Becoming a Mental Architect
Vol 13: Information Diets, Acoustic Ecosystems, and Building a Better Brain
When I was in second grade, I was ridiculously scared of watching Barney, because one of the songs kept getting stuck in my head and I really didn't like it.
It’s interesting that as children we have strong intuitions about what is good for our wellbeing. I haven’t watched Barney in almost 20 years, but it’s less to do with that one song, and more to do with the fact that there are better things for me to spend my time looking at. As we grow, we find new things to read, watch, and listen to. The content you’re consuming is an interesting way to evaluate where you are in your life.
But it’s gotten much harder to manage all this. The Internet and smartphones Changed the Calculus, but even TV and other sources of news have trended this way.
Information bombardment is like constant radiation, equivalent to being outside in the sun for hours, baking without any protection against the UV rays. If you aren’t mindful about how you’re filtering information, it will overwhelm you.
One of the descriptions of being mentally insane is having all these pugnacious voices in your head that never stop. Bad thoughts reverberate endlessly inside your head. Isn’t this the same thing as reading news headlines, YouTube comments, and irate Twitter threads and Facebook comments? Is it any different?
Even if they’re not your words, you’re reading them, which means they’re floating around in your brain. I read that up to 91% of news in the US is negative. There’s an endless supply of mayhem and vitriol in the world, and it’s gotten to a point where if you don’t actively avoid it, it will subsume you. Our brains are still the same as our ancestors, but we’re operating in a totally new environment. It’s no longer prudent, but now essential, to create systems to best position yourself for this new world.
There’s not a perfect solution to overcoming this, but so long as you’re being mindful, you’ll see immense returns.
A good place to start, is with words.
The Anti-Learning Decree
I read 1984 for the first time last year, and this passage stood out:
“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten... Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller."
This reminds me of an article I read about the importance of expanding your vocabulary. All of the thoughts we have are built with words. By knowing more words, you can actually think clearer.
Knowing more words is like using a microscope. Everything becomes sharper, clearer, and more vivid.
Not only does this help you think more efficiently, but also gives you new ways to think. When you learn new words, often times they can teach you about something you weren't aware of.
Consider that Eskimos have over 50 words for snow:
They employ elaborate terms used to describe the frozen landscape: “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled.” There’s also “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.
The article continues:
The Sami also have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer. These refer to such things as the reindeer’s fitness (“leami” means a short, fat female reindeer), personality (“njirru” is an unmanageable female) and the shape of its antlers (“snarri” is a reindeer whose antlers are short and branched). There is even a Sami word to describe a bull with a single, very large testicle: “busat.”
This kind of linguistic exuberance should come as no surprise, experts say, since languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers. “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it,” says linguist Willem de Reuse at the University of North Texas. “It’s a matter of life or death.”
“All languages find a way to say what they need to say,” says Matthew Sturm, a geophysicist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska. For Sturm, it is the expertise these words contain that is of most interest, rather than the squabble about the number of terms. “These are real words that mean real things,” he says.
Another example is from Rocket Men: there's a moment when the Command Module reaches the equigravisphere, the equilibrium point between Earth's and the Moon's gravity. I don't know when I'll use that in a sentence, but it's a marvelous word with so much detail embedded in it.
These passages are powerful reminders of how important our environment is. Vocabulary is one component, sound is another.
It’s interesting how some things replay over and over in our minds. They get stuck in there and we seemingly have little control over it. Why?
This was a question I had in the back of my mind, and I recently found an answer. Our brains act as tuning forks, resonating based on the acoustic ecosystem they’re in.
It’s a tremendous glimpse into how our brains work:
There's a cacophony all around us, that's full of information still to be deciphered. "We're getting this tiny slice of all of the sound in the world."
Recently scientists have pushed the field of bioacoustics even further, to record whole environments, not just the animals that live there. Some call this "acoustic ecology" — listening to the rain, streams, wind through the trees. A deciduous forest sounds different from a pine forest, for example, and that soundscape changes seasonally.
Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz, author of the book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, is especially interested in the ways all these sounds, which are essentially vibrations, have shaped the evolution of the human brain.
Sound gets in your head and stays there. When the brain processes sound, it actually resonates with it, like a tuning fork that's been struck. You can even hear the brain's resonance if you have the right equipment.
And even without an introduced sound, the working brain continuously emits its own sound. Horowitz calls it a "neuronal symphony."
Given how well sound reflects what's going on around us, the brains of vertebrates — including humans — evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to it.
"You hear anywhere from 20 to 100 times faster than you see," Horowitz says, "so that everything that you perceive with your ears is coloring every other perception you have, and every conscious thought you have." Sound, he says, "gets in so fast that it modifies all the other input and sets the stage for it."
It can do that because the brain's auditory circuitry is less widely distributed than the visual system. The circuitry for vision "makes the map of the New York subway look simple," says Horowitz, whereas sound signals don't have as far to travel in the brain.
And sound gets routed quickly to parts of the brain that deal with very basic functions — "precortical areas," Horowitz says — that are not part of the wiring for conscious thinking. These are places where emotions are generated.
"We're emotional creatures," Horowitz says, "and emotions are evolutionary 'fast responses' — things you don't have to think about."
That speediness pays dividends in the survival department: "You hear a loud sound?" he says. "Get ready to run from it." Emotions are rapid delivery systems in the brain, and sound drives emotions.
Your brain reverberates — it operates at certain frequencies and the auditory ecosystem you live in greatly influences it.
Separately, Robin Dunbar (of the famous Dunbar's Number) has a new book, Friends, which details how we are the average of our acquaintances.
I remember seeing a tweet joking that you should abandon all your friends if you don't like who you are. That's an exaggeration, but there's truth to the fact that your environment shapes who you are. If you don’t like the type of person you are, look around at your surroundings.1
The sounds that surround you are just as important as the people — and how you utilize this knowledge is really up to you. There’s likely an idiosyncratic element to what acoustic environment works best for each of us. Some people need a coffee shop, others need pure silence. Personally, I’ve found soundtracks to be an invaluable tool. But whatever your preference is, lean into it because it can help you build new foundations.
The more man mediates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large. — Confucius
So words, sounds, and people matter — that may not surprise you. Yet how mindful are you of your environment? How are your building and retooling your internal and external environment? Are you the architect of your life?
What does a mental architect do? What does it change? I encourage you to explore every aspect of that. Because there’s latent potential embedded in us, waiting to be tapped into.
We all abide by the same laws of physics, but we also have our own mental laws of physics that can be quite unique to each one of us. Controlling the Controllables may be one of your laws.
Last week, I talked about how empowering controlling the controllables can be:
What superpowers do we have that make us perfectly matched for the world we exist in?
Maybe this is solipsistic, but it’s quite powerful because it makes you identify your strengths while seeing where you can apply them.
Think about athletics: certain people are genetically predisposed to excel at specific sports. People with long limbs and short torso run efficiently. Individuals with the ACTN3 gene are more likely to be a power athlete.
At first this might appear self-defeating, but it’s actually inspiring, because while you may not be destined for the 100-meter dash or the NBA, there is something out there you’re uniquely suited for.
A personal laws of physics is the ultimate embodiment of that mindset. You can not only control your mind, but you can change it and influence it, which in turn shapes the world you live in; the stories you create dictate whether life is ornate.
You don’t have much say in what your circumstances are, but you get to choose where your mind takes you.
This ties back to New Year’s resolutions:
It may be an arbitrary day on a calendar, but the beginning of the year is special. Humans need narratives to make sense of things, and having a clean start is one of the most powerful narratives we’re given.
You don’t need to ask for permission to change your own narrative.
The beliefs and subconscious narratives we hold shape our behavior, health, relationships, and performance. But by its very definition, the subconscious is difficult to tap in to. But when you do, you now have a different vibratory state, your brain operates from a different frequency. You think differently, you feel differently, you act differently — which all lead to different results.
Being a mental architect means intentionally creating a foundation of stories in your head. Stories that weave together to construct a mental edifice from which you build the rest of your life around.
This is an intangible topic, and you wouldn’t be blamed for writing this off as wishful thinking or impractical, nonfunctional advice. There’s always a healthy middle ground, a Messy Middle, to any type of advice. Though I encourage you to try it, because it might work for you. I’ve found it immensely useful, especially in a period of profound change.
Truthfully, there’s nothing I can write that will suddenly make you a mental architect. It requires substantial personal awareness and reflection. It also takes time to figure out how to build this, but that’s part of the journey of figuring this all out. There’s a lot of hard work, but it’s gratifying, and it’s quite fun once you start recalibrating yourself.
Being a mental architect isn’t about reaching peak efficiency or optimizing everything — it’s about making the most of this fleeting journey. At the end of the day, if you can create a rich existence in your mind, then you’ll experience life in that very manner. Sometimes bad things happen and a thorn gets stuck in our side — the proverbial song stuck in the head — but you can create your own mental environment, and actually influence your brain’s tuning fork. New possibilities emerge once that happens, and in turn you begin emitting a new frequency, one that ripples outwards to others.
In a roundabout way, this is the solution to getting bad songs out of your head: you make your own song, you internalize it, and then emit it out to the world. This idea might be far-fetched, but this is the world I’m choosing to live in.
You have to look in the mirror too of course. Just as often change must start from within.