In the back of my mouth are two lonely wisdom teeth patiently awaiting their long overdue eviction notice. They need to be pulled. Two of my four wisdom teeth were extracted three years ago and a week later I was supposed to make an appointment for the remaining pair to be pulled. Instead, because my first experience in the torture chamber, ahem, back room of the dental office, I avoided it. For the last three years, I’ve successfully dodged a myriad of follow-up phone calls from the dentist and well-meaning reminders from my wife.
I won’t go into the details but the procedure didn’t go smoothly. It was painful and a little terrifying.
I am now one of the 10-15% of people that are scared enough of the dentist that they avoid ever going. (Different from the 75% of people that experience anxiety but still go). But I know I’ll eventually have to overcome the fear and make the appointment.
This got me thinking about fear, anxiety, and emotional suffering caused by the anticipation of future events and how we can overcome it. The Stoic Philosophers practiced something called Negative Visualization. This is the practice of imagining undesired events, such as the death of a loved one, so that when the event inevitably occurs you are emotionally prepared to deal with it. It’s dark stuff to think about, there’s no denying that, but it could be helpful, especially to someone with a terminally ill loved one whose death in the near-future is expected.
In addition to helping someone deal with a future event such as death, it also helps them better appreciate the time spent with loved ones. In William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy he describes this idea by comparing two fathers – one who uses negative visualization and one who does not:
“To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes [this] advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.”
In this way, negative visualization is a powerful tool for helping someone appreciate anything they value in their life. Simply imagine losing something important to you or being forced to live without it. A greater appreciation will naturally follow.
Negative visualization is also used in business. There it is known as a pre-mortem and is enacted as a strategy at the beginning of a new project to dissect imagined scenarios where that project has failed to determine what could potentially lead to that failure.
Adjusting the Strategy: Using Negative Visualization to Overcome Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety
With a little tweaking one could also apply the idea of negative visualization to overcome the fear of an upcoming event, such as my inevitable tooth extractions. Overcoming fear and anxiety is different than overcoming grief and sadness, thus it requires a slightly different approach. Instead of simply visualizing the event that one fears, they would visualize something much worse.
If I imagine something far worse than getting my teeth pulled, such as James Franco cutting his own arm off with a pocket knife, like he does in the movie 127 Hours, then my procedure, complete with numbing medication and proper dental tools, doesn’t seem so bad.
This helps turn my focus away from the fear of a negative outcome and onto hope for a positive one. It helps me focus on the obvious benefits of my situation over James Franco’s character’s situation in the movie.
At the dentist, I will be either sedated or numbed so there should be no pain. The dentist will be using the proper tools to remove my teeth so It won’t be a miserable marathon of agonizing pain like it would be when cutting your own arm off with a pocket knife. (I’m going to squeeze that visual into this article as often as I can!).
This technique of downplaying an event by imagining something far worse is used in other situations with different objectives. For example, my dad would often “sugar-coat” things rather than tell me the bad news upfront.
As a teenager, before I had a driver’s license, I would have to call him to come pick me up from work. Even when he knew he wouldn’t be able to leave the house for 30-45 minutes, he would tell me he’d be there in 10-15 minutes. While this particular scenario still ended in me being frustrated when he didn’t show when I expected him (and I don’t agree with its usage), he still eliminated the frustration it would have caused me to hear upfront that I would have to wait for him.
Salespeople use this technique too – they call it softening the blow – when they have to tell a client the cost of their service. If the actual cost of said service is $500, they might joke with a customer and say it’s going to be $1500. When the client’s jaw drops, the salesperson says, “Ha ha, just kidding, it’s only $500.” The visualization of a far-worse scenario softens the blow of the real thing. Cha-ching – sale made.
The Stoics may have been the first to put negative visualization into regular practice, but similar methods have been applied by everyone from psychologists to my dad. It’s widely used and seldom recognized but it’s effective and it can help to both avoid suffering and amplify enjoyment and gratitude. Simply put, it’s a tool to help us manage our emotions.
Consider visualizing James Franco cutting his arm off with a pocket knife. Then go make a dentist appointment.
In order to bring forth knowledge, we must learn to think. If we follow the advice of Derek and Laura Cabrera, we find that Information X Thinking = Knowledge.
So, how do we construct knowledge? Let’s examine an analogy for knowledge construction offered by Steve Stockdale in Here’s Something About General Semantics: A Primer for Making Sense of Your World. Stockdale compares the “Building Block” Analogy vs. the “Spiral” Analogy in knowledge construction:
Building Blocks Analogy
“Typically, we grow up with a view of learning using the building blocks analogy.”
We learn our alphabet as a block of stacked letters.
We learn our numbers as a block of numbers.
We learn to spell by visualizing blocks of letters.
“However, if we apply what we ‘know’ about what goes on around us, we can choose to use a more appropriate analogy: we tend to learn in more of a spiral pattern than simple building blocks.”
Stockdale describes the spiral nature of learning as follows:
Just as the spiral expands from the center, our learning is continual and never-ending.
As we learn about one thing, we enable ourselves to learn more about something else, from a different perspective.
What we learn relates to what we’ve already learned, and what we’ve yet to learn, just as the spiral connects, or relates, one region to another.
The spiral more appropriately implies the continually-changing and more complex nature of ourselves and the world around us.
Moreover, to further answer this question, and to deepen our understanding of the topic, we will examine the philosophy known as General Semantics. From there, we will learn how to eliminate confusion and barriers to learning.
You might not agree with the philosophical beliefs of some of the philosophers, for which I am not asking you to become a follower of, but I am asking you to keep an open mind regarding the ideas discussed here (the ideas, not the person)
As you learn more about the philosophy, pay attention to how your level of understanding deepens and expands. Your level of understanding on any topic progresses from an intuitive understanding, to a systematic level, then to a scholarly level of understanding.
In The Logical Structure of Objectivism (“Beta” Version) by William Thomas and David Kelley, we are provided with the following example of Levels of Understanding:
Intuitive – non-reflexive acceptance of a principle, based on the subconscious integration of a mass of accumulated information and experience.
Example: Physics – common-sense experiences of gravity.
Systematic – ability to formulate principles explicitly and relate them logically to other principles and data.
Example: Ability to state the law of gravity and its relation to other laws.
Scholarly – issues pertaining to the formulation and validation of the principles.
Example: Physicist’s knowledge of gravitational theory.
As you read, I encourage you to think about your level of understanding as you learn more about a concept. You will find that as you learn more, you will increase both your breadth and depth on any concept.
Learning the Whole Picture
“A person does what he does because he sees the world as he sees it.” – Alfred Korzybiski
When an event happens, what portions of reality do we select to attend to and what portions do we leave out? Is it possible that we might miss certain things by simply attempting to label and explain them?
The answer is yes and General Semantics was developed to help us answer this question.
Alfred Korzybiski developed the theory of time-binding, which later evolved into General Semantics as scientific orientation toward language behavior. Bruce and Susan Kodish define it as a,
“General theory of evaluation. One that is concerned with understanding how we evaluate, with the non-verbal, inner life of each individual, with how each of us experiences and makes sense of our experiences, including how we use language and how language ‘uses’ us.”
In Here’s Something About General Semantics: A Primer for Making Sense of Your World, Steve Stockdale defines it as,
“General Semantics deals with the process of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences. Our language-behaviors represent one aspect of these responses.”
To understand General Semantics at a deeper level, we need to possess an understanding of the map-territory analogy and the abstraction process.
The Map is Not the Territory
Mary P. Lahman provides the following premises for General Semantics in Awareness and Action: A General Semantics Approach to Effective Language Behavior:
The map is not the “territory,” so there is no not territory.
A map covers not all the territory, so any map is only part of the territory.
Maps refer to parts of the territory becoming reflexive to other parts at different levels of abstraction.
To understand this map-territory analogy, let’s first examine how the words “map” and “territory” are being used.
Map = Language
Territory = Reality
Korzybski proposed a map-territory analogy to encourage exploration of verbal maps (language or words), noting that they (maps) do not accurately describe what is happening in the territory (reality). Korzybski found that when the territory (reality) changes, we must update our maps (language).
Stockdale argues that,
“Just as a well-drawn map depicts, represents, illustrates, symbolizes, etc., an actual geographic area, so should our language properly reflect that which it refers to – that which is NOT language. However, we often confuse the words we use with those ‘things’ the words refer to. We confuse the word with the thing; we mistake the map as the territory.”
Process of Abstraction
Let’s try a quick thought experiment to demonstrate this point. In Awareness and Action: A General Semantics Approach to Effective Language Behavior, Mary P. Lahman asks us to do the following:
Close your eyes to help you experience a world without words.
What are you doing right now? As you hear these words let yourself become aware of how you are sitting or lying down or standing.
How can you allow yourself to feel the support of what holds you up?
Where do you feel unnecessary tensions? Do you feel tension in your jaw? In your face?
Where do you feel ease? How clearly do you feel yourself breathing?
Lahman states that, “Many events are occurring inside and outside your skin right now.” She asks, “Can you allow yourself non-verbally to experience these activities?” She found, along with practitioners of General Semantics, that the answer is no. By attempting to label and explain things, we simply leave out information.
Alfred Korzybski found that we leave out information through the process of abstracting. He developed a model called the Structural Differential as a means to visualize this process. Let’s briefly examine this model.
Abstracting or the process of abstraction is typically defined as the process of concept formation and the recognition of common features. In philosophy, you typically find abstraction and concretization, where we classify a concept by distinct categories and referents.
For example, you could classify living organisms and then further breakdown the concept to rational thinking and non-rational thinking to differentiate a human from an animal. If you were to classify dogs, you could use referents to make an even more concrete distinction by listing different types of dogs, or different colors of dogs, etc.
Korzybski took a slightly different approach to abstracting with his creation of General Semantics and the Structural Differential. According to experts at ThisIsNotThat.com, Korzybski originally developed this as a three-dimensional (free-standing) model, where you imagine a colander (or a strainer) in place of the ragged parabola in the actual model.
They posit in Explaining the Structural Differential, that we move from an event (something happens), to object (I partially sense what happens), to description (I describe what I sense), to inference (I make meanings, inferences, beliefs, theories, etc.).
Turning Imagination into Reality
“We don’t get meaning, we respond with meaning.” – Charles Sanders Peirce
Let’s examine a practical example of the abstraction process and the Structural Differential. An idea took root in the back of my mind after watching a TED Talk – Turning children’s imagination into reality. Artist and designer Dominic Wilcox explained his mission: to inspire the world’s children to become the creative thinkers of our future by connecting their amazing ideas with skilled makers.
Here’s the TED Talk video:
Children are the most creative people in the world. They possess the unique ability to think to the furthest reaches of their imagination. Whereas adults have a barrier to creativity, children do not.
I followed Dominic’s advice and asked,
“What if I take my daughter’s wild imagination seriously?”
This question brought about something truly creative and imaginative.
One day, while I was working in my basement, my four-year-old daughter, Ella Schwandt, created a story on my whiteboard. With Dominic’s idea firmly planted in the back of my mind, I asked my daughter to explain her story to me.
A couple weeks went by. My daughter was outside playing with chalk on our driveway. I asked her to recall the story she drew on my whiteboard. I then drew six boxes in the form of a storyboard and had her go through the story again, yet this time we simplified it.
This ultimately led to a self-published children’s book authored by my daughter – Ella Katherine Schwandt. I identified myself as the translator and my wife, Tomi Schwandt, as the editor. We were able to bring my daughter’s vivid imagination into reality. And this is the book published on July 15, 2019: Charlotte Emmy & The Rainbow Dimension: A book by a four-year-old girl!
What was fascinating to witness was watching my daughter go through the process of abstraction, where she was able to describe her ideas from something extremely abstract to something more concrete. Essentially, she was able to place her wild imagination into this world. And she’s four!
Recall the discussion of the Structural Differential. The closer to the top (event level – shape of a parabola) the more abstract, where the closer to the bottom, ideas and concepts become more concrete.
For example, my daughter held abstract ideas in her head about rainbows and different characters. By drawing the images, she took those ideas (not all) and abstracted them. She then described the images and applied meaning to them.
Lahman found that,
“Language shapes the questions that we ask, which then affects what we observe, and, consequently, how we report findings.”
Thus, my daughter’s map, or her view of reality, is not true reality. It’s a mental model (a continuously evolving mental model) overlaid over the territory (reality). Whereas, as a child, my mental model would have overlaid the same territory, but my map would have been completely different.
Let’s take a loot at how my daughter moved through the process of abstraction to create her story:
Event (Reality): My daughter starts to form ideas based on her map (language) of the territory (reality).
Object (Senses): She starts connecting dots (or strings); however, it is impossible to connect everything, so certain things were left out. She was able to use her senses to start capturing some of the ideas.
Description (Verbal Awareness): She verbally describes her story for the first time. This is the difficult part. Imagine you are asked to close your eyes and describe what is going through your mind at that moment. It is difficult and things will get left out. However, this is where my daughter described her abstract characters and creations, such as Charlotte Emmy, a ham-et (vehicle for riding rainbows) and Hanny P’Tanny (location within the Rainbow Dimension).
Infer (Generate Meaning): She started to generate meaning for each creation after describing them. For example, the character, Charlotte Emmy, is on a journey to find her fifth birthday present (my daughter loves her birthday!) Along the journey, she finds a fat and soft house where you are both inside and outside at the same time. She then explains that her birthday present is inside a box, which is also inside a cloud. Inside the box is her thoughts, emotions, and feelings. She even described her thoughts, emotions, and feelings.
Using Science as a Method
“Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.” – Wendell Johnson
One of the more controversial figures in recent times, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics and Scientology, was familiar with Korzybiski’s work. In Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright discussed how Hubbard used Korzybski’s work as he saw the need for creating a special vocabulary. Wright remarked,
“Hubbard saw the need for creating a special vocabulary, which would allow him to define old thoughts in new ways (the soul becomes a thetan, for instance).”
Another example of this is Hubbard’s creation of a clear, which is defined in Scientology as the name or a state achieved through auditing and describes a being who no longer has his or her own reactive mind. Or as Andrew O’Hehir remarked when comparing the smart drug movie Limitless to a clear, “It’s like Scientology in a pharmaceutical form.”
Just to be clear (pun intended), I am not a Scientologist, nor am I asking you to become a believer in Scientology. However, I am asking you to keep an open mind as the following ideas for eliminating confusion and barriers to learning are extremely valuable.
Confusion and Stable Datum
“Confusion is the basic cause of stupidity.” – L. Ron Hubbard
In Tools for the Workplace, based on the works of Hubbard, confusion is defined as any set of factors or circumstances which do not seem to have any immediate solution. It is more broadly defined as random motion.
Furthermore, a datum can be defined as a piece of knowledge or something know (plural is data). Hubbard provides the following example,
“If you were to stand in heavy traffic, you would be likely to feel confused by all the motion whizzing around you. If you were to stand in a heavy storm, with leaves and papers flying by, you would be likely to be confused.”
Hubbard posited that we can understand confusion, but we must first understand its anatomy. He remarked,
“a confusion is only a confusion so long as all particles are in motion. A confusion is only a confusion so long as no factor is clearly defined or understood.”
Let’s examine one more example of the stable datum (it is not linked to Hubbard, nor Scientology). Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling write about this idea using an air traffic controller as an example in The 4 Disciplines of Execution,
“Right now more than a hundred airplanes might be approaching, taking off, or taxiing around, and all of them are very important, especially if you happen to be on one of them. But for the Air Traffic Controller, only one airplane is important right now – the one that’s landing at this moment. The Controller is aware of all the other planes on the radar. She is keeping track of them, but right now all her talent and expertise is solely focused on one flight. If she doesn’t get that flight on the ground safely and with total excellence, then nothing else she might achieve is really going to matter much.”
How to Apply the Idea of a Stable Datum
Jim Westergren answers this in Theory on How to Become a Genius. Westergren posits,
“For a person to become more smart he has to recognize which data are of value for him. What is valuable for him also depends on what his purpose is. He has to develop a skill to see which data are important for him in the ocean of data that he is operating in.”
Westergren provides an example, similar to the abstraction process mentioned earlier, where we can view data in four specific fields.
Field 1 – Vital Data. Data in the field of true philosophy. Covers such things as understanding of life and how it operates, reason for existence, Metaphysics, etc. In short – the greatest truths.
Field 2 – Valuable Data. Data concerning how to do things and which helps you in your life. Data which help you understand things and how it works.
Field 3 – Useless Data. Data that does not help you and has no value. Most data from TV, newspapers, school education and talking between people unfortunately falls under this field.
Field 4 – Destructive Data. False data, data which makes you unhappy, data intended to bring about destruction. Unfortunately more than you believe.
Overcoming Barriers to Learning
“Trying to live in a high-speed world with low-speed people is not very safe.” – L. Ron Hubbard
Based on the works of Hubbard, in The Technology of Study, we are provided with three barriers to learning. Here are my interpretation of the three, along with an example and practical application.
1. Absence of Mass: Theory + Application = Practical Knowledge
Flying an airplane. If you were to study an airplane, you could read about it in textbooks. You could read how to operate it, learn about its controls, and read about how to fly an airplane. But you would have to actually fly an airplane to learn how to fly an airplane.
Hubbard stated, “There is a rule which goes if you cannot demonstrate something in two dimensions, you have it wrong.” Outside of putting hands on the actual thing, sketch a two-dimensional representation of it and all its parts.
2. Too Steep a Gradient: Process Knowledge
Learning to read. You can’t learn to read without first knowing the alphabet, then the formation of words, then the formation of sentences followed by paragraphs, etc. We must understand the process of a task prior to successfully completing a task.
Do a process map of the task you are confused on. Then pinpoint where you became confused in the process. From there go back and relearn the previous steps.
We have all had the experience of reading a book only to finish the book without knowing what we have actually read. The confusion was our inability to grasp something after we came across a confusing word.
Every time you read something (a book, magazine, blog, etc.) and you come across a word you don’t know or fully understand, take the time to look up the definition and application of the word. If you find yourself reading and you have no idea what you are reading, start over and pinpoint where the confusion began. Lookup that word, apply it in a different context, then go back to your reading.
The Bottom Line
Attaining cognitive learning benefits is like storing information on a computer’s hard drive (your brain). Then, improving the brain’s ability to provide quick access to the information stored on it. The hard drive stores the information, but to connect and speed up your processing power, you need to insert thinking. Thus, Information X Thinking = Knowledge.
By understanding how you think and learn, you can improve your level of understanding on any concept. This includes an understanding of the abstraction process, the elimination of confusion and eliminating barriers to learning.
Just as you should not use a map from 1940 to navigate across a country – you should not use a dated mental map to improve your learning capacity. You must possess a more accurate map of the territory to navigate successfully.