Mental Crystallography

Brains or­ga­nize things into fa­mil­iar pat­terns, which are differ­ent for differ­ent peo­ple. This can make com­mu­ni­ca­tion tricky, so it’s use­ful to con­cep­tu­al­ize these pat­terns and use them to help trans­la­tion efforts.

Crys­tals are nifty things! The same sort of crys­tal will re­li­ably or­ga­nize in the same pat­tern, and always break the same way un­der stress.

Brains are also nifty things! The same per­son’s brain will typ­i­cally view ev­ery­thing through a fa­vorite lens (or two), and will need to work hard to trans­late in­put that comes in through an­other chan­nel or in differ­ent terms. When a brain ac­quires new con­cepts—even re­ally vi­tal ones—the new idea will re­sult in rec­og­nize­ably-shaped brain-bits. Differ­ent brains, there­fore, han­dle con­cepts differ­ently, and this can make it hard for us to talk to each other.

This works on a num­ber of lev­els, al­though per­haps the most ob­vi­ous is the di­vide be­tween styles of thought on the or­der of “vi­sual thinker”, “ver­bal thinker”, etc. Peo­ple who differ here have to con­stantly rein­ter­pret ev­ery­thing they say to one an­other, mov­ing from non-na­tive mode to na­tive mode and back with ev­ery bit of data ex­changed. Peo­ple also store and re­trieve mem­o­ries differ­ently, form first-ap­prox­i­ma­tion hy­pothe­ses and mod­els differ­ently, pri­ori­tize sen­sory in­put differ­ently, have differ­ent lev­els of in­tro­spec­tive lu­minos­ity1, and ex­pe­rience differ­ent af­fect around con­cepts and propo­si­tions. Over time, we ac­cu­mu­late differ­ent skills, knowl­edge, cog­ni­tive habits, short­cuts, and men­tal filing de­bris. In­tu­itions differ—ap­peals to in­tu­ition will only con­vert peo­ple who share the premises na­tively. We have lots in com­mon, but high enough var­i­ance that it’s im­pres­sive how much we do man­age to com­mu­ni­cate over not only in­fer­en­tial dis­tances, but also fun­da­men­tally di­verse brain plans. Ba­si­cally, you can hit two crys­tals the same way with the same ham­mer, but they can still break along differ­ent cleav­age planes.

This phe­nomenon is a lit­tle like man-with-a-ham­mer syn­drome, which is why I chose that ex­ten­sion of my crys­tal metaphor. But a per­son’s de­pen­dence on their men­tal crys­tal­log­ra­phy, un­like their wan­ton use of their ham­mer, rarely seems to diminish with time. (In fact, youth prob­a­bly con­fers some in­creased flex­i­bil­ity—it seems that you can prob­a­bly train chil­dren to have differ­ent crys­tal­line struc­tures to some de­gree, but much less so with adults). MWaH is ac­tu­ally par­tially ex­plained by the brain’s crys­tal­lo­graphic reg­u­lar­i­ties. A ham­mer-idea will only be com­pel­ling to you if it al­igns with the crys­tals in your head.

Hav­ing “use­ful” men­tal crys­tal­log­ra­phy—which lets you com­pre­hend, syn­the­size, and ap­ply ideas in their most ac­cu­rate, valuable form—is a type of epistemic luck about the things you can best un­der­stand. If you’re in­trin­si­cally ori­ented to­wards math­e­mat­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions, for in­stance, and this lets you promptly ap­pre­hend the truth and falsity of strings of num­bers that would leave my head swim­ming, you’re epistem­i­cally lucky about math (while I’m rather likely to be led astray if some­one takes the time to put to­gether a plau­si­ble ver­bal ex­pla­na­tion that may not match up to the num­bers). Some brain struc­tures can use more no­tions than oth­ers, al­though I’m skep­ti­cal that any hu­man has a pure gen­er­al­ist crys­tal pat­tern that can make great use of ev­ery sort of con­cept in­ter­change­ably with­out some na­tive mode to touch base with reg­u­larly.

When you’re try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate facts, opinions, and con­cepts—most es­pe­cially con­cepts—it is a use­ful in­vest­ment of effort to try to cat­e­go­rize both your au­di­ence’s crys­tal­log­ra­phy and your own. With only one of these pieces of in­for­ma­tion, you can’t op­ti­mize your mes­sage for its re­cip­i­ent, be­cause you need to know what you’re trans­lat­ing from, not just have a bead on what you are trans­lat­ing to. (If you want to trans­late the word “blesser” into, say, Ta­ga­log, it might be use­ful to know if “blesser” is English or French.) And even with fairly good in­for­ma­tion on both ori­gin and des­ti­na­tion, you can wind up with a frus­trat­ing dis­con­nect; but given that head start on bridg­ing the gap, you can find wher­ever the two crys­tals are most likely to touch with less trial and er­ror.

1In­tro­spec­tive lu­minos­ity (or just “lu­minos­ity”) is the sub­ject of a se­quence I have planned—this is a prepara­tory post of sorts. In a nut­shell, I use it to mean the dis­cerni­bil­ity of men­tal states to their haver—if you’re lu­mi­nously happy, clap your hands.