National Writing Project

Why I Write: Charles Limb and the Preservation of Thoughts

Date: October 11, 2011

Summary: Charles Limb, a renowned researcher in otolaryngology and music, elaborates on how he writes to freeze and preserve his own thoughts in a moment in time. "Writing, perhaps more than anything else, allows us to slow down the passage of time by preserving the best of our thoughts," he says.


I write to slow down the passage of time. In our lives, we have thousands of thoughts that remain confined to our internal consciousness, never to be expressed to the world. While these thoughts may shape who we are (and affect the way we live and interact with others), they become, in a sense, lost thoughts that will likely never be captured again as time marches on.

Some of these thoughts may be trivial, making their disappearance no great loss. Others, however, may be quite useful or even profound, making their evaporation not only upsetting, but wasteful.

I write in order to try to capture my better thoughts, to freeze them in time so that they may be processed by others. I write so that in the future I can look back at my earlier self in a form of mental time travel, to see exactly where I was both in my ability to think and in my ability to communicate.

In immortalizing our words, we take a central risk—that our words will be used to represent us as a whole, to be misused, misrepresented, and when we're gone, to be left undefended.

Therefore, it is imperative that when we write, we consider each word and craft each sentence with caution. To satisfy this imperative in science requires an uncommon combination of humility (because you could be wrong) and hubris (because you think you're right). It is almost impossible to identify the value or significance that a work will have in the longer term—the accumulation of knowledge over time will provide the best assessment of a work's significance. Only time will tell.

And writing, perhaps more than anything else, allows us to slow down the passage of time by preserving the best of our thoughts.

Watch Charles Limb's TED Talk

About the Author Charles Limb has two titles on his official website: Associate Professor, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, and Faculty, Peabody Conservatory of Music. He combines his two passions to study the way the brain creates and perceives music. He's a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins who performs cochlear implantations on patients who have lost their hearing. And he plays sax, piano and bass.

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