Dissolving mind and body

Differentiating between mind (thought) and body (physical action) can often be misleading. Consider collapsing both of these into the concept of movement. Small movements tend to happen within the mind — mere thought. Larger movements begin to have a more immediate impact on the surrounding environment — displacement of our body in space and the imprint of our language onto surfaces. It seems larger movements tend to dominate smaller ones — our thoughts are derailed far more easily when we move through, and interact with, the world than when we sit quietly with our eyes closed. Dissolving the distinction between thought and action can be useful for understanding habit — the familiar paths that we default to moving along. The domination of larger movements over smaller ones is quite evident when I try to change a habit. Strategizing about how to do it and thinking about my desire to do so seems to have little immediate effect. The surest way to perform habit change is to repeat the physical movement of the body associated with it, in the appropriate context, over and over. Even with a rebellious or wandering mind, it seems the creation of the path with the repetition of the larger movements wins out and the smaller movements begin to follow along over time.

What does attention enable?

Stephen R. Diamond suggests the thought experiment of isolating the effects of conscious awareness by identifying what sorts of actions are only possible — or which experiences only occur — when they are consciously attended to. He raises the example of happiness which appears to be solely a function of the contents of conscious awareness. Consider the pleasure or happiness imparted by being the owner of a luxury car. Upon reflection, you realize that you only experience this feeling when you are actively holding the car, or some side effect of its ownership, within your attention.

What other experiences are only possible when we attend to them? When preoccupied with a task I seem to be able to respond when people speak with me. However, without moving my attention away from the task in order to think through and craft a conscious thought, my responses seem to be quite simple and often illogical or poor. Inverting this example, I can participate relatively actively in a conversation — say a phone call — and still be able to perform simple tasks, especially those that are relatively “mindless” or routine. Interestingly, I seem to also be quite handicapped when it comes to decision making — even simple decisions like what to order for lunch — if my attention is elsewhere. If my hedonic valence — feelings of pleasure or happiness — is controlled by the contents of my attention at any moment, perhaps this suggests that activities or experiences that require attention are dependent on the feedback of hedonic valence to perform the underlying mental moves.

Desire paths everywhere

There is a popular idea of humans being able to adapt to anything. As Nietzsche and Frankl have argued, we can handle any what as long as there is a why. This seems approximately true although it makes me wonder whether certain things are easier for humans to adapt to than others. There is the idea of desire paths (or cow paths) as a response to high modernist top-down planning — when sidewalks fail to capture the desired walking patterns of people to a sufficient degree that new ad-hoc paths start forming through shortcuts taken over the carefully manicured lawns framed by those sidewalks. Perhaps we can look for desire paths — or the resulting venting of frustration that occurs when desire path formation is restricted — across all areas of life and use them as a gauge of how human-compatible (humane?) a given system feels. Humans having a tendency to get stressed and upset about sitting in traffic strikes me as an example of the latter — there is no shortcut they can take, and it becomes sufficiently constraining that their mind seems to start attacking itself, in a sense. On the other hand, the widespread adoption of contraceptive devices seems like an example of desire paths being created successfully with the use of new technology. Given the option to have control over when one has kids, many people seem to strain against the tradition of ASAP and always and leverage technology to “move across the landscape” in ways that were not possible before. There is also an interesting counterargument to the idea that the tendency for people being drawn to constantly stare at smartphones is in some sense inhuman. Now that we have been given an affordance to let our attention easily escape states of boredom, we may merely be drawn to take advantage of it. Of course, not all time sink activities leave us feeling as refreshed as others. Taking a few moments to pay attention to one’s breath has a much better feeling aftereffect than scrolling through Twitter mindlessly.