Alchemical Magic: Modern Day Cognitive Technologies and Brain Hacks
The universe, while mystical and beyond complete human comprehension, has mechanical properties that govern how it operates. We can pick up a rock and know where it will land if we throw it. If there was not some form of ordered rules defining the motions of our world, we would not be able to function at all.
Human functionality is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I got kicked down the existential rabbit hole at a young age and have been riding that crazy train ever since. Reality is a fun concept to play with. On one hand, we can never know what all of this is. It’s like trying to bite your own teeth. On the other hand, it’s fairly pointless to try to find absolute answers for why this cosmic shindig is going down. For every pataphysical possibility you can posit, there are an infinite number of equally plausible explanations for why that too is an illusion.
That being said, I have spent way too much time trying to figure it all out. Much sand of this man’s hourglass has fallen to the wayside trying to bend the boundaries of reality in an attempt to put the odds in my favor. Or at least do something really cool.
It wasn’t a complete waste though. I picked up a lot of information on a diverse range of topics. Specifically, I want to talk about my accumulated understanding of the brain and how I get the most out of mine.
The brain is a complex system, but it is still a definable system built on rules. We may not know all the details of how it operates, but we understand many trends and several laws which govern the brain’s behavior.
Behaviorism. That’s an interesting part of psychology’s history. BF Skinner used to think of the mind as a black box. He concluded that we cannot determine what’s inside of the box, so we can only measure it based on inputs and outputs. The advent of the computer and binary logic helped advance the field to an understanding of cognition, and more recently medical imaging has given great insights into how the brain operates. Yet, that same input/process/output form remains.
The brain’s logic is constructed through complex processes, but we are aware of how our minds operate. We all know things about ourselves that we never put into words. Part of my life work has been to define the inner boundaries in a way that can be communicated. It is easy to personally identify the various gears that turn in your mind. What is difficult is getting other people to see what you see.
This is a problem with language. Two people speaking different languages can easily parse meaning about physical words; things that can be pointed to an identified in the material world, like a tree or rock. Words that define concepts take a bit of charades to get people on the same page. Words that are completely self-derived are impossible to communicate without another person. Given that no one can observe your thoughts, you can’t express them unless you share an experiential talking point that directly gets both the transmitter and receiver on the same page.
Different schools of knowledge have popped up throughout history sharing these esoteric interests through cryptic lessons and well-crafted stories. Various forms of alchemy and magic have materialized only to fade into obscurity, or maintain a small cult following. Some have even bloomed into world religions.
I think if magick was first discovered today, it would instead take on the name “Brain Hacks.”
I first discovered that I could get more out of my brain when I was 11 or 12. I was playing Super Mario Sunshine and got stuck on a certain part. For hours, I frustratedly threw life after life away trying to get further until it was bedtime. I remember drifting to sleep with my imagination flying all over the game world. The next morning, I woke up with a solution. Immediately, I plopped myself in front of my tv screen and waltzed right through the entire level on the first try.
Being the nerd that I was, I immediately thought of experimenting to figure out how to get the most of my time. If I could take advantage of whatever unconscious mechanism that produced that result (I called it the “backburners of my mind”), then I wouldn’t need to waste all that time getting frustrated.
I picked up a variety of tools to go in my alchemical tool box. I used to run track in high school. On long runs I realized getting very emotional helped me run faster. Sad, angry, happy...the emotion didn’t really matter. As long as that part of my mind was active, it allowed me to take myself out of the present moment while pushing myself past previous limits.
The mind changed from being a thing that I am, to a bunch of parts that exist in a variety of states. Each state had a functional impact on the interconnected parts, and could progress to a state-specific set of alternate states. To illustrate what I mean, I will use juggling as a metaphor. While the balls are in motion, each one can be defined by its relative location, velocity, and spin. The different balls represent the different parts of the mind, and their states are static representations of their fourth-dimensional paths. At any given moment, I can do any number of things to change the state of any of the balls. This represents one’s ability to affect the trajectory of their mental/emotional state. But, there is a limit to what can be done at any given moment. I can’t throw a ball that’s not in my hand, or catch one that’s not in the correct place. This shows that there are mechanical limits to how you can affect your own psyche.
Despite those limits, I’ve found tricks to rapidly cycle between emotions, quickly enter into a flow state, reliably generate creative energy from my muse, protect myself from outside influences, and learn at an increased rate. But again, language. I can talk about my subjective experience of what I’m doing, but it’s meaningless unless you’re a receiver who is already tuned to the same frequency.
That doesn’t mean I won’t try to bring these revelations across the gap. I’m going to talk about some ideas which I think will onboard people to this way of thinking.
I can tell you fear is a tremendously valuable emotion. Fear exists to modify the brain at the most basic level (it goes without saying that it also exists for immediate survival purposes). It is such a primal, hard-wired emotion that it overrides previously conditioned memories. I say this with the idea that the brain is generating something like a pile of sand, where the individual grains are specific experiences or memories. The sand settles in a specific configuration as the grains settle according to their specific weight/density and the order they are experienced. Naturally, early experiences form the foundation of the pile. This means that the longer time goes on, the more difficult it is to make fundamental changes to ourselves. We require something that adds weight to a particularly important experience in order to deliberately change ourselves for the better. Thus, I tend to think that most personal growth occurs when we are pushed well outside of our comfort zones.
Emotions tied to strong negative events have a similar impact on one’s character development. When faced with rejection, abandonment, or betrayal, a person is significantly impacted at a core level. I find it interesting that these, and similar experiences, are so closely tied with social rules. I feel these events shape perceived boundaries of the mind. For instance, every instance of betrayal I have ever felt has been associated with a great sense of personal agency and willpower. Hypothesizing, I think this is likely due to the stability of our social network has been perturbed and prompts the brain into higher executive capacity as a result of activating a fight or flight response.
The idea here is that I think of the individual components of emotions, thoughts, and processes as individual resources. Think what you could do with a dollar. There are countless things you can do with it, but what’s important is thinking about how that dollar can serve your interests. If you were handed a dollar when you are starving, using it to work towards getting food is in your interests. Similarly, if life hands you lemons, use it to make lemonade. Fate may send you into a situation that makes you angry or miserable, but what matters is how you use those feelings for your benefit. As a personal example, when I am in a highly emotional state, I get into a physical activity and change it into a positive emotion, then use that to generate creative potential.
If we know how certain choices can impact our future states, we can plan our day to maximize certain values. I’ve gotten in the habit of bouncing between projects in order to get the most out of my time and creative energy. It doesn’t make any sense to plug away at a single task when you are uninspired. Knowing how to inspire yourself to do certain tasks allows you to think backwards and create steps to get into that state.
That’s really the core message I’m delivering: know yourself. I can talk in great detail about every nuance of mental manipulation I have uncovered for myself. But if you don’t know how to actualize this knowledge, I’m sending electronic glyphs to the wind.
Do you know how to calm yourself down when you are anxious? Do you know how to maintain control of your attention when we are constantly bombarded by advertisements? Do you know how to memorize long strings of information? These things, and many more, are completely self-teachable. Only you can teach yourself to dance. Sure, I could move your legs, but I will not be training the neuromuscular pathways to be able to replicate that movement. Cognitive technologies are something you have to educate yourself about.
The brain is incredibly complex. If it were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to understand. Yet, it is such an important thing to understand that each of us should endeavor to increase our own understanding of the mind that manifests us. Take some time to distance yourself from the habits of daily life and look inwards. What is there? What is going on behind your eyes? I urge everyone to seek these answers and unlock your full potential.
We may be stardust, but we can see that as liberating or limiting. Perception: another cognitive technology. What will you be able to do when you can perceive all the possibilities that lie within you?
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