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Creativity and Ennui

Friday, August 16th, 2013

[Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

Creativity is a subject that has  interested me, going back to the days long, long ago when I was an art student. Creativity is only mildly correlated with IQ, but like “intelligence”, the deeper you delve into the study of  creativity and creative thinking the more “creativity” looks like a multifaceted, multidimensional and diverse set of capacities, habits and circumstances than it does a single, universal, characteristic or ability.

Creativity has been studied from a neuroscientific, psychological, evolutionary,  behavioral, economic and social perspective but what of creativity”s opposite?  What about Ennui?

From a cognitive perspective, the two may be flip sides of the same coin, note the correlation between highly   creative  people and incidence of depression. It may also be a sign of overuse of certain brain functions, like adrenal exhaustion from an excess of physical and mental stress over a long period of time. Creativity, being in “the flow” is intoxicating but it usually involves peak exertion which accumulates weariness. Exemplary performance in one area can also come at the expense of penalties in another area.

Or perhaps ennui is the natural, cyclical ebb and flow between generative conceptual fertility and barrenness, the brain preparing itself for the next creative “surge” to come?

When are you creative and when are you not?

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How to Lose a War: A Primer

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

Since Pakistan is now attempting to get its victory over the United States in Afghanistan formally ratified, now seemed to be a good time to reflect on the performance of American statesmen, politicians and senior generals.

It has occurred to me that we have many books and papers outlining how to win wars. Certainly the great classics of The Art of War, The History of the Peloponnesian War and On War are the foremost examples, but there are also other useful classics in the strategic canon, whole libraries of military histories, memoirs of great commanders and an infinite number of PDFs and powerpoint briefs from think tanks and consultants. Strangely, none of these have helped us much. Perhaps it is because before running this war so few of this generation’s “deciders” read them en route to their law degrees and MBAs

We should engage in some counterintuitive thinking:  for our next war, instead of trying to win, let’s try to openly seek defeat. At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory.

HOW TO LOSE A WAR

While one of these principles may not be sufficient cause for losing an armed conflict, following all of them is the surest road to defeat.

1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:

The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. When we lose sight of this fact due to romantic notions of “national interest” or “duty” and spend too much attention prosecuting a war against foreign armies then our real enemies – the political opposition – can take advantage. What good is overseeing a global victory over an epochal tyranny if the result is you get immediately voted out of office like some hapless loser? While on the surface, it might seem wise during a war to staff a government with able statesmen, experienced generals, capable diplomats and other experts, the truth is that if you do so you will have very few plum jobs left with which to reward the cronies, ideologues, campaign consultants, activists, wealthy grafters and partisan hacks who got you into power in the first place. Without their continued support, you will not be long for political office.

The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections.  Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.

2. Policy is the True Fog of War:

Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.

Keeping in mind #1, the point of war policy is to generate a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella  under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit until some of them can be opportunistically realized. These agendas may not be realistic – in fact, it is easier to put them forward as attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information that the media and the political opposition will only be too happy to seize upon. The more abstractly and arcanely expressed the policy the harder it is for critics to demolish and the  better it is for losing wars. “Unconditional surrender” for example, is bad because it is too concrete and easily evaluated – either an enemy is totally defeated and in your power or he is not. “Make the world safe for Democracy” by contrast,  is better as it is more ill-defined and subjective, permitting a larger range of politically tolerable bad outcomes.  “Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror” are even more abstract, being essentially unlimited, open-ended, process goals that do not have any point of “victory” whatsoever and can thus not only potentially bring about losing wars but very long ones.

3.  Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:

Strategy is about lining up Ends-Ways-Means to construct a theory of victory. While that might give us hope of prevailing over an enemy in an armed conflict, forging a strategy – any strategy -comes with a severe cost: namely the discipline of the government adhering to a strategy requires choices be made about the use of limited resources rather than keeping “all options open” to react  to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice. Strategy for the nation equates with diminished political flexibility and mobility for the politician.

In other words, having a strategy might require elected officials expend their precious political capital in order to pursue it without getting anything in return that might expand their powers or further their personal careers.  Doing strategy would mean prioritizing winning the war over other possible objectives and putting key decision-makers in the uncomfortable position of having to say “No” or “Not now” to powerful and influential people or factions. Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results can be quantified and evaluated for success, costs, failure and ultimately, personal accountability for leaders.

Obviously locking ourselves into a strategy is something to be avoided if we wish to stay in power, so “strategy” is only invoked rhetorically to mean a wide and confusing array of other non-strategy things – tactics, goals, operational art, planning,  public relations, nation-building,  diplomacy, policy, routine procedures, withdrawal dates, theories, fantastical pipe dreams and so on.  When “strategy” means anything and everything it ultimately means nothing.

4. All Lost Wars are based on Self-Deception: 

It is not enough to avoid strategy, there must also be a collective political determination to avoid reality enforced from the inception until the bitter end.

Wars have real and physically destructive consequences for the people who fight them, but unless you are engaged in a desperate struggle to repel a foreign invader, chances are the battlefield is far away from your home territory. This gives political leaders wiggle room to manipulate perceptions – most importantly their own – to political advantage by controlling information about the war and shaping the ideological boundaries of acceptable public discourse. This will eventually lead to a vicious cycle of bad decisions as misinformation and deceit corrupts the OODA Loop, but political leaders will maintain their political advantage over their critics, at least until the day of reckoning arrives.

Here we must begin with an insistence of a position of firmly held ignorance regarding the prospective enemy, their military capabilities, economic resources, the geographic characteristics, their cultural attitudes toward conflict and their history as a people. Should such information become widely known, it might result in popular skepticism about the wisdom of the entire enterprise, the difficulties that might be encountered and the prospects for success. If you wish to lose a war ignominiously, the less you know the better.

Likewise, once war has begun, the initial jingoistic overconfidence that greeted the war will quickly fade unless actively sustained by preventing an honest analysis of  events and providing a steady stream of rationalizations for the gullible public. It would be a good idea to ban discussion that accurately characterizes the form of warfare  or the nature of the enemy, though these things alone will not be sufficient. The intelligence process itself should be corrupted when possible to provide the “right” answers and censored or circumvented when it is not; while public assessments should use irrelevant metrics divorced from their  context so that they will not have to be gamed later.  Critics, truth-tellers, whistleblowers and those not towing the party-line should be retired, fired, demonized and punished.

5. Isolate the War and those Fighting it from the People: 

A war forgotten by the folks at home is a war that is much easier to quietly lose.

At the outset of the war, ask no sacrifice of the people because that will give them too much of a stake in a victorious outcome and raise expectations about your own leadership. Neither raise their taxes (at least not for the war at any rate) nor conscript their sons. Do not even issue a national call to the colors for volunteers, instead encourage people to be at ease and go about their business. Supplement your small regular army that increasingly feels itself a caste apart with highly paid mercenaries and foreign paramilitaries while neglecting the needs of your own troops. Speaking of the troops, always lavish the soldiers with superficial public pieties about service, sacrifice and heroism, but cynically break faith when it comes to your obligations to look after their interests.

6.  Complexity= Opacity and Micromanagement= Power

Most things in war are simple, but they are not easy. By deliberately making everything incredibly complicated, war can also become impossible too

While adding superfluous complexity does not help win wars, it does offer a number of immediate benefits for the political class. First, in real life the consequence of increasing complexity in any governmental endeavor (not just war) is that you will have more jobs and contracts to hand out to followers as bureaucracy and regulations require new inspectors, secretaries, managers, clerks, lawyers, advisers and in a military context, also new commands, staff officers, promotions, headquarters, increased budgets and so on. Chances are, most of these new jobs will continue on, if not forever, for a very long time.

Secondly the sheer complexity and number of offices, bureaus, agencies, departments, teams, commands, commissions and committees offer excellent “cover” for carrying out unpopular or illegal actions “under the radar” and with diffusion of responsibility, should these antics come to light.  If everyone is in charge, then no one is.  So if your military, intelligence agencies, diplomats, cultural advisers, aid and development people and senior administration officials talk and behave as if they are all hailing from different planets, you are well on your way to losing the war.

Third, the control of people at the top is reinforced by excessive complexity because the initiative of lower levels is strangled by micromanagement. If every idea from the field ( or even basic actions) requires two, three or more levels of command approval with consultation with lawyers at each step the answer is always going to be “No” or a very delayed “Yes” long past the point of being useful. This, plus making examples of those who exercise initiative and act without orders, teaches everyone in the system to eschew risk, value passivity, play it safe and wait for higher-ups to spoon-feed them instructions. With modern, networked online communications every colonel, brigadier to three-star can play company commander while the President of the United States can ride virtual shotgun on SEAL team raids.

7.  Enormous Tail, Tiny Tooth: the Worse the ROI the Better

When you regularly use hundred million or billion dollar platforms to kill illiterate tribesmen with AK-47s and RPGs and build food courts in the Hindu Kush, something is eventually going to give.

Generally, a reasonably well governed country at war can afford to employ either a massive military force for a short campaign or a small, “light footprint“, force for the long haul. What few nations in history can afford, unless it is Persia under Xerxes, is to field a massive force disproportionately composed of rear echelon support troops and what used to be called “camp followers” and “auxiliaries” for years on end. There are two ways this can bring you to defeat.

First, obviously, fielding an enormous army for too long can lead to bankruptcy as costs of the war exceed tax revenues and the state begins to rely on various forms of credit, foreign bankers and debasing the currency to carry on. This does not guarantee an economic collapse or hyperinflation as war can also greatly stimulate production and other variables are always in play, but the risk of dire negative economic effects is significantly increased.

The second issue is that if you are moving your armed host into a desperately poor region to wage war against an impoverished enemy, the passage and encampment of your own military introduces the economic surplus to the local economy the enemy needs to afford to wage war. You are like a red hot iron in a bucket of ice water. Through bribery, extortion and theft the enemy will siphon from you money, arms and contraband and eventually, corrupt your own officials and officers.

 8. Cultivate Hatred and Contempt:

If you wish to lose a war, be hated but not feared.

While most principles of losing a war  are political, strategic or operational in nature and therefore the province of incompetent politicians and generals, cultivating contempt and hatred in all observers can be done at anytime by anyone regardless of rank, experience or status. Technology has revolutionized this sphere of losing warfare: where once undermining an entire war effort could only be done by an arrogant national blowhard, today any grinning idiot on a battlefield with a smart phone is only a tweet away from an international media firestorm.

It is import in cultivating hatred to remember that mere violence, an inevitable part of all wars, is not sufficient. One can respect and admire an honorable but fierce opponent. Conveying a bullying attitude of casual cruelty to all onlookers by mistreating prisoners and civilians, especially if you humiliate and abuse them is a surefire goad to hatred while also alienating allies and neutrals, especially when doing so contradicts the nation’s deeply held values.  Hatred can also be stirred in less dramatic ways, from posing with Nazi flags to widespread ignorance of and expressions of disdain for local customs and mores. Disrespect has legs.

Contempt by contrast, is earned more by exhibiting moral weakness and truckling appeasement of the enemy and his sympathizers. For example, have your own PA and diplomatic organs in speaking to the media, repeat enemy propaganda against your own soldiers and abuse the military justice system to prosecute soldiers for splitsecond combat decisions in order to appease these critics. Loudly trumpet the “culturally appropriate meals” to the guys you are going to waterboard and appoint enemy sympathizers as “cultural advisers” and “liaisons” to government security and law enforcement agencies. Do nothing as your own heavily infiltrated host nation “ally” repeatedly frags your soldiers.

9. Protect that Which is Most Unimportant:

Organizations signal what they really value not by what they say, but what they spend time and money on.

Make sure that as the war is steadily being lost that top brass and their civilian overseers frantically emphasize politicized trivialities and institutional martinet nonsense. Reflector belt mania, giving everyone and their brother breathalyzer tests, cultural sensitivity training, counterproductive regs for MEDEVAC helicopters, promoting the gender equality of foreign societies and gender-neutrality of our own should bump out boring, old training exercises for future combat deployment in terms of priority. Remember, the military is not really there to win wars – it is a captive social engineering project for things the wackier members of Congress wish they could impose on their constituents were it not for those damned free elections.

10. Level the Playing Field: Paralyze Your Own Tactical Advantages.

While a war is often lost by having a bad strategy or no strategy at all, the power of crapping away your tactical advantages to no purpose ought not be underestimated. There are thousands of ways to do this but if you are cutting the enemy repeated breaks you can’t go wrong.

First and foremost, you wish to avoid bringing all of your combat power to bear on the enemy’s weakest point in a combined arms assault because he very well may break and then where the hell will you be? You can hardly lose a war if the enemy dies or surrenders first.

Treat your combat arms, services and host nation military as separate, autonomous and almost unrelated units, each with their own objectives and set of ROE guidance more restrictive than required by the Laws of War (while mixing in allied and host nation forces of varying levels of capability and different ROE). Make it difficult for fire support, armor and air to work with your infantry commanders dealing with unforseen circumstances, who you should also spread thin over remote operational areas the size of, say, Iowa to maximize their vulnerability. If a battalion is needed, send a company. If a company is called for, send a squad. Allow the enemy to have safe havens in adjacent countries whose military power is dwarfed by your own by many orders of magnitude. Make sure that your intelligence and public diplomacy services are shorthanded on personnel  fluent in the languages used by the enemy, whom you allow to practice perfidy without punishment.

Remember, there are no guarantees in war. No matter how badly you screw up, the enemy might still be more poorly led and less adaptive than are you. That said, if you practice these ten principles you can become a master of the art of defeat.

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Reforming Intelligence vs.Intelligent Reforms

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

The intense behind the scenes lobbying on behalf of prospective candidates to replace General David Petraeus as Director of the CIA and the ongoing furor over Ambassador Rice’s “talking points” on Benghazi, have spilled over into op-eds quietly urging that the vacancy be used as an opportunity for reforms of the IC and CIA. This is not unexpected – the churn of ” IC reform” tends to be cyclical, free of institutional or historical memory and useful for distracting the media from genuine problems – but it is also true that the situation could bear improvement.

One of the smarter observations was by former star analyst Nada Bakos in Foreign Policy:

…..In light of this, what should the DNI’s role be in the intelligence community, if not disseminating a coordinated intelligence product? The CEO of a company is typically the one planning strategy, interfacing with board members, stockholders, and consumers. A CEO doesn’t typically write the chief financial officer’s year-end summary or the marketing director’s strategy — instead, he views both products from 25,000 feet to ensure the company is on steady footing. The DNI should have a similar role: rather than replicating work, it should focus on reviewing the source material from the various agencies and collaborating to ensure all of the information has been reviewed. In the case of the Benghazi talking points, the intelligence community all had a role in editing the talking points once passed from the CIA. Other points of view make sense, but in the immediate aftermath of something like Benghazi, the arrival of new (and possibly conflicting information) is likely to confuse, not improve, the product. It is best to leave the dissemination, in the immediate aftermath, in the hands of the agency that owns the source of the information and is in the business of disseminating intel products — in this case the CIA.

As with the recent and somewhat ironic leaking that the Pentagon is going to overrun the Earth with hordes of DIA covert agents [i.e. 90% of new money and personnel will probably feed the CONUS based DIA bureaucracy as a budget protection strategy] when an agency or entity can get political authorities to grant them incursions into another bureaucracy’s turf, it is because that bureaucracy has ceased doing it’s job so long ago everyone has just accepted that it will never change.

The Bakos piece contrasts well with the politicized bullshittery being offered in The New York Times. Here are some of my favorite bits of harmful nonsense:

….The United States has over 280 diplomatic posts worldwide. They are working on drug interdiction, arms control negotiations, border security, counterterrorism, access to energy and trade, implementing sanctions, fair trade and the like. Intelligence helps diplomats recognize everything from cheating on agreements to social unrest and surprise attack. And it helps them make decisions that lower the risks and consequences of war.

The new director should rededicate the C.I.A. to supporting these diplomatic operations.

Right. Each ambassador should get to play amateur Station Chief and fritter away extremely scarce intel resources on pet projects because, you know, the State Department has done such an awesome job on it’s own core missions the past decade or so, and….uh…wait….

….The best way to ensure the intelligence process can both produce the best analysis possible, free from political and policy influence, and that covert operations are smart and legal is to ensure the director is an independent actor not subject to political pressure. Making the job a 10-year appointment, which will cross the lines of elections, offers a way to reduce the risk of politicization.

Shorter Bruce Reidel: The DCIA should be able to delay or refuse the President’s order to do covert ops so the US will do far fewer of them and in maximum risk-averse fashion.

No.

You de-politicize the DCIA by not having new presidents fire old DCIAs because they were appointed by an administration from the other party, a practice begun not by Ronald Reagan as Bruce Reidel mistakenly believes, but by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The idea that the DCIA who is expected to oversee the most sensitive covert missions (i.e. those intended to have strategic or political effects) should be “independent” of the President is some form of really poor Constitutional theorizing. What happens when an “independent” DCIA launches covert ops *against* the wishes of a President?

Here are a few ideas that would be useful to keep in mind, if “reform” of the IC and CIA is actually desired and isn’t merely a stalking horse for smuggling in a different set of  foreign policy preferences unsupported by the wider American public (which I suspect much of the recent noise is):

It isn’t a choice between a “Militarized” CIA and a CIA that does HUMINT collection:

The CIA is supposed to do both covert action and intel collection and always did. Period. The true anomaly is the comatose period after the Church-Pike Hearings bloodied the CIA on Capitol Hill and created a deeply risk-averse generation of CIA managers, who, it must be said, did not exactly bend over backwards in the 1990′s to unleash a legion of deep cover operatives and agents of influence. The “militarized CIA” meme is utter B.S. from folks who dislike armed drones and kinetic tactics and lost that policy argument two years ago.

Drones and nefarious celebrity generals are not what prevents the CIA from more robust intel collection effort – only CIA management prevents better HUMINT collection by not prioritizing it and increasing the number of CIA personnel in overseas postings.

The Director of the CIA, alone or in combination with the DNI, is not the solution:

What is required is an engaged and active Chief Executive willing to spend time and political capital making the IC work for his administration the way it should and the way he needs. This may mean firing the recalcitrant, the resistant and the risk-averse and taking heat from The Washington Post and The New York Times when their favorite “senior official” sources start screaming bloody murder on background to undermine their DCIA and DNI.

Top talent in the DCIA chair, one with real gravitas on the Hill if possible, will be important but that person will still need the full backing of the President and key members of Congress or nothing will change.

“Clandestinity” and Strategic intel are more important than “Reportage”:

Senior officials in any administration like to get IC  briefs that edge out the media on breaking events and bring them details they can’t find in their own, usually very extensive, personal networks or from the bureaucracies and agency experts they themselves oversee.  The CIA in particular has catered to this demand as, it must be said, they are obligated to do.

The problem is that in economic terms, the marginal value of “secret” information over what information is available in the open media in an emerging crisis is not going to be very great unless the CIA has made substantial investments in clandestine networks in the crisis area over a period of years or decades to acquire “strategic” intel, or at least a formidable position to uncover some.

Pouring ever greater resources into near real time “reportage” and being a slightly spooky version of CNN makes such long-term, clandestine investments by the CIA less likely, less deep and less influential in shaping emerging events. Much like having a .357 magnum when someone is crawling through your bedroom window at 3 am, when a crisis erupts overseas, America either has a robust clandestine network on location or it does not.

Congress has a key role and usually abdicates it in favor of grandstanding or rearranging deck chairs:

The IC will work better with consistently active oversight done with a minimum of partisan rancor and an avoidance of any new legislation that features a new (and usually more complex) org chart. It’s important -sometimes delicate operations and lives depend on our politicians behaving and speaking with discretion. If there are important objectives for national security for the IC to accomplish, nothing sends that message better than the administration and key members of the intelligence committees acting in concert to make a policy succeed.

I’m not holding my breath on that last one.

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The Sounds of Silence and Your Own Mind

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Scott Shipman had an excellent book review post An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941 — a review-lite and a few questions in which he discussed the intellectual seriousness and evolution of war planner   Major Albert C. Wedemeyer as a military officer and strategist:

….Wedemeyer was an honor graduate of the Command and General Staff College, and his performance earned him the opportunity to attended the Kriegsakademie, the German staff college. However, coupled with impressive academic preparations, Kirkpatrick writes that Wedemeyer’s curiosity exposed him to a “kaleidoscope” of ideas and methods. Kirkpatrick summed-up Wedemeyer: “Competence as a planner thus emerged as much from conscientious professional study as from formal military education…” Going on to say:

In common with many of his peers, much of Wedemeyer’s professional and intellectual education was less the product of military schooling than of personal initiative and experience in the interwar Army.

Wedemeyer’s intellectual development was purposeful and paid off. In Wedemeyer’s deep study of his profession he used the prescribed paths, but also explored on his own. How common is that today? 

As often happens, the discussion can take an unexpected turn in the comments section. Lexington Green weighed in with this:

Think about George Marshall in China, traveling around on horseback.  No cell phone, no email.  The man could actually think.  Or Eisenhower meeting with Fox Connor to talk about the books Connor had him read. Telephone calls were not even common.  The military might do well to have two days once a quarter of silent retreats, only emergency communication permitted, with literally no unnecessary conversation, for groups of officers and non-coms, with some assigned reading and some self-selected on the same theme, then an open discussion after dinner. It would cost virtually nothing and would be an intellectual and mental oasis, and some good ideas might come out of it.  Religious silent retreats which last a couple of days and are truly life-restoring. This would probably be useful as well.

That in turn provoked this response from Marshall:

My sense is that many of us live, work, and fraternize in a culture of crisis. Everything is urgent. One response is to just shut off the moment we get some downtime. TV, drinking, schlock fiction, immersion in pop culture, video games, blog reading are some of the ways I’ve coped. I grew out of those as timewasters as I realized that I no longer had time to shut off if I wanted to do something.

But I still live in a culture of crisis. Almost everybody around me “has no time”. It doesn’t really matter what is being proposed, the sense of urgency kills all ambition toward progress. Defending myself and my space form this is a daily challenge – and some days I lose.

I’m visiting family this week on a long-scheduled “vacation” that has been interrupted by my office several times already, but always with the promise, “just this thing, Marshall, we don’t want to take you away from your family”. And these are the people I choose as my allies!

The culture of crisis doesn’t believe in people’s choices. It says that time will only be wasted, so we have to keep our people busy. After all, see how they spend their “free” time? Dissolute wastrels the lot of them. And then the culture of crisis tells us that we need to recharge by shutting off our minds. You need to vege out, man, you’re stressed; turn on the TV and have a beer, mate. Or else fire up your e-mail and write six more. And, hey, sorry about your insomnia, but it lets you get a jump on the day, amirite? [....]

The discussion moved on, but I have been mulling upon this exchange ever since.

The first thing that came to mind is that what we mean by “silence” really isn’t silent, what is really meant is that there is an absence of human voice pulling at our limited capacity for attention. Cognitive load is probably a real, if variable, limit on human cognition and the nature of hyperconnected information society is that all too frequently we are -and feel – “overloaded”.

When human voices are absent the “background” environmental noise comes “forward” , natural (wind through trees, animals etc) or mechanical (various humms and clicks) that we unconsciously tune out as a matter of routine focusing on conversation or distracting hearsay, broadcasts and so on. The processing in the brain is significantly different depending on what kinds of sounds you are listening to, for example:

1. Listening to Music

2. Listening to Language

3. Listening to unpleasant sounds (nails on chalkboard etc.)

So eliminating human speech from your environment but not hearing (earplugs) itself allows other regions of your brain to become more active than usual, depending on whatever else you may be doing at the time (walking, chopping wood, smelling a flower, scanning the horizon and so on).  Your brain’s performance and how it varies when thinking under conditions of different combinations and levels of sensory stimuli – “crossmodal processing” – is not yet well understood as research is in early stages of investigation.

I will speculate here that what is important for enriching your thinking is that taking your brain out a linguistic-saturated environment (let’s include the “soundless noise” of intruding textual symbols as well from smartphones, iPads, laptops)  gives it an opportunity to operate differently for a time and establish new neuronal network patterns of activity. Various forms of meditation – which involves both silence and an intentional modulation of attention – also  alters normal  brain activity.

I will now go further out on a data-free analytical limb and hypothesize that making a practice of “silence” and/or meditation might improve your thinking by making moments of creative insight more likely. Studies on insight tend to show that as a cognitive event, insight  comes about as a kind of a “pulse” of activity and relaxation in the brain:

….Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. Jung-Beeman became interested in the nature of insight in the early nineteen-nineties, while researching the right hemisphere of the brain. Mentions Jonathan Schooler. Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A. Problems)—solved. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG (electroencephalography) testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. Mentions Joy Bhattacharya and Henri Poincaré. The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.

Another interesting data point to consider re: “silence” and insight is that the mental illness of schizophrenia, where delusions and other mental “noise” exists is significantly negatively correlated with insight.  Researchers are currently investigating if meditation can ease the symptoms of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

For myself, I find my best ideas come via insight when I am doing something primarily physical requiring steady but not all of my concentration and I am alone – working out, walking the dog, a household chore and so on. Relatively useful ideas can happen when I am reading or writing or debating (i.e. interacting with a text or a person), but they tend to be analytic and derivative, sort of an intellectual “tweaking” or “tinkering” but not ones that are fundamentally creative or synthesizing.

Lexington Green may be right – Silence is golden.

 

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“No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

but it’s got electrolytes…

We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and an on-going concern of the Institute is relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

“To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

“The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

This is cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

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