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Make Up Your Mind

In The Beginning

Your job, from the moment you were born (and maybe even before), is to figure out how the world works.

Why? Because your life depends upon it. Think about the first few weeks of your life -- okay, you won't remember the details but most of us have been around babies enough to know the basics of how their world works: when I'm uncomfortable for some reason I cry and someone will come and do stuff to make me feel better. It's a pretty limited existence but you've got to start somewhere.

As the days and weeks pass we learn more and more about the world around us, and we learn that we can act in certain ways to influence the environment we live in. Our parents learn too: when she cries like that it means she's hungry, that cry means she's hurt or frightened, and that kind of crying says she's uncomfortable (wet clothing, too hot, or too cold).

This process continues for the rest of your life: you are constantly figuring out how the world works so you can, by your own actions, get what you need and hopefully some of what you want. As children grow and play and develop this process is constantly happening, they are learning how the world works, what its rules are, what is my place within it, and how I can get the things I need and want. The amazing thing is that it all happens automatically, even if we had no schools, even in the case of children who are abandoned while they are young, we still all do this. We must do this in order to survive: we must learn how things work in the environment which surrounds us.

We also learn that things change. The sun rises and sets each day, it is warmer and drier in the summer than during winter (at least in all the places I've ever lived), and living things tend to look and work differently when they are young than when they are old -- so many things in the world around us change in a variety of ways and for a wide range of reasons. But it is not only the world around us that changes, we ourselves are constantly changing -- that's what living things do.

But more importantly, our perception and understanding of our environment changes as well. Who has not thought that they saw some certain thing and then discovered when they stood somewhere else and looked it was obviously something different? Or we've seen something in a dark room that was not at all what we saw when the room is well-lit. It is not just additional information that causes us to modify our understanding of how the world works, sometimes we realize that although we've got our facts right we may have been drawing the wrong conclusion. (see "Lincoln's funniest jokes (4)" if you're not familiar with this problem).

Building and Remodeling

As we make our way through life we are constantly building and adjusting our model or collection of stories or scripts that explains (for our own internal purposes) how the world works. Much of this happens without any effort or thought or even awareness on our part; it is likely that a good deal of this is done during our nightly dreams. We've taken in a collection of experiences throughout the day and spend our night sifting and sorting the new among the old.

I imagine a giant jigsaw puzzle and each day we are given a few more puzzle pieces. Some of these pieces are identical to pieces we already have plenty of and we discard them. Some pieces may seem new or different or important or potentially useful so we keep them, even if we aren't sure yet whether or how they will fit. The often bizarre events we encounter in our dreams are to be expected as we take up each new piece and try it in various places to see where it best fits.

As we fit new pieces in sometimes they fit best in a sparsely populated area of the puzzle, other times they might provide new detail in an area that's nearly complete that causes us to see something we hadn't even suspected before. We may even realize that this new piece is actually a better fit than what we had put there before. In this way we are constantly integrating what's-happening-now into our (hopefully) ever-improving story or model of how the world works.

Actually, a jigsaw puzzle is both too limiting and too refined -- I think of our personal how-the-world-works models as being more multidemensional, having length and width and height, unbounded by the confines of tidy edges, and consisting of movable parts that themselves may change in shape, size, or consistency. They are probably not highly refined engineering models, rather they are more likely to be messy, and sort of cobbled together -- perhaps like the machine seen in this video.

Here's how another writer describes it:

"Maybe the best analogy is an infinite jigsaw puzzle where you're always missing a few pieces, and what pieces you do have are in-fact made of smaller pieces. When you look closer, theres pieces missing from those too." -- XMPP: smokey(at)chatterboxtown.us -- spartan://tilde.team/~smokey/personal-ramblings/Complexity-from-simplicity.gmi

This isn't to say that our jigsaw puzzle or working model is worthless or that it won't work: our efforts to understand and make sense of the world around us do work for us: for the unique person that you are, custom tailored for your unique personality and built from the parts that your unique life experiences have provided. Could it work better? Absolutely yes! Is it wrong? Perhaps in some ways it doesn't work as well for us as we'd like, but that doesn't mean that it's wrong in any sense.

Field-Fit Or Built-To-Plan?

I don't imagine that all of this happens only in our largely uncontrollable dream states. We can and do, to some extent, examine and influence how that model works, how well our story works to help us get what we need and want. We can seek more information, we can re-evaluate our assumptions, we can abandon habits that aren't helpful and build new ones. We see what others do and think and say that seems to work well for them (or the opposite, we see what causes problems for others) and use that to restructure our own story about how the world works.

We can gain great comfort and efficiency by developing a set of rules that we follow -- often without even being aware of them -- based upon our understanding of how the world works. These include what we may informally refer to as habits or rituals, and psychologists may discuss them using terms such as behavioral scripts or automaticity.

One can spend a great deal of time and effort studying behavioral scripts, schema, automaticity, volition and a whole bunch of other psychological research -- and you might even want to do that. I am not an expert (nor even a competent student) in any of these areas. I am simply sharing a portion of my personal understanding of how the world works, in the hope that it may help others further develop their own.

What Could Go Wrong?

However, there are dangers involved. If your understanding of how the world works doesn't match somewhat closely the realities of the physical environment you may be headed for problems. A couple of examples may help here: if you've figured out how birds fly and for months you've been eating only what you've seen birds eat, and you make yourself a suit of clothes that consists of thousands of feathers, you're still likely to suffer serious injuries if you jump with arms outstretched from a very high place; on the other hand, people were quite successful for thousands of years at growing various crops in the right seasons although they didn't understand that the earth is round, rotates daily on its axis and travels round the sun (rather than the sun moving through our sky). Our personal model of how the world works may make perfect sense to us, but it won't be very useful to us if it is wildly inconsistent with our external environment. It doesn't have to be a perfect understanding but the better it accounts for external constraints the more useful your story will be for you.

Another danger we face in building our story of how the world works is overgeneralizing.

Recognize that even if 95% of Americans love "baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie" that does not mean that all Americans love them. What is generally true of a group is not necessarily true of every individual member of the group. The habits we develop and the rules we use to simplify our routine interactions with the world around us must be flexible and must recognize that what works most of the time may not work all the time; that this situation may be different in some small but important way from the hundreds of other times we've done this.

The rules we develop and the habits we build as tools to simplify our lives can become a trap for us. Relying on these shortcuts in situations where they are maladaptive (not the best choice for the current task) can lead to inefficiencies or mild frustrations in many cases. The more extreme forms of this problem may be characterized as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In recognizing these dangers -- that your model doesn't match the realities of your environment very well, that you've overgeneralized in significant areas, or that you're relying on them too much or in situations where they're ill-suited -- we are not saying that we should avoid using habits and rules to simplify our lives. They are very useful to us, probably even essential. If we are aware, first that we are and have been for our whole lives building this story about how the world works, and second that we have also built these habits, rituals, and rules to help us, we can modify all of those to improve our chances of obtaining what we need and want.

Yours, Mine, and Theirs

Now, in reading back through all of this, I am reminded of a song that I learned from a record album I had about 50 years ago. Regretfully I don't remember the whole song, and I can't find any trace of it using online search tools. It begins "Some people live in the darkest night, so black they can't see. They live in world they made up themselves, the world according to me." It certainly seems obvious that we each, to some extent, do live in a world we made up ourself. Yet it is equally obvious that we share this world with others, and that our shared environment and experiences, and our perceptions of them and interpretations of them will -- at the same time -- have very much in common with our neighbors and still be unique to each individual.

Knowing all of this, then -- that we are all, each one of us, constantly building and modifying and using our own personalized model of how the world works -- should not only help us understand ourselves and our actions better, but it should also help us better understand, accept, tolerate, encourage, and nurture the people around us. That, after all, is what we should be doing. If we help our neighbors to be strong and healthy and they do likewise we will all benefit. To live at peace with your own self and with those around you is one of the greatest blessings of life.

The ultimate sense of security will be when we come to recognize that we are all part of one human race. Our primary allegiance is to the human race and not to one particular color or border. I think the sooner we renounce the sanctity of these many identities and try to identify ourselves with the human race the sooner we will get a better world and a safer world. - Mohamed ElBaradei, diplomat, Nobel laureate (b. 17 Jun 1942)

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