on my front porch.

We found him a few days ago, nosily exploring the busiest street in our neighborhood, collarless but friendly. He jumped right into the car and then made himself at home in a cardboard box with a blanket while we tried to figure out what to do with him. Our dog, Charlie, is a rescue who’s skittish and territorial, and doesn’t welcome visitors of most any description.

The thing about this lost little guy is that he clearly has a home somewhere. It’s not just that he is clean and well fed; he’ll fetch a tennis ball again and again, dropping it expectantly at your feet, and he bounds readily onto furniture and into laps. Behind his bright brown eyes is a whole world—a life of familiar smells and sounds, a daily routine, a human voice and touch, a toy chewed just so, a walking route whose every stop and sniff holds a remembered story.

I really, really wish he could tell us about it—at least in terms that we can better understand. A street address, for instance, would be good.

The dog, his unknown past and his uncertain future, has been on my mind this week as we put the finishing touches on Emory Magazine—which is decidedly focused on the human. In some ways, this issue is an exploration of the inner life, or at least an attempt to acknowledge the world that lies behind the eyes and beneath the shallow facts of identity such as street address, job title, education, hometown. Despite our instinctive desire for connection, it has made me think about the degree to which living, even for us two-legged types, is an intensely individual experience that takes place largely inside the catacombs of our minds. From our very beginnings we’re pretty much alone in our own heads, constructing a singular universe from raw materials of incomprehensible multitude, randomness, and complexity.

It could be argued that some inner worlds are more ornate than others. Jennifer, an exceptionally articulate teenage girl whom my colleague Mary Loftus interviewed for her feature story on autism spectrum disorders, has Asperger syndrome, a condition that hinders her social interaction but probably helps facilitate her continual creation of Tokkia—a vast, imaginary realm complete with its own government, queen, and history. Researchers are looking for new ways to influence social behavior and help young people like Jennifer calm and channel the buzzing of the “beehive,” as she describes the colorful, whirling thoughts she can’t quite catch.

Science fiction writer Ken Grimwood 65C also had a flair for constructing full-blown alternate realities. His most popular novel, Replay, depicts a fictional Emory (yes, Emory) where the protagonist is destined to return repeatedly, his life story spinning itself anew each time. It seems that Grimwood himself could imagine any number of personal narratives, as if his creative brain were like a choose-your-own-adventure book and even he didn’t always know where he might wind up.

Maybe not everyone spends so much time in elaborate fantasy worlds of their own making, but most people seem to have some sort of shadow life—a place they go to think and feel differently, to access parts of themselves they don’t show in the light of everyday. Our “secret lives of faculty” photo essay offers a window into a few of those places. Their pursuits might not seem overtly remarkable—baking, swimming, taking photographs, playing music—but all these professors describe the pleasure of stepping into an alternate existence and losing themselves there for a time.

Many talk about the relationship between their “hobby” and their work, how they contrast and how they complement one another. As Andrea White, assistant professor in Candler School of Theology, puts it, “Playing violin is an all-consuming activity for me, so it is a perfect exercise for stretching my mind in a way that is radically different from the concentrated work of teaching and research.”

I think we all have secret lives, even if they don’t feature a serious talent or an all-consuming activity or an elaborate made-up world. Perhaps they are simply the sum of our individual experiences, the consciousness knowable only to ourselves, the inner landscape so intimate that if we tried to describe it, we would never get it quite right—like when you recount a dream aloud and immediately, inevitably, feel its true magic melt away into the morning.

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