Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Hierarchy of Self

I'm so excited about this, I hardly know where to begin.  I've come across an idea as deep and powerful as that of The Multiple Self, but which is more immediately practical and useful.  If the Multiple Self is about "what" we are, you might say that this is about the "how".

In The Multiple Self, I wrote about how the unconscious can be thought of as being like an operating system, with consciousness being a "user space" program.  This mental operating system is largely self-managed, and is able to "install new programs" automatically simply through exposure to learning experiences.

But this metaphor is much more limiting than I realized, although on the surface it appears empowering.  As a programmer, it seems liberating that you can just send commands to the operating system and have stuff happen.  But computers are much less helpful and insightful than people, so this metaphor implies that you are the one who has to do the tedious work of debugging, fixing, or uninstalling the broken crappy programs that your brain might be running.  It also implies that you are the one who has to write any new programs that you want to run.  In short, the metaphor implies that your unconscious is just a big dumb operating system and you are the one who has to administer it.

But as luck would have it, that's not really the case.  You can learn to be your brain's sysadmin, but you don't really have to.  As it turns out, your brain already has a system administrator, also known as the subconscious mind.  D'oh!

And as with any system administrator, your brain's sysadmin tends to be a little suspicious of end users like you monkeying around with the kernel.  The sysadmin, who's been managing your brain's software installations at least since you were born, tends to be more than a little mistrustful when you come barging in with your new plan for a self-improvement program.  "You want me to install what?"

However, just as in the real world, if you manage to make friends with your sysadmin, there is an awful lot he can do for you that would be very tedious for you to carry out manually.  For example, I've got my sysadmin carrying out a delete-and-archive process right now on obsolete programs.  In the last few days, he's uninstalled a rather large number of useless blocks, quirks, fears, and suchlike for me.  It is totally awesome, and way more user-friendly than the one-at-a-time refactorings that I had been doing.

My inner sysadmin and I are also collaborating on another project, that of organizing the programs that comprise my "self" into an ordered hierarchy of states at different privilege levels, and doing the occasional tweak as we go through.  This ongoing refactoring is basically turning me into an "organized person" -- not in the sense of organizing my life or tasks or surroundings, so much as I mean that I'm organzing my self.

In previous articles, I've described how the brain automatically forms behavioral subnets that determine behavior within contexts, described the parallel nature of neural networks, and even talked about inflow and outflow of activation between networks.

However, these networks are not naturally "organized" in the way that one might organize, say, the modules of a computer program.  The networks have some degree of natural organization that results from context -- for example, you end up trained to have certain behaviors when certain people are around or in certain situations.  But this haphazard; it depends a lot on the circumstances that were in effect during your learning.

Many times, we give people labels like "honest" or "generous" that describe some quality we think we see in them.  But often these qualities are not universal to the person they are applied to.  A person can be "honest" in one circumstance, and then lie, cheat, or steal in another.  This is because their learning for that quality was contextualized, and insufficiently generalized.  Other times, we have behaviors or qualities that are overgeneralized, such as a person who is always making vulgar jokes, even when attending a funeral!  Or perhaps we overeat, or undereat, or smoke, or do something else too much, or too little.

Indeed, you could probably classify most remedial self-improvement needs as having to do with setting appropriate contexts for behaviors or qualities.  For example, you might want to expand the contexts where you are confident, and reduce the contexts where you are insecure.  Everybody has been confident at some time or another, and everybody has been insecure at some time or another.  The trick is controlling when.

But the "when" for most of us is pretty randomly determined.  It's whatever we learned.  Maybe something happened while you were learning to play baseball, and then you generalized it to anything to do with sports.  Or it happened with someone close to you, and now you act differently towards people who you're starting to feel close to.  Or who knows what?  The point is, it's a random organization that produces random results.

Imagine a jumbled set of directories on a hard drive.  Over time, your brain randomly added new top-level folders, or split things into sub-folders, until you get this really convoluted collection of randomly-scattered programs.  If only you could take the programs you want more of, and move them up in the directory structure so they covered more of the system...  then shift other programs down, or delete them altogether, while creating a neatly structured hierarchy that reflected your interests, values, and needs.

Before last night, I hadn't realized that this hierarchy could be reorganized, or that it could be done as easily as I'm now doing it (with the help of my trusty mental sysadmin).  I thought that I would have to manually and painstakingly prune and graft resources from one part of the directory tree to another.

But as it turns out, metaphor is everything where the mind is concerned.  In a sense, you could say that metaphors are the brain's user interface. And the more powerful the metaphor, the more powerful the interface.  So as soon as I discovered an appropriate metaphor last night, I became able to issue reorganization commands at the speed of thought.

I don't have enough time tonight to address this topic in detail, I'm afraid, even to explain the actual metaphor I'm using as my internal user interface to communicate with the sysadmin.  Certainly, I don't have enough time to tell the full story of how I discovered the sysadmin and the metaphor to begin with.  But I will give you a quick pointer that you can use to begin discovering some things for yourself: the book  Turtles All The Way Down by Judith Delozier and John Grinder (the co-creator of NLP):

I'll caution you, though, not to expect a breezy read.  This is like my 7th or 8th re-reading of Turtles All The Way Down since I bought it in 2001 or thereabouts.  It is rich and deep, and I've been studying it quite intently for some days now.  It is also a transcript of a seminar that contained many experiential components that are difficult to reproduce, especially without a partner.  There's also little in the way of visuals, but much in the way of epistemology, philosophy and mystic stuff about Don Juan.

All of which, I might add, is well worth reading, but sometimes it will take a little study to see why a particular bit is relevant.  The discussions tend to skip back and forth between multiple idea tracks at any given point of time, in a decidedly nonlinear fashion.  But all of the stuff that's there is relevant, it's just that sometimes you may have to hold on to a piece of information for rather a while until the payoff happens.

In any case, if you take what I've written in this article, plus all of the articles that are printed in You, Version 2.0, and use that as a basis for understanding all of the metaphors about demons and controllers and editors and whatnot, you will probably be able to figure out how to contact your inner sysadmin and start some reorganization of your own.  In fact, if you're not the computer-geeky type, you might like their metaphors better than all my OS/filesystem/program babblings.

Of course, instead of doing all that study, you could just wait for me to write more articles about what I find out, but I'm not sure how much I'll be able to put in the blog, at least any time soon.  Some of the smallest pieces (like their concept of "lifelines") would likely require multiple articles in order to do them justice.  And I'm also only halfway through this reading of the book, so I don't yet know what else I'm going to learn from it.

Anyway, if you don't want to wait for me to write more about it, check out Turtles All The Way Down.  And don't forget to pick up a copy of You, Version 2.0 if you haven't gotten one yet.  You'll want to read part 2 of The Refactored Self before you tackle this one.