6/16/2005

Godel, Escher, Luck - Part Two

Writing is the process of turning 4-dimensional worlds – whether real, fictional, or conceptual – into a set of squiggly lines.

Great writing is the process of turning 4-dimensional worlds into a set of squiggly lines that transform back into that same 4-dimensional world in the mind of your reader.

Because the prefrontal cortex – the conscious mind – is the last part of the brain to be involved in learning, as an author you need to access the subconscious mind to make a powerful impression. This is the key that John Kotter, the change management guru, discovered between his book Leading Change and the newer The Heart of Change. Both books describe the same 8-step process for effective organizational change, but Heart of Change instructs that people won’t move to action without some emotional stimulus, which he describes as the See-Feel-Act cycle. This is also why writers of all forms of communication strive to begin with an effective hook.

Brains are incredibly complex machines. The average one has 100-200 BILLION neurons. Comparable capacity supercomputer technology would require a dozen refrigerator-sized racks containing thousands of CPUs! No two brains work exactly the same, but they all do one thing extremely well: pattern matching.

Tihs knid of tnhig amzaes me. It swohs taht trhee is a lot mroe ginog on beweetn yuor eras tahn you rleaize.

Some patterns are part of the basic “hardware” – the human universals. Is it coincidence that the villain in the Book of Genesis is a serpent? What better way to heighten the impact of a cautionary tale than to leverage a hardwired subconscious response! Other patterns are built through experience – the true “software of the mind”. Back in the 70’s, when I learned to drive, the program began with a movie entitled Signal 30. It consisted of photos and video footage of the most horrific accidents of all time. An hour of nothing but twisted metal and mangled body parts, in glorious Technicolor, with dry commentary by an Ohio State Trooper:
”A young man was speeding down Hwy 13 in his father's Thunderbird convertible one night, and when a semi jackknifes in front of him, he couldn’t stop in time. Over there you can see his headless body, still buckled into the front seat and gripping the steering wheel. Over here, that fly-covered red and gray pile of goo in the middle of the road is what's left of his head. Remember everyone: speed kills.”

Nowadays kids play video games with more gore, but in the pre-Freddy and Jason days, those driver’s ed films laid down some strong patterns in our brains. Those of us who didn’t get sick to our stomachs crawled home on our bellies!

Often these patterns are created quickly. How many times did you willingly touch a hot stove before you learned to stop doing it? Probably just once. Sometimes patterns are created slowly, as with learning multiplication or acquiring a taste for beer. The only way to create them is repetition, repetition, repetition.

As a writer, these patterns can work FOR you or AGAINST you. William James, the father of American psychology wrote “How an individual settles into a new opinion”:
The process is always the same.

The individual has a stock of old opinions already.

The individual meets a new experience that puts some of these old opinions to a strain.
  • Somebody contradicts them.
  • In a reflective moment, the individual discovers that they contradict each other.
  • The individual hears facts with which they are incompatible.
  • Desires arise in the individual which the old opinions fail to satisfy.

The result is inward trouble, to which the individual’s mind ‘til then had been a stranger

The individual seeks to escape from this inward trouble by modifying the old opinions.
  • The individual saves as many of the old opinions as is possible (for in this matter we are all extreme conservatives)
  • Old opinions resist change very variously.
  • The individual tries to change this and then that.

Finally, some new opinion comes up which the individual can graft upon the ancient stock of old opinions with a minimum of disturbance to the others.


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And as James says: “these opinions resist change very variously”. Some patterns are much more strongly ingrained than others. For example, you’ve probably known a man or woman who are obsessive about their appearance, with never a hair out of place, but as Charlie Rich sang: “when we get behind closed doors…” that otherwise fastidious individual won’t care how knotted his or her hair gets. And the strongest brain patterns don’t operate at the conscious level.


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Often (okay, almost always) this gigantic collection of patterns is not in perfect harmony. Do you have any unrealized goals? Are there any for which you DON’T have a specific action plan for attainment? Why not? Somewhere inside your head there’s a belief contrary to your stated goal. Millions of dollars are spent every year on therapy to help people resolve strongly conflicting beliefs. But this isn’t a treatise on psychotherapy. That’d cost you $100/hr. Or 5 cents if we were cartoon characters.

Have you ever done something you later regretted? What went through your mind at the moment of realization of what you’d done? Did it hit you like a ton of bricks? Did it begin with a whisper? What did you see in your head? Did you ask yourself “What was I thinking?”

What were you thinking?

Chances are that somebody got inside your head and put a thought virus there, but as James pointed out thought viruses can only be introduced by grafting them onto existing brain patterns. Sales people, politicians, and con artists have spent thousands of years learning ways to do this. It turns out that there are six basic brain patterns that they exploit. Robert Cialdini wrote a book about them entitled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I wrote about it here. One interesting aspect of all six principles of Influence is that they exploit HOW the brain matches patterns, not with WHAT specific patterns a brain has in it. It turns out that there are all sorts of brain process quirks.

Or are these processes just patterns, too? Yes, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole, Alice!

Are you wondering why I just called you Alice? Probably not, because you have read Alice in Wonderland, or at least seen the Disney animated film version. And you know that going down the rabbit hole leads to a strange place. And that it will take a long time and considerable effort to get back out. But if you had never experienced Alice in Wonderland, my odd comment and inept description of the metaphor would have worse than no impact. That nice 4 dimensional world I’m trying to build in your head will start to dissipate as you try to make sense of the strange remarks.

Familiarity with Alice in Wonderland is an example of a context brain pattern. One of the risks of using them in writing is that they are bound to fail in a certain percentage of readers’ minds. But when they work, they are a great way to enable new, related patterns. And the more specific the pattern, the more powerful the effect.

I was a pole vaulter in high school (in the days before helmets, and yes, I landed on my head a few times, and yes, that probably explains a few things for you). The best thing about pole vaulting is the moment just after you clear the bar. You’re suspended in mid-air; not rising, not falling. For one magic moment you are flying. You can see the bar below you, and the ground below that. You feel a rush of euphoria as you roll back, see the sky, and then hear the rush of wind as you fall to the mat below. All that hard work and practice culminate in one sublime moment. It’s the same way with writing. You struggle with ideas, structure, tone, and wording for what seems like months, and then when you finally finish you feel that same magic as you read the last sentence of the finished work.

If you have ever pole vaulted, you’re going to be more strongly inclined to write than if you haven’t. But you’re probably not a pole vaulter. I’d impact a wider audience if I said: “Writing is a lot like giving birth. Periods of accelerating spasms of unimaginable, blinding, roaring pain. But the moment you first see your baby’s face, it’s immediately forgotten.” If I spent more time creating a really vivid description, I could evoke a strong response in readers who have had that experience. And they would probably have a markedly different attitude about writing than before they read the piece.


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You can answer their questions, can’t you?






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That’s right. It’s all about the E – the experience the reader has with the book.

If you want to deliver a powerful message and have it stick in your readers’ minds – if you want to transform them – then you had better deliver a powerful reading experience. And that means leveraging both process and context to create that experience. Thus, the audience for a book is characterized by the reader beliefs and perceptions upon which the argument/story relies to recreate the 4-dimensional world that you, the author, have in your head.

Back in the original Godel, Escher, Luck post, I described two books: The Prayer of Jabez and The Luck Factor, which dealt with essentially the same concepts. Don’t read it now, I’m almost done here. The audience for “Jabez” is characterized by the following beliefs: 1) There is a God, and 2) He answers prayers. If you don’t believe those two things, then you’re wasting time reading the book. As Charles Dickens says in “A Christmas Carol”:
This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Luckily for atheists and agnostics, there is a wonderful alternative to “Jabez” in “The Luck Factor”. If you believe that 1) application of the scientific method can be used to discover the secrets of human behavior, and 2) there are both lucky and unlucky people in the world, then “Luck Factor” is the book to teach you how to make your own good fortune.

And if you believe in both God and the scientific method, you can read both books and get an even richer understanding of the concept. But if you’re an atheistic skeptic of social science, you’re out of luck. Or not. Chances are that there is another book tailored for you. If there isn’t, you’ve just stumbled onto a wonderful writing opportunity. Everyone wants to get lucky! And you can clearly define your audience in your book proposal to prospective publishers.

In coming posts we’ll explore ways to deepen reader experiences in further detail. If you can’t wait, check out the Creating Passionate Users blog. Those guys have raised creating reader experiences to a level I can only marvel at. Then come back and re-read this post and see which of their ideas I shamelessly stole tried to employ.



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posted by Mike at 9:21 PM


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