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Mind Macros 50: The bed of Procrustes, accessing the unconscious mind, and self-reliance
“What the superior man seeks, is in himself; what the ordinary man seeks, is in others.” - Confucius
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. The bed of Procrustes
"Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was the cruel owner of a small estate in Corydalus in Attica, on the way between Athens and Eleusis, where the mystery rites were performed. Procrustes had a peculiar sense of hospitality: he abducted travelers, provided them with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched (his name was said to be Damastes, or Polyphemon, but he was nicknamed Procrustes, which meant ‘the stretcher’).
"In the purest of poetic justice, Procrustes was hoisted by his own petard. One of the travelers happened to be the fearless Theseus, who slayed the Minotaur later in his heroic career. After the customary dinner, Theseus made Procrustes lie in his own bed. Then, to make him fit in it to the customary perfection, he decapitated him. Theseus thus followed Hercules’s method of paying back in kind.
"In more sinister versions (such as the one in Pseudo-Apollodorus’s Bibliotheca), Procrustes owned two beds, one small, one large; he made short victims lie in the large bed, and the tall victims in the short one.
"We humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit—but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers. For instance, few realize that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.
"My use of the metaphor of the Procrustes bed isn’t just about putting something in the wrong box; it’s mostly that inverse operation of changing the wrong variable, here the person rather than the bed." - From The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
The Procrustean bed describes forcing something to fit an arbitrary mold, even if it requires adjusting, cutting, or stretching.
Here are some examples of the effect across three domains:
Many books, especially business titles, must be padded out to meet a publisher's requirement of 300 (or so) pages.
The length of books is further controlled by maximum and minimum word counts, regardless of what suits the book.
Changes are often made to books, so they can belong to a specific genre, even if this doesn't match the author's original intention.
Restricting a student's future opportunities to programs that meet their financial, social, and location requirements.
Enforcing a "one size fits all" curriculum for all students regardless of their learning styles or abilities.
Standardized tests that force students to answer in a specific format that matches the marking requirements of the test.
Requiring all employees to work from 9 am to 5 pm regardless of whether their workload actually requires that schedule.
Managers requiring that all employees complete a task in the same amount of time, regardless of the varying complexities of each responsibility.
Reducing the scope of work to fit predetermined expectations or time constraints, even if it means omitting details or not delivering the highest quality product. Often, this is necessary because projects can balloon in time and cost. However, some companies cut corners and release unfinished or dangerous products to meet arbitrary deadlines.
Procrustes adjusted his victim's bodies to fit the bed rather than the reverse. The metaphor of the Procrustean bed describes not only that we fit things into an arbitrary mold (the bed) but adjust the wrong variable (the person's limbs) by way of satisfying those standards.
Examples of focusing on the wrong variable include:
A person trying to improve their confidence by changing their appearance instead of addressing underlying issues.
Parents trying to control their children's behavior by punishing them instead of teaching them how to properly manage their emotions.
Employers believing that employees are to blame for poor performance instead of examining the company's systems and processes.
Using the Procrustean bed analogy, we could consider whether we live according to our preferences or adhere to the expectations of others. Do we make choices based on our judgments or predetermined principles?
II. Accessing the unconscious mind
"One remarkable study by Casagrande and Bertini measured patterns of brain activity and relative hand skill in a small group of 16 healthy, right-handed volunteers during various parts of their wake/sleep cycles. They showed that all participants had greater activity in the left hemisphere and better skill in their right hands during the waking hours, but immediately before falling asleep, and immediately after waking up, their right hemispheres were more active, and their left hands were more skilled! This means that each of us has an opportunity at the beginning and end of the day to catch a glimpse of what the other half of our brains might be 'thinking,' although we may not be as adept at 'talking' about it." - From The Neuroscience of You by Chantel Prat (view my three takeaways).
We have previously discussed brainwaves and how they alter when we wake up and go to sleep. What's relevant to this discussion is that theta waves occur when our body transitions between alert and sleeping states. These waves are associated with learning, memory, and ideation. During this time, our brain is particularly receptive and imaginative. Joshua Waitzkin uses these periods of the day to access his unconscious mind, which he believes allows him to tap into his full potential to create and innovate in different areas of his life. At this stage, you may be imagining Waitzkin as some kind of spiritual teacher, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Joshua Waitzkin is an eight-time National Chess Champion, becoming an International Master at age 16. His prolific uprising led him to become the subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After chess, Waitzkin moved on to martial arts, becoming a five-time National Champion in Taiji Push Hands and World Co-Champion in Moving Step Push Hands. Next, Waitzkin studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, becoming the first person to earn a black belt under Marcelo Garcia, considered the greatest submission grappler of all time. He now teaches others to unlock peak performance, “focusing on the movement from good to great, or great to truly elite.”
After achieving world-class expertise in multiple domains, Waitzkin's life has been committed to deconstructing accelerated learning and acquiring mastery. Let's say that under proper instruction, most people can master 80% of a skill in a year or less. The following 10% may take two years, the next 5% five years, 4% ten years, and the final 1% perhaps a lifetime. Waitzkin's life is committed to deconstructing that last 1%.
Waitzkin finishes a workday by journaling about a problem in his life. The following morning, before inputs, he continues writing about the issue. The term "before inputs" means journaling before the intake of any information. There should be no social media, news, or reading, as each distracts from the practice, flooding the brain with information. This concept is not novel, as we've all heard the advice to ‘sleep on it' when making an important decision. The idea is to delegate the labor of thinking to our unconscious mind. This is because when we stop consciously deliberating on a problem, our unconscious mind continues working and often delivers a solution in a flash of insight. Waitzkin aims to systematize this process with his journaling practice.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Confucius on self-reliance:
“What the superior man seeks, is in himself; what the ordinary man seeks, is in others.”
II. Marcus Aurelius on obstacles being opportunities to grow:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Thank you for reading,