Konrad Lorenz on staring at aquariums

I’ve prefaced a blog post or two with a lame excuse for not keeping the posts coming on this blog, posts that are usually followed by some random thoughts that passed through my distracted brain during that particular week.

Thus, so as not to disappoint, I will keep that tradition going by prefacing this post with what I just wrote above, followed by this exceptionally random item of the week:

“A man can sit for hours before an aquarium and stare into it as into the flames of an open fire or the rushing waters of a torrent.  All conscious thought is happily  lost in this state of apparent vacancy, and yet, in these hours of idelenss, one learns essential truths about the macrocosm and the microcosm. If I cast into one side of the balance all that I have learned from the books of the library and into the other everything that I have gleaned from the “books in the running brooks” how surely would the latter turn the scales.”

– Konrad Lorenz in King Soloman’s Ring, p. 16

If you read my last post, and have heard of Konrad Lorenz before, you might think that I’ve been obsessed with birds for the past month or so.  Not sure why but somehow these ‘bird books’ keep falling into my hands… I guess I’ve been thinking about animal communication a bit lately and birds are the most vocal animal in my backyard, especially since the recent setting-up-camp of several duck families who all seem enjoy quacking fairly consistently right outside my window…


ducklings in the back yard. If you can’t find a rooster to wake you up in the morning, ducks seem to do a fairly good job as well:-)

Konrad Lorenz was a zoologist, among other things, and is famous for exploring the concept of ‘imprinting’ in his research on animal behavior, looking at geese in particular.

By placing a bunch of goose eggs in an incubator, and making sure he was the first thing the geese saw when they hatched, he effectively was imprinted as their mom; a big, Austrian humanoid mom-goose.  (The idea of ‘imprinting’ also spurred on quite a bit of thought on the ‘critical period hypothesis‘ for language as well as other cognitive features which are said to be acquired during a ‘window of opportunity’ after birth, maybe I’ll save my ideas on that for another day).

This didn’t seem to cause the goslings too much trouble since they followed Lorenz everywhere he went.  (On a side note, there is a great documentary entitled “My life as a turkey” which follows another zoologist’s foray into bird-parentdom: especially interesting is his exploration of turkey communication:-).

Konrad Lorenz and his ‘family’

Going back to the quote above, I liked the way Konrad Lorenz describes the kind of learning that takes place with prolonged and astute observation of one’s surroundings, in this case ‘an aquarium,’ and depending on what we are inclined to notice, immense understanding of the world, or the “books in the running brooks” as Lorenz calls it, can be derived from the deceptively simple scene in front of your eyes: some fish in a fishbowl.

So until I cart myself off to academia again in a few more weeks or so, I’ll be staring at and writing on the proverbial ‘fishbowl’ for the time being.

If you’d like to read more about Lorenz, here is an interesting article about his thoughts on animal and human instinct over at 3quarksdaily.

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