The Operating System of the Mind

 Metaphor, arguably, is how people learn- if not all of the time, then some of the time. It’s a way of making sense of this world and understanding the worlds of other people. Metaphor is a poignant, easily-graspable way we can understand worlds beyond everyday existence.

Where metaphor may be more prominent, though, is in understanding everyday existence. What is a human being? How do humans work? Why do they do what they do? Metaphor may be a solid way of exploring these questions, and one common comparison is between that of humans and computers; if you prefer, man and machine.  


Man vs. Machine

A key difference between humans and machines is that humans engage in parallel processing, by which multiple mental activities can go on at once. For instance, based on the current thought regarding visual perception, the brain processes different aspects of an image- depth, color, distance- simultaneously: rarely, if ever, are we aware of these pieces of a picture ever being separate. Thus, anyone who accuses another person of having a “one-track mind” (usually meaning that they focus on one thing relentlessly until they get it) is a liar. ;)

In contrast, computers- specifically, the central processing unit (CPU)- engage in serial processing. It can handle only one piece of information- that is, one bit- at a time. Of course, these days processors have multiple cores, which allow for multiple tasks to run on the computer at once.

Right now, for instance, I’m typing in Microsoft Word and listening to music in iTunes. Neither program seems to be slowing down the other. This was not always the case with computers: previously, one program required all of the computer’s “attention” for the time that it ran.

Still, I like to imagine that the brain can handle far more data at once than a computer can, even with modern day witchcraft such as Turboboost and Thunderbolt and quad-core processing (and there’s probably more than that which I’m unaware of). Wouldn’t the robots have taken over by now if they had more elegant processing abilities than us?

I think that even the first conscious machines will not be able to out-process us: at least, not right away. They’ll have to learn to deal with human emotions and animal instincts just like the rest of us. Computers are not yet fit for the natural world because they cannot comprehend these aspects of it (well, and if you pour water on them they’ll kersplode. But hey, the fan might be good at killing ants!).

That is another key difference between man and machine: computers lack bodies, hearts, and spirits. There seems to be no algorithm for achieving enlightenment (if such a thing can be accomplished), for instance. I’m not sure that one can be contrived. If this universe is dictated by equations (or vector spaces?) of some sort, they must be complex beyond imagination.

Well, or simple beyond imagination. Or maybe it’s both, and we use our human brains to process the complex and the simple components of our world simultaneously. That, or I’m just throwing words together.


Man as the Machine

Now that the differences are out of the way, I’d like to focus on what is (for my purposes) more important: the similarities between humans and computers. What enables humans to use computers is software known as an Operating System (OS). Roughly speaking, the OS is the interface between the hardware and the squishy human commander. The OS is programmed with commands that, via the processor, translate user input (e.g. pressing keys) into output (letters appearing on the screen). The OS I’m running on this laptop is Windows 8. Perhaps you have some version of iOS, or the seemingly-less-shameful Windows 7, or even Linux.

Sometimes people like to squabble over which Operating System is the best. But what people seem to put more attention on are applications- especially now with tablets and smartphones. Do you have Doodle Jump on your phone, or Rat on a Skateboard (if that’s the actual name)? Can you turn your iPhone into a lighter? Can it tell you exactly where you should eat in order to avoid a few extra pounds? Can it sort your mail and do the dishes and please your husband (since you probably can’t do those things yourself)?

Perhaps applications can be analogous to human skills. What apps have you programmed into yourself? Can you run a quarter of a mile faster than anyone else on the planet? How about 50 miles, or 150? Can you knit a sweater? Trap, gut, and cook a deer? Play the guitar- perhaps like Jimi Hendrix? Sort the mail? Do the dishes? Please your husband?

But how often do you consider your operating system? Are you malleable, like Windows, or are you a closed, unalterable system like iOS (Apple products)? Do you emphasize efficiency, like Linux, or user convenience, like Windows 7? Have you been considered obsolete and useless and are thus unsupported, left to be eaten by viruses, Ms. Windows XP? Are you considered “cheap,” or are you worth a pretty penny?

Today I had some type of experience (I know, things are getting’ squirrely now) in which I gained access to all of the beliefs I hold, written in command-line form in the programming software Python's IDLE (the fact they’re in Python might speak to an issue!). It appeared that I opened a file and the IDLE was activated, thousands of lines of code- each representing one belief- rapidly appearing. For your imaginatory pleasure, all the text was bold and green, in an Arial (~12 pt.) font.

If you’ve never used Python before, the IDLE looks like this:

If you need some help with math, let me know.

If you’re familiar with programming, this scenario might seem a tad quirky to you (unless I’m a tad mixed up on my computer facts). Perhaps you’d think that to see the code/commands on which I, the “computer,” run, you might have to open a terminal or one of the mysterious hidden files on to which the OS is installed. Whether I’d be able to or even want to alter that code is another story; the typical, incompetent user would probably be best to stay away.

Whatever the case may be, the very code which directs [most of] my thinking was there right in front of me, open to my editing desires. Because there was so much code, however, and I had never seen it like this before, editing wasn’t simple, and it took a significant amount of effort to accomplish. I couldn’t have changed more than five lines while I was in there. Of course, changing just the right five lines can alter a program dramatically; whether these were those type of lines I am uncertain, but the feeling is no.

At this point I’m uncertain as to how well this experience reflected what I believe and how I operate, and whether it will change how I operate. Regardless, it was incredibly interesting. I’m somewhat tempted to reproduce it in some form on an actual computer, though I’m not sure how at this point since I was just looking at program input (i.e., code. Output is simply what the user sees and can interact with directly. In this metaphor, output would be human behavior and thoughts).

I say “experience” because I’m not totally sure how to label it. It’s easiest to write off as meditation (really just relatively-focused thinking with my eyes closed) turned into a dream. But, I felt I had a bit too much control to call it a regular ol’ dream. Also but, I was not aware at any point that I was dreaming/ not in physical reality, so I can’t call it a lucid dream. Maybe it was a deep, balls-tripping meditation, or a special type of meditation-dream. I don’t know; I won’t dwell on it now.


Travel’s Influence on the OS

There are times when I feel that my modus operandi is especially malleable. I took a trip by myself to the city of Rochester a couple weeks ago, about a 2 and a half hour drive from where I live. That day I somehow was able to easily identify and challenge thoughts that, in essence, made my life more difficult.

It’s not that I was absent in this ability before the trip, but I certainly felt more powerful in this regard on this day- and have continued to since. Of course, this ability is key to self-improvement, and with deliberate effort will continue to grow for the rest of my (and your) life- perhaps longer, if possible.

Steve Pavlina says that when he travels he isn’t on some relaxification (a word of his) vacation, in which he lays back in a chair on the beach and sips fruity drinks. Instead, when he travels he’s on, challenging himself and rising up to those challenges with pleasure. At home, things are too easy, and he experiences more comfort and complacency (relative to himself, anyway). Now he’s preparing to live as a “nomad,” moving from one place to another every several months and leaving the permanent nest behind.

As I look back on my own travels of the last year, I can’t help but think I operate the same way. Everyday the voice of Move out! gets louder, and it’s more difficult to convince myself to go in the house (I have yet to fail—or, perhaps, succeed). It’s not bad here—the food, the warmth, the money is fine. Just fine, but a little too comfy.

I’ve wondered whether the safety nets of free college and a house with/paid for by parents are holding me back, constraining my abilities to be my best, take risks, and do awesome things. The abilities are certainly there, but it’s more difficult to gain full access to them.

Well, that, or I’m just a lazy, good-for-nothin’, overly-pampered, unappreciative teenager who’s coasting through life and wants to rebel simply for rebellion in itself, but really all I need is a good, hard kick in the derriere. I wouldn’t call that completely inaccurate, but it may not be the fairest way to size me up.

But who needs fairness, anyway? It’s toughness that’s important, cowboy. Eat er be eatin’- that’s how you get anywhere in this here world.

Context-Based Beliefs and Behavior

Anyway, what I may be able to say based on my travel experiences vs. at home is that how I operate is context-dependent. Of course, we already know this- that people are “products of their environment.”

It’s tough to act the same across situations, though to an extent this may mark a person who is either incredibly suppressed or incredibly congruent (authentic). I feel I behave almost ridiculously different around different people and on different days, so I cannot say for certain.

What I am led to ask here is whether a person’s beliefs are likewise context-dependent. I’ve previously assumed (half-consciously) that beliefs are basically static, and change with some combination of deliberation and insight.

But might it actually be that I hold different beliefs while at home versus while in the city of Ra-cha-cha, such that when I come home I also come under the command of a set of “Home” beliefs? Or do my beliefs change for a little while when I’m away, and then mostly (but not entirely) revert back when I return? Or am I, for whatever reason (perhaps those based on circumstance) better able to challenge my beliefs when I escape my typical environment? Or am I fussing too much over semantics?

Machines certainly are context-dependent to an extent. For instance, they function better in a cool-enough environment than one that is too hot. Hardware has to be installed properly to work properly.

How about software? Viruses may slow functioning, impair functioning, or even prevent it entirely. For some applications, the strength of the Internet connection is a huge factor in performance. The settings you choose for your OS (e.g. power-usage, on a laptop), browser (e.g. security settings), and other applications will influence their functioning.

Of course, most of the software-based circumstances are derived from commands. Viruses- even biological viruses, it seems- are really just code (commands). They just so happen to be commands that do not work in our favor.

Perhaps for humans, then, environmental signals are really code which alter our own code. While each of us has a unique set of code there may be no code that you can call “yours,” because that code is always being influenced by the environment (yes, even your gene expression does not go untouched by the environment; “environment,” in this case, includes your emotions).

Even in your dreams you’re in some sort of environment- aren’t you? As far as your dream-self is concerned you are. However, a masterful lucid dreamer might not feel quite as quelled by circumstance. He creates circumstance.

When you’re just starting out with active dreaming, you may lose control sometimes and unfavorable things will happen to you. But as your skill level advances, you have better knowledge of how to prevent such events.

And if they happen anyway? Well, you might be so used to them by this point that they really aren’t that big of a deal. They don’t have to be so bad- they’re just things that happen.

Maybe in the lucid dream state you and your code are about as pure as they can get, in that this is as far removed from circumstance as you can be. I suppose this is the draw of meditation and sensory-deprivation tanks—to see yourself as you truly are, environment-independent (though circumstance certainly can tell us a lot about a person as well). Perhaps this has something to do with my ability to “see” and alter some of the code I run on.



Competent vs Dumb Users (or, Lucid Dreamers vs. Sleepers)

The general computer user might be totally unaware of the fact that a machine operates based on code. He might think that YouTube and Twitter and his favorite games just appear, and it’s fabulous. If he’s older than, say, 7, he probably knows that people created these applications and made them available to other people, but for the most part this detail does not matter too much. My programming professor refers to this type of person as the “dumb user.”

The competent (“geeky”, if you prefer) computer user, on the other hand, is aware of the computer’s code-based nature and probably is comfortable with using command-line interfaces. He may have even built the computer himself and altered the operating system to some extent.

This guy can probably send more than a few viruses the way of the unknowledgeable. He knows there are files the OS prefers to keep hidden from the dumb users, and if he touches them he probably won’t corrupt the software. This is unless, of course, this master of machines is evil, and is tapping into another person’s data for the purpose of destroying them.

Of course, this is the same guy who helps the dumb user when things fall apart on him. When the mouse stops working or the OS can’t boot, the geek is the man the dummy gives a call, and usually a decent solution can be provided for him.

The geek, however, cannot be there to hold the hand of this one dumb friend all the time. No- there are too many other dummies to be curtailed, and too many interesting skills and things of his own to be built and worked on.

Unless the dummy is to be completely reliant on evil and helpful geeks alike for the rest of his life, unable to tell the difference between friend and foe, he must choose at some point to likewise learn and gain competence. Otherwise, when he falls victim to circumstance he will always do so haplessly.

In contrast, in those times when the competent user must submit to his environment- which may be often if he takes up challenging work- he can throw in his hat knowing that he tried all he could think of and that he may learn from this event, making him that much more competent. In this way, he never experiences a loss. With each event his knowledge base is built higher- nothing more, nothing less.



Hacking Yourself


Safety Nets vs. Death Ground

Basically what I am asking you to do in this article is to become aware of your thoughts and assess them critically. If you deem certain thoughts as disempowering- that is, a constraint on performance- do something about them. Make note of this thought and don’t give into it when it and/or its related behaviors arise. Ask it some tough questions. Consider what more empowering thought it may become.

A few minutes ago my foot started hurting, just as it usually does on the heel. I stopped writing to rub it. After several minutes I asked myself, “What am I doing? Am I just giving into this pain to divert myself from writing? Do I want this pain to be here, and am perpetuating it thus?” So I stopped and now I’m pressing keys once more. At the moment I am pain-free (well, in my foot, at least).

Such a logical approach, as you likely know, isn’t always sufficient- especially in heated circumstances. Can you expect a person who has immense emotional suffering to begin logically analyzing himself? Even if he does, he might say, “I acknowledge my current silliness, but I shall continue giving into it anyway. I feel incapable to do much else” (which is better than being totally unaware of the silliness, FYI). That’s basically what I said just prior to dropping out of my last ultramarathon attempt. Safety nets (AKA warm aid stations with comfy chairs) might have stolen a few miles from me then, too.

When you’re really struggling and a safety net of some sort is nearby, ready to eat you up, there’s a decent chance that you will throw yourself into it. As you become more competent as a human being, this chance should decrease overall, yet you will simultaneously be more skilled at keeping safe without a net as well.

In contrast to the comfort of safety nets, when you’re on death ground and your only options are to succeed or die, you’ll probably try your darndest until you become physically incapable of doing so, and possibly lose your life. I suspect that if someone held a gun to my head for the whole course of 100 miles, I might have finished- and even within the cutoff time.

Of course, it takes a strong psyche to not mentally crumble and explode into panic when on death ground. If a dumb user has no desire to be anything but a dumb user, he may be best off avoiding death ground.

However, this does not mean that death ground will avoid him. Comfort’s hold is rarely long-lasting.

The more incompetent and unaware you are, the more difficult it will be to make important, lasting change in your life- especially with a logical approach. If I’ve held your interest this long you probably aren’t the most incompetent person on Earth, but you could still do with an alternative to pure thought-fighting (just as well all could).


Shock-Value/ Insight-Learning

So what can you do? In An Unusual 30 Day Trial I wrote about the value of learning via shock. Not electrical shock or even traumatic shock, but just something to knock you out of your chair.

Sometimes I attain this through reading. I’ll read a passage, continue on for a little bit, and then go back to a part that stood out to me. Then I’ll think, “Oh shit, do I do that?” and am encouraged to become more aware of and change my behavior thus.

This is different than if I had noticed some behavior in myself one day and said, “Oh, yeah- maybe I should stop doing that,” and then proceed with doing the same thing the next day. And the next day and the next… No, this is more powerful. The whole line of code doesn’t get changed immediately but it certainly gets scrolled to and highlighted, ready for some editing.

Some pieces of writing which have provided me with shock are Steve Pavlina’s Rules are No Obstacles for Committed People and, most of all, The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell. Nothing has altered my thinking as much as that book has.

Shock doesn’t have to come just by way of reading. It might be through a conversation you have: perhaps a respected person in your life gives you a good kick in the pants, and you are left in awe.

Shock could also come through some deliberate effort of introspection (e.g. meditation, journaling).

I’m led to ponder my thought/behavior processes even more. How much of what I do might be avoidance of things I deem to be “scary” or “bad”? I have to wonder.

Shock is basically interchangeable here with “insight.” I like to use the term “shock” because insight tends to come with some extent of shock- especially when a person has been trapped in a lifetime of maladaptive behavior, totally unaware of what he is doing or why. Plus, shock has a way of staying in people’s minds (well, provided it doesn’t erase those minds).

One of my previous History teacher’s favorite way of teaching is “Shock and Awful.” When you’re 15 years old listening to a grown man yell angrily, create depraved sexual humor related to something out of a textbook, and embarrass your classmates, you don’t put his class out of your mind too easily.

Insight is more likely to come to you the longer you stay in the game. If you give up early on, you simply will not have received enough information to produce insight.

Of course, the beautiful thing about insight is that you can never be certain when or whether it will arrive. If you expect yourself to come upon insight eventually, you probably will- though it may not quite take the form you thought it would.

I might be planting memories in my head, but when I was severely depressed I may have at least once said to myself, “Eventually I’ll realize something that will take me out of this horrible thinking… won’t I?”

Regardless of whether I actually said that, can’t that thought be enough to keep someone alive? Maybe not all the depressed people, but a few of them? Isn’t insight one of the best things you can hope for? And the thought wasn’t wrong: the life-changing insight, in fact, was derived from Russell’s book.



Perform a Virus Scan

Stay on the lookout for your thoughts. Question your behavior. Feel your emotions (if circumstance allows) but ask where they came from and whether they really need to be there. Don’t assume that “you” (well, “I”) as you know yourself just came into being by some magic, and don’t take the code that dictates you for granted. It can be altered.

Code is just a combination of characters, and those characters can be rearranged and replaced. How daunting are 0s and 1s when you analyze and can understand them?

You might not be able to do so now, but that doesn’t mean you never will. Just give yourself a command right now: Begin introspection. I’ll leave you to write your own code for delivering this action. That is, unless you’d really like me to program you. ;)

Two notes I must end on: (1) Becoming more self-aware is an ongoing process that will never end, but this does not mean that you ought to shut off all applications forever. A computer that would prevent applications from opening must have a serious issue.

Rather, it is through your use of apps- that is, of trying new activities and continuing those you already enjoy (which pass the virus scan)- that you can better assess how you operate. Don’t shut down.

But more importantly, (2) Don’t shock your computer: it doesn’t have the capacity for that type of thing, emotionally or physically (sub-lesson: don’t turn to transhumanism just yet. Maybe soon, but not now).

Article Notes/References:

I first heard the OS/application-analogy from a Tim Ferriss podcast and have elaborated on it here. I believe the episode was How to Think Like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos but don't quote me on that one.

The term “Death ground” is from Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War.

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