12 November, 2008

Synergistic thinking - II: Some quick notes

Thought I'd jot these things down before I forget them..

Not too long ago, I witnessed this insight from a 3-year old who was tired and wanted to be picked up by her mother. Her mother was busy tending to the even younger sibling and told her to go to the grandparents. To which, the 3-year-old retorts, "But I am your child; I want you to pick me up.." and then bawls inconsolably..

Such an insight from a 3-year-old is unusual indeed. Her anxiety is not a function of what is happening here and now, but what it means in the underlying scheme of things.

This is what I mean by synergistic or "what is" thinking. Synergistic thinkers are concerned about underlying principles and not the present observations themselves. Given a set of observations and experiences, the synergistic thinker starts a concurrent breakdown process where these are stripped down to their underlying principles.

Synergy happens when a set of mutually consistent principles come together and are able to describe a major portion of the observations.

Much of theoretical science happens this way; except that, obtaining synergy in one's mind is not enough for other scientists to accept a theory. They will need imperative proofs and substantiation by experimentation to accept theories. Regardless of the subsequent rigour, the first steps towards building new theories are due to synergistic thinking.

Synergistic thinking is not the same as gestalt or holistic thinking. Holistic thinking (as far as I have understood it) is about thinking of the entire system as a whole. I have come across some articles on holistic thinking that included elements like religion, spirituality, culture and philosophy into what were essentially scientific questions.

Maybe that is also necessary or maybe it is not. I'm afraid, I don't really understand it.

But synergistic thinking is not about understanding the "whole system" but about understanding the "underlying principles".

I also have a theory why synergistic thinkers are prone to extra anxiety than others. It is essentially described by a quote that I have coined: We don't know what we don't know.

New observations or experiences are likely to bring in facts that conflict with existing theories that have been painfully built over a period of time in the minds of the synergistic thinkers. And such conflicts can cause major rollbacks of existing models in order to build new models. Worse, synergistic thinkers may have committed actions based on their earlier models, which have altered the state of the larger environment and to which they may be accountable. Now if new facts suddenly made their earlier paradigms invalid, they suddenly are much more vulnerable.

New, destabilizing facts can come at any time and may cause any amount of rollbacks. We don't know what are all the things that could destabilize our models -- because, "we don't know what is it that we don't know!"

08 November, 2008

Imperative and synergistic thinking

Note: This post, even though it talks a lot about me, is not an exercise in narcissism. It is just that it is better to talk about what one knows well, rather than speak in abstract inanities. The objective of this post is to perhaps be of some help to others who can associate with what is written here.
After reading this earlier post on fighting inner deamons demons, a friend had suggested to me that I may be suffering from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) or some form of anxiety disorder. Sure enough, I took some tests and there is a moderate element of OCD.

Interestingly though, after I learnt about some of the symptoms, I have seen these symptoms in many of my colleagues, students and family members. And yes of course, there are well known cases like Howard Hughes and David Beckham.

One of the things I have noticed is a remarkable prevalence of these symptoms among academics, researchers and artists. And I think this is no coincidence. In fact, I believe that this so-called "disorder" is actually an indication of a different kind of thought process – something which I have been observing and trying to understand for almost 15 years now.

This is what I call "synergistic" thinking as opposed to more conventional "imperative" thinking. Before I start explaining both of them, let me once again reiterate that there is absolutely no implication about which kind of thinking is "better" or "superior" or whatever than the other.

Both thinking processes start with a trigger – an event or an idea or sensory inputs which triggers a thought process. Imperative thinking proceeds in a "logical" fashion and deduces one conclusion after another. Highly focused imperative thinkers put enormous energy into this imperative thought process and proceed onto thinking about finest details starting from the initial idea. Imperative thinking is very good at creating "actionables" – specific and clearly defined action points that need to be performed in order to achieve a particular objective.

Synergistic thinking on the other hand starts off differently. Given a trigger (an idea, event or sensory input) synergistic thinkers start off several processes – each addressing a different facet of this trigger. Each process then proceeds autonomously, forking off other processes if required. The synergistic thinking process ends when the thinker sees a larger harmony or synergy emerging from all these different processes. They have a very good idea of the overall topology of the cognitive landscape, while they may not be very good at specifying clearly defined actionables.

In fact, many synergistic thinkers don't see the need for actionables, and are put off by rules and processes that they consider to be too fine-grained. Synergistic thinking has created a map in their minds and they can't understand why someone is specifying a particular path in great detail.

Perhaps one of the extreme examples of synergistic thinkers was the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan who could conjure up sophisticated and intricate results in number theory just like that. About whom, the Cambridge mathematician Hardy described as someone “who didn't understand the need for proofs.”

Imperative thinking can be thought of as "how to" (reach a certain destination) thinking, while synergistic thinking can be thought of as "what is" (the nature of the larger system) thinking.

For example, when a new board game like carrom or chess or connect-4 is introduced to an imperative thinker, his/her thought processes would typically focus on how to play the game and how to win. The synergistic thinker on the other hand would be busy placing the game in a category of other similar games, understanding the nature of this game and the rationale behind its rules, etc. The game would also remind them of other real-life situations or systems, which they now seek to explain through this game, and so on.

The intrusive thoughts syndrome that is very characteristic of OCD sufferers can be explained due to synergistic thinking. Intrusive thoughts are involuntary, mostly unwelcome and painful thoughts that flash in one’s mind when they are least expected. It is said that while most people are able to dismiss off these thoughts, sufferers of OCD experience a lot of pain and distress because of intrusive thoughts.
I remember when I was a student in Chennai in the 1990s, several times when I visited the beach and was just looking around, there used to be a sudden intrusive thought of a tsunami sweeping away everything on the beach. It had caused me enormous pain and many times, I could stay on the beach no further, and abruptly got up and came back. You can imagine my horror when a decade later a tsunami actually struck these beaches!

However, intrusive thoughts even though unwelcome, are hardly random thoughts. They are not a result of brain cells firing off at random. On closer examination, it is possible to understand the cogitative chain from the current reality to the intrusive thought. In my case, I now remember how, some years earlier, I had earlier read about the Pacific Ring of Fire and the eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883, and had imagined tsunamis in the Indian Ocean several times. And it was this mental map that was causing the intrusive thoughts. This mental map fit in closely with the reality that was in front of me (the Bay of Bengal) and there was the intrusive thought. I had never consciously thought of tsunamis – just the reality in front of me had forked off several processes, one of which was creating a panic by noting that a tsunami is possible here.

For a long time, this kind of thinking was seen as a “weakness” of sorts. (I guess it still is, in some circles). It was as though, synergistic thinkers cannot “control” their thoughts and “focus” on one thing. Besides, concepts like harmony and synergy lacked formal definitions.

Only recently I think we are able to understand (at least I am able to) how to formally define harmony. A synergistic process is a process of optimization. There are several logical processes, each thinking away along its own path and often producing implications that conflict with that of other processes. Then there is an overall global process of selection that seeks to minimize these conflicts. Harmony or synergy is a system state where conflicts among the processes are minimized.

While imperative thinking is about deduction, synergistic thinking is about optimization. There you are, at least now, I hope synergistic thinkers would get some bhav. J

Synergistic thinking theory also explains why OCD suffers are often hypersensitive about certain things – especially issues like morality. When there are several processes going off in their own directions, harmony or synergy is achieved by focusing on the invariants in the system. These are properties of the system that remain unchanged in the larger picture even the system is undergoing several transformations (like laws of physics and Vicco Vajradanti ads ;-). Morality is essentially the invariant set of societal norms across cultures and time. It is these invariants that help us formulate appropriate behavioural strategies when faced with a new culture or when faced with large-scale changes happening in our life or the society. It is no wonder then that the synergistic thinker seeks to understand these invariants very closely.

It is also not that all synergistic thinkers are alike. Firstly, the different facets along which processes are forked may differ from thinker to thinker based on what they have been exposed to. Secondly, optimization processes are prone to this problem called local optima. These are system states which are not optimal, but are the best given a small set of other surrounding alternatives. Synergistic thinkers may end up in different local optima, even though they have the same kind of exposure and are working under the same set of underlying values.

Historically, one of the major impediments to synergistic thinking is the difficulty in communicating the harmony that is seen by one thinker to others. But with high-speed computers and advances in visualization techniques, hopefully synergistic thinking will get its rightful place in the scheme of things.

27 May, 2008

Fighting inner demons

For some strange reason, I had always been attracted towards stories in the Reader's Digest about Nazi and other atrocities happening around the world. For some strange reason, I could sense that I was able to empathize and feel the terror of these victims.

For some strange reason, there has always been a vague fear stalking me ever since I know. I remember once when a doctor had asked me whether everything was alright as I sat wringing my palms in front of him when complaining about sinus. This vague fear has been the single biggest crippling factor, which, among other things, has made me literally collapse on the ground from exhaustion -- after doing nothing.

For some strange reason, I never remember having a good night's sleep. My sleep has always been disturbing and nightmarish -- ever since I know.

For some strange reason, I never felt the urge to go "seek out greener pastures" like the rest of my classmates after graduation. Something instead pulled me towards Germany and no less than Berlin to go study.

And during my stay there, when I was visiting one of the erstwhile concentration camps of the Nazis, it stuck me. This place reminded me of school! The vague feeling of terror, the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that I always feel -- all of them were due to this school!! The strong emotions that I fought internally when seeing movies like The Big Escape and Schindler's List, all traced down to this stupid school!!!


In the years when I was born, the rampant belief about education was the need for "discipline" and how "character" is molded by facing adversity.

The school where I went, took this to heart in a sadistic way, I guess. Some of the things I remember of this school are the following:

First day I was taken to kindergarden (yes, kindergarden) and the first thing I see is a teacher hitting a child hard. I remember feeling very uneasy, but was not able to comprehend anything.

Over the next couple of years, the routine thing in the morning was that I hid under the bed out of sheer terror not wanting to go to school. I was forcibly pulled out from under the bed by well-meaning grand parents, relatives, etc. and nicely packed off to school.

And every day at school we used to witness some child being thrashed, some being locked in the bathroom, some made to kneel down, some even having their hands bound.

As a 5-year old, I used to pray to God everyday that let my teacher and principal meet with an accident today and not come to school.

In sixth standard, after reading some stories about Gandhi's experiments with Truth, I spent many weeks contemplating several ways of suicide just like he did in his experiments.

Sixth standard was particularly bad for me. There was this teacher who kept on preaching her religion to us in school. (Now let us not start this religious angle thing now, I have nothing against any religion -- they're all equally stupid). She used to send us home with lots of booklets and pamphlets. It naturally caused a lot of friction at home and my grand parents once threw away one of these booklets. Next day in school, the teacher found me without the booklet and wanted to punish me (I forget exactly what was the punishment though). But I refused to admit that I did anything wrong. She pulled me away from my bench, hit me and made me stand facing the wall and I had remained completely defiant. I don't know what gave me so much strength that day. That was a Saturday and she had left me with a threat of dire consequences on Monday. On Monday morning, I promptly ran away from home without telling anyone and ended up in my grand parents place. My parents found me by evening (phones were not really around at that time) and the next morning I again tried to run away. My well-meaning folks came behind me on scooter, brought me back and sent me back to that *&%*(*! school. I guess my teacher had forgotten about her promise of dire consequences, because nothing happened.

But that same week, the bugger, I mean bigger, terror -- the principal -- walked in. And before I knew it, he is pinching me on my hands and pulling me up. Before I had a chance to react, I was hit with a volley of slaps and ruler thrashes. In the midst of all the different voices that were screaming inside me, I could vaguely hear the teacher tell the other students, "Let this be an example" or something such. Only later in the day I learnt that what had made the principal so happy was all those smudge marks in my book from my ink pen.

Somehow, one element of victory I have for myself is: I never cried in front of my teachers. They could never bring me to tears. It was another thing altogether that as soon as they left, I was livid. But never in front of them. So there!


Isn't it amazing that amidst such sheer terror, life still wants to live? I used to live in my own fantasy world most of the time. Science, mathematics, social studies, everything fascinated me at some level.

I remember when I first visited Bombay at the age of 3 and saw the beach for the first time; I was making up fantastic and detailed plans of how to build a beach in Bangalore.

I also remember how after watching a Republic Day tri-colour fly-past by planes (and having watched the movie Absent minded professor), I used to imagine myself in a flying car with flubber, and making the wheel of our national flag, to complete the tri-colour of the planes.

I also remember how I had a hobby that was distinct from the usual goody-goody things like stamp-collection and coin collection. I had my own science lab, where we did such dangerous things (literally!) like trying to make glass by burning sand; and building rockets and spaceships. Even then, we had enough sense in us to take adequate precautions when playing with fire (and keep the adults completely in the dark about our activities!)

And of course, I used to bunk classes and run away from school several times -- not to go to movies or anything -- but to go to Vishveshwariah Technological Museum in Cubbon Park!


I've always wondered why I was one of the very few who suffered so much at school. Most of my then classmates seem to be leading happy lives now.

Guess the reason is that, I am sort of a deviant kind who will not accept any idea unless I am convinced of its sensibility in my own way. Every new idea thrown at me has to go through a maze of other ideas and experiences and resolve all inconsistencies, bound all unknowns and then find its rightful place in the scheme of things. I also now understand why I get so irritated at things like name-dropping and citation-mania. I don't care which great person said what; I just want to make sense of the idea just thrown at me and give it its rightful place in the large scheme of things.

(I can see this very similar trait in some of my students and in my little niece. When one of my student says, "All I want from life is peace of mind," I know exactly what he means. When another of my student doesn't want to take up a job for fear of managers and processes, I empathize completely. When yet another takes personal offense when people behave in an insensitive manner against a population or a cultural group, I can associate with that as well. And when one more gets irritated at people pointing to Wikipedia pages in response to his cogitations, I see myself smiling. I can see a little bit of me in all of them and I'm sure it is the same way from the other direction as well.)

But society doesn't have so much patience. It wants compliance. Not solutions to problems, but compliance to its norms. And it wants it now. (A well known person once publicly defined the term "integrity" as "100% compliance". 'Nuff said).

When pushed by societal pressures, I sometimes end up pretending to accept an idea without really doing so -- usually with long term disastrous consequences.

Even in the recent past, I remember how as a new faculty member some years ago, I had succumbed to pressure by the system to have journal publications -- right now! Doesn't matter that we don't have a research program. Better get a publication or else (since we copy the US now), you know what.. Succumbing to pressure, I finally send out a paper that I myself knew was too raw. The consequences were just as I had feared -- no worse, with the added feature of having irrevocably molded the opinions of me from several of my peers in the field.

And even today, every so often, I come home with a voice screaming inside me: To hell with your prestige; to hell with your social standing; just let me think, let me explore, let me teach and let me live in peace. This voice keeps me awake for the greater part of the night and several hours are gone before this voice calms down.


Sigh. Just calculating the amount of time and energy I need to spend to battle these inner demons makes it so depressing. If only I had invested half of that energy into channelizing my once hyper-active imagination into something creative, things would have been much different. But invariably, whenever I have started enjoying myself, there is this voice inside me, insidiously sounding like that stupid school principal, whose very presence cripples everything; sapping every ounce of energy.

But as I said earlier: life. just. wants. to. go. on.

Now I know why I am moved to tears whenever I listen to ABBA's "Move On":

Like a roller in the ocean, life is motion
Move on
Like a wind that's always blowing, life is flowing
Move on
Like the sunrise in the morning, life is dawning
Move on

..and especially..
I've traveled every country, I've traveled in my mind
It seems we're on a journey, a trip through space and time
And somewhere lies the answer
To all the questions why
What really makes the difference
Between all dead and living things, the will to stay alive..

I see it and I hear it
But how can I explain
The wonder of the moment
To be alive, to feel the sun that follows every rain
I ain't dead yet! Isn't that just great by itself!?! :)

PS: Er.. please don't pressurize me to do yoga or meditation or join Art of Living or watch Aastha channel or ... puhleeeze :-)