Blogger, Know (Heal) Thyself

27 Aug

What Do You Want To Be?I am switching careers and working with a “career transition” firm in Austin, Texas. I’m taking a lot of “personality” exams, notably the Myers Briggs test (i’m an introverted, intuitive, thinking, judging kind of guy). And so, while I’m in that testing zone, I finally took Arnold Kling‘s “The Three Languages of Politics” nine-question exam. The results were, well, annoying, but explain why I have so few readers. Kling assigns each response one point, with each question having three choices based on the progressive, libertarian, and conservative paradigms. I’m a PLC (my characterization) – mostly progressive (4) , but also a little less libertarian (3), yet with a conservative tinge (2). In other words, a muddle.

Leaving aside career choices, and sticking with the politics, I’ve struggled to define and brand this blog. Usually, I just punt and call it a “personal blog”. Just as I need to assert myself for this career transition, I should grab a hold of this blog. I cringe at the notion of organizing every post around P, C, and L options. After I get a job I really don’t ever want to see one of these tests ever again. There’s value in considering all three policy options, and I always hoped that I could somehow nudge partisans into a constructive debate in the comments section.

Another way to consider this is by referring to the notion of “patternicity“. And, Temple Grandin included patternicity within another three-legged array of human cognition (via Arnold Kling).

I’m certainly not the first person to notice that patterns are part of how humans think. Mathematicians, for instance, have studied the patterns in music for thousands of years. They have found that geometry can describe chords, rhythms, scales, octave shifts, and other musical features. In recent studies, researchers have discovered that if they map out the relationships between these features, the resulting diagrams assume Möbius strip-like shapes.

The composers, of course, don’t think of their compositions in these terms. They’re not thinking about math. They’re thinking about music. But somehow, they are working their way toward a pattern that is mathematically sound, which is another way of saying that it’s universal. The math doesn’t even have to exist yet.

The same is true in visual arts. Vincent van Gogh’s later paintings had all sorts of swirling, churning patterns in the sky — clouds and stars that he painted as if they were whirlpools of air and light. And, it turns out, that’s what they were! In 2006, physicists compared van Gogh’s patterns of turbulence with the mathematical formula for turbulence in liquids. The paintings date to the 1880s. The mathematical formula dates to the 1930s. Yet van Gogh’s turbulence in the sky provided an almost identical match for turbulence in liquid.

Even the seemingly random splashes of paint that Jackson Pollock dripped onto his canvases show that he had an intuitive sense of patterns in nature. In the 1990s, an Australian physicist, Richard Taylor, found that the paintings followed the mathematics of fractal geometry — a series of identical patterns at different scales, like nesting Russian dolls. The paintings date from the 1940s and 1950s. Fractal geometry dates from the 1970s. That same physicist discovered that he could even tell the difference between a genuine Pollock and a forgery by examining the work for fractal patterns.

“Art sometimes precedes scientific analysis,” one of the van Gogh researchers said. And the relationship between art and science can go the other way too: Scientists can use art to understand math. The physicist Richard Feynman revolutionized his field in the 1940s when he devised a simple way to diagram quantum effects. Equations that took months to calculate could suddenly be understood, through diagrams, in a matter of hours.

And then there’s chess. There’s always chess. For a century now, chess has been the petri dish of choice for cognitive scientists. What makes a chess master a chess master? Definitely not words. But not pictures, either (which is what you might think). When a chess master looks at the board, she doesn’t see every game she’s ever played and then find the move that matches the move from a game she played three or five or twenty years earlier or from a nineteenth-century chess match that she’s studied closely. The stereotype of a chess grand master is someone who can think many moves ahead. And certainly, many chess players do strategize that way. But the grand masters retrieve from their memories not more possibilities but better possibilities because they are better at recognizing and retaining patterns or what cognitive scientists call chunks.

Michael Shermer, a psychologist, historian of science, and professional skeptic  – he founded Skeptic magazine — called this property of the human mind patternicity. He defined patternicity as “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data.”

What all these examples tell me is that in society, the three kinds of minds — visual, verbal, pattern thinkers — naturally complement one another. When I recall collaborations in which I’ve successfully participated, I can see how different kinds of thinkers worked together to create a product that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet society puts them together without anybody thinking about it.

But what if we did think about it? What if we recognized these categories consciously and tried to make the various pairings work to our advantage? What if each of us was able to say, Oh, here’s my strength, and here’s my weakness — what can I do for you, and what can you do for me?

I can say at this point: a job, please.


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