The Problem with Mind Boxes

Synopsis: The Problem with Mind Boxes — mind boxes are convenient storage-places for data, and make living easy. Beware, however, making the contents “true.”

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mind boxes

A Question about Mind Boxes

Thanks for the (as always) excellent reminders.
I would be interested in your viewpoint on this question:

When we are born into the human form, with the human brain and it’s abilities, does that not predispose us to the mental gyrations we use throughout life, to one degree or another.

On the surface, the brain seems to be the one thing we ‘battle’ in this life, without end. 🙂

I know those are rather simplified statements, but I have observed some people in my life that are “simple minded” and life seems simpler for them by virtue of lacking the mental capacity to complicate it further. If that makes any sense.

Ever your appreciative reader,
Connie Bedoya

Always glad for questions! Thanks, Connie.

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Steven Pinker, called How the Mind Works. It’s a book by a developmental psychologist, and he describes how the mind, (as far as we can tell,) does what it does.

The area 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 (innate knowledge) structure to the brain, present at birth. Experiments with three-month-olds, for example, demonstrate that infants can be shown objects until they get bored and look away and then something can 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.

One of the innate knowledge “chunks” we seem to be pre-programmed with are what I call our “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 describe 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 electro-chemically stored in meat.

There’s not enough capacity in our heads to hold the full input of one day, let alone a lifetime. So, we filter out 99% of all the input 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.

Because it is much more efficient to store categories than have a separate “box” for each thing.

Illustration: think of the cabinet where you keep your dinner dishes. Behind the doors are cups, saucers, dinner plates, dessert plates, soup bowls, salad bowls and bread plates. And all kinds of glasses.

Now, imagine how weird it would be to have brains that required a separate category for every single thing you experience. In this illustration, you’d have to re-learn 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” rule, etc.)

Then, you’d have to think, “I’ll 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, you’d have to repeat the process 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. What got triggered was the “Holy Shit!” reaction to a category that contains the filters “fast,” “large,” and “coming at me.”

If you are efficient, you either run like hell, or shove a spear in the tiger. Imagine what life would be like (hint: it would have been short) if you had to get that pattern of understanding each time: 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.

Efficient living 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.
  • Other things, such as “How parents treat kids” are experienced.

I (like you!) learned how parents treat kids 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. 2) not parenting “right,” as my “parenting box” does not have screaming in it.

Then, I can either modify my “parenting box” to include “screaming is acceptable” (not bloody likely,) or I can trigger a scan for another explanation: I’ll 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.

the fight

Most marital discord, for example, is a battle of the boxes. I have a generalized “Here’s how couples operate” box, and so does my partner; both are based upon our unique past experiences.

In most cases, the dilemma is that the contents of the boxes do not match; nor do the interpretations of the contents.

The lazy, easy, yet efficient approach is to argue for the “truth” of the parameters of my box. To do so requires not one iota of actual reflection, or “work.”

So, how does “easy” apply to the question I was asked up top? Well, if we assume that the contents of our “brain boxes” are both “true” and universal, we are in for a world of hurt. We end up defending our beliefs, fighting with/against the “truths” of others, and in a constant state of agitation.

Easy is easy, but not pain-free. And yet, that’s what our cultures sell us. Uniformity, conformity, and doing things “right.” One of my friends describes all of this in terms of what she calls “The Book of Life.” She says,

All my life I’ve been checking what to do next in The Book of Life. It’s what my dad called the house rules and beliefs. 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 couples operate” box” doesn’t match her husband’s. Her level of discomfort is such that she’s actually considering the possibility that her parameters are “wrong.” She certainly knows that, in her marriage, they aren’t working for her.

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 couples operate” is useless as it stands. What’s required is a “Here’s how I wish to be as I interact with my actual spouse” box.

Example: decades ago I got a call from an acquaintance. Her 13-year-old daughter had gotten arrested for blowing dope. Mom was beside herself.

I knew the family: the 17-year-old daughter, Susie, was a model student and daughter. Never an issue, hardly ever a burp. Sally, the younger, was a punk-rocker, barely getting by in school, and loved, loved, the word “no.”

Here’s easy: mom and dad had taken complete credit for Susie. “Look what a great job we did! Susie is perfect, and that’s all about us!” They dumped all the data into a “Perfect Parenting” box.

Then, Sally came along, and nothing they knew (the contents of their “parenting” box) worked. So they went, “We’re excellent parents! There is something wrong with Sally! We’ll just have to parent her harder.” Back into the box they went, again and again, stricter and harder each time, despite crappy results.

My therapy was one line: “You do know Sally is different from Susie, right?” Amazingly, that worked. Sally turned out OK, thanks to the parents’ willingness to parent differently (to create a Sally box.)

Managing our minds, then, is all about our willingness to shift behaviour, create new boxes, have new experiences, and discard doing what isn’t working.

This is not the same thing as complexifying and playing mind games; it’s what Zen calls “beginner mind.” Beginner mind is “new” mind — it’s being willing to hold experience and categorization lightly, while I engage consciously with the “here and now” experience — the “Sally in front of me.”

This, however, creates discomfort, or “dis-ease.”

Thus the “problem” with meditation. Many see the boxes they’ve created, and freak out. Their minds explode in self-protective business, and “just sitting” becomes a chore. Beginner’s Mind says, “Just sit, and watch, and hold lightly, and what is needed will emerge. Then, do it.”

Simply wanting to shift 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 not enough.

Nothing will change until the discomfort becomes so unbearable that you actually choose to address the situation differently by doing something different.

This is supremely scary. We want life to be predictable, with easy, universal rules. To take each interaction as unique and worthy of our full attention is labour-intensive and fear-producing.

As to the question I received, yes, people who have discovered simplicity have it “better,” in the sense that staying stuck in our mind-boxes, vigorously defending what is getting us lousy results is easy, but gets us nowhere. Learning to hold the boxes lightly, and to always deal with what is right in front of us is “beginner mind.”

To begin, 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, and it can’t help me deal with the reality of where I am.

Only I can do that, and it’s best if I do it from a place of detachment and presence.


About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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