Conservation theory.


The idea that I’m putting forth today represents the crux of my perception and philosophy over the past year or so. Everything I think about is driven in some way by the following idea. I think it’s time I get it down in writing so that I can develop it and make the idea more robust and comprehensive.


As an engineering student, I am deeply familiar with the laws of conservation. If you have taken any sort of science class, or just happen to be a well-reasoned individual, you are probably familiar with this concept as well. The concept is that energy and matter cannot come from nowhere – every scenario has to have an input and an output, a cause and effect. Flow of matter must obey conservation of mass, heat transfer must obey conservation of energy, movement must obey conservation of momentum. We as a species don’t quite know how the Universe began, but we DO know that ever since it began, it has obeyed these laws, and we observe them to hold true throughout everything we do.


Here is a very concrete example of conservation of mass (bear with me, please): Water is flowing through a pipe at 10 liters / second. The pipe has cross-sectional area A. Now let’s say this pipe branches off into 10 equally sized pipes, each of cross-sectional area 0.1A. Now each of these pipes will have water flowing through them at 1 liter/second. This way, mass is conserved, because the total amount of water going into the system (10 liters/second) is exactly balanced out by the amount of water going out (1 liter/second * 10 tubes = 10 liters/second), even though the streams of water take different paths. This is pretty obvious and intuitive to us.


Now, I’m going to preface this next point by saying that I am not an expert in neuroscience. Everything I’m about to say is based on my own empirical observations, and not on scientific research. I’m far too lazy to do that when I can just sit around and reason about things.


I like to call my idea the Law of Conservation of Thought. It’s very simple in principle. There are only so many things that anyone can think about at any given time. I believe that each person has some capacity to think, some amount of brain power that they can devote to any task, sort of like a computer has processing power. In fact, the processor analogy is a rather good one, although possibly lost on those who are not familiar with computer architecture. Anyways, this is my main unifying idea, that thought is conserved – just as the water is conserved as it flows through the pipe, so is thought conserved as our minds process it. We cannot think beyond what our minds allow us to, there is only so much thought that can be used at any given time. Like the physical conservation laws, it is a simple concept but the implications are wide-ranging.


This idea makes sense on the surface – there is some limit to the amount we can think about, which is why we cannot simultaneously do all of our different homework problems in our head, or read a book while carrying on a conversation with someone, and so on. The exception to this is that sometimes, if we get good enough at something, we can learn to multitask – this is mostly true with activities that are partially mental and partially physical, such as sports, music, and art. In these cases it is possible to perform complex mental computations in parallel by using other parts of the brain than those that deal with higher-level thinking, for instance by transforming forced motion into muscle-memory. In this way, you can do something complicated like playing a piano piece while also solving a math problem. However, at levels of thinking which are more abstract, it is a lot harder to multitask in this way. For these types of thought, you cannot think in parallel, because you only have one part of your brain working on the problem. Which is, again, why normal people can’t solve a math problem while also reading a book (this idea does NOT take into account people with exceptional mental capabilities, rainman-style).


That all sounds very nice, but what does that mean for us in the real world? The reason I was thinking about it is because, being at Berkeley (well, being in a competitive intellectual environment in general), I start to question my own mental capacity. Observing the intellectual successes and failures of others and of myself, it behooves me to think about how my brain thinks and how others think. Through this I hope to figure out what thought organization schemes lead to the most success. The most important thing I have learned is that nobody is god – no matter how smart someone is, their accomplishments can be explained by a combination of preparation, dedication, and some latent intelligence. In other words, optimization of thought. As I said above, I think everyone has some certain thought capacity – maybe it can increase or decrease based on body health, sleep schedule, emotional state, general well-being etc, but on average it is relatively constant for individuals. However, it is very unlikely for any person to be using their thought capacity optimally; thoughts can be scattered, unfocused, or focused on things that are not useful. The smartest people are able to take full advantage of their thought capacity, so that all of their thought is used towards some constructive goal. This is very different from having the highest capacity. I used to think that having the highest capacity was important. I thought that having a high intellectual potential was what defined “smartness.” However, I no longer believe that. There are many people who take full advantage of their intellectual capacity even if it is not exceptionally high, and those are the people who become truly successful. They do this through having a very strong ability to focus.


This concept of focus is very important, and is what brings this whole idea together for me. Focus is a measure of how much of your thought capacity you can devote to a particular problem or task. Pure focus means directing all of your available thought to one thing; anything less means that your attention is divided, or else that some thought is completely going to waste, ie “leaking”, by thinking about something trivial. I’ve simplified this model of thought conservation such that all thought exists on a spectrum, with focus on one end and perspective on the other. What this means is that you can either devote all of your thought capacity to just one subject (thus achieving focus), or else devote a small amount of your thought capacity to a variety of different subjects (thus achieving perspective). In other words, this is a way of defining of depth vs breadth of thought. You can either think about one subject very deeply, or many subjects shallowly, or anywhere in between. This ties into my water tube analogy from above – if you want to divide the water so that it flows in different directions, then each tube is going to have a weaker flow. Likewise, if you want to think about different things, then your capacity to think about each of them individually will be severely weakened.


I don’t want to say here that focus is necessarily better than perspective, just that they are on opposite ends of a spectrum. You cannot be very focused while also having a wide perspective – if you achieve this, it simply means that you have a very high thought capacity such that if you otherwise narrowed your perspective, you could focus even more powerfully on one thing. It is often good to be focused – switching between different thoughts is inefficient and causes a lot of “leakage” where you waste time thinking about unimportant things. So, when you are doing homework, it is generally beneficial to be focused on that homework rather than thinking about other things on and off. However, sometimes it is bad to be too focused. This can happen if you get wrapped up in a task without thinking about the context of what you are doing. For instance, you might work very hard on a project, only to realize afterwards that the goal of the project was not very good and that it would have been better to devote your time working on something else. Generally, perspective is useful for making choices of what you want to do, because it gives you a diversity of choice – focus is useful because it allows you to stick to a decision and excel at a task. The way to optimize thought, then, is to be able to readily switch between having focus and having perspective, so that when you need to be creative you can think about a lot of different things, but when you need to get something done quickly and efficiently you have the power to sit down and do it.


Once I started thinking about this idea, I couldn’t stop. I started thinking about everyone’s behavior in terms of this model. Does this person have better focus or better perspective? Is this person optimizing his/her thought capacity? Do the people who I admire succeed because they have better focus, or better perspective, or both?


As many of you know, I have a problem with focus. It is difficult for me to choose one thing to do and stick to it, and devote a significant amount of my thought to it for an extended period of time. However, it is relatively easy for me to consider a wide range of possibilities, including ones that other people might not think of. I need to become better at balancing these things such that I can make myself be focused when I need it, but still be open minded enough to know when I need to pursue another course of action.


That’s all for today. Please leave criticisms in the comments, as I’m sure there are plenty of holes in my analysis.


Here’s some inspirational music, blast from the past. Been thinking about Disney a lot lately…

  1. I like it.
    I personally knew I couldn’t multi-task from a while back…
    However, there needs to be a change in pipelines from time to time, or a change in flow direction as to not exhaust the pipelines. But that can just be me personally.

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