Shunning hands

Monoculture has a fundamental weakness. Growing, producing or raising the same plant, species or livestock in the same space, year after year, results in a terrible vulnerability; eradication by a single pathogen.

For example, military forces throughout history have fielded multiple forms of troops—light, heavy, mounted, stationary units, mobile units etc. A whole force composed of a single type has, by default, a single weakness.

This is why I like the “mental models” approach to thinking—championed by Shane Parish, amongst others. It prevents a monoculture of the mind. The old adage of To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail is apt. As is Emanuel Dermann’s assertion in Models Behaving Badly that being armoured with many vulgar models is better than having as a weapon a single, supposedly perfect interpretation of reality.

So for someone seeking to learn how to think better, with more clarity and greater rigour, the implication is obvious: accumulate mental models. Consult Lindy and learn the models which have stood the test of time—the fundamental concepts in maths, physics, chemistry, economics, psychology, history, complexity and systems theory. Also—and perhaps just as importantly—make sure to sound out the fringes. Read about shamanism and alchemy. Learn about obscure branches of spirituality, mysticism and regional folklore. Make a study of the theories which were found wanting and so faded from popular consciousness. Research the mundane and the seemingly banal.

Yes, this will allow your thoughts to be richer and more interesting. It’ll also have another effect. If, as it is often claimed, writing is a proxy for thought, then learning to think with more breadth, depth, thoroughness and eccentricity will make you a better writer. But there’s other ways to become a better thinker than reading and researching. An underrated method is to do more with your hands.

Dexterous hands and a nimble body, as anyone who has seen a master maker at work, are indicative of a keen and perceptive mind. Remember that scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, where Harry and Dumbledore are outside Riddle’s cave? Dumbledore finds the entrance kinaesthetically—he uses his hands to feel and find traces of magic. His vast knowledge wasn’t enough for the task.

In The Periodic Table, Primo Levi cites the hands as the least educated part of the body:

“It seemed to us an embarrassment of riches, and was instead a different embarrassment, deeper and more fundamental: an embarrassment tied to an ancient atrophy, ours, our families’, our caste’s. What did we know how to do with our hands? Nothing, or almost. The women, yes: our mothers and grandmothers had quick, agile hands, they knew how to sew and cook, some even how to play the piano, paint with watercolors, embroider, braid hair. But we, and our fathers?
Our hands were clumsy and weak at the same time, regressed, insensitive: the least educated part of our bodies. Having completed their first basic experiences of play, they had learned to write and nothing else. They knew the convulsive grip of the branch of a tree, because we loved to climb, out of a natural desire and, at the same time (for Enrico and me), a confused homage and return to the origin of the species; but they didn’t know the solemn, balanced weight of the hammer, the concentrated force of blades, which had been too prudently forbidden, the eloquent texture of wood, the similar yet different malleability of iron, lead and copper. If man is the maker, we were not men: we knew it and suffered for it.”

Our hands are the cause and the consequence of our evolution. What we do with them allows us to become something slightly more than animals. Yet, as our culture has developed and we’ve “progressed”, it has become fashionable to shun the use of our hands, to think that professions and activities that utilise them as the primary means are less than noble.

But isn’t it less than noble to turn our backs on the extraordinary instruments that they are? Won’t making good use of our hands, in some way, shape or form, unlock stagnant realms of our mind and encourage us to have new thoughts? My operative hypothesis is that, yes, it will. Which is why, now more than ever, my aim is to think not just with the mind, but with the body as well.