A Plunge and Squish View of the Mind

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How can we bring our knowledge to bear on a problem? Does this resemble how we accumulate knowledge in the first place? A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean explores these questions.

In your mind particulars turn into generalities gradually, imperceptibly—like snow at the bottom of a drift turning into ice. If you don’t know any general rules, if you’ve merely experienced something once, then that once will have to do. You may remember one example, or a collection of particular examples, or a general rule. These states blend together: When you’ve mastered the rule, you can still recall some individual experiences if you need to. Any respectable mind simulation must accommodate all three states. Any one of them might be the final state for some particular (perfectly respectable) mind. (Many people have been to Disneyland once, a fair number have been there a couple of times, and a few, no doubt, have been to Disneyland so often that the individual visits blend together into a single melted ice-cream puddle of a visit to Disneyland rule or script or principle or whatever. All three states are real.)

Plunge-and-squish adapts to whatever you have on hand. If there is a single relevant memory, plunge finds it. If there are several, squish constructs a modest generalization, one that captures the quirks of its particular elements. If there are many, squish constructs a sound, broad-based generalization. You may even wind up with a perma-squish abstraction, if this particular squish happens frequently enough and the elements blend smoothly together. It all happens automatically.

You need plunge and squish.

It’s worth pausing here to explain in a little more detail plunge and squish. Plunge is when you take a new case—”one attribute or many attributes, doesn’t matter”—and plunge it into the memory pool. “The plunged-in case attracts memories from all over: The ‘force fields’ inside the system get warped in such a way that every stored memory (every case in the database) is re-oriented with respect to the plunged-in “bait.” The most relevant memories approach closest; and the less-relevant ones recede into the distance.” Squish, on the other hand, means “to look at the closest cases that are attracted by a plunge, and compact them together into a single ‘super case.’ We take all these nearby memories (in other words) and superimpose them.”

One more point: Whatever stack of memories you have on hand, you can cut the deck in a million ways. You can reshuffle it endlessly. You can, if you need to, synthesize a general rule at a moment’s notice. You see an asphalt spreader on the next block. You develop an expectation: The next block will smell like [the smell of fresh asphalt…}. What happened—did you wrack your brain for that important general principle, squirrelled away for just such an occasion—fact number three million twenty-one thousand and seven—fresh asphalt usually smells like…? Or did you synthesize this rule by doing a plunge-and-squish on the spot?

Clearly you can cobble together an abstraction, a category or an expectation at a moment’s notice. You can create new categories to order whenever they are needed. (Unpleasant vacations? Objects that look like metal but aren’t?…) Any realistic mind simulation must know how to do this.

Gotta have plunge; gotta have squish.

And so we arrive, finally, at two radically different pictures of the mind. In the mind-map view, there is a dense intertwined superstructure of categories, rules and generalizations, with the odd specific, particular fact hanging from the branches like the occasional bird-pecked apple. In the plunge-and-squish view, there are slowly-shifting, wandering and reforming snowdrifts instead, built without superstructure out of a billion crystal flakes—a billion particular experiences. New experiences sift constantly downwards onto the snowscape and old ones settle imperceptibly into ice-clear universal, and the whole scene is alive and constantly, subtly changing.

It’s too soon to say which view is right. Both approaches need a lot more work. Both have produced interesting results. …

Albert Einstein on the Secret to Learning

Albert_Einstein
In 1915 Einstein, who was then 36, was living in wartime Berlin with his cousin Elsa, who would eventually become his second wife. His two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard “Tete” Einstein were with his estranged wife Mileva in neutral Zurich.

After eight long years of effort his theory of general relativity, which would propel him to international celebrity, was finally summed up in just two pages. Flush with his recent accomplishment, he sent his 11-year-old Hans Albert the following letter, which is found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children.

My dear Albert,

Yesterday I received your dear letter and was very happy with it. I was already afraid you wouldn’t write to me at all any more. You told me when I was in Zurich, that it is awkward for you when I come to Zurich. Therefore I think it is better if we get together in a different place, where nobody will interfere with our comfort. I will in any case urge that each year we spend a whole month together, so that you see that you have a father who is fond of you and who loves you. You can also learn many good and beautiful things from me, something another cannot as easily offer you. What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

Be with Tete kissed by your

Papa.

Regards to Mama.

Follow your curiosity and read letters from Hunter S. Thompson, Eudora Welty, van Gogh, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Feynman.

The Art of Stillness

The Art of Stillness

“Sitting still,” writes Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, is “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

The Art of Stillness is a persuasively argued case for the pleasures of slowing down and being in one place. The adventure of going nowhere but inside ourselves.

Today we’re going faster and faster in search of contentment and meaning. This is largely a recipe for ensuring we will never be happy. The modern diet is a wonderful cocktail of movement and stimulation.

After a thirty-year study of time diaries, two sociologists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we did in the 1960s, but we feel as if we’re working more. We have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.

[…]

We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

Our educational institutions tend to tell us the point of life is to get somewhere, not to go nowhere. But nowhere can be just as interesting.

[T]he nowhere I was interested in had more corners and dimensions than I could possibly express to him (or myself), and somehow seemed larger and more unfathomable than the endlessly diverting life I’d known in the city.

Too many of us see going nowhere as turning away from something rather than turning towards something.

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

***

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
— Shakespeare in Hamlet

The idea behind choosing to sit still long enough to learn about yourself is simple and has been around for ages. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus reminded us many millennia ago that it’s how we respond to our experiences, not the experiences themselves, which shape us.

If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems— and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind— lie within. To hurry around trying to find happiness outside ourselves makes about as much sense as the comical figure in the Islamic parable who, having lost a key in his living room, goes out into the street to look for it because there’s more light there.

The best way to change our lives is to change the way we look at it. William James said “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

It’s the perspective we choose— not the places we visit—that ultimately tells us where we stand. Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.

***

The idea of going nowhere has been around longer than gravity. “All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”

After spending nearly five months alone in a shack in the Antarctic where temperatures sank to minus 70, Admiral Richard E. Byrd declared “Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” Or, as they sometimes say around Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Those were the good old days right? Pascal and Byrd didn’t have to contend with the onslaught of technology and information that we face today.

Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes— which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

And the more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them. The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a sense of how to make the best use of technology. Put another way, the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it.

It’s easy to feel as if we’re standing two inches away from a huge canvas that’s noisy and crowded and changing with every microsecond. It’s only by stepping farther back and standing still that we can begin to see what that canvas (which is our life) really means, and to take in the larger picture.

Part of making better decisions is making time to think. Something that few of us are able to do.

The Art of Stillness is a wonderful meditation on the adventures of going nowhere. Complement with Dan Harris on how to be 10% happier.

Soul Mates

This could be the most beautiful thing I’ve read so far this year.

From Lang Leav’s amazing Love and Misadventure:

Soul Mates

I don’t know how you are so familiar to me—or why it feels less like I am getting to know you and more as though I am remembering who you are. How every smile, every whisper brings me closer to the impossible conclusion that I have known you before, I have loved you before—in another time, a different place, some other existence

Vincent van Gogh on Love

Sower with a sack

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated Thursday, 3 November 1881, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes an unreciprocated love and in so doing alludes to three stages of love.

My dear Theo,

There’s something on my mind that I want to tell you. Perhaps you already know something about it, and what I’m telling you isn’t news.

I wanted to tell you that this summer I’ve come to love Kee Vos so much that I could find no other words for it than ‘it’s just as if Kee Vos were the closest person to me and I the closest person to Kee Vos’. And — I said these words to her. But when I told her this, she replied that her past and her future were all one to her and so she could never return my feelings.

Then I was in an awful dilemma about what to do, to resign myself to that no, nay, never, or — not yet to regard the matter as over and done with, and to take courage and not give up yet.

I chose the latter. And until now I haven’t regretted that decision, even though I’m still confronted with that no, nay, never.

Since then, of course, I’ve suffered a great many ‘petty miseries of human life’, which, if they were written down in a book, could perhaps serve to amuse some people, though they can hardly be considered pleasant if one experiences them oneself. Nonetheless, up to now I’ve been glad that I left the resignation or ‘how-not-to-do-it’ method to those who prefer it and, as for myself, plucked up a little courage. You understand that in cases like this it’s surprisingly difficult to know what one can, may and must do. But ‘wandering we find our way’, and not by sitting still.

One of the reasons I haven’t written to you about it before now is that the position in which I found myself was so vague and undecided that I couldn’t explain it to you.

[…]

I said that now the situation is becoming somewhat clearer. First, Kee says no, nay, never, and furthermore I believe that I’ll have tremendous difficulty with the elders who already regard the matter as over and done with and will try and force me to give up. For the time being, though, I believe they’ll proceed with caution, keeping me dangling and fobbing me off until Uncle and Aunt Stricker’s big celebration (in December) is over. Because they want to avoid scandal. After that, though, I fear that steps will be taken to get rid of me.

Forgive the rather harsh terms I’m using to make my position clear to you. I admit that the colours are a little harsh and the lines drawn a bit too hard, but it will nevertheless give you a clearer picture of the situation than if I were to beat about the bush. So don’t suspect me of lack of respect for those Elder persons.

[…]

Yet by now you understand that I mean to leave no stone unturned in my endeavours to bring me closer to her, and I declare that

I shall love her so long
That in the end she’ll love me too.

The more she disappears, the more she appears.

Theo, aren’t you in love too, at times? I wish you were, for believe me, the ‘petty miseries’ of it are also of some value. Sometimes one is desolate, there are moments when one is in hell, as it were, but — it also brings with it other and better things. There are three stages, first not loving and not being loved, second loving and not being loved (the case in question), third loving and being loved.

I’d say that the second stage is better than the first, but the third! That’s it.

Now, old boy, go and fall in love and tell me about it sometime. Keep quiet about the case in question and sympathize with me.

He followed that up in another letter to Theo from May 1, 1882.

Last year I wrote you a great many letters telling you what I thought about love. I’m not doing so now, because I’m busy putting those same things into practice. The person for whom I felt what I wrote to you is not on my path, is beyond my reach, despite all my longing for her. Would I have done better to go on thinking of her and to overlook what came my way? I cannot decide whether I’m acting consistently or inconsistently. Suppose I were to start today on a drawing of a digger, for example — but the man says, I have to leave and won’t or can’t pose again — I don’t have the right to blame him for leaving me there with a barely sketched drawing, the more so because I started to draw him without asking permission. Must I then give up drawing a digger? I think not, especially not if tomorrow I encounter one who says, I want to come not only today but also tomorrow and the day after, and I understand what you need, go ahead, I’m patient and have the good will to do it. To be sure, I didn’t stick exactly to my first impression, but would I have done better to reason: no, I definitely need that first digger, even if he says, I can’t and won’t? And once I’ve started on No. 2, then I may certainly not work without reference to the nature standing before me, thinking the while of No. 1. That’s how things stand.

The Books That Influenced B. F. Skinner

harvard guide to influential books

Found in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking.

B.F. Skinner is a legendary psychologist. Building on those who came before him, he is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning. His analysis of human behavior culminated in Verbal Behavior and Walden Two.

Here is what Skinner had to say about which books influenced him and why.

Bacon is Shake-speare by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence

How Plants Grow: A Simple Introduction to Structural Botany by Asa Gray

Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex by Ivan P. Pavlov

The Problems of Philosophy (1911) by Bertrand Russell

Behaviorism by John B. Watson

He writes:

The books that have been most important in leading me to my present position as a behaviorist are not books that I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand that position. They were important, not so much because of their content, but because of their bearing on my life at the time I read them. A mere accident sent me to Sir Edwin-Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shake-speare, and that book sent me in turn to all I could find of, and about, Francis Bacon. I have acknowledged the role of three great Baconian principles in my life, but I would not send anyone to Durning-Lawrence to discover them.

Gray’s How Plants Grow, my high-school botany text, taught me, with the example of the radish, how living things pass on to the future the contributions they have received from the past. Later I found the same theme in Hervieu’s “La Course du Flambeau,” but I would not send anyone there for further instruction. I was greatly influenced by the first third of Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy. According to his biographer it was “written at speed for the American market,” and it certainly is not regarded as one of Russell’s great books. Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes taught me the importance of controlling laboratory conditions, but I soon departed from the Pavlovian paradigm. John B. Watson was important, of course, but I read only his Behaviorism, a book written for the general public. I am not sure I ever read his Psychology, from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist.

This is all perfectly reasonable, since, after all, if anything I have done is “creative,” should we expect to find it in anything I have read?

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson.