Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Mental models

At some point I'll get around to reading The Wisdom of Psychopaths, it's certainly on my to do list, but in the interim I highly recommend this illuminating article, adapted for the same:

Mental toughness and fearlessness often go hand in hand. Of course, to many of us lesser mortals, fearlessness may seem quite foreign. But Leslie explains the rationale behind this state—and how he maintains it. “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose—because, to be honest, I don't think I've ever really felt it—is that most of the time it's completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what's the point?

“I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything's perfectly fine.

“So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”
Leslie's pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath's rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial. In fact, anchoring your thoughts unswervingly in the present is a discipline that psychopathy and spiritual enlightenment have in common. Clinical psychologist Mark Williams of the University of Oxford, for example, incorporates this principle of centering in his mindfulness-based cognitive-behavior therapy program for sufferers of anxiety and depression.
The fascination with the psychopathic mindset is understandable, but I posit that it is in fact misrepresented. People are fascinated by a mental framework that doesn't fit within their own heads, they are unable to create a model of their own which allows them to understand the psychopath.


One of the greatest challenges we can face is to form a comprehension of someone else's mental model. Of course any model within a model is by necessity going to emerge imperfect and limited, but seeking to comprehend a psychopath is not a bad example of how it is possible to do so. As my housemate pointed out to me a few moments ago, part of the fascination with being a student of history is trying to understand the mental models of history's greatest heroes and villains.

A rather more simple example involves counting. Almost all our mental models include an assumption that 10 is a number of significance. It's built in. We have 10 fingers and so we place greater significance on 10 and it's multiples. A way of exploring a different mental model is to try and hold in your head a counting system other than base 10. I recommend Base 8, but first a quick explanation of bases:
Base systems like binary and hexadecimal seem a bit strange at first. The key is understanding how different systems “tick over” like an odometer when they are full. Base 10, our decimal system, “ticks over” when it gets 10 items, creating a new digit. We wait 60 seconds before “ticking over” to a new minute. Hex and binary are similar, but tick over every 16 and 2 items, respectively.
Base 8 is good because it contains sufficient numbers to be easily recognisable (unlike binary, which is almost perversely too simple, or hex, which is extremely complex), the number ticks over after every 7. So... 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,20... and so on. Although "10" remains the number of significance, it retains the value that was previously occupied by the number 8. Imagine if as you were counting every 8th value held the same intrinsic (and yet meaningless) significance as 10 currently does, that's a curious and strange world to live in, and one which most of us aren't set up to deal with.

Being able to function in base 8 may seem a relatively meaningless example, but at it's most fundamental it is something similar. A base 8 thinker operates in a way which is difficult to comprehend, in the same way someone without empathy, or concerns about their actions is difficult to comprehend. F. Scott Fitzgerald sums it up rather neatly:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
I'd argue that there's no need to hold "opposing" views in your head, but rather the more useful trick would be to hold your view, and the view of an opponent in ones head and understand the motivations for both. The comprehension of your opponents motivations will of course contain greater imperfection than your comprehension of your own position, but both will be flawed on some level. The trick is to accept that, and to develop processes which allow you to more swiftly refine the model you're seeking to understand. Of course as a campaigner I want to do that in order to best understand how to change a mind, or at least influence it, but you're welcome to come up with less sinister reasons.
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