"A man's got to know his limitations."
- Inspector Harry Callahan - 'Dirty Harry'
How do we set limits in our world? We might purport to be free-thinking, expansive in worldview, and capable of achieving goals that stretch our capacities to grandiose ambition...
But is this wishful thinking? Are we deluding ourselves?
The answer is most likely yes. One might say well that’s fine, it’s better to have a stretching and unrealistic view of our own capabilities as this can spur us on to achieve things we aspire towards in life. But actually, thinking about it, are we not then just like the denizens of The Matrix, going about our days in a blithely complacent mode of operation that is content to ‘know’ we have the potential to achieve whatever we want, but actually deluding ourselves about the extent of this capacity. In effect this unfounded belief that we can reach out and extend our actions unbounded in the world may be in itself limiting our actual potential...
To feel as if one can achieve anything can foster complacency that actually prevents doing anything about it. And this, one may argue, rests in setting boundaries for ourselves that are actually constrained by a self-satisfied sense that we can do whatever we want, go where we please, achieve our dreams. By virtue of ‘knowing’ that we can take that step whenever we want. Tomorrow...the next day...at some point. Is it in effect tantamount to 'confined optimism'? (Being overly optimistic may be as deleterious to goal achievement as being pessimistic and negative...so where's the balance, the optimal point where skills and challenges come together to prompt 'flow'?)
Might it be more productive and satisfying to be realistic and look more closely at what our boundaries actually are in order to then define where we can get to and then where we might aspire to go further? How far does the range of thought extend? I wonder if anyone has tried to quantify this, and relate it to ‘physical terms’? - a useful ‘thought experiment’ in itself! Much is said of the freedom to think infinitely, and the beauty of having brains that allow us to wander at will in the realms of imagination that has no ‘true’ limitations. To the very edge of the known universe...and beyond! But firstly, perhaps we should consider how far can we actually think in those terms. And secondly to what extent do we exercise that capability? (As an aside, and as I have begun to speculate elsewhere, consider how the evolution towards superintelligent AI may unseat our own place at the head of the table as dominant species, by simple virtue of our incapacity to imagine where the limits of thought may extend to in 'beings' with exponentially greater capacity for thought! There are simply things we cannot think about. Much as we can't imagine innovations that have yet to take place!)
Are our thoughts bounded by the mundane borders of our own regional concerns? Do we simply rove within stepping distance of our own cognitive domiciles or do we seek to search beyond, to thrust out into the unknown? An interesting experiment would be to devise a protocol for measuring the extent that people think and to equate that through some normalised attribute to distance in ‘real’ terms. It would be interesting to devise characteristics that categorise different types of thinkers and relate to demographic variables. Does the ‘professorial’ typology of thinker, as a rule, go beyond ‘typical’ boundaries compared to the blue-collar citizen (being stereotypical for a moment to illustrate an idea)? Would such a metric require homogenisation of data to account for other variables in order to ‘standardise’ a measure relative to different personality/lifestyle characteristics? Does the ‘artist’ head the pack in striding out beyond the known borderlands to map new territories?
An intriguing idea with the development of ever more capable neuroimaging technologies and theoretical frameworks is the possibility that measures of ‘expansive cognition’ may become more viable. But as with focus over the years on for instance psychedelic or ‘altered states’ phenonena towards a ‘unified theory of consciousness’ (eg. Kingsland’s recent book tying together various strands of research in this area, 2019), is it possible that ‘expanding the mind’ through various techniques simply throws ‘ordinary’ functional brain status into ‘asynchrony’, reducing the stability and robustness of cognitive functioning and moving the system closer to (and over the edge of) an entropic state (towards chaos and randomness – perhaps unbounded, but largely ‘meaningless’??; Carhart-Harris, 2018). By ‘expanding the mind’ do we risk simply placing our cogitative capacities into a tighter box that turns off critical capacity and instead revels in a further delusion of being ‘set free’?!
Another way to think of this is in terms of the perceptual limitations that we inevitably have as a consequence of brain structure, evolutionary development, contextual situation, and habituated tendency to rely on our sensory-perceptual apparatus as determined through long practice and automated routine. What are the perceptual boundaries that we are constrained by and to what degree can we, through practice, skill development, broadened mindset, push the boundaries further?
This is a big and fascinating question and topic and many current books by prominent neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers detail various illusions, and experimental scenarios that show the fallibility of our ‘equipment’. (See the likes of Eagleman, Hoffman, Lotto, Dennett, Macknik and Martinez-Conde, Chabris and Simons etc. in the references section.) A now famous example concerns a gorilla and a basketball game...As an aside, before the ‘invisible gorilla’ went global, I was sat in an auditorium at a provincial campus in Toronto with perhaps 50 academic types. A chap gave a talk in which he referenced a study from the 80s involving a slightly ethereal lady carrying an umbrella and wandering across a basketball scene (we saw the grainy video of this). Having just shown this video, he then went on to ask the audience’s indulgence on a subsequent video in which a group of young people amateurishly tossed basketballs to one another in a circle within a fairly tight frame of the scene. At the end of this the speaker asked the audience to recount how many passes of the ball had been effected, and if anyone had noticed anything else in the scene. I don’t recall anyone saying they had. He replayed the scene. A gorilla indeed appeared and beat his chest in the midst of the action. The audience provided a mix of responses from surprise to cynicism that this was a different video. The point is the audience was comprised of some of the most eminent scientists from the fields of visual perception, cognition, consciousness research. The Invisible Gorilla demonstration was born there and then, launched to the world, and had it’s effect even despite ‘priming’ as to the nature of it beforehand...We believe we see the totality of our environment and that is is ‘there to see’ and we have only to ‘look’. But how deluded we are to the blind spot, not only in the fovea itself, but also in our own view of reality!
Of course, over the passage of time it’s possible that I have slightly reconstructed the temporal order of this sequence of events erroneously and in fact the ‘Umbrella woman’ came afterwards, to reference the inspiration for the Gorilla! But the point remains, an audience of ‘experts’ in visual perception were taken by surprise by this facet of boundaried perception that is effectively wired into our brains.
So to return to the original point, do we appreciate the boundaries of our own perceptions, thought-streams and worldviews? Or do we labour under the misapprehension that we have as much capacity (unlimited) as we seek to employ? Perhaps we do have this ‘infinite capacity’ to think beyond any boundaries....And with that perhaps, also, we ALL have the capacity to go beyond our limitations (in a physical sense). Anyone can get off the couch and run a marathon if their mood takes them? Right? Especially if their pants are on fire...Realistically, probably not. Sure you can get up off the couch and implement an incremental programme of exercise that suggests you can get to that finish line eventually. But you’ll never really be able to predict if you are going to collapse of a coronary or simply give-up when push comes to shove. But still exercising one’s faculties seems to be as much the point here as the end destination being achieved. And likewise, in order to think ‘beyond boundaries’ or even towards the boundaries, most probably requires at least putting some exercise in, however incremental, to develop that capacity. After all it’s distinctly possible that our cognitive functions depend on the regular exercising of the underlying neural mechanisms, management of blood flow and metabolic resources to sustain this infrastructure, and the robustness and flexibility of our mental muscles!
So with that, have a think about where your boundaries lie – don't just assume they are infinitely capable just because they are ‘there’. Maybe redefine your boundaries as the basis for pushing them. But importantly exercise your mental faculties, think about grand thoughts but also smaller, more realisable ideas, and from there build them into greater ambitions. Do this regularly, strengthen your cognitive musculature. Begin to redraw your world afresh, instead of sitting comfortably back into the confines of your virtual and apparently limitless box! From this can only grow vision, capability, and enthusiasm to explore the boundaries of the known, and redefine what is the unknown!!!
Sources of reference:
Carhart-Harris, R (2018). The entropic brain – revisited. Neuropharmacology. 142:167-178
Chabris, C. and Simons, D. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Harper Collins
Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Penguin Books
Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Canongate Canons
Hoffman D. (2019). The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes. Allen Lane
Kinsgland, J. (2019). Am I dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain. Atlantic books
Lotto, B. (2017). Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently. W&N
Macknik, S. and Martinez-Conde, S.(2012). Sleights of Mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our brains. Profile Books
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.