Cognitive Demands & Positive Feedback Loops

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

I always enjoy the Art of Manliness website and it's podcast. In this episode of the podcast the host Brett McKay is talking with a psychologist about the rise of anxiety and lack of agency many people feel in this day & age. In one part they discuss how the sheer amount of information available to us, and the choices to be made, create more cognitive demands on us, and increase stress. This makes me think of systems. It's a positive feedback loop where our society has continued to add information into our mental systems. These are now bloating and one of the ways we see that bloat is in a surplus of mental health issues. It seems that decreasing screen time, time consuming articles, info, etc. would all have a good effect of counteracting that growth and stress from sifting all the information & corresponding decisions. (That's why I am an advocate of tech sabbaths at the least.)

"Too much of a good thing is not a good thing."

Alacrates's picture

(haven't listened to the podcast yet)

The thing I find most mentally fragmenting about the internet is the barrage of articles coming one's way (or really, for the most part, the barrage of headlines, as I'm sure we all only read a small fraction of the articles we see, and just sort of get the gist of most from the headline and maybe the thumbnail image displayed beside it.

I was participating in a discussion group about climate change, and people started sharing a lot of articles among the e-mail list. I think a lot of people found them disorienting, they were coming from a lot of disparate, and I think sometimes contradictory, viewpoints. Some were on appropriate technology or higher tech solutions, a lot of despairing articles about the general state of the environment, some on eco-socialism, spiritual topics, psychology, etc.

I think sometimes a wide range of disparate views can coalesce into an interesting, unique local group outlook, I've seen this before, but I didn't feel this happening here. I think for the most part people were overwhelmed by the articles, did not look into most of them, and then felt vaguely out of the loop, and continued on in their own niche views and preoccupations.

I think in part this is because articles tend not to give a lot of context to what they are discussing, they assume a lot of agreement or prior knowledge, and tell a small story within that field. But if people don't have a good basis in something like climate science or technology, I think the articles can be a frustrating, kind of like constantly hearing about little, isolated advancements in calculus, when you don't really have a grasp on arithmetic or algebra yet.

For me personally, the antidote for this is books. Even if every piece of information in that book is readily available on the web, I still think there is a lot of value in having an author collect up information, edit it down, and relay it in a coherent way, that tells something of a narrative form. I really find that once I go through a few books on a topic I'm interested in, I have a much clearer feeling in my mind, the information that I have taken in is much more organized and related.

Even thinking back to the days that I read newspapers, found there to be more mental coherence in that article-based form than the internet. The paper had a familiar format, it came in regular intervals, it was edited. What you were reading today usually had some connection to what you had read earlier in the week. You got to know various reporters and columnists, so you had a feel for where the ideas and articles were coming from. (I guess this is why I like reading blogs from authors I know, rather than the random articles that my phone suggests to me, I have a feel for where the text is coming from.)

In that climate change group, I also found people seemed more eager to simply share articles than to discuss them, which baffles me. Just a link sent out in an e-mail really doesn't do a lot for me, even if the article is alright, like anyone with an internet connection, I could easy drown myself in interesting articles, I don't really need help for that!

What I'm personally more interested in is hearing the thoughts of that person, who I know in particular, rather than the thoughts of someone I don't know at all. In this group and others, I've felt a bit alone in that preference - I have a feeling that people don't really trust hearing the ideas of people they know, they kind of prefer the authority of the article. But for myself, I'm not trying to get conclusive knowledge from the people I interact with (for that I will go to more authoritative sources) I'm more trying to get a feel for how this particular person is thinking, and what they have come across.

I do continue to share articles, but I try to usually write up something of my own so that people could just respond to that, if they don't want to go read the full article. (But, I'm such a wordy person, I think my write ups can be just as hard to read as the articles themselves, if not moreso!!)

David Trammel's picture

"I think sometimes a wide range of disparate views can coalesce into an interesting, unique local group outlook, I've seen this before, but I didn't feel this happening here. I think for the most part people were overwhelmed by the articles, did not look into most of them, and then felt vaguely out of the loop, and continued on in their own niche views and preoccupations."

Alacrates, thank you very much for this observation.

Sometimes I find it hard to do the larger work of writing original comments and blog posts and in compensation do post a collection of articles and links I've come across. I'm on the newsletter list of several other sustainability and collapsing websites. I see links sometimes which make me think, "Wow that's important" which occasionally spark long reply threads here and sometimes don't. I'm never sure just what all of you will talk about.

After the reboot this January we're in a bit of a pause. That's mostly me. I will say that I've grown enough bothered by the climate and situation in the World that we're in right now that I've been seriously considering quitting my job, taking a 1 year long sabbatical from working all together for an employer, concentrating of lots of Green Wizard material and getting my retirement home to the point I could move out of this rental and into it, even if it wasn't fully ready.

I'd take a serious hit to what I could end up with but I have enough money set aside right now, I could still build something that I could live with, though at a level of barely above poverty. Poor isn't bad though.

It looks like what will take place is I'll be moving back to third shift (starting time 11pm until 6-9am) the first week of June. That will let me continue to draw a paycheck and have paid insurance while having 3-4 hours in the cool morning to work at building the retirement home and future micro farm.

I'll get back to posting blog posts next Wednesday, with more detailed and original content. Garden pics too. I have three flats of carrot seedlings to plant this weekend, though the cat jumped up on the shelf under the grow lamp and squashed about a dozen seedlings yesterday.

Remember too, if there is a particular area of interest you have, ASK.

I have this grand plan in the back of my mind of the library of skills and tutorials I want to have here eventually, and they will be quite broad and extensive. BUT I don't want to focus on just one or two if people are not interested in them. I'll take the slow incremental approach and do a little in each area to build them all up.

Might not be the best way to do it, but to me its the most fair.

Alacrates's picture

Sounds good, dtrammel - and please don't take what I wrote there as a criticism of this site, I was more referring to the face-to-face local groups that I have been in. You've done a really great job on this site & forum, I like how it's all come together.

I certainly share online articles (and actually I periodically write articles and share links to those too!) so it is not that I want the practice to end by any means! But I did find in those local groups that people were sharing articles almost obsessively, without adding their own thoughts, or responding much when people did reply with their take on the issue. For me, the most interesting thing was hearing the ideas of the people that I knew, face to face.

The larger point that I wanted to make though was about the importance of books compared to a scattering of online articles and videos (at least for me personally). I've just felt personally that whenever I buckle down and read at least one good book on a subject, carefully, I make sense of information coming at me so much easier. Picking two or three good books on a subject makes this process even better.

For instance, I'm in the process of doing this for the issue of climate change right now. I have a few books picked out that I want to go through carefully, and I have a binder ready for notes. I want to get really clear on the details of the main greenhouse gases, on the emissions caused by various activities and industries, the projections for the consequences for various levels of warming, arguments of various climate change skeptics, etc.

I think once I've done that, I'll be in much better position to evaluate the online articles that I read on the subject. I think the mental overload from internet content comes from not having a solid framework into which to assimilate the information we are bombarded with. Once the framework is up though, the online information is a blessing, in my opinion.

I have to note that other people may well be different in this, people are so different in the ways that they learn, I've definitely seen people who learn a ton just through scattered videos and articles online, they seem to build up a mental model themselves to attach information to. I've worked with dyslexic people before, and I feel like they have a knack for this, learning very quickly informally, but suffering under formal education. I feel personally that I'm the exact opposite, I have a hard time learning from what I see or feel until I have some formal theory & knowledge to make sense of it - I have thought of myself as being 'hyper-lexic' in this regard!

Whatever you choose regarding your employment, make sure to take care of yourself, on one hand preparing for the future is probably pretty useful, on the other hand, while there are jobs willing to pay decent money and others willing to accept that same money for useful things, maybe it's best to keep the jobs for as long as possible? You know your situation better than anyone though of course. Definitely don't overextend yourself for the sake of the website though, I'm sure it will be a useful resource to people through the slow & steady approach, and a variety of people contributing.

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

I did think it was kind of funny to be writing about this by posting a link to a podcast, lol. ! I was thinking as I hit the "save" button it was kind of ironic.

@dtrammel. I wasn't posting that or creating this topic as a critique of this forum either -because I share plenty of links in email and on JMG's blog. I really am delighted about the reboot and its caused my involvement here to increase more than I was involved at the other forum. So I thank you dtrammel. Slow and incremental is the way I work at most of my projects -with occassional deep dives- always spiraling around to look at things from different angles.

I was just excited about the idea of this in terms of systems. And seeing a lot of millenials -my children, their friends, younger co-workers (I'm gen-x myself, albeit towards its tail end) who suffer from various forms of depression / anxiety and yet are glued to their phones. That's been something the wife & I have been talking about a lot --so when I heard the podcast, I was thinking of how it realted to systems & so wanted to share it! Good luck with the career moves / decisions: certainly something to meditate on and be careful about. I do love many of the articles you've posted. Recently the one on the pinkertons was a favorite! Also, I have some things in mind for longer form articles that I could write and share here. I can't promise how long they will take to materialize though.

@alacrates: Yes on the books! The kind of deep reading, deep immersion, you get from reading a book on a subject is something I am in alignment with --I also too have binders & folders for the various areas of research I engage in: a ham radio binder, an herbal medicine/alchemy binder, a general green wizards notebook, etc. All those notes too, can really help when it comes to writing our own articles & books.

One thing I wanted to do some more in depth reading on was American/North American history. This came up in a recent JMG post. I do love history but it seems I've forgotten a lot of the general history of America and I'd like to bone up on that some more. There are so many history books though I'm not sure where to start. Working at the library I bet I could find something!

Happy to be participating here.

Alacrates's picture


Very cool set of binder/folder topics! I have yet to get into either herbalism or alchemy, but I reading through JMG's The Celtic Golden Dawn got me interested in the topic. I did get a copy of Mark Stavish's book on alchemy, the program he outlines in that seems very practical & possible to attempt, may I get to it someday! Matthew Wood's books on herbalism seemed very good to me as well.

Agreed on wanting to get a better hold on North American history. I did once get a bachelor's degree majoring in history, but what I learned in that was pretty spotty, I'd like to get a better sense of the subject as a whole. I have books on the general history of Canada and the United States lined up, as well as some more local histories of my region and city.

For the past year, I've been trying to fill in my knowledge of ancient western history, just reading one general book on areas that I never really got to before. So far I've read a history of Sumer/Mesopotamia, Alexandria and the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and now into Rome, next I'd like to read about the Byzantine and Islamic Empires, as well as ancient Egypt. I like to intersperse these with biographies, I've started on Alexander the Great, I'm planning on Cicero, Hannibal, and Marcus Aurelius next. I think biographies, or books that focus in on a narrow subject, are great to pair with general historical overviews, they give a picture of the period that I find I would never guess from a birds' eye view.

Blueberry's picture
Alacrates's picture

Looks like some interesting books, I'll search some out.

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

I have yet to use this system but am intrigued by it. I can certainly see its usefulness for non-fiction writing (also for gleaning things that might be good in fiction.)

(Here I go again, sharing another link!)

Alacrates's picture

Wow, I like that system a lot! (Kind of reminds me of the idea David Lynch said he got from a teacher at the film school he attended: “If you want to make a feature film, you get ideas for 70 scenes. Put them on 3-by-5 cards. As soon as you have 70, you have a feature film.”)

I definitely think that there is something organizing information with notecards, I did something like that when I was doing my plumbing exams (and before that, my cooking exams) - for some reason isolating the information out into discrete, physical units does plant it in mind pretty powerfully. I find that my mind relates to notes differently depending on how I took the notes.

For the last few years, I've been using this very thick loose-leaf paper that I've found, numbering the corners of the pages, and holding them into packets with binder clips. For a 200pg book I might end up with 20 pages of notes. Sometimes I reduce these down to very streamlined notes in a Word document on my computer, and then print that out as a final copy.

One thing I like about note cards is that they are very easily organized into packs with rubber bands, and there are lots of boxes you could use to collect them into. I wonder if the tactile feel of the note cards and they can be reorganized kind of relates to how people are generally drawn to playing cards or tarot cards, each card has some meaning, but they can be ordered in a variety of ways (unlike a book).

I really liked his idea to note ideas either by writing in the margins, folding the pages, or post-it notes, and then to come back to it in a few weeks, in order to let the ideas settle, and you only make note cards for what still seems important after some time has passed. I think one of my weaknesses as a reader is that I take way too many notes and it slows my reading down a lot. I think a balance has to be made, and I also think that if you can kind of get a basic skeleton framework of the topic you want to keep in mind, a lot of less important detail sticks to that basic structure, without a lot of extra work.

I definitely think I'll be trying out some version of this system.

A related idea I've had: I've bought a lot of books in my life, but as I've gotten older, the collection I have with me now has settled, I don't add a lot to it per year. Not that I've read everything in it by a long shot, but I like the books I have a lot, and I have read a lot of them. Lots of times when I come across a new idea or piece of information, I instantly relate it to a certain page in a certain book I have. (For instance, I might read a comment JMG makes about diviniation, right away it connects to something I read in a book on tarot that I have.)

One idea I had was to keep these notes in the books of my personal library, tucked into the pages where I associated the idea. If nothing else, it could be interesting to whoever one day happens to inherit all these books!

Going back to film-makers, another truly impressive note-taker was Stanley Kubrick, who I kind of hold in equal esteem to David Lynch. If anyone is interested, look up the short documentary "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes", I was amazed by how methodically he approached everything in his life, from the publicity of his films to the collars he designed for his cat. I also know for the film Kubrick planned to do on Napolean that never got made, he had a library card catalogue put together, with one card for each day of Napolean's life. (picture below)

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Justin Patrick Moore's picture


(I really want to source a card catalog now for note storage -but a shoebox would work too...)

While reading your response I kind of thought of Brian Eno's oblique strategies... and wondered if these note cards could also be used in a combinatorial system. For divination etc. I like how you referenced the way David Lynch uses note cards to lay out 70 different scenes for making a film. It seems like he might shuffle the order of them. (I don't know if you saw, but he is teaching a "Master Class" -- the trailer for it looked pretty sweet, but a bit out my price range now... )

Thinking of the notecard possibilities makes me want to switch to this system, rather than notebooks...

Are you familiar with Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies? I wonder if such a game could be devised for Ecotechnic / GW purposes...

From wikipedia:

"Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) is a card-based method for promoting creativity jointly created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, first published in 1975. Physically, it takes the form of a deck 7-by-9-centimetre (2.8 in × 3.5 in) printed cards in a black box. Each card offers a challenging constraint intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.

Each card contains a gnomic suggestion, aphorism or remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. A few are specific to music composition; others are more general. For example:

Use an old idea.
State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
Only one element of each kind.
What would your closest friend do?
What to increase? What to reduce?
Are there sections? Consider transitions.
Try faking it!
Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
Ask your body.
Work at a different speed.
Gardening not Architecture.
From the introduction to the 2001 edition:

These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognised in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated.

They can be used as a pack, or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear..."

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Alacrates's picture

Very much agreed that a card catalogue would be a fantastic & elegant idea storage device! (For some reason, I pictured old card catalogues sitting around in the basement of libraries (!) but I guess they were cleared out long ago. I can't remember what year I stopped seeing them, I definitely used them in elementary school.

I hadn't heard of Oblique Strategies! (I do have one of Brian Eno's ambient music albums, it is good background music to read through for sure. I have a David Lynch ambient music album too, "The Air is on Fire", and they both connect in my mind to Erik Satie's background music, which I believe was played in fin de siecle French circles, particular in the Rosicrucian group that also included a favorite occultist of JMG's, Josephin Peladan.)

It's publication date of 1975 and its encouragement of lateral thinking make me wonder if it wasn't inspired by Edward de Bono's work.

de Bono had a systems theory of how the mind worked (I have no idea how his ideas have been accepted/rejected by the contemporary neuroscience field) which I would really like to go through and break down in detail, but basically he thought that patterns or "channels" are created between the neurons of the brain by certain habitual firings, that are hard to move out of, once they've been established.

He had the idea of "provocations", which you would consider a particular problem that you were engaged in from the vantage point of a random word/concept, to ensure that you were approaching the problem from a conceptual stance that was not a part of the habitual 'groove' of ideas normally associated with sequence of neuronal firings.

He had one method where one would draw a random word from a dictionary to approach a problem, I remember the example he had was something parking cars, and the random word was 'frog', and he had some examples of solving a parking problem using the idea of lily pads, vehicles arranged in circular formation, moving from one to another, and so on...)

I think something like this could be useful to Green Wizardry projects, wherever people have immersed themselves in the information& details of the problem & solution, I think then a random stimulus can help them generate unique responses to that project. Might be an interesting group GW project, to come up with the set of random stimuli cards, like Oblique Strategies.

Alacrates's picture

A parallel to Eno's Oblique Strategies: I saw on this Instagram account, David Schaffer's, who post images of various found objects and strange art, his find of a mid-70s plastic object, Edward de Bono's "Think Tank"

Basically it is a little sphere filled with hundreds of laminated cards, with random concepts printed on them, so that you could spin the globe and come up with a random concept by which to approach your problem by (I assume, I don't think the book for this device has been printed since it was first issued.)

There are a lot of random word generators available now, this device is probably not necessary anymore, but I like how its thick plastic construction harks back to the 1970s, reminds me of the progressions of industrial technology that we have moved through.

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Interesting riffs here. Don't have much time at the moment for a long response, but I wouldn't be surprised if Eno had read de Bono (and he later worked with a different Bono ;}

What Eno was interested in was cybernetics systems theory and the works Norbert Wiener & Stafford Beer. You can read a bit about here (more linky goodness!)

I love the idea of a Green Wizard's "systems" deck of some kind. Incidentally I also love using the dictionary -or other books- for bibliomancy. It can definitely be used as a strategy for breaking through or dodging, frogging over!, creative obstacles.

Looking up de Bono at work, I see we have 27 titles by him... but I should still start with the basics.

I loved the picture of the Think Tank on your link --and what you had to say about the history of design & industrial process as connected to it: reminds me of something from the movie Silent Running.

Alacrates's picture

Interesting article, that could be the connection, I know de Bono got his start in cybernetics as well - I still would like to learn more about what cybernetics even is, I've seen it referenced in reading about various thinkers in the 60s & 70s, but I've never been able to find a good primer on the basics involved.

About de Bono, he is probably not for everyone. I think a lot of people would be put off by his writing style. At a certain point, I think he was trying to promote his work through his organization that focused on doing workshops for corporations and working with schools and education departments, so I think parts of his writing seems a little gimmicky and related to promoting his program. He was also not afraid to recycle content from book to book, so people might find his books a little repetitious.

When I first saw his books as a teenager, I remember thinking they looked stupid, but at some point I must have given them a chance, because I had a period where I read through a ton of them, the university library near me had a lot of his books, including ones from the early 1970s. I remember one were he asked children to invent solutions to various problems, and he included their drawings & explanations and what they showed about the thinking process.

When JMG wrote about some thinking exercises that were part of a Druid curriculum a few years ago, the exercise was very similar to one de Bono exercise, it reminded me of his work, and again when I read JMG's article on the combinatorial art.

I think that de Bono does excessively denigrate things like classical philosophy and logic, but I think he does make a good case for tools related to creativity and what he calls "operacy" to be added to the analytic side of training the mind.

If anyone's interested in his books, the good news is that they are pretty short and quick to read.

The main books that teach his thinking techniques:

- his CoRT exercises have been released in a few books, I think recently as "Edward de Bono's Thinking Course"
- "Six Thinking Hats" is probably his most famous
- "Teach Yourself To Think" has a system in which he collects up a lot of the different exercises he produced over the years and worked them together into one system

His books on the theory behind his exercises:

- "Mechanism of Mind" - I think his first book on this subject
- "I am Right, You are Wrong" - A more comprehensive book about his exercises & general outlook

He does have a TON of other books as well - a lot of them are fairly repetitious, but they also tend to have a unique concept they are organized around. Ones that I remember are Textbook for Wisdom, Handbook for a Positive Revolution, Simplicity, Six Value Medals, How to have a Beautiful Mind.....

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Here are two methods for using index cards to write stories. Might be of possible interest to those of us who are writing deindustrial fiction.

David Trammel's picture

-My very old copy of Herbert's Dune has dozens of black marks on the paper's edge, where I've highlighted various passages. I could often just look at the side of the book and spot the passage I wanted to find, based on its length.

-Note cards are a great way to break down complicated subjects into small rememberable bits. The secret is not to put too much information on them that they can't be absorbed with more than a quick glance.

-Going back to a previous thread on muscle memory, reviewing note cards, while doing something completely unrelated is a good way to absorb the information. I taught a coworker math fractions that way once. While we stacked boxes I would occasional pull out a flash card and have him do the math.

-At one time, years ago, I had a program on my computer which would display random quotes. Its surprising how often those would seem to relate to a problem I was considering. In hind sight I think it was the same effect the card deck system has.

-Reading Runic stones, which a shaman throws out onto the ground or a cloth pattern, I've been told is similar. The Shaman lets their mind go blank and then sees what images come to mind when they view the pattern of stones. Like looking at clouds on a sunny day and imagining what we see.

-As for our own Green Wizard deck, I wonder if we went back through the old ADR, and wrote down all of the pithy one liners and observations Greer had (and some of the commenters) would that work?

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Thanks for chiming in David.

It sounds like your copy of Dune is very well read. He is an author I definitely need to read more of.

I also like what you had to say about muscle memory -doing something physical, then looking at a card, to learn something.

I like your idea of extracting quotes & one liners from the ADR for the GW deck. I think its a good project or start to it.

One of the things I want to do is get a box for index cards for notes from books I've read and organize them according to the thirteen circles of green wizardry.

Alacrates's picture

I hadn't gotten through Herbert's Dune yet either, but it is on my bookshelf, ready to work through, I'm looking forward to it.

I had seen JMG praising Dune, as well as John Crowley's novel, "Little, Big" - I finished Crowley's work recently, it does connect with the art of memory and civilizational decline, I definitely think that I'm better off for having worked myself through that, but I'd like to see what Herbert's Dune has to offer...

As for creating a deck related to JMG's writings on ADR and elsewhere, maybe we could gather together a thread of JMG quotes in a dedicated thread in one of the circles, I think I would find it interesting to see what readers would people would pull from various JMG books and posts.

For people focused on a specific application of appropriate technology, I can't help but think that the random word/concept method might break them through an impasse. If a guideline for using the random concept/word method was needed, I'd be willing to write something up related to to a random concept/idea generator.