The Sherlock Holmes Brain Attic

The brain attic metaphor is well known to Sherlock Holmes fans. And it was a metaphor I wrote a blog about seven years ago. This is a revised version of that blog. You can never get too much of Sherlock Holmes. And I believe the brain attic is a perfect metaphor for helping us understand the workings of the human mind. 

The Brain Attic is Sherlock Holmes’ (Arthur Conan Doyle’s) creative metaphor of our mental processes. Holmes believed that the human brain is like a little empty attic and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. And there is a chord you can pull to turn the light on and off at will. The attic’s contents are those things we’ve taken in from the world and that we’ve experienced in our lives. We should not forget that any experience could be a new piece of furniture, a new picture or a file to be fitted into an already crowded attic. We can’t control every piece of information that we retain, but we need to be aware of the mental filters that guard our attic’s entrance. What we put into it, and keep it up to date, is up to us. We can turn on the light. 

The human mind is said to be a gold mine and a rubbish heap. And said to be…a scientist, artist, a simple recording device, a smart computer, a movie screen and/or a good magician. The human mind is where human consciousness exists. And human consciousness is still not yet understood by today’s science. 

When I am thinking about what I might do, or did do, I think of the metaphor of brain attic. When I do this I find it helpful. This metaphor reminds me that my cognitive toolkit, my beliefs, assumptions, mental tools, sensory experiences, wisdom, and brain furniture all reside in my mind/brain. That is where mental processes occur.

The brain attic metaphor gives us another way to look at the human consciousness, and a possible way to understand something science can’t explain. 

“What Holmes means when he talks about stocking your attic with the appropriate furniture, is the need to carefully choose which experiences, which memories, which aspects of your life you want to hold on to beyond the moment when they occur.”

~Maria Konnikova in Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, 2013

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Seeking The Unknown

“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

~ Aubrey De Grey, English author and biomedical gerontologist

“Science is the study of the nature and behavior of natural things and the knowledge that we obtain about them,” Dictionary. The fact that science is a study, means that science is not the truth, only the possessor of current truth. This is why what we know for sure is what gets us in trouble. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t so,” Mark Twain. This famous quote explains it. What you don’t know is not as bad as what you know for sure that ain’t so. (This is why I have constantly been promoting positive uncertainty). Be careful of what you know for sure; it may not be so. The problem with current reality is that what was once so may no longer be so. Reality may no longer be what it used to be. A sense of uncertainty is a way to avoid knowing something for sure that ain’t so. 

This is the virtue of doubt. Doubt, uncertainty and open-mindedness lead to questions and being receptive to new ideas and information. Being sure you possess the truth leads to closed-mindedness, which is unreceptive and has nowhere to go. Closed-mindedness, to me, has no place in public or political discourse.  

Maybe we should start a public or political discussion (or even a debate) about the virtues of doubt and open-mindedness and the dangers of closed-mindedness. Which is the best truth detector? Or better yet, I am repeating, from earlier blogs Ernest Hemingway’s famous 1954 quote: “every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.” Someone should invent a built-in automatic “fact detector” for public and political discourse.

Doubt isn’t a four letter word; but it is unpopular. Certainty feels good; uncertainty feels uncomfortable. But remember, certainty is what gets us in trouble. Be careful what you know for sure. Doubting prevents knowing for sure what isn’t so.

This scientific search for truth is what is called research: “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions,” Dictionary. I doubt if many of our beliefs are based on systematic investigation. Most of our believing/thinking is not scientific. 

Doubt is the condition of being uncertain. I have been promoting positive uncertainty. Being trustful about doubting is a prerequisite of positive uncertainty.  

“Science is the poetry of reality.”

~ Unknown

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Therefore I Am Thinking 

Or, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes

Descartes’ famous quote makes us think that what we think is what we are. Shakespeare’s famous quote supports Descartes: “Thinking makes it so.”

However: “a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices,” William James.

Descartes’s famous quote doesn’t tell us what he thinks he is. He says “I am,” but not what I am. What are you when you think ”what am I?”

Just think for a moment. If we couldn’t think…what then? Perhaps, if we couldn’t think, nothing would be “so.” Then, what would we be? I don’t plan to answer that, but it is my introduction to this blog.

Thinking means to chew over, cogitate, consider, contemplate, debate, deliberate, entertain, meditate, mull over, question. Apparently, when we are thinking, we are very busy. Many of us are thinking most of the time. This is why I have recommended to pause and reflect about our thinking. But of course, this means more thinking.

My point about thinking is that when we think, we are not deciding, we are planning to decide, thinking about how and what to decide. Thinking is not doing. It has been said we are what we think. (Remember: “thinking makes it so.”) Think and believe could be considered synonyms. I think it will rain; I believe it will  rain. To think or to believe is not to know.

For someone to say “I think you are right” does not mean they know you are right. All of this is to say that thinking and knowing are not the same. This is important to acknowledge because often when we say “I think this is true”, we usually mean I know this is true. Remember, “thinking makes it so.”

In my writing I have emphasized being careful about what we believe to be true. Because believing is seeing and seeing is doing. And we believe to be true what we want to be true. This means we also need to be careful about what we want to be true. (“The only thing worse than not getting what we want is getting what we want,” G. B. Shaw.)

Thinking is complicated human behavior as I said earlier; to chew over, cogitate, consider, contemplate, debate, deliberate, entertain, meditate, mull over, question. Thinking behavior is busy behavior. It keeps us busy all day long. It determines what we do.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

~Henry Ford

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Of The Beholder

This blog is about the way we see things.

The way we see things is the way we see things. It is nothing more, it is nothing less, but it is the beginning of everything. 

We Cannot See Objectively

Objectivity does not exist In the human mind.

Objectivity: “the quality or character of being objective; lack of favoritism toward one side or another; freedom from bias,” Dictionary

“Objectivity is the subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him,” von Foerster

“True objectivity would mean standing outside the human body, off the earth even, observing both without bias and without a human brain,” Diane Ackerman

This blog suggests that humans are not able to be objective.

Do you have an opinion?

We Only See Subjectively

Subjectivity does exist in the human mind.

“All experience is subjective,” Gregory Bateson

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are,” Anais Nin

Subjectivity: “the quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions; the quality of existing in someone’s mind rather than the external world,” Dictionary

Most people look into their own mind in order to understand what is going on in the world. This famous quote explains: “the eye sees in things what it looks for, and it looks for what is already in the mind,” Scientific School of Police, Paris.

What is already going on in our minds may not be what is currently going on in the world.

This blog suggests that humans are not able to avoid being subjective.

Do you have an opinion?

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Rehearsing It

Scenario Rehearsal: “a description of what could possibly happen,” Dictionary

One of my favorite strategies for making decisions when creating the future is scenario planning, sometimes called scenario rehearsal. This is a process of imagining a series of alternative future possibilities. What if this? What if that?

To rehearse something is to: “perceive (something) by the senses; become aware of; to grasp the meaning of; understand,” Dictionary. The key to scenario rehearsal is to realize that rehearsal is not reality. Its purpose is to consider alternative possibilities for creating your future reality. But first you have to believe you can create your future. Remember: “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: Those who make it happen, those who let it happen, and those who wonder what happened,” John N. Richardson. If you are the kind that let the future happen or wonder what happened, you are not the kind that is creating your future. 

I have written a lot about creating one’s future reality. This quote has been my theme song: “the future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating,” John Schaar, a futurist. To play a role in making your future happen, means to first decide what you want your future to be (and then remember my favorite personal quote: “your image of the future may be the most important factor in determining what your future will be.” This is why scenario rehearsal is so important. Rehearsing the future is a way of sensing it. 

The future doesn’t exist; it needs to be created. You have two choices, create it or let someone else create it. I am aware that you are not always the one who can make your future happen. But: “if you think you can, you might; if you think you can’t, you’re right.” If you are the kind that of person who “lets the future happen,” the future will happen while you are watching. 

Preparing for the future involves imagining what the future might be, deciding what you want it to be, and determining if you believe you can make it happen. Your belief about how much future influence you have will determine how much influence you will employ. Your belief will determine what you do. Believing is seeing is doing. Therefore, first determine how much influence you believe you have in determining what your future will be. Then remember, this belief will determine what you do.

Preparing for the future and rehearsing it is a process of examining the way you see things. Scenario rehearsal involves what is already in your mind. What is already in your mind is your beliefs — and this determines the way you see things. Rehearsing the way you see things determines the way you do things. Your future is ahead of you, but your way of seeing things is within you. 

“What is behind your eyes holds more power than what is in front of them.”

~ Gary Zukav

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The Trees of The Forest

“There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.”

~ Thomas Merton

We are often told that the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts. But then we are never told what this new whole is now more equal to. It must be because it is not known; otherwise we would be told.

If the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts, then knowing the parts is insufficient to knowing the whole. You can’t know the forest just by knowing the trees. This is because of the “hidden wholeness.” The whole forest is equal to more than the sum of its trees. 

This “hidden wholeness” exists even though we can’t see it. Remember that what you see is not all there is. What you don’t see is what you don’t pay attention to and what you can’t see (the hidden wholeness). Everything is interconnected to everything else in an unbroken wholeness. This interconnectedness is what you can’t see. 

This is why the trees and the forest is a good metaphor for looking at the future. The future doesn’t exist except in our minds. The hidden wholeness of the forest reminds us that we can’t see the wholeness of reality. What we see is not all there is; which reminds us of the hidden wholeness, like we can’t see the forest. 

Knowing the trees is not knowing the forest. Knowing the parts is not knowing the whole. This would be a good mantra to carry with us. One way to do this is to ask: Am I seeing/knowing only the parts of the whole? Can I see the hidden wholeness?  

The hidden wholeness is the part of the forest that we can’t see. We can’t see the forest because we are looking at the trees. We can’t see the whole because we are looking at the parts.  

Be aware of the singular and the plural — the parts and the whole; the trees and the forest. You can’t know the forest just by knowing the trees. You can’t know the whole just by knowing the parts.  The whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts.  

What you see is not all there is. 

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Or Failing To Notice?

“Out of necessity we learn to run on auto-pilot, paying attention mechanically and passively most of the time. This underscores the need to pay attention deliberately and voluntarily, thereby liberating our awareness from robotic activity.”

~ Daniel Goleman

Repeating a story from a former blog about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a camping trip shows the problem of failing to notice. As they lie down in their sleeping bags for the night…

Holmes: “Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see.”                                      

Watson: “I see millions of stars.” 

Holmes: “What does that tell you?”

Watson: “Astronomically it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Theologically it tells me that God is great and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?”

Holmes: “It tells me that somebody stole our tent.”

The story is funny because it seems absurd and yet we can all somehow identify with it. It is said, “if you want to hide the treasure, put it in plain sight. Then no one will see it.” When I don’t pay attention to something obvious, it is because I am so interested in something else, as was Dr. Watson. He failed to notice the missing tent, but he also failed to notice that he failed to notice. “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds,” R. D. Laing.

Paying attention to what you are paying attention to — and not paying attention to — is a key decision making skill now and in the future. You only see what you pay attention to; and what you see is not all there is. “You can’t see the forest for the trees” is a good metaphor for paying attention to what you don’t see. One reason you don’t see the forest is because you are paying attention to the trees. And you can’t see the whole forest because much of it is hidden.

When you look at a tree you see the trunk, branches, and leaves. You don’t usually see the roots and therefore, don’t pay attention to them. Yet the roots of a tree are often as expansive as the parts we see. In a forest, in fact, the roots of all trees are interconnected and form a dense underground network of relationships of roots, the birds, bees, animals, insects, flora, in which there are no boundaries between individual trees. Another part of the hidden wholeness is the underground networks of relationships and past histories of experiences (fires, storms, human interventions, disease, etc.).  

Can you imagine some of the forest that you can’t see because parts are hidden? Can you imagine some of the hidden wholeness of your life? Like the whole forest, your personal “whole reality” is too complex to observe. But you can be aware of the complexity and even imagine some of it. Most of us ignore the parts of our reality we don’t see. Paying attention by imagining what you don’t and can’t see can be a useful skill in expanding the way you see things. However, this takes thinking like a sleuth.

“The eye sees in things what it looks for and it looks for what is already in the mind.”

~ Scientific School of Police, Paris

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Reverse Paranoia

Do You Have This Future Neurosis?

“I find it easier to be the result of the past than to be the cause of the future.” 

~ Ashleigh Brilliant

I am re-posting a blog from 2015 for new readers or previous readers who have a memory like mine. 

A future neurosis is a disability while trying to create your future. When it comes to the future, it is said that there are three kinds of people: those who make it happen, those who let it happen, and those who wonder what happened. Which kind are you? Which kind do you want to be?

Future neurosis is a neurosis that inhibits your ability and your willingness to participate in being the cause of the future. In 1993 I identified and published four of these neuroses in an article titled “Future Sense*.”  And this blog is a short recap of one — Reverse Paranoia.

Paranoia is the belief that someone is following you and is out to get you. Reverse Paranoia is the belief that you are following someone who is out to lead you. This is the leadership delusion, the fallacy that a “white knight” will lead you to the promised land.

Reverse paranoiacs not only want a leader, they want a visionary leader who will also imagine the promised land for them. We don’t need a visionary leader as much as we need respect for the vision.

By definition the future doesn’t exist. Or you could say the future exists right behind your eyes, in your mind’s eye — if you use your imagination, if you can visualize the future you desire. That’s the good news. The bad news is that when thinking about the future, we often encounter disabilities that interfere with our thinking. We want someone or something else to create our future, right before our eyes.

Reverse paranoia is a disability because it gives away personal responsibility and ignores the need to develop the capacity of imagining a desirable future and creating it. Reverse paranoia leads to reactive behavior — following the lead of others — rather than to proactive behavior — becoming one’s own leader. The cure for this neurosis is taking charge of making your future happen: imagining desirable futures, visualizing a positive role for yourself, contemplating them actually happening, and then being a participant in creating the one you want.

The bottom line for this blog: 

Your image of the future may be the most important factor in determining what your future will be.

* “Future Sense,” THE FUTURIST, Sept-Oct. 1993, The World Future Society, The other three neuroses: Future Phobia, Paradigm Paralysis and Info-mania.

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Certainty Eliminates It

“The future is uncertain — but its uncertainty is at the very heart of creativity.” 

~ Ilya Prigogine

To be creative is to have the ability to create, to cause something to exist; it is an art. To be uncertain is to not be sure, to be open to change. Therefore, it seems you need to be uncertain to be creative. Creativity requires change; change requires uncertainty. Uncertainty results in open-mindedness. I have been writing forever about change, creativity, uncertainty and open-mindedness.

James Adams, in his book, The Care and Feeding of Ideas: A Guide to Encouraging Creativity (1986), says creativity and change are two sides of the same coin.

“They are often linked, in that creativity is needed to respond successfully to change and creativity, in turn, results in change. Creativity and change both imply new directions. They are both associated with uncertainty.”

Decision making is, of course, about uncertainty, creativity, open-mindedness — and about change. When deciding what to do, you are deciding about your future. Your future doesn’t exist and it is unpredictable, so it is uncertain; it needs to be created. You have two choices: create it or let someone else create it. 

In 1991 I published my book, Creative Decision Making Using Positive Uncertainty. It was later revised in 2003, with my wife Carol Gelatt as coauthor.Since then, author Sheena Iyengar went one step further in describing creative decision making. “Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art,” The Art of Choosing, 2010. I would add, a “creative art.” 

This is why open-mindedness is an essential skill. An open mind is a beginner’s mind. “A beginner’s mind is a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time,” Zen saying. The beginner’s mind is what Zen practitioners use when describing the notion that learning requires an empty cup. When full of what you already know it is hard to acquire new knowledge. A beginner’s mind is trying to discover its ignorance, not to disguise it. This empty cup, beginner’s mind idea is like being child-like. Children don’t know a lot so they learn a lot. They have a beginner’s mind.

You might try thinking like a child. A child hasn’t yet learned rational, adult thinking. Almost all creative thinking techniques, brainstorming for example, involve the abandonment of rational, logical thinking. 

“An open, beginner’s mind allows us to be receptive to new intelligent thinking processes possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does.”

~ Jon Kabat Zinn

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Own It

“The future is not someplace we are going to, but a place we are creating.”

~John Schaar

“There is no ‘out there,’ independent of what is going on ‘in here’.”

~Fred Allan Wolf

“When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened,” John M. Richardson. Which kind are you? The future hasn’t happened yet; and it is uncertain. It is waiting for a builder. Are you the kind of person who wants to be part of its construction?

In fact, making the future happen should be the urgent goal today for the public and for our politicians. What republicans and democrats and the people need today is a future sense worldview. A worldview is: “an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world; a collection of beliefs about life and the universe,”Dictionary. A future sense worldview is a collection of beliefs that are open and inclusive. 

Future Phobia, fear of the future, was one of my four neuroses in my article Future Sense in the FUTURIST, Journal of the World Future Society, 1993. (The other three were: Info-mania, Paradigm Paralysis and Reverse Paranoia.) We need to replace Future Phobia today with Future Sense. The trouble with the future is that it doesn’t exist; except in our minds. It is what we have been creating in our minds; and in our plans, our objectives, our dreams and fears. And in our biases. “The future is inside us, not just in front of us,” California Governor Gavin Newson. The future inside us is what I call Future Sense. And the title of my soon to be published new book. I have often said: “your image of the future may be the most important factor in determining what you future will be.” This image is your Future Sense and makes your Future Sense powerful. 

The future is defined as: “an indefinite time to come; something that will happen.” Although the future is not something that is happening now, it is happening in our heads now. Making sense of what is in our heads now should be our goal. Replacing our overall perspective of a fear of the future with Future Sense makes sense. 

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”

~Dr. Seuss, Oh The Places You’ll Go

“Don’t look back you’re not going that way.”


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