They just had $5 tacos here at the youth hostel where I’ve been staying for the past week or so. I figured, it might be interesting to leave my phone in my room, so I could eat with just myself and my thoughts for a change.
My thinking was, “there’s been a few random nagging things in the back of my mind – most of which I can’t pin down…tacos and introspection time.” Well, that was roughly the idea.I figured it might be instructive to run through my train of thought for this vignette, just to see if my taco-induced revelation makes any sense.
So there’s been a few things bothering me. Well, after some thought, it really reduces to one – motivation.
Why am I motivated to study and research the things that I do? Why should I be? In the grander scheme of things such as saving the world from climate change, are these the most useful things I could presently be doing?
A while ago I had a long discussion with a friend of mine concerning academic paths. Specifically; studying physics or pure mathematics, since to properly, and efficiently do one is to mutually exclude the other. My intuition, and personal preference, was of course for physics. It’s just a lot more tangible, and bloody hell I love plasma physics!
However, at the same time, I had a living breathing example of a second year friend who took the “high road” of pure mathematics, and by the end of his second year, was ready to tackle literally any other academic field. Not only that, but it was just so obvious how in pursuing the most abstract of disciplines, his cognition was so that he’d learn anything new at a significantly faster rate, more comprehensively, and starting at a higher level. This is as high level as mental faculties get. If there ever was a way to exploit that 50% of yourself which *isn’t* predetermined by you’re genes, it’s learning pure mathematics.
Plus, it’s maths! Aside from the proof-based stuff, applied mathematics is damn powerful.
So, after much back and forth, I concluded the “high road” of pure mathematics is in the short-term, not the most appealing, but long-term, by far the most effective. However, for my sanity, I compromised and figured I’d also still take any opportunity to do academic research anyway. We’ll see how that goes this coming semester.
That deliberation was several months ago. Now, with Semester 1 looming ahead of me, the question of motivation has sprung up again. Most recently, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to just get up in the morning, which resulted in me arriving quite late to my research internship thing consistently for almost its entire duration. This is in part due to the youth hostel I’m staying at being pretty damn loud at 1am…but that’s not enough of an excuse. Really, it was just a lack of immediate motivation to *get the hell up*. Once I did, I was on a roll, but starting is always the hardest part. Much is the same with writing.
So I was thinking about “what should motivate me right now?”, whilst eating my tacos. I’d skimmed over some motivation theory in educational research, and had related discussions with my supervisor on related topics. Actually, at lunch today, we discussed the whole “specialisation” thing in academia. One thing she brought to my attention, was how specialisation in process, not content was arguably the more important, and unavoidable decision, rather than a “field”.
So what process do I want to specialize in?
Whilst working on my project draft, something my supervisor pointed out was how my friend thought in a manner of linear progression, whilst I was very much the opposite and non-linear. Neither are better nor worse, they’re just different ways of thinking. Some people like lists and going through tasks, ideas and things linearly, in a directed, ticking off the list manner. Some might call it scatter-brained, but for me, I prefer to think about things as they naturally occur in a train of thought. The extreme example would be perhaps, any of VSauce’s youtube videos, in which he starts on one topic, and ends up on a totally different one over the course of 10 minutes.
Practically though, I try to consistently integrate as many perspectives and chunks of knowledge as I can when thinking about a problem. For writing drafts, it’s great – I just go ahead and brain dump onto a page. Refining the draft takes more time though.
But now I was thinking, whilst scooping the last bit of sour cream and moving on to the guacamole heap,
Why do I think that way?
I was listening to a podcast recently with Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. They end up butting heads for two hours on “what is truth?” – one of the many infamous red herrings of philosophy, which first year undergraduates revel in, whilst everyone else scoffs at. I won’t discuss that podcast at any length here, but some comments in the related Reddit discussions (which I’d usually browse during evening meals) noted how Jordan thinks in patterns, whilst Sam thinks much more linearly, which was the partial cause of the disagreement.
Suddenly it dawned upon me recalling those discussions – *that’s exactly how I think too!*
Although linear, methodical and scientific thinking can be absurdly practical (and on the face of it, more reasonable)… personally, I much more naturally tend towards thinking about the whole picture, recognising patterns and circumambulation (circling around a central idea). That’s probably complexity theory, and its components – network and graph theory – “clicked” for me. This is how I think!
And so I concluded, perhaps a core motivation should be to learn things which allow me to recognise patterns better. Acquiring more tools in the pattern recognition toolbox, so to speak.
Hell, this is the motivation behind abstraction in pure mathematics – How much further can we generalise this idea? Models in physics, philosophical frameworks and political theories are similarly layers of abstraction or generalisation,
But no one set of tinted glasses can be used for everything. Scientific thinking can get you very very far, sure, but you can’t discuss morality, politics and anything artistic with that framework – and vice versa.
So with this motivational axiom learning mathematics suddenly becomes much more personally justifiable. I smiled like an idiot upon this realisation whilst finishing off my nachos.
A Personal Aside
In terms of psychoanalysis however, realising that I like to recognise patterns brought to surface something else. Freud heralded psychoanalysis as a psychological treatment by essentially *bringing the unconscious mind to the conscious*. Whilst that wasn’t necessarily my original goal, I distinctly remember a time of my life where those pattern recognition systems of mine where truly out of whack.
Having experienced first-person view of psychosis before, I know that the crux of insanity was *seeing patterns in the world which weren’t there*.
The reasons for this cognitive malfunction were numerous. In some respects, it was as if the senate of my mind, the checking and verification stage, was on holiday, leading to all sorts of bizarre and unfounded conclusions.
Thus sanity checking of supposed patterns, whatever they may be, must play a central role. That idea, I have my first supervisor from last year to thank, who always reminded me to “sanity check” the damn computer models. Test it in the most basic way you can, to see if it makes sense.
Doing so avoids silly mistakes and psychotic delusional theories. Seems like a worthwhile habit to keep in mind.
A Pattern Recognition Toolbox
So, shall I continue my academic studies with one concrete guiding principle of recognizing, understanding and utilizing patterns in the natural world?
From the obviously useful, such as machine learning, to the not so obviously useful, like Galois theory, all of my current interests appear to me as powerful tools in identifying, playing with and utilizing patterns in nature and society. Hell, that’s a huge part of why they interest me.
Complexity theory is what brings it all together. If I must specialize in a process, I’ll choose to specialize in synthesis from knowledge networks – something we all do unconsciously anyway.
For now, let’s see if I can break that pattern of sleeping in.