Mental Action

Chapter 20

Astronomers describe black holes as things so dense that not even light can escape. It's an easily recognized description. We all know people like that.

A theory of concepts needs to explain epistemological black holes—minds so dense that they seem impervious to the light of knowledge. Sometimes the explanation is obvious: a total lack of conceptual skills. Other times, that's not the case. Many minds seem nothing at all like black holes—until they are asked to shed light on some problem. Mental black holes, like astronomical ones, are detected not by what is there, but by what is missing.

One characteristic of mental density is easily observed in the supermarket and the shopping mall. Ever wonder about that surprised look when you say, "Excuse me! Can I get by?" Is it really possible for human minds to forget all those other shopping carts in the aisle, and all those other cars in the lot? Since it is manifestly commonplace, it must be possible. Something seems to be missing.

It's often said of a human black hole that he "can't see past the end of his nose." Another complaint is that someone is "narrow-minded." A socially dense person needs the "broadening" effects of travel. Political density handles problems with short range solutions that do more harm than good. What is missing is an overall view of things, taking in more than the present and more than the obvious.

People complain of feeling dense when they miss the clues that should have told them their spouse was untrue or their boss was displeased or their sales pitch was not working. They were so busy trying to manage this, that they overlooked that. "You can't have everything in mind at once," they say.

This book has stressed that by using the conceptual method, you can have everything in mind at once. In fact, every sane human does have everything in mind at once. To see this, think of an alternative.

Imagine a lively party, with many people chattering away about many subjects—all of them holding dictionaries and expertly flipping through the pages to instantly find all the words they need. Well, no, that's not realistic: all would also have to have reference libraries to instantly look up all the facts they need. No, that's not right: all would also need diaries to look up what they told the boss last week and what was the gossip they heard the other day. All those things would be needed all the time if people could not have everything in mind at once.

Ayn Rand's theory of concepts shows how it's done. Similarity makes it possible to treat entire classes of things as units. Conceptual units are combined into broader concepts, until everything is logically connected together. So it's all there at once.

Dense people do tend to admit that it's all there at once, somewhere in memory. But, they say, it's not all available when they need it. They say this using words which are all available when needed. That's because of the logical connection between words, which is the logical connection between concepts. It seems a puzzle that dense minds have as many words in mind as any, but are not able to reach an overall view of the ideas meant by those words.

The puzzle solves itself as soon as we accept that mental action is as real as physical action. Learning to walk consists of forming habits of compensation so that your movements keep you upright. Learning to manage your thoughts also consists of forming habits. When people can't see past the end of a nose, it's because they never formed the habit of looking past the end of the nose.

The conceptual method is contextual. It always sorts out everything, not just some things. To think about a particular subject, you first make two mental classifications: that subject, and everything else. Then, while you are considering the particular subject, you keep it in context—you zoom out regularly to notice the logical connections between that subject and other parts of your total reality. The habit of zooming out is a survival skill. It keeps you from losing track of where you are, what you are doing, and what others might be doing.

When children start school, their world begins rapidly to expand. That is the time when the habit of mentally zooming out to check the context becomes crucially important. All the new knowledge must fit together so it can be remembered and be useful. This is the time when effort needs to be directed toward forming an unshakable habit of checking the context at all times—of zooming out to keep track of the way things are fitting together. The worst possible thing to teach a child at this critical point is to avoid context and concentrate solely on particulars.

The worst possible thing starts as soon as school does. "That has nothing to do with this! Pay attention! You must learn to concentrate on one thing at a time." No teacher means it literally, because even learning to write requires that you concentrate on a number of things all at once. But they say it, and many children take it literally, and never form the habit of zooming out regularly to check the totality of things. If you think that figuring things out means examining details one at a time, you probably learned to think so in first grade.

If you stop to shop, and forget that your cart is blocking the aisle, or your car is double parked, you probably learned that in first grade—to concentrate on one thing at a time without automatically checking the context. Experts on personal safety point out that many people fall victim to crime simply by not forming the habit of checking around them for threats. Zooming out is a survival skill on every level.

In the future, when teachers know what they are doing, they will teach the skill of keeping the mental zoom lever in motion. By saying, "You must learn to concentrate on one thing at a time," a teacher means that zooming in is as important as zooming out. The disaster is to teach that it is more important. A "dreamy" child does not need to unlearn the habit of trying to see everything at once, but to add the skill of seeing particular things up close, in detail—in context.

Everybody sometime says, "I never thought of that!" Dense people say it to themselves all the time, because they don't have the habit of looking beyond what is in the center of attention. The center of attention becomes a black hole, swallowing up all the peripheral things which could shed light and provide new integrations. There is nothing magical about getting new ideas; it is a process of forming new combinations by comparing everything to everything all the time. Inspiration results from a habit of checking the context for every possibility.

The difference between the active and the sluggish mind is in the manipulation of the mental zoom lever. The trick is being able to keep a single subject at the center of attention while zooming in and out to check its relationship to other things within its class, to other classes, and to the Big List of Everything.

The "flighty" mind tries to do this, but loses focus on the central subject. It gets distracted, because things are not sorted out well; relationships are not clear. It ends in a confused jumping around among vaguely related bits of information.

The "plodding" mind tries to work by snail power. It relates a central subject to this other thing and then that other thing, on the theory that eventually all parts of the context will get checked out bit by bit. The theory is wrong, because it misses the possibility of an overall relationship—a principle.

When a doctor listens to your symptoms and decides on a diagnosis, he is comparing your complaints to all the medical principles he knows. He is thinking in terms of principles. That is what you are doing when you say, "It's getting dark faster than usual; must be a storm brewing."

Here's an example of failing to notice a principle:

When kids fail to think in principles, we call it childish. When adults do, we call it dense.

To form the habit of zooming out to check the context, two things are required: self discipline and sufficient mental integration that there is a context to check. The payoff for time spent sorting things out is the ability to see and apply principles. The penalty for not having things sorted out is the inability to think in terms of principles—to know what you are doing and how it fits in with the nature of things. It is the stuck zoom lever that gives that feeling of mental density, and produces the constant query: "Why didn't I think of that?"

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