No Miracle People

January 18, 2018

You ask me if an ordinary person, by studying hard, would get to be able to imagine these things like I imagine it – of course! I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There’s no miracle people. It just happens they got interested in this thing, and they learned all this stuff. They’re just people. There’s no talent or special miracle ability to understand quantum mechanics or miracle ability to imagine electromagnetic fields that comes without practice and reading and learning and study. So if you say you take an ordinary person who’s willing to devote a great deal of time and study and work and thinking and mathematics and so on, then he’s become a scientist.

-Richard Feynman

I love love love this quote.

I look why some people are better at certain cognitive tasks than others as largely a software issue, rather than a hardware issue. Without any science backing me up, but from the way that things feel, I’d like to make some claims.

We’re all born with the equivalent of a Pentium 4 processor for our brains, and like, what, a gig of ram? More or less, our biological bits are probably pretty similar. In the way that your fingers might be longer than mine, but they still contain tendons and can bend and pick up stuff, our brains are probably mostly indistinguishable at a biological level (at least at birth.)

But that doesn’t explain why our brains exhibit different characteristics of things they’re capable of doing. For example, I’m pretty OK at learning math, but I understand that this is a relatively rare phenotype.

The claim is that our understanding comes primarily in the form of metaphors; we draw metaphors between things we have an intuition of to things we don’t, and we use that bridge to help interpret and understand the new topic.

If this is in fact a true claim, it means we can gain intuition about new topics by drawing metaphors to ones for which we already have an understanding. I would make the assertion that this is the core reason behind why thins come more easily to some than others – that already possess relevant mental machinery to cross the gaps.

There’s a quote that comes to mind:

Like all artisans, a blacksmith needs tools, but—according to an old (indeed almost extinct) observation—blacksmiths are unique in that they make their own tools.

-Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps

Like blacksmiths, I would suggest that our minds as they exist today are the result of having built and rebuilt our own tools for thinking (aka the metaphors through which we see the world.) As we learn more and more things, our collection of useful metaphors likely becomes more and more unique, which shapes not only the way we understand the world, but also our tools for deconstructing and learning new things.

There is an important realization here, if true, which comes in two forms of the same thought: our minds and cogitative skills are malleable, and that we can exploit such a fact if we so choose.

A couple of corollaries fall out of this. The first is that if we want to learn something completely outside of our area of expertise, it might be fruitful to attempt to analyze it in terms of things we already understand. This, for example, is why I’ve attempted to systematize the core rules of music as a computer program. I know how to program computers and explicitly how to think about designing them, but I have no such tools for music. I won’t say that this exercise has made me into a jazz pianist, but it’s certainly given me a few intuitions behind why, e.g. scales are what they are.

The other corollary is that it can be beneficial to seek out explicit and widely-applicable mental models. Some that come to mind that I invoke quite often are:

  • Natural Selection – things that are better at “surviving” or “reproducing” will outperform things that do this less well. Resulting generations of this thing will exhibit more of their ancestor’s qualities than the qualities of competing things that died out. Natural selection explains evolution of the species, but also viral media, contemporary thought, and our interpretation of history (among many, many other things).
  • Nash Equilibria – a point at which things become stuck, because there are no incentives for anyone participating to change their mind. Nash Equilibria explain a lot of world politics, where bureaucracy comes from, stagnancy of human relationships, strategies for board games, and all sorts of other interesting things.
  • Pareto Principle – the 80/20 rule: most of the results of something come from doing only a small fraction of the work. You can observe this everywhere, from the grading scheme in university, to launching an MVP as a startup, to most civilizations’ punishments for theft. More generally, the Pareto principle is a Pareto principling of the Taylor series.
  • Efficient Market Hypothesis – capitalism is not stupid (in the sense of not being intelligent enough to capitalize on good opportunities), and that things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. This suggests that that great idea you have about how easy it would be in order to fix something might not be such a great idea after all – or else it would have already been done. There are, of course, caveats to this.
  • Expected Value / Value of Information – we can put an explicit monetary value on how beneficial a course of action or piece of information would be, and, because of the Pareto principle, we won’t be too wrong despite just making up some numbers. Exceptionally useful for evaluating choices with significant potential long-term repercussions.
  • Strategy and Tactics – the distinction between actions that produce favorable long-term results, vs those that produce short-term results. Helpful for analyzing a potential course of action based on what you want to accomplish and the timeline over which you care.
  • Capital – the idea that things we usually pay no attention to are in fact resources, and can be used as such. For example, you’ve probably heard of political capital: how much sway you have in some sort of organization, but if you spend your influence on something controversial, you’ll have less of it to go around the next time. Other types of capital include career capital, social capital, attention span, and will-power.
  • Exponential Gains – doing things that can build upon themselves to produce bigger things. Exponential gain is a model for acquiring something significantly larger than you could have ever built yourself one brick at a time. Being able to spot exponential gains (and subsequently capitalize on them) is likely the most important skill you will ever develop. Examples include investing money, investing in skills, really, anything that uses the term “investment.”

Some resources I’d highly recommend if you are interested in learning more are Intuition Pumps, Metaphors We Live By, The Selfish Gene, So Good They Can’t Ignore You as well as all of Scott Alexander’s writing and the LessWrong sequences. My friend also send me this link the other day, a list of Mental Models.

As a shameless self promotion, I also maintain an archive of every quote I’ve read that has caused me to stop and think for a second. I consider these moments to be tiny steps towards building a new lens under which to view the world. That being said, I find it an invaluable resource for myself, and if I can offer you some unsolicited advice, would suggest you take up a similar habit if you don’t already.

The key takeaway from all of this is that your mind is better considered as a blacksmith’s shop than as a pristine sculpture. The blacksmith constructs his own tools, with which he can construct better refined goods and even more precise tools. Your mind isn’t a precious artifact passed down from generation to generation whose flaws and imperfections you have no choice but to deal with. It’s a living, breathing thing, with the capabilities to shape itself into whatever you want it to be.

So long as you’re willing to devote a great deal of time and study and work and thinking and mathematics and so on.

Related Posts

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy: