Mental Action

Chapter 1

How's this for a nightmare? Something fine is being offered to you. It is a great treasure, which you've always wanted. Now it's there, the prize you want, right there in front of you, for you to grasp. The trophy you've always wanted is being held out to you. You have only to grasp it. You know that you will grasp it. You wait for your hand to move. Your hand must be moving. It isn't moving? It isn't doing anything? It's twiddling its fingers? What's wrong with it? Is it possessed by some evil force bent on making your life miserable? It's your hand! It must be willing to do what you want! But it isn't moving. It is not grasping the trophy. It has suddenly forgotten how to move. And the trophy, the prize, the goal of your life, is being withdrawn.

But wait, that's not a nightmare. It's ordinary, everyday reality for millions—except it's not your hand that refuses to move, it's your mind.

Here's a sudden jab of insight on some nagging problem. The prize of understanding can be grasped—and your mind goes off in another direction. There's the recognition that what you've just heard contains exactly the clue you've been looking for—but your mind refuses to concentrate on it. Here's the explanation which everybody grasps but you, because your mind slipped a cog. There's the technical talk you need to understand, except your mind wanders off on recess. Here are all those old puzzles to be solved, and all those new ideas to be developed, which you could think of if only your mind would do what it's supposed to do. What a torment—that feeling of uselessness, of helplessness, of mental inertia. You simply must think about things! Why won't your mind get to work?

The carnival clown gets laughs by making it look as if his hand refuses to do his bidding—as if his hand has a life and a will of its own. But if that clown could do the same act with his mind, nobody would laugh; it would look normal. The eerie movie about the rebellious hand makes everybody squirm, because, somehow, rebellious body parts seem so, well, real.

F "Ideas just pop into my head," says the famous fashion designer.

F "My characters take over and write themselves," says the famous author.

F "That's just the way my mind works," says everyone. But not, "That's just the way my feet walk."

If I say, "Lift your arm," you know exactly what I mean: a mundane action not the slightest bit mysterious. If I say, "Wiggle your ears," you might find that you can't do it, but you know what action I mean.

Not so with actions of the mind. If I say, "Think about this," the only meaning I can count on getting across is: "Give attention to this." If I say, "I've thought it over," the only meaning you can be sure of is: "It's in my mind." More often than not, "I've thought it over," means: "My mind did to it what it happened to do to it." Probably it happened to look, get a feeling, and look away.

Should our minds be a source of mystery and frustration? Of course not. Are they? Television spends every day telling us that they are. Do we have to settle for mystery and frustration? Not any more. There have been new developments in the struggle which is as old as humanity—the struggle to understand human consciousness.

It has become commonplace to assert that we use only a fraction of the power of our minds. Nobody disagrees, because we feel in ourselves all that unused power. The nightmare is that we feel the power there, and feel powerless to put it to use. There is an obvious explanation. We can't put it to use because we don't know how it works.

Think of some common words for physical action: run, jump, chop, dance, wave, yell. Notice that you have a confident sense that there is a difference between the actions they denote, and that you know what that difference is—and that other people have the same understanding of them that you do.

Now think of some common words for mental actions: reason, imagine, conceptualize, identify, infer. Are you equally confident that you know what these actions are, that you know what the difference is between one and another, and that other people have the same understanding?

Something is wrong here. It can't really be so that while you need to know what you're doing physically, you don't need to know what you're doing mentally. Physical actions are, after all, controlled by mental actions.

The fact is, people are not accustomed to naming mental actions, or discussing mental actions, or paying much attention to mental actions. They seem just to happen. You look at the appliance that refuses to work, and you try to think of how to make it work—but you don't think about the methods your mind is using to do that. Your mind comes up with a solution, or it doesn't. You get the thing working, or you call the repair shop—without examining the mental processes that worked or failed. If you think of some clever way to fix things, you compliment yourself on being smart—but you don't think about the mental methods that make you smart.

The trouble is that if you feel dumb, you also don't think about the mental methods that would stop you from being dumb.

If we consider carefully, we know better, but the fact is that most of us most of the time assume that our minds work automatically. We put mental actions in the same category as heart actions or intestinal actions—things the body does by itself, without willful direction. We form the habit of thinking of our minds as automatic. We end up with the entirely erroneous idea that the way the mind works is not under our conscious control. We subscribe to the myth of automatic consciousness.

In the end, we substitute Psychology for Epistemology, and end up in therapy to be taught how to think by a therapist trained in how to feel. Or we just accept ourselves as mentally flawed, when the problem is a lack of skill.

Suppose you could convince yourself that what you felt about your mind as a child is in fact true—that the potential power of your mind really is unlimited, and that learning to be brilliant is just like learning any other skill. That would be worth some careful study and consideration.

At one time, it was said that only Franz Liszt would ever be able to realize on the piano the impossible technical effects he wrote into his music. It was said that only Niccolo Paganini would ever be able to play on the violin the impossibly difficult music he wrote for it. Now, pianists add difficulties to make the music of Liszt more spectacular, and violin students play Paganini as graduation music. Have musicians become superhuman? Of course not. They learn how Liszt and Paganini did it. They learn the methods for playing Liszt and Paganini. When the method becomes general knowledge, the impossible becomes commonplace.

In our time, there is happening a revolution in Epistemology, the science of mental action. Thanks to the discoveries of the philosopher Ayn Rand, we can all learn the mental methods used by Aristotle and Jefferson and other great thinkers, but imperfectly understood before now. Does it seem impossible to train your mind to the level of virtuosity you desire? When the method becomes general knowledge, the impossible becomes commonplace.

It all begins with one small step: accepting that there is such a thing as mental action.

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