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.