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. 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.

Writing Near and Far

The next book on my reading list is The Stand by Stephen King. Most bestselling novels share one impressive self-evident fact – they are very readable. Stephen King, John Grisham and George R. R. Martin are masters of the craft. Somehow I have only ever read one other Stephen King novel. It was The Shining, and I was disappointed. (Here’s why.)

I read bestsellers for the same reason that I watch blockbuster movies. I’ve spent a lot of time on the other side of the fence snubbing my nose at commercially successful filmmakers, writers, etc., while remaining unpublished myself, so I’ve decided to try to undo some of my pretentious conditioning. These people sell books because they are masters at writing in the active voice.

Active/Passive

When two people speak casually they fall into rhythm without having to think about their subject. If one person tells a story, he or she speaks continually, with no pauses to think about the logical ordering of words. This natural dynamic creates a polarity between them: Person A uses short words in sentences easy to understand; Person B listens and gives minimal feedback until a break in the flow occurs, or they think of something and interrupt. Or they pull out their phone.

Likewise, most bestselling authors use short words in sentences easily understandable. Their prose is fluid and well-ordered and we, as readers, follow along quickly, understanding everything that transpires. Because the prose is so direct and active, we lock ourselves into “input” mode, accepting ideas in order without breaking off in distraction at our own tangential thoughts. We absorb the writing because it puts us in a passive, receptive trance.

I read The Associate by John Grisham very quickly. The first few chapters flew by and I went to bed. In the morning I realized I didn’t like the main character and wasn’t intrigued by the plot. Nevertheless, while I read the book I wasn’t thinking about these things, I was simply reading along. The deeper I got into the book the more greedily I read, even as I was rolling my eyes about the story. It was like an addiction, like being addicted to Fruit Loops even though they ruin your mouth for the day. At the end of the book I complained that it offered no food for thought. The reading experience was one of the easiest and most natural of my reading career. That says something.

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is written in a very plain voice. His prose draws no attention to itself and we’re left with pure story. It took more than 2000 pages for me to realize that A Song of Ice and Fire is the work of a master. The prose is third-person and seems omniscient, but each chapter features a different character, invisibly bringing the reader deeper into each character’s reality by subtly detailing how diverse characters act and react, notice or miss detail in a complex world.

This style of writing is processed immediately, meaning A) it is comprehended at once; and B) it is not mediated by thought.

The Other Side

Another style of writing is at least equally masterful, though you don’t see people reading these books on the subway. Some writers write in a more complicated, elliptical style and effectively ask the reader to think in parallel with the prose. This risks losing the reader to distraction because readers have idiosyncratic mental correspondences, and each reader ends up thinking something slightly different. In this category I include authors like Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories open into big ideas for the reader to take or leave.

These works can be tough to digest as the reader must make leaps of thinking to understand the ordering of the prose. A book like Gravity’s Rainbow is so dense with ideas and correspondences that every reader ends up with his or her own version of the story. What I get from the book will differ from what you took from it, and that contrast will show us both something about how we perceive the world. I find that interesting.

Borges’ short stories compress such huge ideas into so few pages, each gleams like a diamond. The worlds of Philip K. Dick may seem naively constructed, but the ideas put forward make his work great. The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson happens through shifting quantum realities where characters spontaneously change names, personalities, etc., and it is only the ideas that carry the story through.

The Synthesis

Balance matters. There’s a correspondence between symmetry with beauty. Use both sides of your brain, and read both types of literature. Then, and only then, consider going outside for some exercise, right after another cup of coffee.

A long while ago I decided would read what I wanted without worrying it might be over my head. It can be frustrating because we feel dumb when we don’t understand. But understanding things is a matter of time and will. When you come across an unfamiliar word, you have the option to look it up in a dictionary. Doing that developed my ability to “stick with” tough books. I’m positive this practice has increased my attention span. Unfortunately I can’t say whether I’ve become smarter, or better at bullshitting because I know more words. Either way, it’s rewarding to finish a difficult book.

I used to write vague screenplays and abstract stories that must have left amorphous impressions on the few people who read them. Now I make efforts to absorb the style of these bestsellers hoping to balance myself out. There is no denying that King and Grisham write clearly and precisely, and that’s admirable. That economy of style is difficult to master, and it’s one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize. Hopefully with this blog motivating me to write clearly, concisely, and regularly, I’ll find some balance, round out my style, and publish in a professional market.

 

“They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.” – Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day