February 24, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 05: Neuroplasticity, active learning, and second-order thinking

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. The questions Confucius, Socrates, and the Buddha asked 2500 years ago

“2,500 years ago Confucius, Socrates, and the Buddha were all addressing similar philosophical questions:​

What is the best way to run a state?

How do I build a proper world where everyone has a chance to flourish?

How do I live my life?”​

— From The Path by Michael Puett

In the modern age, it is easy to dismiss the teachings of philosophers as obsolete or irrelevant.

They lived so long ago; what do they know about today’s world?

Yet, we have been asking similar questions about ourselves and the world around us since the beginning of written history. The core questions about human flourishing never change. Even after so many years, we still wrestle with the questions Confucius, Socrates, and Gautama Buddha attempted to answer so long ago. They are as relevant today as they were then. True wisdom endures because the fundamentals are timeless.

2. Neuroplasticity: Our brains are malleable, just like our bodies

“‘Plasticity,’ says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a top neurology researcher at Harvard Medical School, is ‘the normal ongoing state of the nervous system throughout the life span.’ Our brains are constantly changing in response to our experiences and our behavior, reworking their circuitry with ‘each sensory input, motor act, association, reward signal, action plan, or [shift of] awareness'.

“Neuroplasticity, argues Pascual-Leone, is one of the most important products of evolution, a trait that enables the nervous system ‘to escape the restrictions of its own genome and thus adapt to environmental pressures, physiologic changes, and experiences.’ The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t.

“Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in Adapting Minds, his critique of evolutionary psychology, ‘has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations’ but rather one that is able ‘to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.’ Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind—over and over again.” — From The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr

Since discovering neuroplasticity, we have learned that genes do not determine our character.

We can alter our most deeply rooted habits and behaviors with consistent effort.

New pathways are formed in our brains when we learn something novel. A similar process occurs when we form a habit. When we repeat a behavior, our brains turn this set of actions into a circuit that we can perform unconsciously. As a result, we save mental energy and can perform routine tasks without conscious effort.

Our habits, behaviors, and thought patterns are nothing more than predefined circuits that fire continuously. Hence the expression, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Because of neuroplasticity, we know that these circuits are not hardwired and can be reprogrammed. We can sculpt our brains, just as we can sculpt our bodies.

Practical Advice

1. Second-order thinking

“Almost everyone can anticipate the immediate results of their actions. This type of first-order thinking is easy and safe but it’s also a way to ensure you get the same results that everyone else gets. Second-order thinking is thinking farther ahead and thinking holistically. It requires us to not only consider our actions and their immediate consequences, but the subsequent effects of those actions as well. Failing to consider the second-and third-order effects can unleash disaster.” — From The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish

First-order thinking involves finding a solution to an immediate problem without considering the implications.

Due to time constraints, we order takeout one evening to save ourselves the chore of cooking. We enjoy the meal without feeling guilty or considering the consequences of the decision.

Second-order thinking involves predicting what is likely to happen due to an initial action. We imagine the second and third order consequences that may occur as a result of ordering the takeout.

Each time we eat a big meal this late, we experience a night of restless sleep, affecting our performance the next day. We would also save money by not ordering takeout, especially when the fridge is full of fresh food. Using that money to pay for the rising rent could save a few hours of extra work this week. Those three hours might allow us to finish early on Friday and spend the evening with friends across town.

If you reason through the second and third-order effects and don’t see any negative consequences, then enjoy the takeout without remorse. The goal isn’t to eliminate spontaneity but to avoid making unwise decisions.

To contemplate the potential consequences of our actions, Parrish recommends asking, “And then what?” This process ensures that our decision-making aligns with our long-term vision.

2. The stories we tell ourselves shape our lives

“Ethics is all about intentionality, and the way to be more intentional (and in the right sort of way) is to make sure that you’re checking in on the stories that you’re telling about yourself, your actions, and your life as a whole. When you told your friend that you arrived late because of traffic, was that true? Why do you plan to make a donation in public rather than anonymously? Is it because you’re really more interested in the reputational boost than you are about the charitable work being done?” — From The Good Life Method by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko

We lie to ourselves all the time.

We judge ourselves based on our intentions, yet we judge others based on their actions.

This judgment creates an internal narrative that we see as reality.

There is a different version of us in the head of each person we know. Every friend has a distinct caricature of us living in their minds.

Our relationship with this person will affect how the character is crafted. Close friends may know our intentions and use this information to sculpt their version of us. The people we rarely interact with will use our actions to build this character.

Imagine it as the difference between a book and a movie.

We see the characters’ actions in movies but rarely hear their thoughts. In books, we hear the characters’ intentions and how that pertains to their actions. When a character does a bad thing, it could have been done with good intentions, and knowing this alters our perception of them.

Real life is no different.

Each of us hears through the cloud of our inner narration; we cannot communicate directly, making misinterpretation a perennial problem. An example of this can be seen in the eyewitnesses to a scene of an accident; they cannot agree on a single account. Why? Because they didn’t see the accident, only their interpretation of it.

By taking the time to examine the stories we tell ourselves about our intentions, we can clear the cloud of inner narration and see things as they are.

​Quotes to Ponder

1. Mortimer Adler on the difference between passive and active learning:

“All genuine learning is active, not passive. It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory. It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.”

2. Cheng Yaotian on the power of literature:

“[Literature's] influence can be more inspiring than being in the presence of a great man because it calls upon us to articulate our ideas and it beckons us to draw analogies. And so what literature offers is more than just something to rely on: it takes us by the hand and bolsters us up; it holds us by the arm to get us on our way.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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