September 15, 2019

Recently I have been thinking about whether or not it is helpful to think of brains in terms of signal processing. In short, the question is whether brains do, within a short timeframe,1 produce more-or-less the same output if given the same input.

On the one hand, when presented with the same stimulus, I often have the same thought, or make the same connections. I suppose this is most pronounced in areas of sparse knowledge. For example, if I only know one word in another language, and I hear mention of that language, that lone word will predictably pop into my head, whereas the mention of English will do nothing of the sort.

But it seems to happen in more complex arenas as well. When I’m editing my own writing, I will sometimes make the same change on the screen that I have made, a few days earlier, on the page, even without looking at it. This could just be remembering the changes—though it does not feel like recollection. Instead, when I see that I have done the same thing twice, I have a distinct feeling that I lack freedom, as if I was predestined to make the same change when presented with the same sentence.

The feeling is something like déjà vu, quite unsettling, though the sense is less “This has already happened” and more “I lost the illusion that I have agency.”

Agency is important, because this view might suggest that the mind is a passive signal processor, and effort is therefore irrelevant. This is a perpetual fear, which crops up whenever it comes to free will: that disbelief in it will have moral or behavioural consequences. And the fear may be pertinent.

Effort matters. (By effort I do not mean stress, which I definitely think is not required.) While I think it’s true that much of thinking goes on “behind the scenes,” i.e., in the subconscious, I am quite convinced that conscious effort does have an effect on the quality of this underlying thinking. But the effect is quite indirect, in that you do not know where such effort will lead.

Thinking could be likened to driving a car into terra incognita, and effort to the steering of the vehicle. To get somewhere, steering is quite important. But steering does not create the destination or its attributes, it merely determines whether one tends to get closer to it or farther away. And in the absence of a map, one might end up anywhere.

I like Cal Newport’s contention, in Deep Work, that one must be at the forefront of one’s field to have breakthrough insights, and that ideally one should at on the forefront of multiple fields. This seems to be because new ideas are not precisely new, but something more like abstract connections across domains. For example, it could be an application of knowledge of a metaphor from one domain to another.

I have a feeling, sometimes uneasy, that creativity itself might amount to a very high level of this cross-domain thinking, and in some sense be less aptly termed “creativity” than “connectivity.” This would also line up nicely with my intuition that one is most predictable in domains where one’s knowledge is sparse.

Truly brilliant and unpredictable insights might arise out of a dense mixture of simpler things, heated with the effort of attention. If this is true, deep work could be likened to the Miller-Urey Experiment.

  1. “Within a short timeframe” is important, because I think the structure of the brain changes with every thought, so I would not expect myself to make the same changes in a month’s time, and certainly not in ten year’s time.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.