Change Your Brain – Pt. 4

In “Change Your Brain” parts 1, 2 and 3, I tried to recommend books that had a positive effect on my behavior. Glancing back over recent posts I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking, and it stands to reason that the book I just finished contributed to that change in a major way.

We can’t know exactly why we are the way we are. Since each of our ‘minds’ arise out of the darkness of unconscious processes, it stands to reason that we should look toward the unconscious when we need a tune-up. Discovering our unconscious assumptions and bringing them into consciousness allows us to shed light on the processes that guide our minds.

The following book might have made me a little more sane.

Science and SanityScience and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski

The book’s full title is Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems. This is the foundational text for the branch of study called General Semantics. Its claims rest on the fact that language and science are forms of human behavior. If our behaviors and interpretations of reality are not accurate to the facts of the world, our evaluations, and therefore our future behaviors, will result in harmful shocks, delusions, failures, etc. We use science to communicate facts to one another. These facts offer dependable models. But in our communication and even our thinking, unconscious assumptions can deform the information and leave us with models that are false to the facts of the world. If these unconscious assumptions aren’t remedied, our species will become less sane.

So why pick on Aristotle? Briefly, this work is an attempt to recondition the Western mind. Because Aristotle had the last word on philosophy before the Dark Ages, his theories went untouched for centuries and have become engrained in most Western culture. Though Science and Sanity was published in 1933, we still have a long way to go.

Aristotle inherited the primitive language of his day. The language was formed by cultures that did not have the benefits of rigorous analysis. He inherited a mythologized interpretation of reality, a worldview that explained phenomena in anthropomorphic terms without the checks and balances of science. Aristotle used the language of his day to express the laws of “logic”, thus introducing primitive unconscious assumptions about the world to future generations. World events halted the progress of philosophy after Aristotle and his works became canonized. Simply because he was the last word in reason for hundreds of years, his philosophy took deep root in the Western mind.

Aristotle’s assumption of properties in objects and his use of subject-predicate language take the brunt of Korzybski’s criticism. Words are words and things are things and never the two shall meet. No word can ever “be” the thing it describes. When I claim “Mark is lazy”, I overstep empirical means by ascribing to Mark some property of laziness which I have not looked for scientifically. In truth, all I have is my empirical observations of Mark’s behavior. To say “Mark acts lazy” is more accurate to the known facts and describes the world as a dynamic process.

I know this seems like nitpicking, but subject-predicate reasoning leads to unjustified inferences about the world and in extreme cases can lead us to completely false assumptions. Most pernicious is the fact that these assumptions usually go unchecked because they happen unconsciously.

Next on the chopping block is Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle. This is the claim that a thing, A, is either true, or it’s negation, not A, is true, and nothing else is possible. This thought pattern oversimplifies observations in the worst way. Korzybski’s revision encourages a revolt from this two-valued logic to an infinite-valued logic. A person can be wholly inside a house, wholly outside a house, or partially inside and partially outside to any conceivable degree.

Another major consideration is the elimination of elementalism in language. Elementalism describes the breaking down of concepts into constituent elements that cannot exist outside of the whole. Most famously, Newton broke down our reality into ‘space’ and ‘time’ and this verbal trick led countless scientists on the search for the properties of ‘space’ and ‘time’ which led to failure, of course, since there are no such observable things as ‘space’ or ‘time’. Einstein proved that they are inseparable. When we verbally separate them, we must make sure this separation remains on the verbal level. Words are not things.

Another example is the linguistic dichotomy formed between ‘mind’ and ‘body’, two aspects of a whole that cannot exist independently. A man who researches the properties of ‘mind’ while disregarding ‘body’ does himself a disservice because the properties of ‘mind’ involve the ‘body’, and vice versa, to varying degrees. Entities work as-a-whole, and should be analyzed and spoken of as such.

The harm of Aristotlian systems is that they look for The Truth as opposed to a truth. Science and future humanity need languages that correspond to observable phenomena that operate within a context and as-a-whole. Accurate descriptions lead to accurate models of the world, and accurate models lead to sanity. As you might tell from the description so far, the aims of Science & Sanity reach far and deep and aim to completely reformulate many of the thinking-habits of Western culture.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’ll learn about colloidal chemistry, the dynamic gradient, differential calculus, Euclid and Riemann, Einstein and Minkowski, and why nothing truly happens “simultaneously” with anything else. This vast, multidisciplinary approach gives a philosophical and technical basis for using language in clear, unmistakable ways.

Science and Sanity claims that knowledge and language are only accurate when their structure matches the structure of the world. If we rely on words, and the definitions of those words are other words, concrete meaning retreats from us. The true test for a scientifically sound language, according to Korzybski, is that the language matches the structure of the world it represents. More far-reaching still is his insistence that structure is the only true content of knowledge.

Korzybski believes that mathematics most perfectly matches the structure of the world as well as our nervous systems, therefore acting as our most perfect bridge of communication. Since our linguistic processes must make instantaneous assessments of a dynamic world, differential calculus offers an analogy by its ability to provide us with empirically accurate snapshots of processes.

Overall, the work means to enhance our “consciousness of abstracting”, to keep us mindful of the world around us, to differentiate between our observations through lower order nervous centers (sense input) and our higher order abstractions (language, mental models, etc.). “Consciousness of abstracting” offers an scholastic approach to mindfulness, and means to keep us from confusing orders of abstraction. The attempt is to bring scientific clarity to human thought.

While there are large swathes of the book that are quite technical, mathematical and daunting, the underlying principles remain easy to understand (though I should admit that I was somewhat primed for it by Robert Anton Wilson). Chapter to chapter, the exposition is powerful and comprehensive through its nearly 800 pages.

I recommend this book for scientists, linguists, philosophers, and people with time to read.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 3

It’s annoying to me when politicos criticize their opponents for “flip-flopping” on issues. Anyone actively seeking enlightenment will tell you that changing one’s mind and opinions is part of the process. It would be nice if politicians were actively seeking cultural enlightenment. Partisanship and one-sided thinking leads to a lack of adaptability.

In the early stages of successful meditation it’s common to have the realization that we are more than just our bodies. We are minds that think and feel, process information, and create new ideas. Except in reproduction and the physical activities of arts and crafts, creativity happens in the mind. Soon the meditator might feel like they are a Mind, first and foremost, that uses the body like a tool.

The belief that “I am a Mind” might lead to metaphysics, belief in God or gods and ‘upper realms’, questions of ontology, spiritism, eschatology, and all sorts of non-physical contemplations. Suddenly one might feel one is more than a mind and settle on the conclusion that “I am a spirit”. Mind and body seem like lower realms caught up in maya, the world of form and matter (in other words, the transitory illusions of everyday life).

As one’s observational powers improve, the mind-blowing successes of early meditation don’t come as often. This could easily lead the practitioner to believe that their experiences of God or higher spiritual dimensions were neurological aberrations brought on by physiological exercises. It’s common for meditators (particularly in Zen) to come back to the firm realization that “I am my body”.

Flip-flopping is part of the game of life, as all life is subject to change. The ability to change one’s mind on big-ticket ideas is actually a good thing, and I would sooner trust a politician who changes his or her mind than one who stubbornly sticks to idiotic beliefs.

A changing world needs a changing brain. Part of changing our brains is contemplating different points of view. The following points of view helped flip-flop me closer to my goal.

Raj YogaRaj Yoga by Swami Vivekananda

As far as I’ve read this is the essential book on the mental side of yoga (of which the physical yogas form only the preliminary). Vivekananda guides you right into theory and practice with direct examples and a sense of playfulness that can carry you through the various humps and dry-spells that are inevitable in this kind of activity. Compared to many of the other, older Indian books on yoga, (like the Shiva Samhita) this one has only a moderate amount of culturally-specific symbolism to decipher. It uses the analogy of the conscious mind as a monkey, jumping about from branch to branch on the tree of knowledge, squawking and eating whatever it can, but resting only in sleep. The techniques in this book can help calm that monkey down, but it goes far beyond that. This is enlightenment training. I recommend this text for anyone who wants to get serious about meditation.

 

Collected FictionsCollected Fictions by Jorges Luis Borges

While all his work seems great, I’m mostly thinking of the two short story collections called The Garden of Forking Paths and The Aleph, both of which are contained in this one handy unit. This is fiction at its most potent. When I used to read Philip K. Dick I would see a blurb on the jacket claiming that Dick was the “homegrown Borges”, and when I finally got around to reading the Argentinian-grown Borges, I found the analogy to be a good one. Reading Borges is a lesson on narrative economy and big ideas. His stories range from historical realism to mystical fable to flat-out fantasy, and his ability to condense huge ideas into short stories is unparalleled in anything I’ve read. Many feel that Borges reinvented the short story and I can see why. Because of the power and brevity, Borges offers the most bang for your buck. I recommend Borges for writers, mystics and intellectuals.

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” – Jorge Luis Borges, from the Afterword to The Maker

 

MagickMagick by Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley was a mountaineer, chess master, poet, writer, yogi, black magician, white magician, philosopher, heroin-addict, bisexual sex-addict, “wickedest man in the world”, and all around great guy. His corpus of writing is immense, and Magick might be his most comprehensive masterwork. Detailing necessary training, tools of the trade, philosophical grounding, practical techniques and mystical symbolism, this massive work gives the reader just about everything they need to start practicing real magick. So what is magick? It is the art of causing a change in conformity with the Will. Ceremonial magic has been around for thousands of years and it’s still practiced today. Even with the modern advancements of neuroscience, psychoanalysis and depth psychology, the techniques in this book remain effective. Get to know the strange agencies that live in your subconscious and affect real change in your behaviors and thoughts. The best part of this work is that Crowley tells the reader to avoid imposing any objective validity on the spirits, sephiroth, symbols and so-forth, and simply pay attention to this fact: when certain actions are performed, certain things happen. Things can get weird with this one, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t mentally and physically healthy. It is for serious students of the occult.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 2

One of the earliest influential philosophers is Thales from ancient Greece. Since him there has been a continuous succession of thinkers who built upon their predecessors, criticizing what they don’t like, correcting what they can, and emphasizing what makes the most sense. Since Thales we can trace the path of Western thought through to today, mapping the brain change of the world, and it’s all pretty interesting, minus the Dark Ages.

The classical Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Plato) set the stage for world philosophy, and many other cultures absorbed their ideas before the formation of distinct philosophies of their own. Some would claim the Greeks were the fathers of philosophy, who made an art of thinking that benefited the rest of humanity. Others would argue that the Greek philosophers stunted the growth of future free-thinkers, limiting would-be revolutionaries with their categories and strict methods.

A goal of many intellectuals is to surpass their formative history and offer something new to the world, whether it be an invention, a way of thinking, or a new analysis of something we’ve taken for granted. It can be hard to break away from tradition and offer something new, but one thing I’ve learned is that the broader the net we cast for information, the bigger the potential catch. Even opposing opinions offer us a chance to compare and contrast and flex our own intellectual and intuitive genius.

I think reading is one of the best uses of time. The following books helped me to think in new ways.

Critical PathCritical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller

Bucky Fuller is an autodidact, inventor, engineer, and revolutionary thinker. His goal is simple: to make things easier for human beings by thinking about a problem and coming up with a novel solution. It doesn’t seem like he made a fortune, but his perspective has influenced a couple generations of scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs. A major thrust in this work is the idea of ephemeralization (a term he coined), which describes our technological development trend of being able to do more work, more efficiently, in less time, with less material. Think of what a computer looked like in the 1970s and compare it to your smartphone. The brilliance of this book is that Fuller is truly a systems-thinker, and always has the big picture in mind. And best of all, he’s a little kooky. I recommend this book for the socially conscious.

 

Quantum PsychologyQuantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson

Written with humour, erudition, and infectious optimism, this handy little manual offers us a new look at our selves. This book is a guided tour to opening new ways of thinking and acting. It asks us to look at what we know of the world, then to look at how we know these things and why. In 200 pages this book challenges every belief, every behavior, and every excuse to avoid being who we want to be. This is a manual about writing your own life script but it is far from being New Age. Wilson’s voice is authoritative, wise and hilarious throughout, and every chapter offers practical exercises for the reader to begin opening new horizons. Recommended for everyone.

 

StoryStory by Robert McKee

This book, and its author, are a little bit legendary in the film industry for a variety of reasons. McKee attacks the construction of a screenplay using big, fundamental ideas that shed light on what stories have to offer to the human experience and what makes a story satisfying. His aggressive writing style almost challenges the reader to prove him wrong when he explains why character is story, why story must be told through conflict, and why there must be a major emotional value change in every scene, sequence, act, and movie. When I first got the book I assumed, since I like so-called art films, that I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say. After all, Eraserhead doesn’t have much in common with, say, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But most of the points McKee makes hold true for just about every movie, every novel, every short story, short film, opera, play, campfire story, drunken anecdote…Recommended for anyone interested in storytelling.