Thursday, July 23, 2009

Counting To Five

I’m a little nervous today.

Some people say when you feel yourself about to fly off the handle or over-react you should stop, take a deep breath and count to ten. The idea, of course, is that even a short ten second pause gives you a chance to calm down and get past your initial reaction.

I don’t really have the patience to count to ten. I count to five. And I’ve given this counting to five business a lot of thought. Since I’m nervous and I expect at some point today I will be counting to five for one thing or another, I thought I’d post about why I settled on the number five.

I’m nervous because my horoscope for today reads:

An upset to the status quo may come as outstanding news to you; however, your nervous system doesn't seem to know it. Make a special effort to calm and stabilize your body's responses.

People who know me know that my nervous system doesn’t like upsets of any kind, especially upsets that involve changing a status quo. Luckily I do have some special efforts I use to calm down and try to stabilize my body’s responses. These counting to five things.

I have two strategies that involve counting to five. I’m going to talk about both of them, but first I have a quick comment about the number five in general.

The Number Five

In the worlds of design and education and psychology, there is a very famous essay called, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” written by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller way back in 1956.

The essay has its own Wikipedia page here. And of course the essay itself is online here.

The basic idea is that our thinking and reactions are bounded by the “channel capacities” of how cognitive and perceptual processes function and, as it happens, for one reason or another, all manner of different channel capacities seem to work out to be in the range of five to nine “things.”

We think better and work better if we’re thinking or working with seven things, plus or minus two.

It’s an interesting essay and it’s been wildly influential and I encourage everyone to read it. However for today I mention it only as a kind of foundation. I’m going to be talking about two systems of five things. It’s possible to imagine cool systems built around a larger or smaller number, but as the essay makes clear, five is a good number with a decent theoretical background.

Typically I get upset when I don’t understand something or when I feel emotionally uneasy. I have two different count to five systems, one for each of those eventualities, my philosophical five and my emotional five.

My Philosophical Five

In one or another essay, Ayn Rand wrote that all of philosophy can be broken down into five categories and an easy way to remember them, she suggested, was to think of a human hand.

Just as the thumb is the key digit, the opposable thumb which works with all the other digits, Rand said that epistemology is the key area of philosophy that makes everything else possible. Epistemology is the study of concepts, what it means to “know” things and how we know things.

Just as the index finger might be the most practical finger for pointing out things and feeling things, metaphysics is the most practical area of philosophy, encompassing the hard sciences. Metaphysics is the study of the nuts and bolts reality around us.

The third area of philosophy is morality, also called ethics. As metaphysics studies the nuts and bolts reality around us, morality is the study of our actions within the reality around us.

The fourth area of philosophy is politics. Morality is the study of us as individuals. Politics extends that and studies the interactions of groups of people.

The fifth area of philosophy is aesthetics, the study of our particular, individual consciousness and its interactions with the nuts and bolts world around us, the things we like and don’t like and why we do or don’t like them. Metaphysics encompasses medicine, what is healthy and how to keep our body alive while aesthetics is about our consciousness and, so to speak, what is food for our soul.

I’ve never found this classification system to fail me. If I’m trying to understand something new, I ask myself what broad category does it fall into. Then I ask myself how does it relate to other things I know it that category. One thing I’ve noticed a lot in contemporary pop culture is that people will often take a political problem and offer an ethical solution. For instance, they’ll say, yes TV causes problems but everyone can just switch off their TV. Well, sure, but TV causes political problems—problems involving large numbers of people interacting with other large numbers of people. If an individual decides to switch off one TV that is only an ethical solution that impacts that one person interacting with others.

I also use this system sort of in reverse. I often stop and count through the five categories and look at what I’ve been doing. For instance, if I’ve been writing a lot about astronomy—a hard science, metaphysics—I will nudge myself to start thinking about one of the other categories. Maybe aesthetics and write about art for a while. Or something dramatic that involves ethics. The five categories create a framework that encompass, basically, just about everything in an organized way.

My Emotional Five

Lots of stuff—I mean, lots of stuff—happens without us thinking consciously at all. We get angry. Happy. Turned-on. Turned-off. Whatever, all these things and many more happen for the most part at some pre-conscious level of thinking. (A metaphysical question that touches on both epistemology and aesthetics.)

Since so many reactions happen without us consciously thinking about them, having an elegant five part philosophical scheme doesn’t help much in a moment-to-moment freak out. And I experience those moments a lot.

Not too long ago I learned about some well-established, general psychological approaches to pre-conscious reactions that have become helpful to me and, as it happens, there are five things in this scheme.

Psychologists even call these the Big Five personality traits. And, of course, there is a Wikipedia page devoted to the Big Five personality traits.

The five are:

Openness - appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience.

Conscientiousness - a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior.

Extraversion - energy, positive emotions, surgency, and the tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others.

Agreeableness - a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.

Neuroticism - a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability; sometimes called emotional instability.

I haven’t interacted with this scheme long enough for it to become second nature to me the way the philosophical five have become second nature, but thinking of personality as having these five “dimensions” has already helped me again and again when I’ve found myself reacting with anger or frustration or fear or disbelief or in other extreme ways to some odd situation.

Whenever I feel myself responding to a situation with any emotion I can isolate and name, I stop myself and as quickly as I can I count up through these five traits and I ask myself how whatever situation I am in touches on all five of these attributes. Am I responding in an open or closed way? Do I find myself treating something spontaneous as something planned or the reverse? Am I becoming insular rather than interactive? Am I accepting what’s happening or am I attempting to deny reality or project a fantasy? Am I indulging one or another dark emotion for no particular reason, singling out one or another unpleasant fact and ignoring a multitude of indifferent or even pleasant facts?

I’ve been interested in politics recently and although I’ve discussed a lot of hot button issues with a lot of passionate people I haven’t gotten into any arguments because as soon as I sense myself getting angry—or I sense someone else getting angry—I’ve stopped myself, gone through these five dimensions, and I’ve almost been able to feel—if that’s possible—a larger perspective settling around me.

And, oddly, I’ve been meeting a lot of interesting people seemingly randomly and although I’ve always been a talkative guy, I’ve been even more talkative than normal lately. In a store yesterday a woman out of the blue told me she liked my shirt. For one quick instant I had no idea what was going on. I thought she might be slyly giving me a dig for being overweight. Or for being too casual. But I caught myself, stopped my random thoughts and as fast as I could I mentally reviewed openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism and then it occurred to me that my shirt had a baseball logo on it and this is baseball season. Duh. So I just smiled and said, “You must be a baseball fan.” And she smiled and said she loved the White Sox. So, instead of me freaking out, I spent a pleasant afternoon trading White Sox stories with a pretty cool woman. And all because I kept my wits about me and didn’t get upset when at first I couldn’t imagine why she’d comment on my shirt.

Five philosophical things and five emotional things.

The human brain is very good at processing five things. It can happen very fast. These particular two sets of five things have proven very useful for me. I count through them all the time.

Now, let’s hope they’re up to handling whatever is going to upset my status quo today that my horoscope told me to get ready for.

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