Wayne C. Allen's "Works in Progress"
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Mind Boxes

mindi am who i appear to be

I've been reading an interesting book by Steven Pinker, called How the Mind Works, and as the title says, it's a book by a developmental psychologist, talking about how the mind, as far as we can tell, does what it does. I'm a bit stretched by the book, and it reminds me of how many years it's been since my last Biology class. The argument that most interests me is the tabula rasa (blank slate) vs. innate knowledge debate.

What Pinker is "pitching" is the idea that there is a base-line structure to the brain, present at birth. Experiments with three-month-olds, for example, demonstrate that infants can be shown objects until they are bored and look away and then something will be changed, and the infants will register "surprise" by once again fixedly staring. This indicates strongly that infants have structural expectations that can be shaken by the unexpected.

I'm not sure why this concept (innate knowledge, or perhaps better, innate structure) freaks people out. It seems impossible to assume that children come into the world "empty" of structure. In truth, infants are empty of experience. And I mean that in both senses of the word - empty of life illustrations and empty of mastery. Elsewhere, I've said that infants are basically autistic, by which I mean that they are dissociated from their environment, and have not figured out the "rules" of interaction. As anyone with experience with autism knows, however, lack of experience does not mean lack of a structure. It's just not a very efficient structure.

One of the innate knowledge "chunks" we are pre-programmed with (along with, for example, the ability to interpret 3D vision) might be thought of as "mind boxes" - our ability to categorize - and thus to generalize meaning. We want to remember that our minds are, as described in a brilliant example in the book, "meat, all the way down." There isn't anyone in there. When, for example, in my booklet The Watcher, I suggest structuring a Watcher to monitor behaviour and thinking, I'm not thinking (or had better not be!) that there's a little guy in there. No, all there is in our heads is a collection of data stored in meat, electrochemically. Much like there is data stored in RAM in my computer.

There's not enough capacity in our heads to hold the input of one day, let alone a lifetime. So, again as I've said elsewhere, we filter out 99% of all of the input, in order to focus in on what we consider to be important. The input that gets in is then evaluated according to a pre-established categorization schema. It is much more efficient to store categories than have a separate "box" for every detail.

Illustration: think of the cabinet where you keep your dinner dishes. Someone is over for dinner and volunteers to set the table. You will move from simple to complex directions. First, you'll say, "Oh. The dishes are in that cabinet." Now, behind the doors are cups, saucers, dinner plates, dessert plates, soup bowls, salad bowls and bread plates. (At least at my house…) And all kinds of glasses. This suggests that you have a broad "dishes" category or box. You also assume that the guest will go over there, open the doors, look inside, identify and take the quantity and type of dishes necessary to set the table for the number of diners.

But, can you see how complicated that is? Amazing that we can do it so easily. And, as long as we are from the same culture, which plates, set on the table in what specific location, will also be somewhat standardized, even though the guest has never seen your dishes before. All of this is so - we can move from the "dishes" cabinet to the table - because we can generalize and match the present dishes to other similar categories and patterns stored in our heads.

Now, imagine how weird it would be to have to have a separate category for every single thing in the cabinet. You'd have to point the guest to the cabinet, explain to them how to open the left door, then the right door. (They open in opposite directions, and since we have no "door" category, we need a "left-handed dinner dish cabinet wood door" category, etc.) Then, you'd have to say, "Remove that plate there (pointing), the one that is round and white, with a small stain in the middle." Since there are no broad categories, only individual thought chunks, we'd have to repeat the description for the next plate, as it is not the same as the previous plate. You begin to see why we chunk things together.

Thus the paradox of life - the more specific we are, the more details we must engage with, which is hard. The less specific we are, the less details, and the less precision, which is easy.

Believe it or not, I have a point here. You might even be intuiting it. Human beings are hard-wired to be efficient -- to make decisions based upon the least amount of precision necessary. Why? You're walking through a jungle (as all of our forebears did) and you see a flash of yellow and white and black stripey movement. You either run like hell, or shove a spear in the tiger. What got triggered was the "Holy Shit!" reaction to a category that contains the filters "fast," "large," and "coming at me." Imagine what life would have been like (hint: it would have been short) if you had to get that pattern of understanding from: animate to animal to mammal to feline to large to big teeth to yellow and white and black stripey to really fast to "Holy Shit! It's a tig…" -- crunch.

Life, then, might be thought of as an unending series of assumptions. The assumptions are created in two ways: they are taught and they are experienced. In the above illustrations, "dishes" and "tigers" are taught. "How parents treat kids" is experienced. (I learned how parents treat kids, primarily, from experiencing how my parents parented me.) Even today, if I see a parent screaming at a kid, my internal "Holy Shit!" alarm goes off, because I recognize that they are 1) parenting, and 2) not parenting "right," as my "parenting box" does not have screaming in it. So, I can either modify my "parenting box" to include screaming (not bloody likely) or I can trigger a scan for another  explanation, and I end up in a box labelled "dysfunctional communication." To get there, however, took an extra step or two.

That's important. Because we are efficient. Read - lazy.

The norm is to stay within the parameters of the boxes
we have already created.

Most marital discord, for example, is a battle of the boxes. I have a generalized "Here's how families operate" box, and so does my partner, both based upon our past experiences. In most cases, the dilemma is that the parameters of the boxes do not match. The lazy, yet efficient approach is to argue for the parameters of my box, even though this makes me uncomfortable.

One of my clients describes it in terms of "The Book of Life." She says, "All my life I've been reading what to do next in The Book of Life. You know, the right way to be a good girl, to be a wife, to be a mother. All of a sudden, the book doesn't make any sense. In fact, I don't even think there is a Book!" What she's hit upon is precisely what's described above. She's realized that her "how families operate" box" doesn't match her husband's. Her level of discomfort is such that she's considering the possibility that her parameters are "wrong." She certainly knows that, in her marriage, they don't work.

Here's the kicker. They're not wrong. They're too general. (i.e. "all husbands should...") Yet, and we're back to efficiency, to add to them, modify them or delete them requires hard work. And that means having to admit that I'm uncertain about what to do next. In other words, all of the work I've done, up until now, to establish "how families operate" is useless as it stands. What's required is a "here's how I wish to be as I interact with my actual husband" box. More on this next week.

Let's briefly go back to discomfort. As you're noticing, simply bumping your nose against your mind boxes is not enough to elicit better behaviour choices. Being uncomfortable with the difference between your mind boxes and those of your nearest and dearest is seldom enough. Mostly, this "discontinuity discomfort" simply causes us to argue more fervently for our boxes, even though we know the box parameters we're arguing for don't work. This is the, "I can't do anything about it, it's just the way I am!" argument.

The more this battle of the boxes goes on, the more the discomfort. Still, nothing will change until the discomfort becomes so unbearable that someone actually chooses to address the situation differently, and do something different. And this is supremely scary. We want life to be predictable, and general, and easy. To take each interaction as unique and worthy of our full attention is labour intensive and fear-producing. As Susan Campbell put it (as we noted last week):

Every human interaction entails a large measure of uncertainty. Each time you express yourself, you take a step into the unknown, into "empty space."

One more thing, this week: many people have a totally misshapen and out of whack "Holy Shit!" setting. This setting is either "reasonable" or "too sensitive or too dull." I run into a lot of people in the latter category. They enter a situation in a hyper-vigilant state, and are looking for trouble, or they're so dead to what's happening that they get clobbered again and again. Some people are even locked in "Holy Shit!" as a self-defining place. If nothing is wrong, they feel like they are missing something. They thus are not reacting appropriately to what is actually happening, but rather out of their fear and neediness. In a sense, OK is seen as "wrong."

The way out is the same as we've talked about: it's noticing how easily I trigger my "Holy Shit!" reaction, and over what. As I see how I set myself off, I can (with effort) back off the setting and engage in dialog as opposed to do battle.

Because, you see, not everything is "a flash of yellow and white and black stripey movement." Sometimes, I have to let go of the boxes, and their hold on me, and simply stand there and see what's up. And first and foremost, I need to see that the boxes I think of as real - The Book of Life I depend on, is more like a Fodor's Guide. It can tell me what is where. It can't tell me how I will experience what is where.

See ya next week!




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