08/17/2012 10:07 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

Tributaries of the Mind: An Interest in Angling

I live on Cornfield Creek, a small tidal tributary of the Maryland's Magothy River. We wouldn't have called this a creek where I grew up. Creeks were narrow streams of moving water, often rocky and noisy. Cornfield Creek is wide and usually not too blowy, indistinguishable from many freshwater lakes I've known, except that the brackish water rises and falls imperceptibly with the connecting waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

There's not a lot of human activity on Cornfield Creek, in part because it is so placid and in part because it doesn't go anywhere. Sailors find better winds out on the river, where we also spot an occasional water skier. We get paddlers and gunk holers, and in pre-dawn darkness, when most days I'm out on our dock, I see fishermen quietly wending their way to the river and beyond.

I'm an anomaly on Cornfield Creek, because I don't fish. I've never fished, even though I grew up on the water, among avid fishermen. I'm intrigued by that world, but it's a culture that, for whatever reason, I was never initiated into. I was reading in the Baltimore Sun this morning about a (apparently) famous fisherman named Bernard "Lefty" Kreh, a native Marylander who has fished with presidents and has been honored on a U.S. postage stamp. The story was actually about Topps, the chewing gum and trading card company, which recently issued a trading card depicting Kreh, but mistakenly labeled it with the name of another famous local fisherman and guide, Capt. Norm Bartlett. How this happened nobody knows, but Kreh and Bartlett are longtime buddies and both are taking it in good humor. The misprinted cards are now being auctioned on eBay.

This story, which ran on the front page of the Sun, intrigued me. Not because of the mix-up at Topps, but because the very existence of a fisherman trading card surprised me. I don't know why it should: I grew up as an avid collector of baseball trading cards and suffered more than one cavity trying to find treasured and elusive cards, like Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax. I traded cagily in the elementary school card market, and I also spent hours reading the statistics on the backs of these cards. I wanted to know Bill "Moose" Skowron's batting average over the years, and Don Newcombe's ERA. So I get the obsession with a sport or hobby.

Even so, reading about the "Lefty" Kreh trading card got me thinking. What is a hobby in the human mind? What's going on, psychologically, when we develop an interest and pursue it? Why do we not get bored thinking about stand-up doubles and RBIs -- or striped bass and swim shad lures -- but instead get more and more involved and passionate? Everybody is an expert on something, foreign coins or Civil War battle sites or organic gardening. What's the motivation?

Scientists have actually studied this kind of interest and have some insights. In one study, researchers exposed volunteers to real world experiences, but things they weren't necessarily interested in -- abstract poetry, say. Some of the volunteers were just left on their own to read the poem, while others were given a small hint about its meaning. When they were all asked later on to rate the verse, those who had been given a hint said they found it much more interesting and engaging. Similarly, volunteers who had some familiarity with art history -- just a bit -- found a modern art gallery much more engaging and less threatening.

This makes sense to me. It's like, intellectually, getting a foot in the door. Think about fishing again. We all are constantly appraising our experiences, trying to make sense of what's around us. But we size up the same experience very differently, depending on the knowledge we bring to it. I may be a bit curious about fish and the culture of fishing, but I know so little that the whole thing seems incomprehensible to me. Even novices have enough knowledge that they feel they can cope intellectually with the experience. They might know that the Magothy is home to white perch and channel catfish, or they own a decent rod and reel, so they are not complete outsiders in this mysterious world. They are comfortable enough to explore a bit more. To me, it's all a mystery.

So why do some novices persist with a hobby? How did "Lefty" Kreh get started, and how did he get so good at his chosen hobby that he's on a Topps trading card? Why not just learn a little about fishing, then move on and learn a little about French wines and then a little about collectible cuckoo clocks or the novels of William Faulkner? Well, it seems that passions propel themselves. Watermen like Kreh and Bartlett have an entire roadmap of fishing etched into their neurons, a roadmap that includes the bay and its tributaries, the customs and legends and technology and equipment and lures and flies and, of course, the perch and stripers and bluefish. They see subtleties and nuances that are lost on the rest of us, even on somewhat experienced fishermen. It appears that, initially, an intellectual challenge is what motivates us to develop expertise, but this mastery in turn allows us to keep searching and learning, adding layer upon layer to our understanding.

I am new to Cornfield Creek, so I am just beginning to piece together my neuronal map. It's sketched only in broad strokes for now, and under constant revision. I learned recently that my dock, the one I visit early mornings, is my front yard. The "back" of the house is what faces the road, where we park our cars, and the creek is our local street, a watery cul-de-sac. I've begun paddling a bit on the creek and river, and I'm beginning -- just beginning -- to see the world from this new perspective.

For more by Wray Herbert, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.