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.

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