01 December, 2009

Synergistic thinking - VI: Nature or Nurture?

Synergistic thinking - I
Synergistic thinking - II
Synergistic thinking - III
Synergistic thinking - IV
Synergistic thinking - V

After a long break, I'm back once again on the topic of synergistic thinking.

Just to refresh: last year, I'd proposed a theory called synergistic thinking, that characterizes a kind of thinking style that may be termed "what-is" thinking. The objective of this kind of thinking is model building or theory formation, as opposed to another kind of thinking called imperative thinking that focuses on skill building or "how-to" knowledge.

Before I begin this article, the standard disclaimer. My background expertise is in computer science and I have little or no background knowledge formal training in psychology. But just as it may be, these series of articles are meant to clarify my thoughts based on observations and experiences about thinking -- something that is of central importance to software engineers and researchers alike. The writing here is based on thinking from first-principles, rather than a more conventional research article based first on surveying "Related Literature."

With the disclaimer out of the way, on to the article now..

While synergistic thinking seems to be more pronounced in some people, it is interesting to probe whether synergistic thinking traits are due to natural factors only, or are they due to the environment of nurture?

The human brain comprises of two separate regions to deal with procedural (or imperative) knowledge and declarative knowledge. Procedural or "how-to" knowledge is the knowledge of "skills" -- like how to ride a bicycle, how to swim -- basically the kind of wisdom that comes from experience. Procedural knowledge is also known to be learnt largely in a non-conscious manner.

Procedural knowledge is learnt by the non-conscious acquisition of patterns of co-variations between events or features. This tacit knowledge acquisition happens not only in the brain but throughout the body. Learning of reflexes is an intrinsic aspect of procedural knowledge -- be it riding a bicycle or driving on the highway. Reflex actions are sometimes handled at much lower levels like the spinal chord to obtain immediate responses.

Imperative thinking in other words, involve the entire body, while synergistic thinking is largely a brain-only phenomenon.

Interestingly, all those whom I've observed to display synergistic thinking characteristics have invariably led fairly sedentary lives. Their idea of relaxation for example, is usually a quiet weekend at home reading or listening to music; and hardly ever something like taking up an outdoor hobby like sport, hiking, etc.

I've noticed this characteristic even in children as young as 2 years. A particularly strong example of this is a young relative of mine who is growing up in the US and visits India once in a while. As a two year old, she hardly seemed to show any interest in routine mischief like climbing up furniture, jumping from them, etc. Instead, she showed an extremely strong tendency towards observation and creating explanations. She could remember specific episodes from her previous visits to India (when she was just 1 year old!) and also make generic axiomatic assertions to explain phenomenon around her. An example: "If you leave the laptop alone, it makes bubbles" -- her explanation for the screensaver. Note the generic "ground truth" nature of that statement. She is not reporting on a specific observation about the laptop making bubbles. She is making a general statement -- whenever the laptop is left alone, it makes bubbles.

Declarative memory that is in charge of "what-is" knowledge like the above, is made up of two kinds of memories -- an episodic memory and a semantic memory.

Episodic memory is responsible for capturing vivid details of specific episodes that we have been personally involved in. Episodes -- or the experience contained within them form the basis on which we build theories.

Semantic memory on the other hand, is responsible for creating and managing a system of axiomatic predicates. Experiences contained in the episodic memory are combined with other knowledge already learnt, to lead to possibly a new set of predicates to fit in with the latent knowledge in the semantic memory.

My theory is that this process of converting the knowledge in the episodic memory into elements of a mental model or worldview, to be stored in the semantic memory -- is precisely the task of synergistic thinking.

Just like procedural knowledge acquisition, synergistic thinking happens in a non-conscious fashion. It is characterized by a number of concurrent cognitive processes working on several sets of episodic and semantic knowledge simultaneously.

A change in the content of our semantic knowledge by the addition of a new nugget of knowledge can cause some "disharmony" (entropy?) because of some potential inconsistencies that it may lead to. Disharmony is bad and needs to be weeded out. But weeding out one disharmonious association may lead to other disharmonies. Hence, several hundreds or thousands of nuggets of knowledge are manipulated simultaneously by the concurrent cognitive processes and disharmony is measured statistically. The thinking is said to have reached a point of "synergy" or "harmony" or "local minima" when disharmony is minimized. Synergistic thinkers are said to get bouts of insights every time they hit a synergy in their heads.

Coming back to the main question of this article -- it is clear to me that some folks are more naturally inclined towards synergistic thinking, while some others are naturally inclined towards procedural thinking. But, is this natural inclination a fundamental trait of the individual, or is it a result of the environment in which they were brought up in?

For instance, maybe the environment does not provide enough opportunity to build skills and therefore the mind is left with no option but to develop theories?

Or maybe it is the case that synergistic thinkers have slight bodily deformations that makes physical skill-building less than enjoyable? For instance, throughout my life, I have never enjoyed physical activity and exertion. Working out and muscle-building has never been "fun". I've never won any running races and I remember how frustrated my dad was trying to teach me swimming. For some reason, my body seems to be built in a way that it does not send enough gratification signals in response to skill building activities. Could this bodily reason be the root cause for my greater inclination towards theory-building and synergy? Or is it that synergistic thinking is so intrinsic to me that the gratification obtained by theory-building is so abnormally high that skill building gratification pales in contrast?

The answer to this question would have several implications in fields like education, medicine and social order.

For instance, if we are just as likely to be synergistic thinkers as we are likely to be imperative thinkers, then education can be seen purely from a perspective of environment building. If we need to teach theory, we build a certain kind of environment and if we need to teach imperative skills, we set it up in another kind of environment.

On the other hand, if people are likely to be intrinsic synergistic thinkers or intrinsic imperative thinkers, then our education models should seriously consider matching thinking types with corresponding types of educational methodologies and career paths, rather than force-fitting all students onto a single kind of examination system.

06 March, 2009

Synergistic thinking - V: Coping with runaway processes

Synergistic thinking - I
Synergistic thinking - II
Synergistic thinking - III
Synergistic thinking - IV

My next post in the series on synergistic thinking. But first, a disclaimer:

The opinions and recommendations in this post are based solely on my own experiences. They are not meant to be taken as medical advice. Please consult medical help if you are in a state where coping is hard.

To refresh, I've been thinking about and developing a theory called "synergistic thinking" for some years now. This underlying model of our cognitive activity may help throw light on several symptomatic "disorders" like unexplained anxiety, obsessive compulsion, unexplained hypersensitivity, some forms of persecution complex, etc. Please read through the earlier articles for more explanation.

In a nutshell, synergistic thinking is what I call the "model-building" or "what-is" thinking. This kind of cognitive ability exists in all of us, but is perhaps more pronounced in some folks.

Synergistic thinking is characterized by cognitive processes forking off along different facets based on an experiential trigger. Each such process may fork off other processes and so on. The end objective of this is to achieve some kind of a cognitive synergy or harmony -- i.e. to place the experience within a larger model that defines our world view.

Often, people who are prone to synergistic thinking silently suffer because of mismatches between what is happening inside their heads to what is happening outside. Synergistic thinkers are usually loners. In social settings they are typically labeled as nerds, geeks or even stupid and generally avoided. In addition, the daily grind of a "disciplined" urban life is no less than hell. It is very hard for the synergistic thinker to perform what are seen as routine activities like getting up early, leading a disciplined life, organizing stuff, etc. Urban life typically requires a number of context switches -- bargaining with the milkman, negotiating traffic, meeting clients, managing co-workers, managing children, etc. Such kind of context switching is very hard when there are so many processes going off in all directions every time something happens.

Every context switch involves a new experience, and typically takes some time for the synergy to set in. The synergistic thinker typically seeks harmony at all levels in every activity. For example, simple things like drivers honking and driving rashly often have made me so disturbed. This sensitivity is not due to some physical aversion to honking, but due to the synergistic process getting worried about where are we going as a country and as a population if we can't even drive sensibly. I've even found myself asking whether driving styles reflect personality styles and if so, does an aggregate driving style say anything about the overall personality that has dominated the population as a whole. Also what such things would mean for the ability of this population to explore new ground, to be creative, to be able to build or manage large systems, etc. All these thoughts keep running around in my mind even as I am driving. As a result I tend to drive slow and cautious and avoid driving altogether whenever I can. But you can imagine what a sudden, unexpected context switch can do in such cases.

Similarly in the search for underlying principles, there is often a trigger that generalizes an instance-level experience to a hypothetical type-level experience. Some months ago I realized that something was bothering me for several days, affecting my mood and efficiency at work. Only later on I realized that the trigger were a set of very disturbing articles that I'd read in newspapers and magazines by some self proclaimed intellectuals regarding a major issue like Kashmir. In what was no more than a play of words and rhetoric, these "intellectuals" advocated things like "We need freedom from Kashmir as much as Kashmir needs freedom from us" and other such nonsense. I don't want to comment on the contents of the article or on the issue itself; but suffice it to say that the article made a number of irresponsible and inflammatory statements, based on arguments of questionable merit.

Even though these articles were about a large issue, they had affected me personally at a level that it was impeding my day to day activities. (Fortunately and not surprisingly, I was not the only one to feel indignant and there were several more rebuttals about these articles. Here is one from Ramananda Sengupta, but that is besides the point).

The point I am trying to make is that an ordinary citizen like me feeling any which way about a large-scale issue like this is not going to make any difference at all. But my model-building processes were telling me that in case such stupid rhetoric led to large-scale repercussions, every ordinary citizen would suffer the consequences. And that was where the "unexplained" disharmony was coming from.

With today's information technologies like television, Internet, twitter, etc. we are constantly bombarded with information whether we were looking for it or not. The more information we are bombarded with, the richer is the dataset is on which we can build our models. However, couple it with a hectic daily life, it means nothing short of daily trauma.

So, here are some techniques that I use to cope with such runaway processes myself. Maybe it is of help to others.

1. Choose a career that places a high premium on flexibility, creativity, etc. Factories are simply not the right place to work in for synergistic thinkers. In most probabilities however, careers that emphasize freedom will not pay well. But the loner synergistic thinker does not place too much of a premium on money either. So there is some balance somewhere in there.

2. Given your proclivity to build models about everything, why not build a model about yourself? Note that thinking itself is not harmful -- the associated anxiety and the metabolic activity that follows are what are harmful. Model-building typically addresses deep underlying principles. If the outlook from this perspective looks not-so-good, there is no point reacting to it in the way that we are biologically programmed to face clear and present danger -- fear, high BP, high adrenalin, fight-or-flight responses, etc. For instance, even if the aforementioned "intellectual" articles had had larger repercussions, there was no point in brooding about it and wrecking our daily lives. They require specific solutions that need to be implemented in its own way.

In this regard, I've found the following model of the brain useful. Think of your brain as comprising of three major parts: a synergistic multi-threaded, multi-core model-building engine; a set of I/O processors that connect the rest of the body to this engine; and a central controller or the "consciousness" that controls these connections.

Anxiety can be seen as being caused because of spurious connections made by I/O controllers connecting parts of the body with the model-building engine. The model-builder is thinking away and visualizing an imagined worrisome scenario, while the I/O controller is taking it as reality and informing the rest of your body to press the danger or panic button.

To avoid this, whenever I start feeling tense for an unexplained reason, I imagine the controller (the conscious mind) intervening and literally removing these cables connecting the model-building engine to the rest of the body. Just by imagining that I'm pulling out these cables instantly relieves the tension in several parts of the body. I feel my fingers relaxing, the breathing slowing down, the toes relaxing and so on..

The problem of course, is that the moment I stop imagining this, the cables snap back into position and I'm tense again before long. So, it is something that needs practice.

15 February, 2009

The 80-20 rule of institutional reputation

In my profession, it is quite common to see name-droppings happening everywhere. Basically using the weight of one's affiliation or recognitions to push their agenda across. Often times these represent institutions and groups where "smart" people are hosted or recognized.

No doubt these institutions are indeed great. But there is one 80-20 pattern that seems quite universal when it comes to institutional reputations. 80% of the institutional reputation is due to 20% of the folks. Analogously, a small 20% are "producers" who contribute to the institutional reputation while a majority 80% are "consumers" who derive their own prestige from the institutional reputation.

This phenomenon is very wide spread in India as almost everything here reduces to a game of social hierarchy. I remember reading a PhD thesis about work practices in India by a Dutch researcher in which there was this telling statement (sic):

"In India, affiliations and workplace designations carry more weight at home and social circles than at work."

A cubicle warrior from an MNC carries a much bigger chip on his shoulder in wedding receptions and parties than the humble scientist in a government lab who genuinely wants to bring about fundamental improvements to our society, or perhaps someone who joins a startup genuinely interested in an idea and willing to take up challenge.

This reputation game has extremely strong currents and it takes enormous effort to get out of it and to not be affected by it. Especially in family circles.

Often times I use a simple technique when I see people going a bit too far and littering my space with all their name droppings. I ask them do they know "TransMeta Networks." Mostly, the answer I get is "no." I then tell them that it is the company where Linus Trovalds works, whom they all invariably recognize. (For those non-CS folks, he is the guy who started Linux). I use this to drive home the point of a counter-example, where an organization is known because of who works there, and the person is known because of his creation.

And them I tell them that I look forward to hearing from them next when their company is reputed -- for the right reasons of course -- because of them, and not the other way round, and they are known, not for their antecedents but because of what they create.