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Building a blueprint for a better brain by tinkering with the code.
May 5th, 2018
- Mom, see? It works.
Once, when I was a young child, my mother came home from work and found most of the appliances in our house completely dismantled.
She was startled to say the least. And then very very upset.
In hindsight, I see that she assumed that all the appliances would have to be repurchased and this would cost a great amount of money. Among other things, I had taken apart the T.V., the stereo, the remotes, the blender, even the toaster, and I believe I was puzzling over the fridge when she walked in.
I was genuinely confused by her reaction.
I had seen it all taken apart - I’d done it. Therefore, I knew how it all went together.
It wasn’t until hours later, after I’d snapped and screwed everything back together and turned everything on to show her it all still worked did her tumultuous emotions on the subject subside.
Most of these appliances were just mysterious black boxes. In metaphor, all of them were.
I was just curious.
- No really, go ahead. I mean it.
Years later when I was an art teacher, I was warned about one particular student who was going to be part of an incoming class. She was a little devil, they said. They couldn’t figure out what to do, but any class she was in just dissolved into chaos.
I was teaching basic origami to these 5-7 year olds, and the first few classes went as predicted. 5-10 minutes of good steady class, and then somehow things snowballed into chaos so quickly, it was hard to pick out how it happened.
Let’s call this little devil Kailee.
After the third class, I inspected Kailee’s work. From the disheveled little paper boat, I could see that her dexterity was still developing, but she definitely had full command conceptually of what she was doing. All the right folds were there, even if they weren’t executed perfectly.
The next class, I watched her very closely. She followed instructions for about 5 minutes, and then started looking around the small table of kids. She started with a question or a comment or an observation. She knew just what to say and just who to say it to. This was the little devil part.
What might have gone unnoticed though, was that while the other kids were still working through the instructions, Kailee had rushed through them, and was finished.
My analysis? She was bored.
And the rest of the class provided for an interesting experiment. A grander reality that she could poke for feedback.
The next week I started class as usual. But once I’d given the first set of instructions to occupy the kids, I took Kailee aside.
This had obviously happened to her many times already in her short career at school because her face was displaying all the emotions of a child about to be singled out for reprimand and exile.
I took her to the other side of the room and revealed a finished piece of origami that was far more advanced than what the class was doing. It was a modular piece that incorporated many pieces all interlocking in an ornate way. I placed it in her cautious and careful hands.
“I want you to make one of these.”
Challenge presented. Opponent intimidated.
“.. and I’m not going to show you how to do it. You’re going to show yourself.”
Opponent very intimidated.
“Take it apart,” I said.
She looked at me with surprise and suspicion. What was this ‘adult’ trying to pull on her. What trick is this?
“No really, go ahead. I mean it.”
She carefully took the piece apart, and I asked her what she could tell me about all the pieces.
“They’re all the same.”
So I took away all the pieces but one.
“Take it apart.”
And when she had unfolded the one module back to a square piece of paper, I said:
“See, all these folds are familiar. You know how to figure them out. How to start with the center fold and use that to create the others. Which means you can figure out how to make this, because you’ve got all these others as models to show you if you’re doing it right.”
Then I pulled out another piece of modular origami identical to the one she had just taken apart.
“And then you can use this finished one to figure out how they all fit together.”
As a teacher, there’s no better sight than a kids face while their brain is racing, figuring, anticipating.
“To be honest, I don’t know if you can do this. And if you can’t, that’s totally ok. But I wanted to see if you could give this a shot. What do you say?”
She nodded. Her face was: Lit. Up.
- Staircases & Wells
Stairs are a wonderful invention. Flip them upside-down and they still work. And using them works in a likewise fashion. Flip the way you use them and they perform in a symmetrical fashion.
Vicious and Virtuous cycles are very much the same.
A vicious cycle is perhaps best visualized as an evil whirlpool. Spinning slowly at the upper wide edge, gently coaxing things into it’s path and speeding up slowly, like the heat slowly rising in a pot of water where a frog sits. Give the trend enough time and that vicious cycle is spinning like mad and that frog is dead in boiling water.
Turn a vicious cycle upside-down and it’s best seen as a swirling pyramid, or the exhaust plum of a spinning rocket: that’s your virtuous cycle. They look the same, just flipped.
Give either a little time and we get to an extreme place that seems to have a lot of momentum.
So much momentum that the worst places that vicious cycles can bring us can feel more like the bottom of a deep well, not a staircase.
But neither metaphor is perfect. All metaphors are flawed.
A better one at this juncture is a hole we’ve dug ourselves.
Sure, life can suck. Deal you blow after blow. And such explanation is a good holding pattern for those who have decided to be victims of circumstance. It’s not a holding pattern though. It’s more like the slow circular coaxing of that whirlpool. It seems to just be going in a loop, but it’s also descending.
The brain is the sole architect of it’s current thinking. If it can think it’s way into it’s current state, it can reengineer it’s thinking to make a way out. This doesn’t mean ruminating: the favorite activity of vicious cycles. This means using the mental processes that got the brain to this state against the current state.
A lot of this is counter-intuitive: for example, if thinking obsessively about this bad thing helped get me to this bad state, how can I not think about it? Possible solution: go work-out. Not only does that give your mind a radically different activity to navigate but the neurological byproducts of the activity have subversive effects on a depressed brain. The effect feels as though it changes from the inside out, magically.
That’s just one little strategy. Many must be built, found, implemented, practiced-into-habits, etc.
- A GAME OF CHESS
In epileptic patients, the corpus collosum is sometimes cut. This is the area of the brain, right in the middle that allows the left and right hemispheres to talk to each other.
In epileptic patients, when you cut it, seizures decrease by a lot. But some other weird properties of the brain get highlighted…
One woman gets slapped by her left hand (controlled by her right brain) every time she does something bad, like swear or smoke a cigarette.
In other experiments, people with severed corpus collosums will have the name of an object, say “Egg” flashed in their left visual field so that it will only be seen by the right hemisphere. Then they will be asked to select an object from behind a screen with their left hand (also controlled by their right hemisphere). They will invariably pick the egg. But when asked why they chose the object they will fabricate some bullshit association, like “Oh I had eggs a couple days ago, so I was thinking about it”. Speech is controlled by the left hemisphere, which didn’t see the name of the object, nor did it control the hand that picked the object, so it just makes shit up!
If asked what they hoped to be as a child when they grew up? They will say something different than what the left hand will write.
These findings make one wonder: are there two people inside of all of us?
Are decisions only reached after a back-and-forth between these two halves? Like a game of chess.
How do you ‘check’ your brain and force a move in a better direction?
An upward direction.
A virtuous direction.
- PRINCIPLES OF THE AUTODIDACT
Teachers are generally overwhelmed. People who are overwhelmed do not notice the nuances.
(Somehow it goes that a university professor teaching a relatively benign set of adults is equipped with a tiny team of teaching assistants that do most of the grunt work, but a single 3rdgrade teacher is expected to sail a ship with a bunch of tiny humans who are only partially developed.)
I was lucky when Kailee entered my classroom. I had been warned. And I took that warning as a challenge. I was poised to observe. I knew the only way I could have a chance of making a difference is if I first understood. For that I needed to watch and learn something.
Once I observed what Kailee did in class, I hypothesized that she was just really smart and really bored.
I wasn’t sure I was right. So I needed to test my hypothesis.
I gave her brain something difficult to gnaw on.
* * *
One action that starts a good habit is a virtuous action. If repeated enough times, in a short enough span of time (say, a month), it can start to gain momentum. Eventually it will ‘lift off’ and fly on it’s own to a better place, taking you with it.
That might sound easy, but it requires work. It’s like starting at the bottom of that well and slowly carving a spiral staircase into the wall. A big task. But carving just one step allows you to take a step up.
If we have dug ourselves into a hole, the answer is not to keep digging down, and digging up is nonsensical. Sometimes you have to dig sideways. Like a riptide.
* * *
I didn’t just hand Kailee a complex piece of origami and say “here, make one of these.”
I showed her the principles of teaching herself. The principles of the autodidact.
She knew them well already, but in the context of the finished piece of complex origami, she was afraid to do it.
First you have to observe.
But just observation. Gets. You. Nowhere.
Second, we must form some kind of understanding from that observation. That understanding may be flawed. It probably IS flawed. But the only way to improve that understanding is to get more information. The only way that is achieved is through:
That means poking reality.
In Kailee’s case, that meant taking it apart. Methodically dismantling it. And observing all the while.
* * *
Buried within the message itself is the key to decoding it: the blueprint for a virtuous cycle is identical to the vicious cycles that have taken us to such low places.
As outside observers the mistakes of friends and family can seem… painfully obvious. But the perspective is a privileged one. Mirrors are only useful in the most superficial sense.
* * *
Kailee was observing her classmates, forming an understanding about them, and then poking reality to test her understanding. She was already a master of manipulating the classroom, and every time she created chaos she was learning, sharpening her understanding.
I just gave her something that was just as juicy and interesting. Something difficult.
As we gain awareness of ourselves, we can do this to ourselves. Observe, understand, poke, tweak the understanding & poke again. and again. and again.
We are our own black box. Don’t assume you know what’s inside of it. You have to test constantly to find out.
* * *
Are you faithfully observing yourself?
Are you poking reality, and observing how you change?
* * *
I went back to the rest of the class and continued as usual. I’ll be honest. I totally forgot about Kailee.
When class ended and parents were arriving to collect their kids, I got a small tap on my elbow. I turned around and there was Kailee.
The smile on this kid. . . my god.
I looked at what she gingerly presented in the center of her two cupped hands and smiled.
“Look what you did. You made that, and you taught yourself how to do it.”
donating = loving
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