Thinking About Thinking - 2021


Mind Your Head!

By Balaji Prasad

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." ~ Plutarch

The mind is a hallowed place. Without it, we are nothing. It is the sanctum sanctorum where our personal universe gets created. Everything we think, feel and experience comes through the medium of our mind. So does it not stand to reason that if we would like to improve our lives, this place - our mind - is where we would want to focus our energy toward?

Buy or build?

There are few classes in schools or colleges that are devoted to helping you think about your mind, and how to nurture and grow it. Yes, there are some that seem to go in that direction — things like psychology and philosophy — but these quickly descend into arcane concepts and terminology that ascend to the airy heights of the stratosphere. Does it really help to hear deep dissections of Descartes' “I think therefore I am"? Or how Freud pondered about the nature of dreams and what they mean? Maybe. Maybe these things could provide some nudges in the direction of understanding why you may think the way you do. But the need to grasp your own mind and its vagaries is left out in the cold by all these theoretical gymnastics.

So we cannot easily outsource the training of our minds to institutions. In other words, we should prefer that our minds are not institutionalized! And this is not true just in the early stages of life. The mind has a lifecycle that is essentially the same as our life's lifecycle.

Evolving the mind over time

Shakespeare provided one version of the human lifecycle (“The seven ages of man") starting from the infant and schoolboy moving to the lover and the soldier, and then through middle-age and muddle-age all the way through to what he called the “second childishness…sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything".

It all points in this progression, the mind evolves as the circumstances evolve, shifting and re-forming to adapt to the people and things that are around it. And simultaneously, the mind learns from its interactions with all these things over time, understanding what works and what doesn't, operating like a statistical machine, in a manner similar to that of today's machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies.

The mind minds itself

Clearly, the mind has the ability to learn on its own, without the need for spoon-feeding. Children learn to walk without needing a “seven easy steps to becoming a master walker". They have to, because they would not have even learned to talk properly at that stage, let alone read self-help books written by “experts" on the art of walking. The child crawls, drags its appendages around, falls, gets up, falls again, and miraculously figures out how to do something that appears much harder than many of the other things that we do.

One of the ways in which we learn is by using what can be called “reference models": we look around to see how others are doing something and pick up bits and pieces from it, even while we are still in a state of language deficiency. We copy. And we are extremely good at this. As things move forward, the child learns to speak, parroting the sounds that emanate from other people's lips, implicitly noting the differences between how they say it and how it sounds coming from its own mouth, tuning them with the necessary adjustments over time to make the speech sound more native. Copying is a meta-learning skill. If we are good at copying, we can become good at a lot of things that others do.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. Copying can take us high, but, alas, it can also take us to very low places.

The mind fails to mind itself

As the child starts to go through the next stages of its life, language and words allow copying ideas as well as actions. These ideas and concepts mix in with organically-grown ones that have been tested by the fire of trial and error; they sit side by side inside the same head, indistinguishable from one another. Effectively, an outsourcing of thinking starts. Why think through things oneself, when someone else has thought through it, and you can buy a fully packaged offering? Not only that, the mind can easily fall prey to various cognitive errors that have built up over time. For example, if you hear something a thousand times from a thousand sources, would you have the conviction to ignore it as noise because you have not been able to validate this yourself?

This is the tragedy of the mind. There is so much potential, but so much of it goes waste if the mind mindlessly imports all kinds of nonsense and mixes it up with organically created and tested thoughts. We are also well into an age that has an excess of “information" that is generated from all around us, much of which cannot be trusted. But we do. What is our recourse? Perhaps we have to go back to being more like the untutored child that copies selectively, tries things out, fails, and keeps only what is worthwhile - a child that doesn't care much for ideas, concepts, theories and arcane terms that can make you sound intelligent to others, but is less than worthless.

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com