Monday, February 4, 2013

The Thought Tree

The Thought Tree vrs Thought Web

When we're asked to visualize the brain's neurons and their connections, we often visualize an intricate 3-dimensional web of axons branching out all over the place. We kind of extrapolate that further in our own imaginings of our mind, as a giant web of ideas. Each idea connected to another, such as piano keys are tied to pianos which are tied to music, and music sheets, and so forth.

However, I want to change that view. I want to give this a bit more structure, and perhaps a small paradigm shift, if you will, on how we imagine our minds.

I want to make the claim that our minds are better perceived as trees. They have a very strong base, in which all other thoughts are structured from and therefore those "trunk" thoughts, or roots, even, are what branch out into all other thoughts.

Why would I think this, you may ask, or even what is the difference?

After having thought about my thoughts (A highly difficult, tedious, and basically impossible thing to do with any real clarity) I have found that although my thoughts seem sporadic when I am perhaps walking to a destination, or going about my "auto-pilot" tasks - I have always found that my thoughts are stemming from the same subject.

For example: On a given day in the past, I may have been thinking about gas prices. A few hours later I would be empathizing with racing a car, perhaps a few hours later, I would be thinking about the perhaps buying a car. At first glance, I realized these were all very easily related. It takes no genius to see that I am thinking about cars. But interesting - none of them were connected. I had noticed that they had all come up on independent thoughts, independent scenarios, yet they were weighed as important in my brain (enough, at least, for me to remember them later while pondering this).

At first this seemed not very important at all to me. So I started thinking about cars three times, independently within a day - who cares? We live in a car culture, it should be obvious that this may happen. However, I found it this type of correlated thinking continually popping up. It didn't get interesting until one day I was in the car (coincidence? I think not!) driving by myself, with an hour to just think on an open road.

As my thoughts wandered, I tried to trace them, without influencing them - a kind of meditation. Seeing what I was thinking about, without diverging it too far off what I would normally think about, but being completely aware. At some point I became extremely anxious. I had no idea why, and I tried to understand:

1. Was I anxious because of my driving alone for an hour, somewhat. But why?
2. Was I anxious because I was alone in general or in the car? In general (not a car accident) - but why?
3. Was I anxious because of the feeling of being alone, or something else? It was the feeling, but deeper.
4. Was the deeper feeling of anxiety coming from the future or the past? The future.
5. I was fearing that my alone time now, was going to last forever.

The whole thought process was extremely sporadic and irrational, however I realized something important. Although at first glance I thought I was anxious that I was going to get in a car accident, I realized that wasn't it - it was further, deeper inside me. I was fearing being alone forever, from a measly car ride!

So this would advocate for a thought web, not necessarily a thought tree.

However, I found something interesting later on. I was hiking alone in the woods and it started to get dark and the same feeling came over me. The negativity and anxiety at first seemed stunning and odd - I asked myself why. At first (and previous, similar scenarios) I thought perhaps I was fearing the cold, my father or mother being mad I was late, or me missing something at home (friends calling or something).

It wasn't that, as I walked home I realized it stemmed from the same fear - of being alone forever.

So at this point, I realized all my anxiety was stemming from being alone (or later, I found, a painful death) which wasn't necessarily a relief, but made it much easier to handle.

But this isn't what this post is about (stay with me!). What developed after this insight was very profound. Over the course of a year, it became apparent that all my thoughts were structured this way. All my happiness, all my sadness, all my worries, all my stress, all of my random thoughts were all grown from a handful of ideas.

Stress, sadness, and worries all stemmed from dying painfully or alone (a normal fear, I suppose).

But all my daily thoughts were bound by major anchor ideas - the base of the tree.

During the end of my 4th year of college, I was thinking often about my hobbies - I started drawing more, I started painting more, planting more, all of my hobbies were accelerating and amplifying. It was because, way way in the back of my mind I was thinking of moving and what I wanted to do (what I loved, of course). I was trying to get a feel for all my hobbies, I was basically being driven by a force I didn't even know was there. 

But even these thoughts were anchored deeper, into growing old and having no regrets over my life. In another perspective;
Starting idea: School is stressful - is this what I want to do?
To: Do I like drawing, painting, or planting more?
To: I want to be happy with what I'm doing during my next years
To:When I get old I don't want regrets of these years.

So a simple thing as drawing a picture was intimately related (albeit very deeply) to how I wanted to view my achievements when I got to an age of reminiscing.

My happiest days are also tied the same way:
Starting idea: Wow this sky is beautiful
To: I really enjoy the colors, the feeling of the sun
To: This is how life should be
To: This is the natural state of the planet
To: This is "right" for who and what I am

No thoughts seem to be simple anymore, not even the buying of a cup of coffee, or the watching of a TV show, or the words in a sentence. All things seem to be tied to deeply who I am, much deeper than we are trained to believe.

Not only is this stunning to me, how we seem to be the products of only a few strong ideas and perspectives, but it also explains how such similar people can grow to be so dissimilar. If you change the direction of a tree's trunk, you essentially change the tree. 

It also explains why we don't change our core-beliefs so readily, we are not just a web of thoughts, each being equal in strength and importance, but rather, we have these "base" or "trunk" ideas which hold our entire paradigm of reality up, aloft. They are what mediate our live's decisions. Our political beliefs are tied to our fears of death, and loves of life, far deeper than a fiscal or financial number can ever explain. Thus, changing a person's political identity, would most likely restructure the entire tree of their thoughts - not a simple task at all. (I only use political beliefs as an example).

Thanks for bearing with me.