The other day, I watched this video concerning the fundamental causes, prevention and treatments of mental deterioration. It was a very interesting watch, and well worth multiple passes through the material.
A simple point made in this video gave me an insight into a possible, simple and elegant solution to bring society closer to meritocracy.
This was a Google Tech Talk given by Dr. Michael Merzenich, Ph.D. It should be noted that Dr. Merzenich is a businessman and has a product to sell, but that only detracts slightly from the content of his presentation. Also, it is apparent throughout the talk that he struggles to move away from the details and into salesmanship, which to me is a promising sign. (Hold that thought.) All-in-all, his talk makes intuitive sense and sheds light on some concerns I have had.
During the talk, Dr. Merzenich presents four main causes of mental deterioration that occur as people age. He discusses these at 45:50. They are:
1. – Brain is older and “noisier”.
2. – Body is older.
3. – Older people rely too much on abstraction.
4. – People are not good caretakers of their brains.
For my purposes, I will ignore three of these causes and focus on the third, abstraction.
Abstraction is a fundamental life skill. As we progress through life, we learn more and more to abstract away the details. This is a more efficient manner of operating in many cases, but it also comes with a cost.
Consider starting a new job. To choose something simple, lets go with data-entry. The first few days on the job, a new employee learns the various details of how to open the programs used, the types of data to be entered, the rules involved in entering the data etc. This can be a slightly exhilarating phase, but it is short-lived. In the first few days, the employee had to focus on moving items from column B in Excel to field xyz in SAP, but, after performing the action a few hundred times, the exercise becomes thoughtless. This frees up the employee’s mind. Eventually, the employee is not thinking “move datum A to field C”. Rather, he is thinking “move spread sheet D to program F”. He is now thinking at a higher level of abstraction. All of the lower levels are thoughtless. Now the thoughts are occurring in terms of larger items.
This seems all well and good, but there is a cost. Given the tedious nature of data-entry, the employee is limited to having meaningful thoughts every 30 minutes or so. Earlier, he had to think and focus each step of the way. Even a simplistic assessment would be enough to discern that his brain is getting less practice. In this case, his brain is getting less practice at his job, but abstraction occurs in every facet of our lives. I would suggest that this is a function of “settling down” later in life. At a certain point, decisions become more obvious (regardless of their accuracy) and we start to see everything in terms of the big picture rather than all of the little details.
This is not the whole story, however. Not only does abstraction cause brains to get less practice, it also results in events becoming less memorable. Dr. Merzenich notes that when information is processed in a detailed form it becomes much easier to recall. This might be a good explanation for the phenomenon of time “speeding up” as people age. It only appears that way because there are fewer things to remember as all the details have become mundane.
Now, abstraction has a lot to do with how Mythos functions. Narrative thinking is an abstraction of sorts. It ignores the details and presents the big picture. While abstraction can be a good thing oftentimes, Mythos (narrative thinking) can often lack the good qualities of other abstractions. It is all well and good to avoid cluttering our minds with details that have been mastered long ago. Mythos, however, merely distracts from the details regardless of whether they are mastered or not. The abstraction presented by Mythos is a narrative. Narratives need not be true in order to be compelling, so the abstraction need not be useful.
Moving a step further, I propose that the increased reliance on abstraction will often lend a person to be more influenced by Mythos. The more dependent a mind becomes on abstraction the more likely it is to avoid vetting abstractions. To vet them would require delving into the details that support them. Therefore, when a person is presented with a narrative, the more they depend on abstractions the more likely they are to accept the narrative. If a narrative thinker rejects a narrative, most likely it will be on the grounds that it conflicts with another abstraction they already hold to. Even this, however, can be avoided with a form of double-think.
Do you like our work? Want to write for us? Get in touch right here »
Ossified Belief Systems
The reasoning thus far has been:
-The older we get → the more we rely on abstractions.
-The more we rely on abstractions → the more we are taken in by Mythos and narrative explanations.
Now, I would like to introduce a third argument:
-The more we are taken in by Mythos → The more we become ossified in our beliefs.
For those of us who have not become God, we are usually forced to vet our ideas by recourse to the details. Intuition can be a way around this, but most of our intuitions are entirely open to challenge. As a rule, most of us ascend to quickly to the level of abstraction and then our intuitions become little more than Mythos thinking by another name. At this point, refusal to look at the details is a refusal to challenge our ideas.
This is, perhaps, why narrative thinkers can come across as blindly stubborn. A pastime of mine is criticizing Alcoholics Anonymous. The responses to these criticisms are telling:
“What are you talking about?! AA is GOOD!”
That’s about the level of depth some narrative thinkers are capable of. In truth, I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. When I made my criticisms, I was going up against a very compelling narrative. Many people are acquainted with 12-step programs through a loved one who demonstrated a remarkable about face when they got indoctrinated into the program. They a made a real emotional affair out of turning their lives around. For me to criticize this would be to dismiss something that they might regard as a “miracle”.
To change their minds would require getting them to pay attention to a detailed rebuttal. Any abstraction I presented would be in competition with abstractions they already held, so I would need be able to present my case at a lower level. This isn’t easily done when dealing with a person who is no longer accustomed to working with the details.
The older someone gets, the worse it is. What age group would you associate the following statements with:
“Housing prices go up because that’s what they do.”
“Drugs are bad, mmm.”
“Morality comes from God.”
These statements are made as if they are known a priori. They are treated as rock solid intuitions in the league of “1+1=2”. In reality, they are nothing other than a lazy, high level, abstract form of thinking. Some of the above statements have details (partially) backing them up, but few of the people who use them concern themselves with the details.
The older we get, the more abstract our thinking gets.
The more abstract our thinking becomes, the less practice we get with the details.
The less practice we get with the details, the more dependent we become on abstractions.
The more dependent we become on abstractions, the more difficult it becomes to challenge our thinking.
The more difficult it is to challenge our thinking, the more ossified we become in our opinions.
The obvious solution to all of this is to simply become a lifelong learner and pursue activities that require we continually immerse ourselves in the details. A great deal is accomplished with just that activity.
But there is more to it.
You may remember that there were other factors that Dr. Merzenich listed. Some of the others addressed the fact that the brain “slows down”. I would suggest that there is an overlap between this and abstraction. As mental processing time decreases, the fewer details we can handle in a given amount of time. The fewer details we can handle, the greater the need for a useful abstraction to expedite the decision making process.
On the flip side, the more we rely on abstraction, the less we challenge our brains to work with details. The less we work with details, the less we exercise our mental processing speed. The whole situation appears to form a feedback loop.
Fortunately, according to Dr. Merzenich, processing time is entirely trainable. It isn’t all that useful to perform Sudoku puzzles. The process of learning Sudoku is another form of abstraction as (over time) the details of the skill are mastered making room for higher levels of thinking. However, there are programs out there designed to isolate meta-skills such as processing time and working memory. These have, ostensibly, produced some very good results.
Remember at the very beginning where I said “Hold that thought.” It was in the second paragraph. Here’s that sentence again:
“Also, it is apparent throughout the talk that he struggles to move away from the details and into salesmanship, which to me is a promising sign. (Hold that thought.)”
Notice the buzzword ,“details”? Does that have more meaning to you now? Notice another buzzword, “salesmanship”.
My point was that Dr. Merzenich is a little difficult for a layman to follow at certain points. He is talking a little like a professor. In truth, he has a product to push, but he does not push it the way a salesman usually would. I might be giving him too much credit, because he is, after all, speaking to a room full of Google employees. Nevertheless, it should be noted that getting too deep into the weeds is usually not good sales.
Salesmen use abstractions all the time. As a result, their best customers are usually those who think in abstractions. Might this have something to do with all the scams elderly people receive in their inboxes? You don’t need to target someone senile. You simply need to find someone who has abstracted away the bulk of their thinking, identify the abstractions they follow and appeal to those without getting raising the alarms of other abstractions. An overly abstract thinker is relatively easy to crack.
Notice also the high level thinking involved in the recent U.S. presidential election. “Trump speaks what’s on his mind.” “First woman president.” “Trump supporters are a manifestation of hidden racism.” “Trump is the end of political correctness.” These notions have little to no connection with how a candidate will run the country, but they are, nonetheless, compelling. They appeal to high-level thinkers, i.e. those who depend on abstractions.
Following the above reasoning, the simple action of getting society to train their minds to improve processing speeds and avoid dependence on abstraction will create a society resilient to salesmanship and political tactics.
It is already apparent how politics could benefit from an informed public. Change the demand and the supply will be forced to adapt. We will wind up with better options to vote for.
Concerning sales, I have mentioned elsewhere that sales is one the primary ways excessive wealth moves into the hands of the few. Inheritance is another big one, but sales is a top contender. Far from just being a means to get a product noticed, sales (for a variety of reasons) has become a way of accumulating wealth whilst contributing as little as possible. Sales, for the most part, has become a method of inflating the apparent value contributed to get maximum compensation. It is a major cause of wealth disparity and it is a major cause of bubbles.
Here is a very simple, but possibly very effective, way to accomplish two goals:
1. Produce more meritorious politicians.
2. Decrease the wealth gap.
Simply by compelling society (with appeal to their own self-interest) to fight the tendency towards abstraction and train their mental processing speed the power of narrative will naturally decrease in society, as a whole. By working brain-training into the public education system and encouraging it as a lifelong endeavor, our dangerous dependence on abstraction could be significantly lessened along with the attendant societal problems.
In the mean time, we have a means of improving our chances on mastering the mathematics behind the God Series well into our 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.
By Jason Calhoughney writing for the Apollo Institute of Reason AIR Review®