Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Meteorological Mind

This is just a little thought I had today:

We often think of the mind in terms of being like a computer. In fact, every age seems to use the technology of the day as a metaphor for the mind. People used to think of it in terms of wax tablets (a metaphor for memory), weaving looms and telephone exchange systems.

However, I think that using the planet's weather system as an analogy is an interesting one. For example, it highlights how our minds have different cycles of activity. I would say there are three main cycles:

Weather: this changes day-to-day, and can change within the day even. In effect, these are our moods. These moods are sometimes obviously linked to events (i.e. you have an argument with a family member and you feel negative all day), sometimes they just come and go for no apparent reason. You can counter-act them, but only usually with great effort, and also you would need to become conscious of them in the first place. Most of the time when we are in the grip of a particular mood we are just carried along by it, but, if we DO stop to think about it, we realise that it is a temporary feeling and will pass in a day or so.

Seasons: these are the longer term trends in how we feel. I'd say they last anything from a few months to a few years. An example would be a period of depression. Another example would be when a person suddenly becomes really interested in a particular topic and pursues it enthusiastically, only to look back in a few years time to realise they'd gradually lost that interest and moved on to other things. Again, like weather, seasons can be traced back to a particular event (i.e. someone's dad dies, they take it badly and enter a period of depression for a couple of years), or they can just occur for no immediately apparent reason. However, unlike 'weather' cycles, even if we stop to think about how we feel about a season cycle, it is hard to believe it won't pass. It just feels like 'the way we are'. If we REALLY think about it, and are honest with ourselves, we probably realise the feeling will pass in time, but its by no means as obvious as with a weather cycle.

Climate: these are the far more stable patterns of emotions. We think of these as being an inherent part of the person, and talk about them as 'temperaments' or 'personality'. However, they can change, over long periods of time. For example, most people in their late 20s become more conscientious than they were in their youth. Another example might be how many people who were typically bad-tempered in their adult life become more mellow with old age.

I suspect these factors are more closely 'anchored' in a person's individual physiology and their genetics (i.e. their whole nervous system), whereas the weather and season cycles are more like temporary patterns that are moving through a person's brain. The particular climate that we are in doesn't feel to us like a temporary or arbitrary state of affairs, it feels like the way the world is. For example, lets imagine that a person is born with a particular bias in their brain and nervous system that makes them a negative person. That person is unlikely to say something like:

"I'm a negative person because of the way my nervous system is wired up, therefore I have a bias in the way I process information about the world".

They are far more likely to say something along the lines of:

"Sure people call me a negative person, but I'm only like that because the world IS a dangerous place, and full of bad things."

In other words, whilst we are able to 'see through' the weather and season cycles and see them as temporary, passing trends in how we feel, the climate cycles are more like personal biases that we don't know we have. What could change the particular climate we are under? Not as many things as can change our weather or seasons, but there are some. I think they would include:

Change in diet
Major life event (e.g. trauma of war)
Seriously adopting meditation as a regular discipline
A major operation
A serious drug addition

These are all things which could alter our nervous system, as opposed to the weather and season cycles which I liken more to temporary patterns of thinking. The former probably have their origins in our neurology, the latter in ideas we come across and somehow 'take hold' of us for a period of time.

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