When you’re deep into the details of some discipline, be it nursing, accounting, auto repair, or mind reading, the number of important factors and considerations gets so great that you need a way to organize them.

Here, in the deeps of mind reading, the way to organize the multitude of factors is through careful abstract modeling of the whole of human interaction, building from the ground up and looking for recurring themes.

People tend to skimp on their models of human interaction. They build what I like to call “nickel and paradigms,” models so simple and rickety that they don’t survive the test of real application—if they even get tested, that is. Often they seem just for show, abandoned in real application. Building a stronger, subtler model of human interaction is well worth the effort. And it’s fun. No matter what chance imposes upon you, it all becomes data for the further refinement of your model. In tough times there’s consolation to be had in retreating to a “Hey, I’m really here to take careful notes, find out what this life thing is all about,” attitude.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

One of the biggest recurring themes in my model is the fundamental tension between decided and deciding, closed-minded focus and open-minded receptivity, exploiting found solutions and exploring for new solutions, settling for what is or holding out for what could be. I call the tension my RV, my re-creational vehicle, by which I’m re-created every day through a combination of more-of-the-same repetition (R) and try-something-new variation (V).

The RV tension is at the foundation of all of Western philosophy, in the debate between Plato and his student and critic Aristotle. Plato said messy reality is an illusion. Get over it. Hold out for the ideal, the perfect. Aristotle said the ideal is an illusion. The messy reality is what’s real. Settle into it.

It’s also at the core of Eastern philosophy, in the tension between Confucianism’s idealism and Taoism’s relaxation into what is. Buddhism straddles the two, sometimes sounding a call for transcendence by holding out for enlightenment; sometimes saying the mess is all there is. And actually, Taoism itself expresses the same tension. The Tao means “the way,” which translates alternatively as the ideal way to be and just the way things are, warts and all.

The tension is built into Darwinism too, which is sometimes simplified to variation with selective retention by repetition or replication. Life forms multiply with minor variations, and some of them survive to be repeated generation after generation.

Seeing this parallel between Darwinism and Taoism gave me one of my very first model-building insights. I called it “Taowinism.”

The tension is built into the serenity prayer too. We crave the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t change precisely because of this constant tension. Courage and serenity are mutually undermining states. The more you keep your mind on what you imagine could be, the less your eyes are on what is. The more you keep your eyes on what is, the harder it is hold onto your dreams of what could be.

At AA meetings, members recite the serenity prayer in reference to what they can and can’t change about themselves. This always seemed odd to me, as someone outside AA, especially since AA members are trying so hard to change themselves. But therein lies a further tension. The serenity prayer applies equally well to changing yourself or changing your environment, and indeed, there’s an inverse correlation between these two versions of it. To have the serenity to accept that you can’t change something outside yourself, you need the courage to change your expectations and goals—the courage to face disappointment. And likewise, to have the courage to change something outside yourself, you need the serenity to accept and persist unchanged in your expectations and goals.

This week I’d like to make a link between the trivial and the most grueling versions of this tension in our personal experience. That is, I’d like to make a link between simple everyday information processes like the one I described last week and the process of grieving for a major loss—your health, the life of a loved one.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross argues that grief has five stages:

1. Denial (This isn’t happening to me!)

2. Anger (Why is this happening to me?)

3. Bargaining (I promise I’ll be a better person if . . . )

4. Depression (I don’t care anymore.)

5. Acceptance (I’m ready for whatever comes.)

The sequence varies from case to case but generally reflects an oscillation between actively resisting your changing prospects and passively accepting them—moving, as the following figure shows, from stability to immobilization, through denial to anger and then through bargaining to depression, finally rising through testing to acceptance and a new stability.

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that all learning and adaptation is an oscillation between assimilation (ignoring realities so you don’t have to change your mind) and accommodation (changing your mind to fit new realities). Thomas Kuhn, the great philosopher of science, argued similarly that science proceeds by an oscillation between normal routine science, in which practitioners fill out details of accepted models or paradigms, and great paradigm shifts when the details fit so poorly that we’re forced to break through to a new view of the world.

Grief is our most visceral experience of the paradigm shift. Our prospects suddenly downsize. It’s like having the air knocked out of you. We panic, we’re thrown into that oscillation shown in the figure. The oscillation is like the shuddering a plane or car does when it is forced to decelerate rapidly. Slowing while trying to still go fast, proceeding while stopping.

Now let’s go back to last week’s model for how information happens. In my homely example, garbage on the kitchen floor becomes meaningful as I interpret it as evidence that raccoons have gotten into my kitchen. A trivial matter unless the raccoons are rabid, and besides, the raccoons are not the point. All information, all significance starts out as something unexpected. And with the unexpected comes that oscillation between repetition and variation, between business-as-usual obliviousness to the news and awareness and adjustment to the news.

These days people who study consciousness often compare it to a computer. My research colleagues and I believe that consciousness is the part of mind activity that is actually most unlike a computer. The part of our mind’s activity that is most like a computer is the unconscious part, the part that by instinct or second nature makes reliable automatic associations—put the garbage in the pail, the garbage stays put.

In contrast, consciousness is what happens when we’re dealing with new information, surprises, moments where routines are challenged in big and small ways. Consciousness always entails a shuddering oscillation between repetition and variation, between staying the course and changing course, because it’s really hard to tell whether it’s better to adjust your worldview to new information or better to stick to the worldview you have already got, whether to try to change the world to fit you or whether to change yourself to fit the world, both of which require changing something, and change can be difficult.

Recognizing the universality of this shuddering tension between R and V can be very consoling. We see animals go through their version of it when they don’t know what to do, but it’s especially hard for humans because with us it’s not just a question of stop-and-go behavior but stop-and-go thought as well. As the first known bi-mundial creature, living in the real world and in our mental models of it, we’ve got two arenas for the stop-and-go shuddering. And if you really want to get universal about it, I’ll take it one step further. Any life form in the universe that has a capacity to build and refine elaborate mental models of outside realities would be living with RV tension similar to ours. Makes you feel at home, doesn’t it?

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