Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 17

Over the course of this series about survival, success, and significance, we have covered many topics, to help get a sense of why our human experience presents itself to us in certain ways.

We covered the decoupling of humans from the natural world. We covered Darwin’s theory of evolution to get a sense of how species, including our own, originated. Furthermore, we even briefly covered some tricky concepts, such as abstraction and computation, which can help us to understand how different layers of the world operate with different constraints, and what happens when they interact with each other.

All of this, was to build the beginnings of a foundation, to be able to understand something more fundamental about what it means to be human.

To get a better sense of what survival, success, and significance are to the human experience, we must be able to recognize the different layers of abstraction we live in, and the importance of each one.

We are all hybrids of a special breed. We are animal bodies in a physical world, while at the same time we also inhabit an abstract world of the mind. Though other animals such as chimpanzees and orcas may have shades of this dichotomy, our animal relatives, are native physicalists through and through. They merely take small day trips into the shallow plains of abstraction. Humans, on the other hand, we are truly dual citizens of physical space, and the abstract realm. This unique duality opens up so many remarkable possibilities for our species, and also some tremendous pitfalls.

Here we will examine what it means to live this strange dual existence, of mind and matter, we call the human experience1.

Physical Body in a Physical World

When we open our eyes in the morning, we observe what appears to be a persistent physical world. Our bed has hopefully done its job supporting our weight throughout the night. Due to its sturdy construction and perhaps the Pauli Exclusion Principle2, our physical body has not fallen through the bed. These properties of persistence, of solidity, of light refraction, of mass, these are all a part of our lives as physical bodies in a physical world.

We usually take all of this for granted, but here we will actually pause and consider what it means to be a physical body navigating this physical world.

How Does a Physical Body Survive?

Life, in this world, has always been defined by the struggle for survival. This can be as true in the concrete jungle, as it is in the misty thicket of the Amazon Rainforest.

When we discuss the concept of survival, in this context we are speaking of the survival of the physical body. Each body, has some parameters that define its extension in space, such as height, width, length. It has other properties representing quantities such as mass, charge, etc. Crucially, each living body also has another set of parameters that must be met, in order for the body to continue existing in time. Requirements such as maintaining a certain temperature range3, having enough calories to power vital functions in the body, and avoiding threats such as being eaten, or falling from cliffs. Recall that in a previous entry, we defined survival operationally, as continuing to exist in time. It will be helpful to keep this operational definition in mind, as we move forward.

How does a physical body continue to exist in a world of threats, scarcity, and competition? There are some basic principles from fields such as system dynamics, cybernetics, control theory, and even military engagement, that can help to get a hold on this question.

The OODA Loop

One of the best simple models for understanding survival, in any context, is that of the “OODA Loop”. It was developed by the fighter pilot John Boyd, following his experiences flying missions in the Korean War. The acronym OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The main implication, is that when facing any kind of threat or adversarial competition, it is not so much the precision or accuracy of each individual decision that matters most. Rather, it turns out that the speed of processing, and the ability to reduce your loop and run more iterations than your “opponent”, is often the most important factor. This principle was so transformative that it was core to the “EM Theory” (Energy Maneuverability Theory) used by John Boyd and others in the design of the F-16 Falcon fighter plane4. It was such an effective framework, that long after Boyd created it to aid fighter pilots in enemy skies, it is used in boardrooms to help executives address the battlefield of the marketplace.

Surviving the Physical World

A physical body, with decision-making requirements5, must essentially be able to implement some version of an OODA loop, in order to survive. For a physical body in the physical world, this has several implications.

Animal bodies have senses in order to observe the environment, they have brains in order to orient and decide, and they have muscles, instincts, and reflexes that help them to act.

Notice that animals that are part of the “prey” archetype, such as rabbits and deer, have eyes that are looking out the sides of their faces, to give them as much time to observe and orient to threats as possible. In contrast, “predator” archetypes, such as lions and wolves, have eyes much closer together that face forward and converge, to give them the best view for hunting nimble prey such as rabbits and deer. These are great examples of how physical bodies have adapted to survive in the physical world.

Physical Laws of Survival

Something to keep in mind, is that the physical world, though unpredictable in its evolution, has many regularities, which we codify as the laws of physics.

Speed of Sound

We know, for example, that sound propagates at approximately 767 mph (1,234.37 km/h) or 1125 feet (0.34 km) per second, at 20 degrees Celsius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit6. Without knowing the precise measured quantities, animal bodies have evolved to use the practical consequences of sound. For example, many animals have hearing that is so precise that they can detect a twig snap from a spot deep in the forest, that a normal human would never even notice. Animals such as bats and dolphins have even evolved echolocation, which allows them to use sound waves to probe and map their environments to stunning degrees of accuracy. Each animal that uses sound to survive in the physical world, must have a very accurate feel for the speed of sound relative to the movements of other animals, and their own bodies.

Speed of Light

Going from sounds to sights, we have a different situation all together. In contrast to sound, which as we mentioned travels through air at about 767 mph (1,234.37 km/h), light is in an entirely different class. Photons, the quanta of light, travel in a vacuum at approximately 186,000 miles (299,337.98 km) per second. This is so much faster than sound, that it’s barely even comparable. Now, in practice, we often don’t even know there is a difference. At the scale of human experience, well below relativistic speeds, we generally perceive sounds and light to be effectively instantaneous and comparable. Again, nature has evolved animal bodies to take advantage of this discrepancy. Whereas sound is slower than light, and can be directionally ambiguous at times, light can be much more immediate and precise in many instances. A tiger may hear sounds indicating that prey is near, but it may not know exactly what prey, and exactly where it is apart from a general direction. In contrast, the moment the tiger locks its eyes on the target, it’s basically game over if the prey is within striking distance. In the depths of the deepest trenches of the earth’s oceans, the black abyss flickers with bioluminescence. From clouds of fireflies sparkling on a summer night at the farm, to monsters of the dark seas, light is a factor for surviving in the physical world.

Chemical Scents

The animal world is also dominated by olfaction, i.e., the sense of smell. This is perhaps the most foreign to humans because unlike with sights and sounds, we really are so far removed from animal level olfaction, that it is probably like an entirely different sense compared to our experience.

Again, we look at the properties of the physical world and notice that scent is unlike sound, which is quick compared to animal motion, or light which literally sets the speed limit for causality in the cosmos. Scents don’t travel very fast at all. It is actually quite bizarre to imagine navigating the physical world based on smell. It’s the one form of stimulus that is generally much slower than our physical bodies can move. Moreover, unlike sounds, and light, which are very temporary, scents can permeate an area and become almost semipermanent ambient forms.

What is particularly interesting about animals that survive in a world with olfaction, is how different it is from the human experience, which is dominated by light and sound. If you think about it, navigating the physical world by scent, is almost like trading the precision and speed of light and sound, for the more suggestive and atmospheric qualities of the environment. So, paradoxically, this most primeval of sense modalities, can actually provide us with an unexpected window into how we navigate the abstract world of minds and moods. A domain where precision is often impossible, and where ineffable qualities reign supreme.

Abstract Body in an Abstract World

Most of us understand the general requirements for a physical body to survive in the physical world, we do it every day, after all. From the time we are young, our parents, and teachers tell is to look both ways before crossing the street. We are instructed not to walk down dark alleys at night. In the winter, helicopter mothers nag us not to play in the snow, without our wool knit hats and gloves (or mittens...if you’re a weirdo.)

For all the mysteries and complexities of this world, when it comes to the survival of the physical body, there are surprisingly only a few kinds of decisions that one can actually make. Unless you’re a bird, or a fish, or maybe a monkey, our movements are highly constrained. Although we live in a world with 3 traversable spatial dimensions, for all intents and purposes, we basically live our lives like chess pieces on a 2D board. We can move forward, backward, to the right, to the left, in the diagonals, and that’s about it. Even when we go up to another floor, or down to the basement garage, we really have to go through a very specific set of 2D steps. This, effectively, allows us to parse that vertical motion, into many smaller moves we can make on the 2D board. An elevator is really just a way of moving a square of our chessboard, up and down in space. An escalator is just moving our chess square up and forward in a constant linear trajectory. Stairs are just a bunch of slices of the chessboard that we can step on one after the other, so we can move up, by walking forward.

Something we take for granted in the physical world, is that most of the time, our environment is highly stable and predictable at human scale. We do not teleport from place to place like Nightcrawler, we do not walk through cities folding in on themselves like origami as in the movie Inception. We do not swap bodies with others like the agents in the Matrix. In the physical world at human scale, we essentially live on a series of chessboards, with fixed locations, and limited movement governed by Newtonian mechanics.

So, what happens when we have to navigate in the abstract world of the mind?

The Abstract World

The fact that we need to also navigate an abstract world of the mind, aside from the physical world of the body, can seem quite strange at first glance. You might think this is just something that people, who are mentally augmented with narcotics, are wont to consider. You might declare that serious people don’t worry about all this abstract nonsense, and focus on practical matters like planning projects and preparing for the uncertain future.

My father was very much of that mindset, and like many things in life, what you resist tends to persist. In this case, the more you resist the concept of dealing with the abstract world of the mind, the more you are prone to being lost in it, and dominated by it, for lack of knowledge.

Of course, the irony is that when you plan projects or prepare for the future, you are doing so not in the world of 3 spatially traversable dimensions, but rather in the domain of the abstract world of the mind. After all, how else does one visit the future and return, to plan for it in the present?

There is no bus that can take you to the holidays, to escape tax season. There is no chartered cruise ship to your infant’s college graduation. There is no return flight to the bygone days of high school summers, if you’re stuck in the misery of a career that doesn’t suit you. These are not the kinds of magical moves that we can make in the physical world, but they are as common as cornflakes, in the abstract world of the mind. How, then, does one navigate in an abstract world that has no locations or distances to travel?

How to Navigate an Abstract World

The first thing we need to understand when thinking about the abstract world of the mind, is to recognize what makes it so different from navigating in the physical world, and what aspects might be similar enough to carry over.

In the physical world, we are used to basic concepts that seem to be so deeply embedded in us, that even infants understand them without being told.

Location and Distance in the Mind

One of the things that is most fundamental in the physical world, is the concept of location, and the distances between locations. We know that, for example, Boston is close to New York, relative to California. At the same time, Boston, Massachusetts, is much closer to Brookline, Massachusetts than Brooklyn, New York. We know that to travel from one location in space to another, is going to take some time, and will be largely dependent on the distance between locations. These are just facts about the physical world that we take for granted.

So, how do we define locations and distances in the abstract world of the mind? We know that you can get from Boston to New York in a car, on a plane, or by train. You can even jump on the Chinatown bus for $15 if you’re in college and trying to save a few bucks, like I did many a time7. When it comes to defining locations and distances in the mind, it is not such a clear-cut answer.

Our minds are less like 35 mm film reels, which have definite linear sequences of events. Instead, our minds are much more akin to YouTube, with a bazillion clips of god knows what, available to stream at any time, and in any order.

What happens is that in the mind, we essentially substitute the strength of associative links, between nodes of ides, for distances between locations in physical space. Notice that it is quite common to think of cats as being “closer” to dogs, than they are to squids. When asking someone to guess your age at a bar, you might laugh and tell someone they are “way far off”. When asked about the name of a teammate from your high-school lacrosse team, you might remark that you can remember the face perfectly, but the name is “just out of reach”.

We are constantly using terms and metaphors from the physical world, to represent relationships between abstract concepts in the mind. Why should this be so common and useful, in an abstract world where physical locations and distances, have no true existence?

Using the Physical World, to Model The Abstract World

Before the advent of GPS, we were forced to find our way around this world with little more than our senses. As humans, we don’t have superb senses compared to much of the animal kingdom. Sight is by far the sense that humans have developed the most, and it is only fitting that the basis of intuitive human navigation, tends to be built on landmarks that we can easily identify with our eyes.

Even in the era of GPS enabled smartphones, how many times have you tried to meet someone at a party with some obscure side street parking, or a coffee shop in the middle of a block of coffee shops? In these instances don’t we tend to call or text the person we’re meeting and instinctively say “I think I’m close, but what should I look for?”

It turns out that we do something very similar in the mind, and some people have used this ability to extraordinary effect.

Memory Palaces

Humans have been blessed with the ability to use the abstract world of the mind, to think and reason, and imagine, and remember, what would otherwise be impossible. The problem, of course, is that nature unfortunately does not give us all the tools to do this from birth. Here we examine a particular set of techniques that have been developed by humans, to navigate the mind precisely, and an example of taking this kind of skill to the limit.

Memory Palaces and Landmarks in the Mind

If someone asked you to list all 50 states which constitute the United States of America, to win $100 for getting them all ($2 for each) how would you want to do it? Would it be easier for you to do it by writing them down on a blank piece of paper, one by one, or if someone gave you a map of all 50 states, with the names removed?

For most of us, the answer is obvious. It would be far easier to recite the 50 states if we are shown a map of their spatial relationships. This just appears to be intuitive to most people, but it is fascinating to ask why. Why should it be easier, when the same information is being asked of you, and in neither case are the names of the states provided?

What this begins to show, is that in order to store information and navigate to it in the abstract world of the mind, it helps to encode it in a scheme that mimics the way we navigate the physical world.

The “method of loci” was a strategy for memorization and retrieval that was invented at least as far back as antiquity. It was employed by ancient Greeks and Romans to enhance their ability to recite various rhetorical treatises and works. Cicero, the Roman senator, writer, and orator, was a strong proponent of this technique, and mentioned it in his dialogue “De Oratore” (On the Orator), written in 55 BC.

We so often forget that throughout most of human history, our ancestors did not have the luxury of writing thoughts down, to remember them later on. Even for wealthy Greeks and Romans, obtaining paper and having ideas written down, was an expensive and uncommon affair.

In modern times, when paper, and pens, and eventually as portable computers became readily accessible, we have less reliance upon the need to directly store and retrieve information from our minds. Students at exam time may still lament the fallibility of the human mind, but typically the need for this kind of extreme recall is mitigated.

One of the few examples of raw memory power, that still remains in the realm of practical application in the 21st century, is that of London’s famous cab drivers. Even in the modern era, London’s cab drivers have prided themselves on being able to recall all the streets and nooks and alleyways from the old city, without the aid of electronic devices. That said, one wonders how long it will be before this tradition is eclipsed either by the more open adoption of GPS, or the rise of autonomous vehicles effectively rendering humans unnecessary for transportation tasks.

In modern times, this set of techniques for spatially encoding information, is often referred to as a “memory palace”. It is one of the primary methods used by memory champions such as Ed Cooke (also a co-founder of Memrise). These are people who compete in feats of memorization, such as in the “World Memory Championship”.

Cooke became a “Grand Master of Memory” at the age of 23. He uses many spatial memory techniques such as visual spatial techniques from Tony Buzan (a popularizer of mind mapping) as well as many variations of the “method of loci”.

Ed Cooke was featured in the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer, which studied the capacity of the human mind, particularly regarding memory.

In an astonishing tour-de-force of these memory techniques, under the coaching of Ed Cooke, Foer was able to actually win the 2006 USA Memory Championship and break the US record for “speed cards”.

These feats of extreme memory performance, are incredible on their own. What makes them all the more remarkable is that the techniques apply beyond the savants and human computers, like Ed Cooke, Daniel Tammet aka “Brain Boy”, and Kim Peek aka “Rain Man”, who normally win memory competitions. The fact that the author, Joshua Foer, was able to practice these techniques for a year, techniques which had largely been used since antiquity, and win a memory competition, should be an inspiration to us all. Further, it should show us that the human mind really is an abstract world, that can be navigated, with enough discipline and practice. That is something we should all take advantage of, whether we are competing under the bright lights to remember digits of pi, or merely remembering to grab the pie, before we head to a friend’s house for thanksgiving.

Closing Thoughts

In this entry, we looked at the difference between navigating the physical world and the abstract world of the mind. We saw that so many of the aspects we take for granted in the physical world, such as light, and sound, and scent, and solidity, just aren’t there in the world of the mind. We may imagine them with some regularity, but we cannot use them the way we depend on them in the physical world.

On the other hand, we found that navigation of physical spaces, seems to cross over to the mapping of the abstract world of the mind, pretty effectively. From antiquity to modern day, humans have found ways to take the concept of locations in physical space, and use that scheme, to create analogous “locations” in the mind. Places in abstract space, where ideas and concepts and even digits of pi, can be deposited and retrieved, like a file in your desk drawer.

When it comes to survival, success, and significance, those key aspects of how we coordinatize and direct our efforts in this life, we find again and again that they are dependent on this dual citizenship that humans have. This dichotomy that has us standing on one foot in the physical world of earth and water, while the other resides in the abstract world of imagination and thought.

This connection between the abstract world and the physical world, will be an important one to keep in mind. For there is still another aspect that needs to be considered, regarding our internal and external endeavors.

To put survival, success, and significance, in their proper context, we must first locate the epicenter that gives them relevance.

It is one thing to find shelter in a forest of trees, or to find your way back home, in a memory palace of the mind. What is missing in both cases, is the pin on the page, the man on the mountain, that which is searching. This essence which is somehow everywhere we go, and yet nowhere at the same time.

Next we go looking for the abstract, narrative self.

  1. I want to be clear that I am not making a metaphysical statement about the nature of mind and matter. Instead I am only asserting that whatever metaphysics you wish to hold true, it must converge at human scale to yield this apparent division between the abstract world of the mind, and the physical world of the body, regardless of their ultimate basis in reality. This is not unlike our current consensus in physics, where we recognize the world to be governed by General and Special Relativity along with Quantum Mechanics. Yet despite that recognition, we also acknowledge that at human scale, both sets of deeper physical laws, must converge to the Newtonian Mechanics of daily life. Anything I say here about the nature of mind and matter is to be taken as being representative of the human experience, not claiming to know what underlies it. ↩︎
  2. The Pauli Exclusion Principle is largely responsible for the solidity of solid objects. It essentially means that fermions which make up matter, cannot occupy the same quantum state. This means that atoms can only have one electron of each quantum state at each orbital level. This creates what you might call a “stacking” effect, that keeps material objects extended in space, rather than merging together like photons of light, and other bosons such as the Higgs boson. ↩︎
  3. People often think that maintaining body temperature is mainly about staying warm or comfortable etc. In reality maintaining a certain range of body temperature is much more impactful for regulating chemical reactions that take place in the body. This is why for example, getting a fever of just a few degrees can signal bigger issues. It’s not the few degrees of temperature that causes serious problems on its own. It’s the rate at which certain chemical reactions can be catalyzed, which can be very sensitive to changes in temperature. Interestingly, since the global environment, is a complex system in someways similar to a body, there are similar reasons for why just a few degrees of global warming, can wreak havoc. When it comes to complex systems, small changes in the inputs, can have massive and often unpredictable effects. ↩︎
  4. The big change that came from the OODA loop and EM theory was that visibility and maneuverability were prioritized for the F-16, instead of raw performance and heavy armament. Thus the F-16 was not a tank in the sky that could dominate head on, but was more like a deadly mosquito that could pop up to bite you, and then maneuver to be just out of range, by the time you tried to swat it down. The single engined, bubble canopied F-16, was like an annoying mosquito, but with bullets and missiles, instead of itchy bites. ↩︎
  5. It’s important to distinguish between bodies that have decision making requirements and those that do not. Most plants for example, though clearly alive, do not seem to posses an identifiable locus of decision making, nor the agency with which to implement decisions. We could of course just be missing more complex behavior from plants, due to a much slower time scale, and there is already some evidence that suggests this is true. Here, the distinction is really based on decisions that result in moving the physical body, so even if plants have some agency, most are not moving very much, unless they are Groot of course. ↩︎
  6. At 20 °C (68 °F), the speed of sound in air is about 343 metres per second (1,125 ft/s; 1,235 km/h; 767 mph; 667 kn), or one kilometre in 2.9 s or one mile in 4.7 s. It depends strongly on temperature as well as the medium through which a sound wave is propagating. At 0 °C (32 °F), the speed of sound is about 331 m/s (1,086 ft/s; 1,192 km/h; 740 mph; 643 kn)

  7. Anyone who was a frequent passenger on any of the Chinatown bus lines in the early 2000’s undoubtedly has some sketchy and hilarious stories of the perils of budget interstate travel. Wow have I seen some sketchy and hilarious scenarios, taking the Chinatown bus over the years ha. ↩︎