Epistemology, Cognition and Category Theory: Directive Cognitive Expansion

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An OverviewA Model for the Mind ★ Directive Cognitive Expansion ★

Strenthening Specific Mental Faculties through Learning

Learning new activities, like chess, language or acting, can help us strengthen specific faculties of our mind, conscious and subconscious. This is particularly effective during childhood, but neuroplasticity enables to continually update our hardware and software throughout life. There’s a huge focus on STEM and this is appropriate, but the arts offer immense benefits to further accelerate development and self-actualization. We can’t forget that what we seem to do just for fun has a great benefit in how we’ll perform at work. Additionally, the arts can help us understand what kinds of tasks our mind would be most profient at pursuing. I’ll discuss the following arts and activities:

Programming

Chess

Painting

Music

Writing

Freestyle Rapping

Breakdancing

Tricking & Parkour

Yoga

Acting

Improv

Directing

Skateboarding

Martial Arts

Martial Arts with Weapons

Languages

For the third time, all that we become is a result of what we have thought. So by pursuing these activities, we’re controlling the kinds of experiences that we have and choosing the benefits we’ll derive from life, while equipping ourselves with more tools. And therefore, we’re determining our own course of mental development. In order to pursue the ideal direction, we need to understand more about the mental faculties that various activities both require and develop. These activities require a certain level of profiency in mental skills, but also improve profiency at different rates. We also need to assess our own mind, to become aware of what would be valuable to develop further.

As you focus on self-improvement in these activities, you’ll be reinforcing the circuits in your mind that enable certain functional capabilities. If you want better short-term memory, focus on practicing activities that require short-term memory. If you want quicker reflexivity, focus on activities that require quick reflexes. If you want to be more spontaneous, practice activities that require and develop spontanaeity. If the process to discovering new cognitive techniques can be consciously observed and improved on, then we can expand the conscious mind to develop and coordinate the subconscious. Approaching cognition and metacognition from this perspective allows us to greatly accelerate our rate of learning by orders of magnitude.

Many psychological and neurological disorders see promising treatment by focusing patients on certain activities and thought patterns, which are thought to gradually improve the state of their mind. Therefore, the arts can be used as treatments and I explored this idea in my article Language Therapy For Autism and Traumatic Brain Injury. Part three of this series on cognition is a kind of generalization of that article. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy applies ideas like this to present a patient with situations compelling them to think and react differently, to force development of new skills and thought patterns. However, the pursuit of these activites typically requires the patient to focus on activities they don’t inherently excel at. And so, we need to approach this in such a way as to avoid needless frustration for someone.

However, it is a virtue to enjoy the pursuit of that which is challenging. People who don’t embody this often find themselves at a disadvantage. Gotta break free of your comfort zone. Everyone should read Aristotle’s Ethics to understand what these various virtues are and how to balance yourself in the mean. Yes, philosophy is useful … perhaps too useful…

Modeling Cognitive Traits for Activities

Some of these examples of arts and activities refer to specific base cognitive capabilities, like short-term memory or empathy. Others refer to more aggregate activities, which strengthen the coordination of those base cognitive functions in a specialized way.

Programming

I’m going to start out with programming because it is perhaps one of the most beneficial, in terms of expanding your cognition. It’s also one of the few that require development of metacognition. First off, programming is rarely useful in and of itself. That is, whether you are developing a web app, mining data to construct statistical models or coding audio visualization, you are almost always working with programming and another field. In order to solve programming problems in that field, you have to exhibit proficiency in modeling problems for that domain.

Programming strenthens our ability to deconstruct and generalize large, complicated problems into smaller problems. Therefore, it embodies our ability to abstract processes into logical step-by-step procedures. Programming actually involves very high-level mathematic concepts, though seeing it from this perspective is hidden to most, which is fantastic – you learn the basics of implementations of these high-level concepts without having to take master’s level math classes. The cognitive functions that programming improves are cognition itself and metacognition. Anyone who learns to program fairly proficiently will become more intelligent, the earlier the better.

Chess

To think more than three or four moves ahead in chess requires extensive short-term memory. In order to excel at chess, you need to retain experience of previous games, in order to infer strategic similiarities between situations, which is the only way to really compress the space of all board positions. You need to understand how to read your opponents moves to understand how they’ll react to yours.

You also need to be able to identify the strategic board positions you want to reach in 5+ moves and deconstruct your move sequences into those that prevent interference or won’t alarm your opponent. In order to do so, you need to strenthen your cognitive ability to perform backward induction. In chess, endgame is a backward induction problem, where you try to identify possible checkmate scenarios and the move sequences that allow you to reach them. Backward induction is employed throughout a chess game.

Painting

There’s a good reason that many polymaths were painters. We live in a very visual world. Painting and visual art in general require us to develop this kind of inner vision, which is crucial to design and expression. Painters need to understand how to convey a universally understood message without using words.

Renaissance painters were masters of constructing situations utilizing body language and suspended animation to convey a message that could be understood by even those who couldn’t read. Abstract art acheives this in a different way and because of its diverse construction, it can be harder to identify the meaning. However, this actually contributes to its propensity to be more expansive as art: by lacking a more certain meaning, abstract appeals to more people, as it allows us to search within ourselves for its specific meaning to us.

The most successful paintings are those which inspire us to meditate deeply on their meaning and are coupled with a universal, timeless message. So, as an artist, it’s important to cultivate that understanding of what is universal and what won’t fade with time. So not only do you need to develop the technique, but you also have to look inwards and familiarize yourself with the world around you, beyond just seeing what is there now. It’s very difficult to think timelessly and our thoughts today are so innundated with sensory distraction. I feel there is much people that understood more innately 200, 1000 and 3000 years ago that today seems profound to us, simply because what we are required to know and how we are require to think does not facilitate introspection or spiritual awakening.

In addition to the development of a vision, painting requires comprehending the composition of various techniques to acheive that vision. Da Vinci and Rembrandt were masters of this process of determining process. You have to not only understand what you want to paint, but exactly how you are going to paint it. This requires much short-term memory. The more experience you have, the more capable you are of extrapolating the process you will use to create it. Additionally, these techniques can be very time-dependent for painting.

Music

Music is another great cognition expanding activity, but it’s important to start early, study theory and play many instruments, especially piano. Music theory allows you to understand how many complicated patterns interrelate, in order to identify similarities in information.

Music composition employs music theory and requires that you develop this aural inner vision: the ability to ideate the kind of sounds you want to create. It’s similar to a painter’s inner vision I discussed above. This kind of inner vision is also similar to the endgame strategy and backward induction, though you don’t have to account for an opponent’s reaction. You brainstorm where you want to be and find a way to get there. Both painting and music composition allow you to strengthen this ideation and provide you with the tools to realize your vision. Backwards induction is a critical skill to develop in life and one that can be generalized by our mind.

Performing music requires strengthening your self-perception. If you’re playing for an audience, you need to understand how you sound to the audience and how your expression of sound will affect their interpretation. When playing in a group, it’s even more important because your volume level needs to match that of the band. Some members of a band, like drums and bass never seem to stand out, but provide a foundation for the rest of the music. The other members would completely fall apart if the drummer lost rhythm. So performing music with a group also allows us to introspect on the importance of fulfilling specialized roles as part of a group. Additionally, performing improvisationally as part of a group requires deep understanding of the group’s intention of musical direction, as well each member’s playing abilities.

Drumset is unique among instruments for its ability to improve rhythmic coordination. Learning drumset forces you to dissociate from conscious control over each limb as the rhythms you play become further disconnected. A good excercise is to learn to play triplet patterns while playing sixteenth note patterns with another limb, a la Fantasie Impromptu, though this is pretty simple. You have to learn to focus on playing complicated rhythms distributed to each limb. This is similar to isolations in poplock and hiphop dance styles and your mind should be able to carry over some of the skills used for drumsets to dancing as well. This is because the mind should generalize the skill of coordinating these dissociated movements to apply what you’ve learned from drumset to dancing and vice versa.

Writing

Writers have to understand how to portray various situations in order to cultivate the reader’s thoughts towards specific avenues. Writers need to intensely understand psychology, not just of the situations they present in their works, but also of the various categories of readers, who will interpret the work differently. The best writers can do this in such a way that allows readers to explore hidden ideas that inspired a work.

In addition to cultivating specific thought in a reader, writers also need to captivate the reader’s attention. This requires structuring plot and events with a strategic pace and understanding what motivates people to continue reading. Writers need to understand what makes events and dialog seem “natural” or at least coherent with the story or characters. Being a good writer means you have the emotional intelligence and empathy to understand psychology and the human condition. You’ll find that a good writer is a people watcher, constantly observing their interactions and often perceiving them more clearly than the people themselves. You must also develop expressive language and writing skills.

Freestyle Rapping

MC’ing and especially freestyle rapping requires intimate knowledge of language, rhythm and expression. The best MC’s can can layer their phonetic skills with the spontaneous ideation of a coherent message. Often you’ll find MC’s who freestyle and have somewhat proficient rhythm and rhyme, but aren’t really conveying a message. This doesn’t take nearly as much skill as the whole package.

Breakdancing

Breakdancing requires the development of the physical skills balance, flexibility and strength. Not only does more strength enable new moves, but the more strenth you have, the less proportionate energy you invest in those moves. Therefore, more strength, more endurance. How does this relate to the mind? In order to develop physical balance, flexibility and strength, you need to identify ways to develop all three, without excluding flexibility.

Also, breakdancing requires the development of a particular spatial awareness of the self. You need to be aware of all the possibilities for movement from any position to any possible position. You develop this kind of graph, which represents your awareness of which moves allow transitions to all other moves. You cultivate creativity to determine which transitions & moves are possible, as well as how they can be generalized and variated. Additionally, certain song rhythms and tempo’s facilitate patterns of movements.

Some bboy’s focus on the power moves, like mills, flares and airflares. Others focus on style, which is the use of movements to express a message. In other words, you cultivate your own personal language through dance, which transcends cultural boundaries just like visual art. In order to best express yourself through dance, you’ll need to develop counting beats and phrases, until you do it subconsciously. If you’re not counting beats and phrases, you’re not a dancer.

Tricking & Parkour

Tricking requires extremely quick reflexes and a different kind of spatial awareness of the self. Whereas breakdancing requires awareness of the body in relation to itself towards the expression of your own personal language, tricking and parkour require a kind of spatial awareness of your self in relation to your environment and motion. You need to be able to subconsciously feel exactly where you are, with and without utilizing vision. Similarly to bboying, you need to understand and feel which moves you can transition to next.

An experienced parkour runner sees the world differently. Every physical scenario is an opportunity for challenge and self-expression. I’ll discuss tricking and parkour further in part five, in order to demonstrate how category theory can be used to help model something not usually considered mathematic.

Yoga

Yoga develops mind-body awareness, which is very important for spatial awareness. As you practice poses, you better understand how to balance in different planes at various joints. In contrast to spatial awareness, you develop the subconscious understanding of which muscles contribute to balance under various circumstances, which is part of mind-body awareness. Yoga can also facilitate the exploration of meditative states of consciousness and helps develop healthy full breathing patterns. We all breath, but not everyone oxygenates as well as they could.

Acting

This is the combination of a wide variety of skills that require high emotional intelligence and accurate self-perception. Even for those of us who don’t plan on being an actor, acting can facilitate the development of this emotional intelligence by requiring us to assume roles where we have to empathize with our character, as well as other actors. Acting requires expressiveness, self-understanding and the ability to see things from more than one viewpoint, both visually and emotionally. It requires the development of acute spatial awareness, accurate visual/aural self-perception and empathy with fellow actors and your audience. To be a successful actor, you need to understand how to compartmentalize as your character, without having your own personality, mental processes and expressions bleed through.

Actors need to be aware of how people will interpret various expressions, as well as how other actors will respond to them. You’ll need to cooperate with these actors in the creation of an experience conveying some definite meaning that contributes to development in the overall work. But you’ll need to do so without detracting from some possibly unknown and/or indefinite meaning.

Similar to how painters develop inner vision to ideate paintings, actors develop an inner vision to ideate scenarios with other people, which seems very complicated to me. Development of various kinds of inner vision is dependent on adept coordination of cognitive faculties. You’ll notice that painters will exhibit great visual memory & ideation. Similarly, actors will exhibit great situational memory and ideation of possibilities.

Proficiently trained neural networks can interpret & classify content, but they can also be inverted to produce content. This concept is clearly demonstrated in the arts ability to develop a particular kind of creative vision.

Improv

Like acting, improv requires this awareness of how situations will be perceived as entertaining by the audience. However, you have to be more familiar with the possibilities, so that you can work with the other actors to create the most entertaining experiences for your audience, while maintaining the novelty. Improv requires empathizing with your performers in order to understand how they’ll react to various situations.

Interestingly, there are some overlaps with math and category theory: you want to create situations the maximize both the entertainment value and the number of possible transitions to other situations. This is kind of the basis of “Yes And,” which is a trick that improv actors use to prevent a dead end and allow another actor to pursue the ideation of his own scenario. Don’t know what to say? Yes And. Need more information about the direction your partner wants to take? Yes And.

Improv actors would need to be familiar with all the possible direcitons that a conversation or scenario could take. You’ll need the short-term memory and listening skills to empathize with your fellow performers. You’ll also need the spontaneity and creativity to create novel situations. These need to be novel both to the audience and to the performers. *In order to judge whether or not something is novel, you need to understand how various situations & possibilities are similar to each other, *which is kind of a mathematic basis for creativity. ** Thus, improv can improve empathy, but also spontaneity by developing our subconscious ability to preprocess these scerarios in order to present our conscious mind with possibilities.

Directing

Directing requires innate understanding of the perception of how a scene and a work will be perceived. Like actors, directors need the same inner vision to develop possibilities of how a writer’s vision will be portrayed. Furthermore, they need to understand more generalized patterns of portraying this vision. Directors need to understand how the senses can be used to direct the focus of the audience, similar to how a writer must understand how their words will direct the thoughts of the audience. Directors must then use these techniques to create a controlled experience that facilitiates the audience’s exploration of greater ideas behind the work.

Additionally, directors must understand more about the logistics behind the production of a work. Similar to how a painter coordinates his various techniques towards implementing his vision, a director needs to coordinate with production and other teams to help orchistrate these logistics. Certain scenes require specific lighting that focuses the viewer’s attention, so a director needs to be aware of those details.

The director is going to be more focused on overall definite and indefinite meaning of their work than the actors. So they need to understand the abilities and tendencies of their actors, in order to accurately portray their vision. The best directors sort of funnel their audience through a very specific experience. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is a spectacular example of this, as are his other works.

Obviously, directing movies isn’t possible for everyone. But meditating on what it would be like to direct a work and on the processes used to create the work is a powerful exercise.

Skateboarding

Like tricking, skateboarding develops spatial awareness, but it requires an acute understanding of how to manipulate an object as an extension of your body. Skateboarding requires extremely quick reflexes, so you develop muscle memory and balance. But in order to develop the techniques required for moves, you need to be creative in how you approach the problems. In addition to learning specific moves, you also need to be capable of understanding certain generalized techniques, such as countering each foot’s motion with the other foot so that the board remains centered below your body.

So you need considerable muscle memory, but it’s a dynamic kind of muscle memory. As you further generalize the moves, you have instantly be in tune with how your movements and foot motions affect each other and the board. You need to develop a spatial awareness that allows you to know the board position and rotation based on feel, rather than sight. I’ll further discuss skateboarding technique in part five, using category theory to model the interactions.

Similar to how a parkour runner can’t help but walk through life seeing all the possibilities around them, a skater will also observe these opportunities for challenge and self-expression.

Martial Arts

Martial arts might be one of the most rewarding pursuits. It interests me most because sparring requires the conditioned, subconscious application of physical strategy. Similar to chess, it requires backwards induction and ideation of paths to reach a particular objective. In contrast to chess, it’s much more crucial to be capable of empathizing with your opponent in order to read their strategy. Development of such a strategy requires short-term memory.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” - Sun Tzu

As sparring is not a strictly defined turn-based game, it’s much more loosely defined than chess. It requires a kind ineffable mental process to reactively construct the physical application of strategy. You need to be aware of how your actions are perceived by your opponent in order to understand how your opponent is constructing their perception of you. What I find most interesting is this reactive development of a particular kind of strategy & tactics, the goal of which is to be incapable of being completely understood by your opponent. A strategy for which counter-tactics cannot be predicted or defined or understood cannot be strategically unraveled. There’s that math again: how do you identify patterns which were specifically developed to be indefinable? How do you develop or define patterns or strategies specifically to escape definition?

Or as the Tao Te Ching so eloquently states:

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named is not the eternal name

The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth

The named is the mother of myriad things”

But martial arts is physcial and requires muscle memory. I posit that by entangling empathy, spatial awareness, strategy and muscle memory, that martial arts develop certain orchestrations of cognitive functions that can be generalized in many other situations. Martial arts requires spatial awareness of self, but also of your opponent. You need to be able to read your opponent to understand his or her capabilities. You need to learn to defend critical spaces, such as generally blocking the critical space around your face. Balance is key. Disrupting balance means that your opponent’s space of applyable reactions becomes extremely limited – a key concept in game theory – so understanding how balance works in general is fundamental to martial arts. But you must be capable of strategizing with these inferences. And it’s ironic how crucial empathy is to martial arts. You must clearly see how your opponent sees.

Martial Arts with Weapons

Like skateboarding, fencing and kendo also require spatial awareness generalized to an object. Whereas, with skateboarding, your learned behaviors focus on a single object type, with weapon techniques, you tend to start generalizing the object itself. As you examine different combinations of weapons, you’ll learn about advantaged and disadvantaged scenarios and how the weapon choice affects the space you need to defend. Techniques for various weapons also affect available stances while attacking or defending, which enable you to determine how best to throw your opponent off balance. You would have no time to consciously think about this while sparring, but as you train, you condition your subconscious to deal with these various situations. And through training, you relegate technique and other processes to your subconsious, which further frees your conscious mind to explore strategy when employing these techniques.

Bruce Lee Demonstrating Mastery of Spatial Awareness

In the video above, Bruce Lee demonstrates a mastery of spatial awareness, as applied to a strategic situation. However, be aware that the coordination of nunchuku technique requires time. Bruce Lee’s choice of nunchuku movements restricts the space of movements available next. So success in this game not only requires mastery of technique, but also mastery of the coordination of technique to ensure versatility of next available techniques. Additionally, you need acute understanding of your opponent’s options in order to coordinate these techniques to allow your self the time and available reactions. However, as you’ll see with category theory, you find that your model is never really restricted. Instead of only considering the next available moves, you simply start understanding the nature of how moves can be combined. In this way, you’ll find that your behavior can never truly be pigeon-holed, as long as you respect and avoid certain conditions throughout the game. Therefore, with experience, you retain the ability to react to nearly any situation.

Languages

More important for cognitive development than martial arts or even programming, learning multiple languages not only furthers your cultural understanding, but also enables you mind to generalize the metaphysical data that language encodes. This is especially true when learning more differentiated languages, but less useful when learning Romance languages, since they typically encapsulate the same relationships between concepts. Romance languages have diverged fairly signifantly though. Learning a new language is most effective during early childhood, which is where the benefits of conceptual abstraction will also be the greatest. This is why it’s unfortunately ironic for certain Americans to disdain bilingualism.

In conversation, a language holistically coordinates the entire brain. Therefore, in respect to the mind, language could be considered as it’s own dimension. That is, the same concepts and ideas can be abstracted for expression in multiple lanuages. Because abstraction requires generalization, then after learning more languages, the mind would begin to transcend the dimension of language. And therefore, IMO, your mind becomes moreso capable of directly understanding concepts and their relationships, without having languages and words as parameters. Instead it deals with pure semantics of concepts.

Learning new languages with alternative written expression teaches us more about phonetics and increases the efficiency and proficiency for visiual symbolic recognition and manipulation. New languages are challenging, requiring short-term memory to support the learning processes, as well as very proficient long-term memory to support retention of vocabulary. Learning new word order and expanding out of the traditional SVO of Romantic languages is interesting, indeed. In computer science and in Chomsky’s works, you’ll find these tree-based parsing concepts everywhere and essential for the development of programming languages.

Negative Activities

There’s plenty of examples of negative activities, that enable you to lull your cognition and turn your brain off. These include watching TV, aimlessly browsing social media and others. While sometimes watching TV can allow you to reflect on the story and characters, it’s too easy for your brain to do passively. More active pursuits, even video games, are much better. Video games can actually be quite beneficial to the mind, to some extent. World of Warcraft can teach people the value of fulfilling a role in a group, just like the example of playing in a band listed above. However, ideally, you’ll have some variety to the activities you pursue, which will include some with physical activity. Logging into WoW for 40+ hours a week isn’t beneficial unless you’re a pro gamer.

The Similarity of All Things

Many are trapped believing that they are incapable of learning quickly, that it’s not worthwhile. Unfortunately, many people lack the mental modeling required to efficiently learn new things. IMO, the lack of efficient and robust modeling for cognition and metacognition is one reason some people seem to learn much faster, while others barely keep up. I believe that early childhood experiences and thought processes determine intelligence and cognitive functionality moreso than genetics. This is why family and early childhood care are crucial for development.

Our beliefs determine what experiences we’re willing to try, as well as how many times we’ll be willing to keep trying when we fail. Our behavioral metaprogramming and programming determine how we approach problems and whether we continue to practice on our own or wait for someone else to show us. Our outlook on life determines the perspective with which we choose to view failure, as well as the light we cast it in.

But for those who have the determination and versatile perspective required for perseverence, a more expansive system of modeling can facilitate learning. You can choose to learn new activities, just to expand your cognitive skills. The repeated metacognition required for introspection becomes more natural the more often you do this. As your conscious mind constructs models per-category, the subconscious generalizes these models so they can be reused for other processes. But if you have the powerful ability to construct models for any category, then you can use the conscious mind to deconstruct anything into a familiar model.

It is extremely powerful to have the capability to see the similiarities in all things. The more you understand how and why all things are similar, then the more you can apply your acquisition of knowledge towards the acceleration of learning. More simply, the more you know, the faster you learn new things - because they are all similar. But also, the more you’ve learned, the more proficient your cognitive abilities are, which provides further acceleration.

Your rate of learning is a function of (1) everything you know (2) your ability to interrelate your knowledge to model new things (3) the proficiency of each base cognitive function and (4) your ability to coordinate those cognitive functions. Therefore, by improving on any of these four points, you will accelerate your rate of learning.

Part Four: A Universal Model

And so, it’s not enough to just see how all things are similar. In order to optimize the contribution of new knowledge towards the acceleration of learning, we also need to discover and understand a unified framework of modeling any problem space. And that framework is category theory. Part four provides an overview of category theory – at least, from my imperfect understanding of it – and describes my experience in discovering why it’s so flexible.