Monday, December 31, 2007

My brain on Nietzsche

The spate of low-level panic induced by reading Flowers for Algernon prompted me to spend a lot of time thinking about how my brain works: the good, the bad, and the irritating. After some cogitation, I've got a new model to play with. In this model, my mind is analogous to a boardroom at some large bureaucratic company.

Bear with me.

The reason I'm going off down this highway of thought is one of the most enduring flaws I see within myself: a serious lack of self-discipline. I've never been good at telling myself to jump through hoops. I need to see the cheese before I can bring myself to run the maze. The annoying thing is that, once I'm up against a deadline, I'm really rather effective - at GCSE* in particular I pulled some extremely good results out of a very small bag of revision.

Of course, then I went to Cambridge Uni, which demanded a less deadline-oriented approach to education, and I crashed and burned messily**. So I'm keen to figure out precisely what is going on in my brain.

It's well-known that neural networks operate by a process known as "pandemonium", whereby a bunch of different subnetworks all "yell" loudly, and the loudest one gets listened to. The behaviour of my brain is going to be heavily based on the different subnetworks that are competing for head-room - its cast of characters, if you will. Enter stage left.

The first character is a workmanlike kinda guy, wearing jeans with patches on the knees and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Don't assume that he's a slacker, though; this individual is a creature of pure drive and motivation. He's the part of me that takes over at the end of a long weekend, when I'm in a good mood and get this inexplicably strong desire to tidy my room or lift some weights. I think of him as the Uebermensch - he's the man with the plan, and if he was in charge of me the whole time then the sky would be the limit.

The rest of the characters all have their own individual traits, but I'm going to refer to them by their collective name: the bureaucrats. Most of the time, they're snooty about the Uebermensch - what's this poorly-dressed peon doing invading their boardroom? How dare he! If you want another metaphor, think of the stereotypical pompous arts professor, astounded that anyone would dare challenge the obvious rightness of his opinions about everything. The bureaucrats are the parts of me that bicker and play politics and laze about. When the bureaucrats are out in strength, the Uebermensch doesn't have a chance - his voice can't be heard over the ruckus. That's what happens when I start procrastinating and realise that three hours have vanished.

Of course, the situation all changes when there's something on the line. The stereotypical arts professor, regardless of his social constructivist philosophy, wouldn't want to get in a plane that hadn't been designed by a qualified mechanic. Similarly, when trouble looms, the bureaucrats don't hesitate to hand over the reins to the one guy in their midst who's actually good at achieving things. They go and hide and let the Uebermensch get on with it.

I'm being a bit hard on the bureaucrats here; they're not all bad. In fact, it's probably one of them that's dominant within me as I write this. But they're not good at doing stuff. They're only good at talking about it. That's why I'm sitting here typing rather than doing one of the hundred jobs that are clearly visible on all sides of me.

If this model is accurate, what should I be trying to achieve? I need to feed the Uebermensch, to make him big and strong so that he can hold his own against the orgiastic laziness of the other characters. I need to figure out how to make the Uebermensch appear more frequently. I need to figure out how to make him stay longer once he's out of his cage***.

Observations so far:

1) the Uebermensch comes out most often when I'm well-rested - by his nature, he's more prone to tiredness than the bureaucrats.
2) intellectual activity is actually bad for the Uebermensch - in particular, I'm doing him no favours by blogging.
3) the presence of people tends to act as a disruptor - it's more likely that the Uebermensch will become dominant, but more likely that he'll fall from grace again.

Hopefully I can put together some sort of strategy for boosting my effectiveness based on this. Fingers crossed.

* For you USians, I think this is equivalent to end of high school.

** By which I mean I got a 2:2. Not burned so much as mildly scorched, but I'm convinced I had the potential to get at least a 2:1.

*** In one of my rare nods to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the book that started me blogging in the first place, I would equate this with what Pirsig refers to as "gumption". When you've got gumption on your side - when the Uebermensch is loose - stuff just starts to happen.

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