• Mental Dynamist
    'Mental Momentum' is a collection of ideas about mind and brain. I treat thinking as a perpetual flow of thoughts to study where they come from and where they will go to. There'll be short essays reflecting on how our brain tackles the commonalities and oddities of everyday life. Hope you'll find them interesting.


    Introduction (Questions to be Addressed)

    I. Mental Motion: Threads and Knots

    1. Collective processing: how idiot beats Darwin to propose Natural Selection

    2. The mental motion: a thread of thoughts perpetually pushed forward

    3. Intensified unit: why the apple on the tree is the same apple we eat

    4. Turning on the crossroad: how global warming heats up my ambition

    5. The deconceptualized concept: how we learned Marxism as dreary memorization

    Introduction (Questions to be Addressed)

    Imagine you’re on your way to work. The streets you walk pass are too familiar to draw much of your attention. You, instead, are thinking about other things…

    You might be thinking about an important work you’re going to finish. You might be planning your next holiday trip with your family. You might be ruminating the stories of the novel you’ve been reading last night.

    But while walking, you don’t mentally repeat the routine task you’ve been doing over and over again. When you do routine chores, brushing your teeth for example, would you at the same time think about other things, or listen to music? Perhaps, your brain follows the same logic to do routine task and to walk to your office.

    Yet, have you wondered why you are able to walk towards your office, or do your routine task while thinking about other things. What ‘other things’ you tend to think about? What things in general have ‘a lot to think about’?

    Would you call something that has a lot to think about (like a novel with intricate storylines) interesting? Would you call something you can think about a lot your interest?

    Does ‘having a lot to think about’ mean a lot to how you think?

    Is there a free time, or open space of thinking, which thoughts yet having a lot to think about tend to occupy? Where does this mental open space come from? What give some of your thoughts a lot to think about?

    When you are reading your favorite novel, can you from your free thinking, know how much you like the novel now? Can you also know which part of the novel you like the most? When you finish reading the novel, would you ruminate its storyline as much as you did when reading the novel? Or would you think about something else related to the novel. Does this mean that you somehow like the novel less? Or, is what you like about the novel migrating?

    Is learning a new subject similar to reading a novel, in which your learning is directed by the migration of what you like? Would an introductory textbook of chemistry start with the bonding of atoms and molecules? Or with something you see in your everyday life? Why would all book start with something general or introductory, instead of going right into the depth?

    Is it just book that starts with something general? Or is there a sense of subject or field in our thinking that all starts with something general?

    When you’re listening to a talk, when would you expect an introduction? When will the most peculiar ideas come? And when there’ll come a lofty take home message?

    If the talk is really long, when would you start feeling tired? Would you feel tired for anything if you’ve been thinking about it for too long? Or would you feel tired because it gives you too little to think about?
    Is how much there is to think about somehow related to how long your thoughts tend to stay there?

    Is how much there is to think about boosted by your previous thinking around there – like learning more of something gives you more to talk about it? Or is it reduced by previous thinking at there over and over again – like repetitive reviewing makes you feel tired of it?

    Does what you think have its own virtue? Or is the virtue of your thought all determined by its relevance to other thoughts? How do you develop the relevance between thoughts?

    How would you think about an apple tree if all the apples you eat are picked up from apple trees? Would you think about the apple tree differently if all the apples you eat are bought from the market?

    How would you think about your personal laptop if it is assembled completely by yourself? What kind of mental stuff you’d feel comfortable in assembling?

    How would you, while knowing that apples are edible and that apples are from apple trees, be capable of accepting Apple as a phone brand. Would ‘apple’ as a phone brand more appealing to you than some foreign letters meaninglessly assembled together (as appear to you)?

    Why commonly used words all have multiple meanings – like ‘think’ in ‘think first/better/nothing of’, ‘think (consider) through’, ‘I don’t think (believe) so’, ‘think of (regard) myself as a philosopher’, etc.? How did you manage to make their meaning unambiguous every time you use them? Why wouldn’t you all use ‘meditate’ instead of ‘think’ when appropriate?

    How do you decide which word to use when multiple words are usable?

    Do you use words according to its meanings as defined in dictionaries? Would you think about atoms and molecules in everyday life? Or only in the context of chemistry where you learn them?

    How did you get all your mental elements that make up your thinking (like words and concepts)? Does your thinking reflect the connections between your mental elements? Are these connections merely the reflection of your thinking, rather than your mental momentum that propels your perpetual flow of thoughts? How does your flow of thoughts shape your mental elements?

    How are your thoughts perpetually coming into your free space of thinking? How are you perpetually making space for new thoughts to come in?

    Is there a logic of our brain? If there is, what is it? If there isn’t, how do we develop our logic we use for our thinking?

    I. Mental Motion: Threads and Knots
    1. Collective processing: how idiot beats Darwin to propose Natural Selection

    In China, people have a peculiar habit of greeting: “Have you just eaten?”

    What would you expect if you greet your friends with this question?

    Will they simply answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Or will their answers vary widely?

    One of your friends may say: “Oh, never mind, I’m just too tired. Why not you leave me alone for a moment?”

    Do you know what makes your friend tired? Is it physical? Mental? Or a bad mood?

    Maybe your friend just wants you to leave him alone for a moment, so that he could work quietly. Maybe your friend is reading a book, and is at the moment perplexed by a question. While he’s trying to figure out an answer, you suddenly come in and disrupt him.

    You walk away, not knowing what’s really on your friend’s mind. You greet another friend with the same question. There you get a different answer:

    “The lunch was fantastic. It’s never been that good for months.”

    Well, the lunch was fantastic. Was it fantastic because of the meal? Or the people?

    Perhaps, your friend and her group had just gone through months of experiments to catch the deadline. It was finally over. She and her group had just gathered around in a familiar restaurant to share the relief.

    If you ask me what’ll determine the answer, I’d say a lot of factors: Who ask the question? How familiar are you to your friend? What’s the attitude and previous impression your friend has toward you? What is the situation you ask your friend this question? What is your friend’s past experience related to the question you ask?

    Now you may wonder: why won’t we treat the matter in a simple way: You ask a question on a situation. That’s the input. The input triggers a well-defined related memory. And there you get the answer.

    Besides, ‘Have you just eaten?’ is like all other greetings. They are perhaps too ambiguous to tell us anything specific. What if you ask an unambiguous question, like ‘Who proposed natural selection?’
    You walk down the street, pick a random person, and ask him/her this question. You may be answered with:


    ‘Idiot’ is of course not the correct answer. But in your replier’s brain, natural selection appears to favor an idiot who doesn’t seem to exist, over our brilliant scientist Charles Darwin who proposed it.
    “Well,” you may ask: “Ask a stranger on a street. You are not expecting good answers, aren’t you? Please, do it properly.”

    Now you are facing a group of students, as a teacher in an exam, or a psychologist in a lab. Now, students write answers on paper.

    But it is still not impossible that ‘idiot’ appears on their answer sheet.

    It is way less likely, because the situation has changed, and it makes a big stroke.
    In fact, you probably wouldn’t ask a question if you would expect an answer of ‘idiot’. You choose your target. You create a proper situation.

    But you haven’t realized that they end up being part of your question, because without them answers will differ.

    Quite a few years ago, while trying to sort out the mess and uncover how the brain truly works, I said: “The brain is complicated.” Now I realized it was nothing more than saying: “The brain is cock-a-doodle-doo.” Even worse, it implies that I didn’t know how the brain works. You know, almost everyone around me would say that a computer is complicated, until I had a numerical programming class. There, I see none of the computer experts would ever say so.

    What I learned from the experts is: A computer has a large storage, a much smaller memory, and a processor with limited computing power. When it computes, it puts some storage into memory, and the processor computes data in the memory following a fixed logic. If you’re a programmer, you need to decide what goes to the memory, and what logic to follow. The logic should be straightforward. A large program is better reduced into separated small programs. In this way, at each time the computer could extract as small amount of memory as possible, and the overall computation would be quicker.

    But does our brain work like this sort of computer? Are you applying specific logic you know well of to exclusive programs in your brain? Are you good at doing these ‘exclusive programs’ repetitively? Are you unable to do things outside these ‘exclusive programs’ where logic is explicit?

    Are you, while thinking, trying to extract as small amount of memory as possible? Or are you always trying to associate thoughts relevant to what you’re thinking, meanwhile creating logic you’ve never used before?

    Are you good at recollecting past experience at a specific moment as complete as possible? Or are you good at using what you’ve learned through your experience in a collective way?

    If you ask me about the exact situations where I learned to program, I wouldn’t be able to recollect them. They are scattered everywhere – not from a single teacher, not at a certain hour, not in any specific room, and not through a particular programming experience.

    But my inability to recollect my programing experience in specific terms doesn’t mean I’m unable to program. It also doesn’t mean I’m unable to tell the logic of programing – I can tell it in words that I’ve never been taught before, even in a completely different context, like I did in this book which talks about how the brain works.

    Apparently, I’m not thinking like a program I run on my computer.

    When I think, I’m not narrowing my thoughts to a well-defined range. Neither can I apply stringent logic to run tasks with infallible accuracy. I make mistakes. My thoughts wander around. If I must concentrate, the smaller the range I have to concentrate, the quicker I’d feel tired. If I must compel myself to follow specific logic, my thinking at any moment could still go astray. And at that moment, if I’m not disturbed by external sensation, I can always say that my brain is trying to relate additional information.

    Unlike a computer, my brain likes to use as much information as it can relate to to process information. And there never seems to be any clear logic to follow.

    My brain, in short, processes information collectively.

    2. The mental motion: a thread of thoughts perpetually pushed forward

    I love walking. When I walk, I think. I can’t stop thinking at any waking moment. I believe no one can.

    Thinking is joyful, but it also makes me distractible and irritable. It on one hand, associates thoughts outside the range I’m working on, making it hard for me to concentrate on a specific task. On the other hand, when I start feeling mad, it unfolds too much biased thoughts, making me at the moment feel madder.

    Temper is something that tends to get worse when ignited. Worse and worse until it explodes in full scale. So, I have been wondering: How good it would be if my thoughts could go where I’d want them to go? Could I even put a stopper on them?

    I couldn’t. Thinking is something that just happens, with me unable to take its full control. It happens like breathing, driven by something inside myself (my brain) with me unable to get a full hold of it.

    So, what is thinking? What does it consist? And what drives me to think perpetually?

    Descartes might argue: “I think, therefore I am”, implying a perpetual state of being. But is thinking really a perpetual being? Isn’t it more like a perpetual seeker, moving in and out of myself?

    Thinking, though intangible, has to do with both myself and the environment surrounding me. Perhaps, thinking is a resonation between me and the environment. I’d feel lost if the thoughts that’s on me and the sensation that’s getting into me don’t match. Just like when I was on vacation visiting a city I’ve never been to, I felt lost after going out of a big shopping mall back onto the street.

    But what is my feeling of ‘lost’? When would I feel lost apart from experiencing a sudden change in environment? Why would I rarely feel lost in my everyday life?

    Would I feel lost if I’m trying to attend to multiple tasks at the same time?

    What if I’m talking to my friend? Would I feel lost if my friend sudden says something outside the topic we’re currently discussing? Would I feel even more lost if my friend says something that’s not like what he would say?

    Would I feel lost if at the moment, what I get from sensation is far away from my current line of thinking?
    If I’m going to say something abrupt to my friend, should I just say it? Or should I make some sort of prelude? What would this prelude do to make what I’ll say less abrupt?

    Is thinking consist of separated thoughts? Or a cohesive line of thoughts, with thoughts closer in time more relevant to each other? Do I feel lost because the thoughts that come to my brain before and after the moment are not relevant? Do I always need some time to adjust if my line of thinking changes abruptly?

    Do I always feel a little bit lost, or lack of mental cohesion, during the time my thinking changes fields? Is it similar to my feeling of temporarily mentally hollow after a sleep?

    Perhaps, thinking is like walking. When I walk, I’m walking around a certain place, under a certain physical environment, with what I see changing smoothly. Similarly, there’s also a mental environment that comes with my thinking. This mental environment is like an intangible sense of being. When I’m inside the shopping mall, I’m mentally inside the mall. As I go outside the mall, I’m still mentally inside the mall, but I’m physically outside.

    But as time goes by, I gradually reestablish a new mental environment – being outside the shopping mall on the street. There, my thinking becomes cohesive again.

    When my thinking is cohesive, I’m immersed in a certain mental environment, thinking inside a certain field, having an implicit mental sense of being. This enables my brain to process information collectively. But is it also the whole reason why my thoughts closer in time are more relevant to each other? Is our line of thinking fully determined by our mental environment, which persist for a rather long time? Or is there a momentary momentum behind our thinking, like the forward momentum as we’re walking forward?

    When walking, what we see tend to be more relevant if they are seen closer in time. If thinking is like walking, can we regard our thinking as our mental path, with us perpetually stepping forward? Can we regard our thoughts as our footsteps, with thoughts closer in time and space have closer meanings, as if they are seen from closer spots?

    If thinking is like walking, is there, like the physical world, a mental world upon which we are walking (and seeing)? How does our mental world look like?

    In our mental world, is what inside and outside the shopping mall (where you feel temporarily lost) the same world? Or are they two separated worlds? How about what’s inside and outside the building you go to work (where your thinking transit smoothly)?

    How does our mental world determine how we think? How does our thinking shape the mental world within us? What make things that physically tend to occur together mentally relevant? How does our mental relevance between things drive our perpetual motion of thoughts?

    Is thinking a perpetual triggering of thoughts, with the thought and the sensation received at the previous moment triggering the thought at the next moment, through their relationship imprinted upon our mental world?

    Is thinking also perpetually associative, with us trying to find new relations between our thoughts, making our mental world more cohesive and more comprehensive?

    Is thinking a perpetual learning? Are we, through making connections between insides and outsides, stitching together mental worlds which were previously apart, thereby making a smooth transition between them?

    Is our mental world like a web, with our thinking as threads weaving the web?

    How about our thoughts? Are our mental world, our thinking, and our thoughts inseparable? Are they like the web, the threads, and the knots perpetually evolving?
  • Mental Dynamist
    3. Intensified unit: why the apple on the tree is the same apple we eat

    For a long time, I thought there’s no point in learning a second language – English for instance. Language is just a tool – something that belongs to a different world from the ideas I’m presenting. In so far that my ideas are good, I could easy hire someone else to translate for me. Even better, a computer might do a better job a few years later.

    Now, I realize language is part of my natural thinking. Sentences are like threads. Words are like knots. And what I write arises from my own mental web. Whoever is the translator, the translation tends to be awkward compared to the original. Why? Because the translator does not have the same mental web as the author.

    When I was learning English as my second language, I used to memorize the meaning of words. I assumed: If I could correlate English words with Chinese words, which I used smoothly, I could speak English as smooth as speaking Chinese. Could I?

    What I could is, well, speaking Chinglish. Words in my speech were like bumps and lumps. I created sentences like the one below:

    Read books break ten-thousand scrolls, under pen like have god.

    (Meaning: If you read ten thousand books, you’ll write like a god.)

    You know, I have an inquisitive mind, and I read a lot of science. Science, as I see, is often the finding of an explicit and simple answer. What I found was: 1) scientific literature seldom use commonly used words; and 2) commonly used words often have multiple meanings.

    So, I tried using words that are not used commonly. And I made sure to get the grammar right. Here’s what I got:

    At the abdomen of whatever language, words abiding adjacent meanings are abundant. Any word’s meaning must be assured if only it is distinctly placed inside a sentence’s chamber.

    (Meaning: For any language, there are words with multiple meanings, and meanings that can be expressed by many words. Only after a word is put into a sentence can its meaning be specific.)

    Again, I realized something went wrong. But while I was confused by words and sentences, I got something from my science readings. You know, if Sir Isaac Newton could think about gravity by a falling apple, what does an apple mean?

    Does it mean a hard fruit that falls from the tree when ripe? Does it mean something that has an apple-ish size, shape, and color? Does it mean a fruit that’s sweet and chewy, or a fruit that contains certain nutrition? Does it mean a fruit to be eaten, or to spread seeds for the apple tree?

    Does it mean the Apple phone? The apple that hit Newton? Or the Poison Apple in Snow White?

    Why would we use the same word ‘apple’ in all these circumstances? Why we do this for almost every word we use in everyday life?

    As I probed deep into this question, I found it even more unnerving. You know, ‘disappear’ may be used for a player in a football game, a small pet raised in a family, or a skill of a sorcerer in a fantasy novel. And Gosh! The meanings are similar, but the connotations are very different.

    Why our commonly used words are never as precise as those in the scientific literature?

    I kept thinking about this until I overheard my aunt talking to my little cousin.

    “You may have never eaten bird meat, but you’ve at least seen a bird flying.”

    We don’t usually learn new things from a context that’s entirely new, do we? We learn apple tree from apple, in its environment we are mostly familiar with (e.g. grass and sky we see every day).

    If I’ve never seen an apple, could I identify apple from an apple tree?

    How could I get an idea of apple if I’ve never seen it before?

    What’s the natural way of learning a new word? How natives learn to use words?

    Not with grammar. Not from a dictionary. But through experience. Not from any specific logic learned through a particular experience. But by encountering it many many times.

    That was when I throw away my grammar book. That was when I start reading English novels. That was when I, whenever referring to a dictionary, would pay more attention to example sentences rather than the words’ meanings. That was when I start using English fluently.

    That was also when I realized that a word, a concept, or an idea not only cannot exist separably from the mental motion it resides, but is also built collectively by multiple motions. Just like when we see apple in different contexts, in our brain, it’s like passing a thread through a knot. We didn’t see the knot at the beginning, until a lot of threads have passed over it.

    This gives rise to the unit of our thinking – the intensified unit: the unit, or node, intensified by mental motions passing over it.
  • I like sushi
    You don’t need this many words.
  • Mental Dynamist
    4. Turning on the crossroad: how global warming heats up my ambition

    Ever since I was a sophomore, I had an ambition of changing how people think about how they think. To my peers, my ambition seems too big to be realistic. They so often joked about me that I learned to make jokes of myself before they came up with a joke.

    “I know it is difficult. As difficult as changing the climate – creating global warming for example. Which means, it’s not impossible after all.”

    The trick is: there are two aspects of global warming that are somehow connected. It is a global climate change, and it is, as many believe, caused by human activities. James Watt could get the credit for changing the climate, if he so wanted.

    Being able to figure out this trick, I believed I was undoubtedly smart. On the flip side, my smartness fooled myself. For a long time, I kept saying:

    “I know it is difficult. As difficult as climatologists would think to create El Nino. Which means, it is not impossible after all.”

    Only until recently did I realize that ‘climatologists’ only refer to ‘climatologists as I presumed they are’, not what they really are in real life. Do climatologists think that El Nino is difficult to be created? Do climatologists think El Nino is created, rather than just happened? Many of them do believe that that El Nino is intensified (rather than caused) by human activities, but even this belief is not conclusive.

    So, climatologists don’t at all think that El Nino is created by human activities. Yet I’d fooled myself by making up this joke.

    As much as I was fooled, I bet my words had also fooled my peers about how real climatologists think about El Nino. Wow, fooling people without giving away my intention! That’s something to think about.

    If I could use this trick to fool people, I bet some other smart people could also do so. Yes, in advertisement: A nice-looking sofa is placed in a splendid house, with a stylish guy comfortably lying on it. Now you have an impulse to buy the sofa.

    Before you pay the price, however, have you asked yourself: Would the stylish guy really feel as comfortable as he appears? Would the sofa fit in your home as nicely as in the advertisement? And why the guy as stylish as he is, with such a splendid house to live in, wouldn’t rather prefer another sofa much more expensive, which your budget couldn’t afford?

    How were we fooled by ads without these questions ever came across us? How was my ambition heated up by global warming which seems rather irrelevant?

    It happens because different aspects of an intensified unit are linked. It happens because our thinking is naturally associating through these links. These links exist in a somewhat vague, or collective manner. In a manner that we may not even explicitly tell.
  • Mental Dynamist
    5. The deconceptualized concept: how we learned Marxism as dreary memorization

    When I was in my second years of grad school, I found one of my teachers were particularly interested in Chinese students. It seemed to him that Chinese students are always special.

    Perhaps he was right: we had classes of Marxism from primary school all the way to college, but none of us was able to explain it when he asked us:

    “Can any of you explain Marxism you’ve learned during school?”

    For me, however, thing has been a little different. I learned Marxism not only in classes, but also in my extracurricular readings about history and philosophy.

    When I was asked this question, I was tempted to talk about what I learned in my external readings. But I didn’t feel right, cause that’s not what I learned in class. That’s something I feel entirely different from what I learned in class.

    What did I learn in class?

    As far as I remembered, I was asked to memorize certain logic and moralities that were almost entirely foreign to me. I knew little about their context. The memorization was hard, dreary and unpleasant, but had to be done cause otherwise I’d fail the exam, which would make my life even more unpleasant.

    This was probably the same for everyone else around me: Marxism is a rather dreary, obscure theory required to be memorized.

    Wait! That’s not what Marxism is, but that’s exactly what we learned it is.

    But why didn’t I, or anyone else, tell that to our beloved professor? Why none of us would say: THAT is what we learned.

    Because we have never learned to say so. While we were learning Marxism, we also learned we are supposed to say what we memorized, which was soon forgotten after the exam.

    In a sense, although none of us explicitly answered our professor’s question, we’d given away what we learned by being silent. What we learned in words was forgotten, yet what we developed as attitude remained and was reflected in our action. Our professor was right to feel strange when none of us remembered what we learned, yet none of us showed even a tiny bit of a regret.

    Apart from ‘Marxism’, I had also developed an impertinent attitude toward ‘social’. I only realized that I was socially inept when I was a sophomore. That was when my true attitude toward ‘social’ came to my attention.

    When I was a kid, my parents always thought of studying as the chief thing in school, with socializing at a much lower place. But while my parents think of studying and socializing as two good things I could achieve at the same time, I think of them as highly exclusive: That social means bad at studying. That nerdy means smart. I’m on the smart side, spending most of my spare time figuring out answers – from mathematical to psychological, from cognitive to philosophical.

    Even if I’d play with kids, I’d like to be accompanied by kids like me, not kids that are social. For me, social kids are particularly annoying: shallow-minded, impulsive, impatient, bad at study, noisy, showing-off, and enjoy harassing others.

    Worse, they bring senior students to our classroom. These students were taller and appeared to me even more bullying. This is probably why I, later as an undergrad, was rather resistant to any social activities.

    As you can see, the concepts we learned are often not something we explicitly tell. Rather, they are deconceptualized, as intensified units naturally incorporated into mental motions like knots on intercrossing threads, reflected in our attitudes and behaviors.

    Do we understand a concept as it is defined in books?

    What did I do in this book to explain concepts?

    Is a concept built or incorporated?
  • alan1000
    In what way does all of this differ from Hobbes's theory of psychology?
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