collision of familiarities
I’ve written about ways of breaking frames of mind before. In my view, such frames have a lot to do with familiarity. Our way of thinking is the result of us having become particularly familiar with a certain way of thinking. We developed a predisposition to it, a tendency of following it, one way or another. The metaphor of thinking as sledding relates a person following thought patterns to a sled following trails marked in snow. Even if it can stray away from the primed path, it still has a tendency to stay on it, and each run over the snow trail makes it deeper and deeper – a stable orbit in the space of lies.
One way of grounding the elusive and subjective feeling of familiarity into an objective model is through the paradigm of processing fluency. This niche school of thought in cognitive psychology argues that the brain uses the ease and speed of processing a stimulus as the basis of the familiarity quale. The reasoning behind this goes as follows. If you’ve been repeatedly exposed to a stimulus over a long period of time, then some of the very neural pathways involved in processing it might have adjusted to make its recognition faster and metabolically cheaper. Based on this iterative optimization of perception, the fact that a stimulus is processed particularly fast might be used as a reasonable proxy for prior exposure to it. The marks left by past stimuli on your brain through multi-level metabolic optimizations are used as a map for the territory of past exposure.
The concept of processing fluency can be translated to familiarity with ways of thinking in a pretty straightforward way. The brain might conveniently adapt and optimize itself for effectively supporting frequent thought patterns, which in turn makes the very same ways of thinking even more accessible, bringing on the same attractor dynamics from the sledding metaphor. One might say that we are more fluent in certain ways of thinking than in others. Similar to how you can develop fluency in a foreign language so that it eventually flows naturally with minimal conscious effort and energy expenditure, so too you can develop fluency in a certain thought pattern. For instance, one of the main commitment of the internet subculture of rationalism is to teach people to become fluent in evidence-based, often Bayesian, ways of thinking.
Based on this framework of processing fluency applied to thought, I want to introduce another technique for breaking frames which I call “collision of familiarities.” The idea is to artificially map a certain behavioral pattern we’re fluent in onto another one in a somewhat random way so that conflict arises. The several examples below will likely clarify how that might work, but the core principle is to put different familiarities against each other, so that following one of the compelling patterns inevitably triggers an unfamiliar divergence from the other. It’s like connecting two sleds with a fixed solid bar – they can’t both follow the trail at the same time anymore, there’s a conflict.
For instance, consider an automated mapping of conceptarium ideas to physical places supported by a new system. You’re used to walking around the physical space along certain paths, but you’re also used to certain trains of thought. Based on the mapping, following familiar walking paths might lead you to unfamiliar trains of thought, while following familiar trains of thought might literally get you off the beaten path. As another example, consider a mapping of brain states to the settings of a synthesizer (e.g. pitch, reverb, sustain), through a neurofeedback-like setup. You’re used to playing music in a certain style, but the urge to grasp familiar motifs and textures might very slightly nudge your brain state into the unfamiliar. More likely however, you’ll explore exotic soundscapes, so the strengths and weights of the two familiarities in the setup could be taken into account and tweaked.
Even if linking two different familiarities in this way might make most sense, it’s also possible to map a familiarity onto itself in a random way, preserving all the benefits of the above. For instance, a train of thought passing through semantic space via ideas might be randomly projected on the same space through a rotation and reconstructed as a sequence of other ideas. It’s unlikely that both will be familiar at the same time, and this urge to get all snuggled up in one’s comfort zone gets played on its head. It’s as if through the addition of the new artificially-mapped behavior, the energy landscape of different thought patterns changes, and so does the trajectory of the knowledge worker due to their inherent energy minimization tendencies. Alternatively, the configuration of a synth can similarly be mapped on another random one and communicated to the performer, challenging them to find a new optimum. If you’re curious to see why I’m pretty sure music will become an important part of my thoughtware projects in the future, just watch a few minutes of this masterpiece to see just how many parallels there are:
This is just one of many ways of breaking frames of mind, and quite likely an overengineered one considering the relative ease of picking up a random book. However, I see a certain elegance in this pattern, thanks to the way it helps you move across spaces of possibility given only your current location placed against itself and nothing else. When adjusting your worldview based on the osmosis of external influence, it’s merely interpolation, stuck in the subspace of human worldviews currently documented. By injecting artificiality in the mapping, the technique tries to avoid anthropocentric tendencies, setting yourself up for transhuman creative insight like AlphaGo’s infamous move 37, which baffled human experts due to how unfamiliar yet effective it turned out to be. This technique resembles a permutation test, in that the very data you’re trying to put in context is bootstrapped into a makeshift context itself. Though a purely random mapping would be the most rudimentary choice to try this out, there might be opportunities in crafting the mapping based on certain objectives I can’t even imagine right now.