Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Project: Habituating Conceptual Thinking

I mentioned in one of my recent updates on my studying that I found out that I had been taking a drastically wrong approach with my conceptual exercises. While it may be a good method to employ to deal with concepts here and there, it is no where near sufficient for the immeasurable quantity of concepts I need to objectively root. If I were to limit my thinking on concepts solely to that of the written exercises, then I could occupy myself for endless hours, never having time for anything else. What really needs to be fixed is my thinking: I need to habituate a certain style of thinking that will allow me to root and break down concepts on the fly through purely mental means.

As of now I consider my little mini-project of setting up a study system to be complete and successful. It will eternally be in the editing stage what with my being open to constantly tweaking and improving my methods, but my main aim in treating it like a formal project was to set up a basic system, mainly that of a specific way of taking notes. Now it's time to move onto another project, this one a bit more difficult: training my mind to adopt new habits of thinking. Changing one's habits by breaking other habits can be terribly hard, but considering the nature of the habit I'm aiming to establish it should make a significant impact on my psycho-epistemology, my writing, my vocabulary, my thinking, and my learning. The intimidation of the challenge is erased by the amazing amount to gain.

But don't think I've forgotten about my other project, vaguely known around here as "The Project." I haven't forgotten about it in the least or stopped working on it; it's just that things are still stagnating for the moment given independent variables, though there have been some recent happenings that may or may not have an impact on the pace of my project. While I'm not making any advancements towards that very important goal, I need to busy myself with other goals, otherwise my mind will dwell on the circumstance that's hindering me now. (Since there are so few deleterious problems in my life, the circumstance immediately comes to mind when I think of what's bothering me, so I need to keep myself from that thinking as much as possible.)

Simply put, the aim of this new project is to establish a mental habit in which I can employ the proper methods in order to objectively root a concept in my mind and achieve certainty of its relationship to reality. As noted before, a concept is objectively rooted in one's mind when one can break it down into its constituents, going down all the way to perceptual reality. First-level concepts are directly perceptual, so the immediate referents are perceivable. Anything beyond that, however, is a bit of a challenge: their constituents are groupings of other concepts, so one has to break down that concept into its constituent concepts and then those constituent concepts into their own constituents, continuing to perceptual reality.

My written conceptual exercise does well for establishing a method for dealing with concepts, but it isn't enough considering the number of times I would need to do it. My thinking itself, therefore, needs to be altered so that I can doing this exercise constantly and consistently with greater efficiency and less physical work.

So far I have a few methods set up to achieve this end, though I am open to adding to or modifying them:

1.) Just do the exercises. The method on how I should do it has already been documented in my formal written conceptual exercises. The only main difference would be that I would reduce emphasis on digging through my dictionary (can't tote that everywhere you know) and add more emphasis on visualizing and making explicit the referents of a concept. On that latter point, doing my conceptual exercises mentally may have an advantage, for I often lack patience in my written exercise for listing examples of referents of a concept. Under the concept "furniture" there is a massive amount of examples; would anyone want to write out the entirety of all the referents they know? Doing it all mentally will be much more quicker, and perhaps much more effective since I would be willing to take the time to make the referents known and thereby gain a greater understanding of how they're all similar and what they're being distinguished from.

2.) Mental dialogue with myself. I'm not sure if I've ever written about this before here, but one thinking technique that has helped me tremendously in the past is constructing an imaginary scenario where I'm giving a lecture to a class or interested conversational partner as a way of teasing out my thinking. Through this I'm able to explicate my knowledge and thinking without doing it directly to myself; instead I'm doing it as if I were trying to make someone else understand. As a bonus, it makes asking questions easier: Whenever I run into a dead-end, a vague point, a possible misunderstanding, or whatever, the person(s) in my imagination conveniently raise questions and objections at just the right moments. This fusion of daydreaming and thinking has done wonders to make introspection easier for me, and I should take greater advantage of it.

3.) Written dialogue with myself. The same method as above, only in written form. It is debatable as to how effective it could be or whether it's really necessary, but it's something to keep in mind. It might help my concentration and ability to stay on one topic since my writing speed wouldn't allow me to rapidly switch trains of thought as I would be able to through pure thinking.

4.) Trigger lists. Some concepts are more important than others, and in my own personal realm it's more important that I learn scientific, philosophic, and culinary concepts more than any other type of concept since they're the most relevant to my central purpose in life: to become a culinary entrepreneur with emphasis on scientific innovations. Again, through pure thinking it can be far too easy to switch trains of thought and to only do partial contemplation on a subject before switching to another. If an emergency were to arise in my workplace, for instance, it might become necessary that I immediately switch my energy to the problem of new importance, thereby leaving the chance a concept I was chewing on is left partially digested. By writing down the concepts and carrying a list with me, I'll be more easily able to trigger my thinking to transfer to the conceptual exercises and to retrace my steps if I get distracted.

As an added benefit, it may serve to discipline and train my habitual thinking for the better in the long-term, avoiding idleness and daydreaming. Sometimes, for instance, I find myself unable to perform my Mental Calvinball game while at work. Sometimes due to exhaustion I just can't keep count, or maybe there's not enough dishes to warrant such intense concentration. If such an incident should arise, I would be prepared with my trigger lists to feed a subject to my mind which to keep it occupied. Idleness is never good, and in my case it usually leads to me dwelling on the "circumstance" that's bothering me right now since it's the only unresolved problem of significance. If I dwell on that, then a negative mood is sure to rise.

This list method is also reminiscent of the thinking lists I tried to establish before. (I've never written about it.) While I was a Park Ranger I used to carry around a list with me of general things to think about, to prevent daydreaming in what was a mostly physical line of work. It's questionable whether such a mechanical way of encouraging thought can be sufficient to initiate an easy flowing thought process -- back then it was more like I was forcing myself to think -- but I remain open to starting it again. With only so many minutes in my life, I need to learn how to use them all.

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This seems like a good starting point for now, though I need to figure out how to incorporate them into my daily routine. Perhaps some might only be needed temporarily in order to establish the habit, by which then the habit might be able to sustain itself mentally. The written dialogue, for instance, could be used to steady my trains of thought and then be abandoned when I successfully install the mental discipline (and re-adapted if that discipline should lapse).

There are a few concerns and questions:

1.) Which concepts to think about. This concern particularly applies to my trigger lists. Simply, which concepts are the most important and in most need of my attention? I know scientific, culinary, and philosophic concepts are top priority, but how do I establish a hierarchy within those fields? Perhaps by starting with the concepts that I am closest to understanding?

2.) Having the patience to stay and think things fully out. This is a problem of the attention span. Some problems can take hours at a time to think out, and it can take quite the training and established habits to be able to stick with it that long. In my own practices I've found that it can be difficult to maintain a solitary train of thought for a long time. Sometimes in my classroom imaginings my lecture will start blending in other subjects before the lecture changes into something entirely irrelevant. I think the written dialogue and trigger lists might do well to combat this problem, but we'll see. Achieving patience with my thinking could be a massive benefit to my long-term pursuits and intellectual powers.

3.) Blending in my conceptual thinking with my general thinking. While there may be a more appropriate means to objectively rooting concepts in one's mind, one should not think about isolated concepts all the time. Noted a few posts ago, I once had the problem during my reading of divorcing concepts from their sentences and focusing on them exclusively. As much as I need to alter my conceptual thinking, I need to figure out how to blend such a habit seamlessly into my other thinking in which concepts are connected, integrated, and formed to mean ever greater amount of things. Though somewhat inaccurate and imprecise, what I mean is that I need to figure out how to blend my thinking about isolated concepts into my thinking in which concepts are unified into sentences.

This may turn out not to be a problem in the end, but it's something to be aware of. I don't know, for instance, how I would be able to blend in a conceptual exercise into one of my imaginary lectures if the lecture subject was about an integrated subject (i.e. concepts combined and interrelated).

4.) Resisting the temptation to continuously break down prior established concepts. In other words, after having achieved certainty about a concept's relationship to reality, how do I get myself comfortable using that concept casually without wanting to break it down into its referents all the time? This fear is sort of like those nightmares of going to school without your clothes on: Somehow or the other in that dreamworld you managed to comfortably and nonchalantly travel all the way to school without realizing your nudity, right up until the teacher calls you out for it. It would be embarrassing to be using a concept multiple times, asked what it means, and then not know how to respond.

But then again that just may be packaged as part of the learning process. I should strive to be as certain of the validity of my concepts as much as possible, but it may be inevitable that some will slip through the cracks. Maybe there is a way for me to be able to detect immediately an unobjectively rooted concept, but I don't know how to right now. At the very least, the proper thing to do when faced with such a scenario is to confront it with the honesty that an intellectual error has been made.

5.) Interference with Mental Calvinball. As you probably already know, there's this game I play at work I call Mental Calvinball, in which I set up an arbitrary rule to follow during my shift and practice it the best I can. In my case, I aspire to count the dishes and utensils in various ways, by 1's, 3's, 20's, etc. To keep count it usually requires most of my concentration (which, in effect, helps me concentrate on the dishes). How can I accommodate my conceptual exercises with Mental Calvinball? Could it possibly take the place of Mental Calvinball? Perhaps both could be done at the same time?

More thinking needs to be done, but right now I'm tempted to say that I ought to just set a goal and experiment at work, like trying to go one night doing both the game and the exercises at the same time and another night just doing the exercises, or whatever. Maybe the conceptual exercise itself can be treated like a Mental Calvinball game in which I aspire to chew on concepts and most efficiently scrub my dishes at the same time.

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That's my thinking for now. I'll be sure to update on my progress and new thinking in the future. My immediate course of action is to set up trigger lists and to figure out how to alter my routine in order to incorporate the above mentioned practices.


  1. Your method #2 sounds just like a popular thinking technique among computer programmers, called "rubberducking". It consists of explaining a concept or a problem out loud to some proxy such as a toy or a picture.

    I've done the exact same thing as you described, too; I've imagined myself explaining some programming concept to a favorite rock star. I keep rewinding the scenario until I can explain the concept clearly all the way through. You are right about how easy it is to keep jumping topics--or to let go of a topic when I'm realistically done with it.

    The new page design looks good, BTW.

  2. Wow, thanks for that article. I might try that with my Bowser bobble head (from Mario Bros.), though I admit to being a little bashful what with another person in my house.


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