Mental Skill

Chapter 5
The Zoom

Making comparisons, finding essentials, and forming concepts are skills that every sane person has to some degree. The habit of paying attention and actively identifying perceptions is not so universal. Many humans do drift through life in something of a fog. They do what they are told. They borrow ideas and call that thinking. They try to act on feelings rather than thoughts, even though feelings change capriciously. They have no overall level of mental skill.

The first step in developing mental skill is to take charge by forming the habit of keeping the mind actively engaged. The next step is to catch on to the way a conceptual mind operates. One way to do that is to consider the "zoom."

When the picture on TV seems to move away, or zip closer, you know that a zoom lens is in operation. The focal length changes, which changes the magnification, which makes the subject look closer or farther, even though the actual distance is the same. That is the zoom. When overdone, it makes the viewer feel queasy.

When the unskilled thinker is told to mentally zoom in on details and zoom out for the big picture, he too gets queasy. Fortunately, his mind can be trained to do what the camera cannot—to keep the details and the big picture both in view at once.

Imagine, for example, that the camera shows an auto engine, in all its gleaming new complexity. Now it zooms in and is looking down into a single cylinder. What you see—the only thing you see—is a metallic wall. There is nothing in the picture to tell you what it is a picture of. You supply that information conceptually. You identify what you are seeing. You think, "Cylinder."

With the word comes its definition: the part of an engine in which expansion drives a piston. By means of that one word, you keep in mind both the detail you see and the context you know. Because you formed the concept correctly, that word reminds you of the broadest possible context, and the smallest possible detail. It does not come to your mind as a disconnected concrete, but as a relational whole. Knowing the word means knowing where it fits in your total knowledge.

When the zoom lens makes a detail fill the screen, it loses the overall picture—the context. When a skilled mind zooms in on even the smallest detail, the overall picture is still present and accounted for, by means of concepts. The mind does what no lens could ever do: it zooms both ways at once. It keeps the context.

To see the awesome power of a skilled mind, notice that with one word it can take account of all reality as viewed from a particular vantage point. The word freedom, for example, denotes the absence of force. Properly conceptualized, it brings to mind not just your own situation from this angle, but everybody's situation.

Now notice that a mind can keep several words in mind at once. It can compare all reality as seen from one angle to all reality as seen from other angles. This multiple comparison can be made in the minutest detail, or in the broadest terms. The purpose is to identify relationships not yet noticed, so elements can be combined in new ways to do new things.

Since that is the purpose, skilled thinking never tries to hold unrelated things in mind at once. Thinking is integrated, not scattered—it is a unified activity able to deal with particulars and relationships together.

Not only can the skilled mind zoom in and out at once, it can view a subject from multiple angles at once. It can compare the tiny detail to the big principle, and make the comparison from several angles. If it sees something that does not fit, it has detected a mistake. If it sees something that fits in an unexpected way, it has made a discovery.

A century ago, Thomas Edison was experimenting with ways to emboss Morse Code on moving tape, so it could be recorded now and telegraphed later. He noticed that a spring scraping along the tape gave off a musical note. He compared that to a recent invention, the telephone, in which a diaphragm varied a current which then vibrated another diaphragm to reproduce speech sounds. When principles of physics were added to the comparison, he could see that a medium firmer than tape would be needed, so he settled on a rotating cylinder of wax, and designed the first phonograph.

Notice that the element of embossing from one context was combined with the element of moving diaphragms from another context, along with physical principles from a third context. By holding all of these relationships in mind at once, Edison saw a way to record not just code, but sound.

Now think "phonograph record," and compare it to modern compact discs. Keeping both contexts fully in mind, you can see what has changed. Wax has given way to plastic, embossed ridges have given way to microscopic pits, and mechanical links have become electronic links. But the process still starts and ends with moving diaphragms.

Edison would be startled, perhaps, to see that the recording itself is not of vibrations but of his original idea—code. To see how that could have happened, bring another context into the comparison: binary computing. It was known in Edison's time that numbers can record sound, and that binary numbers are easy to store. But only modern electronic computers are fast enough to make it work.

So the CD was invented by combining elements of the phonograph with elements of the computer. When this combination was compared with other methods of storing binary numbers, it looked useful for more things than music. It is now part of your computer.

What about Edison's original moving tape? Well, compare that to the phonograph and to magnetic principles, and you come up with the tape recorder. Now compare that with television—there's your VCR.

There is no limit to the number of things a skilled mind can take account of all at once, because results of many comparisons can be combined into one concept and treated as a unit. Regarded as a mental skill, this would be called range. The more skilled your thinking, the broader your range of thought. The basis is knowing the exact definition of every word you use, which means knowing the essential which forms the concept, the sensory basis of the concept, and where it fits with your total knowledge.

Is this a demand for omniscience? To take account of everything, must you know everything? To see that this is not so, ask your preschool child a simple little question: "How big is everything?" The answer will not be accurate, but the response will make the point. There will be one. The child knows, in some form, that there is an everything. Children do not think that this house is the only one, that these parents are the only ones, that this street is the only one. They may know little of the others, but they know that there are others.

That is what range as a skill does: it treats the unknown as a subdivision of the known. It recognizes that time is limited and it cannot know everything, but keeps the unexplored territory as part of the mental map, so it can be taken account of. The question it asks about the unknown is not, "Must I know it?" The question is: "How do I find out about it if I need to?" One takes account of the unknown by knowing where it is, and how to find out about it if necessary.

To the skilled mind, the unknown is always the not yet known. There are relationships not yet seen, so the question is how to see them. There are discoveries not yet made, so the question is how to make them. There are areas not studied, so the question is how to know when they need to be studied.

Increasing the range of the mental zoom means learning to take more things into account with the same amount of effort. Increasing the power of the zoom means developing the skill of holding a detail in vivid central focus while staying aware of the relationship of that detail to everything else. To see the basis for this skill, think of the difference between accuracy and precision.

Here's a fully accurate but not very precise statement: "My computer is between an inch and a yard high." The height in, say, millimeters is included but not specified. If I were to zoom in on a measurement, then it would be precise, while my original statement would still be accurate. The relationship between the two would be fully preserved, the precise contained within the accurate.

That's why concepts are formed with definitions which not only state the essence, but also the hierarchy—so the precise will be contained within the accurate, the relationships fully preserved. If your chair is "something to sit on," then so is a log. Does that mean that the chair is something to burn? Thought of this way, a particular chair is not seen in relation to its context. For that, it needs to be "furniture providing a seat with a back." Now the chair is a more precise instance of furniture, which is a more precise instance of the man-made, a more precise instance of useful things. Or, within the context of furniture, the chair is a more precise instance of a seat—one with a back.

This shows that the power of the zoom is inherent in the conceptual method. When concepts are skillfully formed, words come to mind with all relationships fully preserved. One can vary the precision at will without losing accuracy. When you zoom out, all details are still accounted for, though not specified. They are omitted measurements. When you zoom in, more details are specified, but all relationships are still taken into account. No matter how precise the focus becomes, nothing is handled in isolation, as if alone in the universe. The context is never dropped.

Skillful use of the conceptual method provides as a matter of course what seems to the unskilled a miracle: the ability to take everything into account when considering anything.


The next time you are conversing in the supermarket while buying the groceries and watching the children—or driving a new road while listening to the radio and talking on the phone—take note how naturally and normally your mind does several things at once. Losing central focus when zooming out is not lack of capacity, but absence of habit. When you find the supermarket aisle blocked by a thoughtlessly placed cart, remind yourself to think about mental skill. Did you ever block a door while deciding whether or not to go through it? That was loss of context—forgetting where you are.

Many people are so unskilled in the mental zoom that they seem to live in a movable vacuum. One wonders if they have any context to drop. "Oh! Sorry," they say, as they are reminded that others shop here too, that others are in line also, that others are conversing nearby. "Oh! I didn't see you," they say, as they collide with pedestrians, trip over janitors—and get mugged by unnoticed stalkers.

Yet these people, too, habitually do several things at once. The mental zoom works a little—dangerously little. Their range of context needs to be increased until it takes account of the other people in the aisle, then in the whole store, then in the whole world.

A good way to practice the mental zoom is to use it for self-protection. Practice thinking of yourself not in physical isolation but as located within an interesting—or dangerous—context. Practice an awareness of yourself in relation to your surroundings. You do not truly know where you are if all you know is a map location. Think like an explorer: "What am I in the middle of?" Make comparisons: "Would another place be better?"

Keeping track of your surroundings is not an analogy for skilled thinking; it is skilled thinking. That is what the mental zoom does: it knows where an object of thought is in relation to its surroundings. It does not forget the surroundings while concentrated on the object, or forget the object while concentrated on the surroundings.

It seems obvious that keeping track of where you are mentally is at least as important as keeping track of where you are physically. Yet, people kill themselves by trying new pills without taking account of interactions with old pills. They kill marriages by seeing temptation without taking into account all the consequences. They kill creativity by telling themselves to "concentrate on one thing and ignore distractions."

If you are thinking, then a telephone ring is distraction, but a peripheral idea is not. The bark of a dog is distraction, but an irrelevance is not. When you identify an item as irrelevant for your present purpose, that is the way you take account of it. That is why it can be said that the conceptual method takes account of everything when examining anything. "Distracting" thoughts are anti-hierarchical thoughts, using concepts that have not been defined in a way that includes the relationship to all other concepts.

When Tom Edison heard his errant spring giving off a musical note, he could have ignored it as a distraction. Instead, he zoomed out to include the explanation, and invented another bit of our modern world. That is how the skilled mind works. It dynamically varies the breadth of context while keeping central focus, so that everything can be taken into account without being a distraction.

When you form the habit of keeping in touch with context physically, you begin to notice that the same thing can be done mentally. When you focus on an idea, curiosity arises. How does this idea connect to what I was talking about yesterday? How does it connect to all the ideas about this topic? Where does this topic fit in the total of my knowledge? Knowing your physical context gives you a sense of security and power. Knowing your mental context does the same thing multiplied.

There will come a moment when you get it. You will grasp the essence of the conceptual method: nothing seen in isolation, everything seen as related. You will directly observe the difference between your consciousness and that of your pet. Perception deals with one thing at a time. Conception deals with each thing in relation to all things.

This observation will give you the base for building unlimited mental skill. It will also give you the motive.

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