Breeding and weeding in the mind.

April 26, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More

Repeat any word and it starts to sound like an unknown word in a foreign language.  Toaster toaster toaster toaster toaster . . . toaster?  It starts to sound like a word you’ve never heard before. For me, this phenomenon seems to happen to all words except the word “no.” Whenever I hear the word “no” it resonates deep down and immediately. The word “no” never sounds alien and it always and immediately means “no.”  We seem to have special power when it comes to negating. In fact, I would suggest that “no” is the engine of reason.

Now consider this: Based on introspection (a shaky foundation, I admit), it seems that we don’t directly decide what to say or do.  Rather, it seems that many of our ideas and impulses somehow “rise” to our consciousness and that our main power is whether to exercise “veto-power” over them.   It seems that our inner executive is not a creator, but (at most) a judge with veto-power.

The power to inhibit our own actions is central to our ability to operate at a high function.  Those of us who successfully function in the world seem to be especially able to inhibit our own thoughts and actions—this allows us to delay gratification and it gives us time to consider alternate options to that first idea that popped into our heads. It is important to cultivate this power to inhibit impulses while we are young.  To the extent that we are successful in developing the power to inhibit our impulses and ideas, we will grow into more disciplined and therefore more successful adults. Consider that toddlers who have sufficient discipline to wait a few minutes for two marshmallows (rather than eating one immediately) grow up to score an average of 250 points higher on the SAT.   The statistics are truly shocking.

This ability to control impulses does far more allow us to score better on tests.  I suspect that our ability to inhibit impulses is the basis for our sense of character coherence and our sense of personal freedom.  Inhibiting our impulses (having the power to say no to thoughts and actions) allows us to steer a path among the wreckage of the ideas we reject. Saying “no” to 100 ideas that pop into our head might be the only way that we would ever have to get the opportunity “yes” to that 101st idea– that 101st idea would never occurred had we not vetoed the first 100 ideas.  Did you wait to marry a highly compatible partner or did you commit to the first romantic partner who paid any attention to you?  Did you take the first job offered to you or did you turn down various offers, patiently waiting for a job that was an especially good fit between your skills and the job duties? Many people who can’t wait end up paying a big price for their inability to say no.

When our inner power to inhibit is damaged, we are all over the board, out of control.  For a dramatic example of the importance of our ability to inhibit thoughts and actions, consider the dramatic case of John Cage discussed by Antonio Damasio, discussed in this post.

The importance of having the capacity to inhibit one’s own urges reminds me of a passage in a childcare book, New Parent Power, by John Rosemond (2001):

If you want your children to become successful adults–successful in their work, their play, their interpersonal relationships, and their feelings toward themselves–you are obligated to frustrate them. If you aren’t doing so already, you can begin tending to this obligation by giving your children regular, daily doses of Vitamin N. This vital nutrient consist simply of the most character-building two-letter word in the English language:  No. Vitamin N is as important to a child’s healthy growth and development as Vitamins A., B., and C. Unfortunately, many if not most of today’s children suffer from Vitamin N deficiency. They’ve been overindulged by well-meaning parents who have given them far too much of what they want and far too little of what they truly need.

Rosemond paints a sorry picture of the types of children who grow up without a steady dose of  VitaminN:

As adults, they are likely to be emotionally stunted, immature people, fixated at a grasping, self-centered stage of development. At the very least, they will tend to confuse the giving and getting up things with a deeper and more meaningful level of sharing and trust and relationships. When they themselves become parents, they’re likely to confuse their children’s values systems in a like manner, by overdosing them with things. In this sense, materialism is an inherited disease, an addiction passed from one generation to the next. . . .  Our children deserve better than this. . . .  They deserve to hear us say no far more often than yes when it comes to their whimsical yearnings.

(Pages 138-140)

In his book, Rosemond asks us to imagine the number of times that we, as functioning adults, tell ourselves know in order to responsibly do our jobs as workers and parents.  As we sit there at our desks over a long work day, how many dozens of times where we tempted to distract ourselves with thoughts and amusements that have nothing to do with our jobs? As parents, how many hundreds of times a day to we tell ourselves no in order to do what we needed to as responsible parents?

Consider what often happens to children who are exposed to external verbal cues by the caretakers.  Lev Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist of the 1930’s who “pioneered the idea that the use of public language had profound effects on cognitive development.”  Vygotsky focused on the role of private language and scaffolded action in guiding behavior by focusing attention and controlling action.  He found that children who are working on their own internalize the verbal directions previously given to them by responsible adults in order to guide complex tasks.   It comports with my own experience that children internalize the “no” of their parents and often guide themselves, utilizing the voices of their parents.   I know, for a fact, that my kids have deeply internalized my constant verbal warnings of the danger of walking across big busy parking lots.  That’s my voice they so often play in their heads, I believe.

Is it really true, though, that we can’t directly generate our own thoughts.  Try the experiment yourself right now:  think of something profound or funny.  When you come up with something, ask yourself how much control you had over choosing that thought.  Yes, you chose to approve that thought, but did you choose to consider that thought before thinking it, or did it just pop into your head?   I am astounded when I hear people claim that they can completely control what they think about.  I don’t claim to have that power.

To me, the control we assert while thinking seems to be a matter of exercising strategic vetos rather that having the power to directly generate ideas.  I believe that we are incapable of generating ideas directly. We don’t have that capacity to decide what to think about consider next—the next thing always just pops into our heads.  At that point, we can go with it or reject it, but we don’t consciously generate the idea in the first place. Again, new thoughts seem to rise up from that part of us that is not conscious and thus not under our direct control.

We seem to excel at changing channels in our mind.   We change mental channels much like we click through television channels and web sites. We do this so naturally that it generates a feeling of freedom, even though we don’t consciously generate any of our “program content.” In short, what seems to go on in our minds is breed and weed. Our minds are gardens of ideas and we are there to manage the ideas– to designate that certain ideas will flourish while others must whither.  We are essentially gardeners.  We are massively dependent on our “soil,” idea-generating capacities that are not within our conscious control.  We essentially think backwards.

Image by net_efekt at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by net_efekt at Flickr (creative commons)

The March 2009 issue of Discover Magazine contains an article called “Brain Trust: Music, Memory and Mistakes: Top Neuroscientists Explain How the Mind Copes in a Chaotic World” (I don’t see this article available on-line).  Several of the comments in that article bolstered my sense of how our inhibitory powers are central to who we are and what we can accomplish.

According to Rebecca Saxe, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, one of the major ways the brain works is by “generating all the possible responses to a situation and then inhibiting the ones you don’t want.”

You might think we generate the plan for how to reach you for the cup and drink from it only if that is something we have decided to do. But it turns out, actually, that our brains are constructing representations for all the possible actions with all the possible objects in front of us and then tamping them down. You can see this in patients who have lost some inhibitory controls because they’ve had damage to their frontal lobes. You get what’s called utilization behaviors. You get people who, literally anytime you put a comb in front of them, will start combing their hair just because there’s a comb . . .  So one really important function of our brain provides us is the ability to not act on all the possibilities that it’s generating.”

According to Daniel Levitin, a psychologist at McGill University:

[W]hat differentiates the human brain from those of other species is the enormous size of our prefrontal cortex. You would think that what all this prefrontal cortex real estate would do for us is allow us to do all those wonderful things like paint and make music and speak and build churches and cities and schools and have systems of justice, but at an anatomical level one of its most distinguishing characteristics is that it’s full of inhibitory circuits.

Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggests that this inhibitory power can be made stronger, as though it were a muscle. There seems to be “some finite mental resource of willpower . . . psychologists refer to this phenomenon as ego depletion.” You can exercise the prefrontal cortex “like a muscle.”  To build up your willpower, Wong suggests that we “do something that requires effort of will–something as silly as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand” over a period of weeks. Therefore the prefrontal cortex executive function is something you can develop through practice.

Do we have control over the ideas that are generated outside of our consciousness and then presented to us in consciousness? I believe so, but I don’t think we have direct control. Because most of this neural circuitry functions outside of our awareness, these processes seem to automatically compete with each other for dominance in a way that is not yet well understood. What we do know is that certain ideas more often rise to the level of consciousness while others rarely become conscious.  I suspect that the process might in some ways resemble the Neuro-Darwinism suggested by Gerald Edelman.

The way to have better ideas might be to have more interesting and diverse types of ideas to “compete” against each other for the “center stage” of consciousness.  How do you have more interesting and diverse types of ideas? A commonsense level, the answer is to expose yourself to more ideas, especially to ideas that conflict with the ideas with which you are the comfortable. Exposing yourself to a wide variety of ideas will result in a wider variety of ideas becoming available to you while you think. Similarly, to come up with better ideas, you will want to avoid platitudes and simplistic thinking, including all forms of fundamentalism (which is essentially locked-in circular reasoning). I have characterized fundamentalists as “fearful bunnies.”

Only by doing exposing ourselves to a wide variety of ideas we you have a source of innovative ideas that can (at least occasionally) rise to the level of consciousness, so that you will have the option of giving innovative ideas your stamp of approval (the alternate option of killing them off with a veto).  How would you describe a mind filled with self-contradictory ideas? In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote of this need to fill one’s self with “chaos”:

“I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.

A chaotic mind is a busy mind, because it is a mind that needs to inhibit all of the chaos in order to allow workable ideas on through.  As Linus Pauling wrote, “You must have lots of ideas and just throw away the bad ones.” This filtering work can be exhausting, but there is no other way to come up with good ideas other than breeding and weeding. Better get breeding.  And then weeding.

Related Post:  “How to have good ideas.”


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Category: nature, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:


    great post and lots to think about.

    My personal 'mind' operates on a never ceasing maelstrom of ideas and babble…Nietzsche's chaos, incarnate!

    I do much of my best thinking subconsciously: in other words, I read and ingest as much information around the target subject as I can, and conduct an internal dialog about value and import and context while doing so. I then, purposefully, don't think about that at all, and change tracks (play guitar, watch a movie, read a book, play a game with the kids, walk the dog, pretend to write some code, go to the gym, or enjoy some down-time and adult conversation with my wife over a cup of tea).

    I usually have a deadline, and when it looms I sit down and spew my stream of consciousness onto the page in a barrage of thoughts, ideas, and concepts. I try hard to avoid imposing structure at this point, because I want to focus on the ideas. However, I usually stop at a page or so (or three or four slides).

    Out of this exercise comes my deliverable. The process seems to work for me (my clients have been happy for the past twenty or so years!)

    I've also learned how to impose some immediate structure on this morass, so that I can deliver ad-hoc presentations on-the-fly. I generally have little idea of what I'm going to say beforehand, and rarely remember more than the most superficial points afterwords. But again, it seems to work – my clients do ask me back (and given my billing rate, it can't just be for my good looks!)

    This may sound completely at odds with your commentary on 'internal discipline' and 'no', although it fits much more closely with Pauling's filter “have lots of ideas and just throw away the bad ones.” That's what I'm doing when I feed the beast, then ignore it entirely. I've learned to be disciplined in gathering material. And I've learned to be disciplined in not trying to force resolution before I've assimilated the new material. I've also learned to say no to angst and worry about deadlines, which used to be paralyzing!

    My crowning achievement is that I've learned to learn without pre-censorship. I've often been surprised at some of my own conclusions when developing papers and presentations.

    Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is a challenge, but one which needs to be done honestly. Recognizing my own unconventional style has also equipped me to better accommodate the styles of others – a desirable trait in a consultant!

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Tony: Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    Many people have a prejudice that it takes a complex thing to give rise to a complex thing. Darwin's theory of natural selection proved that wrong. The same thing seems to be happening in brains. The prejudice is that there is a little man in the head, an executive who gives orders in English (for us English speakers, anyway), and he (or she) must have an even smaller executive in his/her head, and so on . . . uh oh. We've got ourselves an eternal regress, so something is not correct. At some point non-words are giving rise to words. Non-conscious processes are giving rise to conscious thoughts.

    The prejudice is that "we" are in control of our thoughts, but there's no conscious "we" underneath the consciousness.

    I like your descriptions of how it seems that you are getting things done. Yes, letting things "stew" seems to be a good way to have them get better. But, again, this "stewing" process is not conscious. And even more fascinating for me, it's not like I'm directing what comes to mind next, at least not in a direct verbal way.

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