August 9th, 2020

Life with a conceptual mind

The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) evokes widely different responses from different people. I've seen some people take it so seriously that it gets taught in businesses as a way to facilitate co-workers getting along with each other. On the opposite end of the scale are people who regard it as totally nonsensical pseudo-psychology which has no validity or practical use whatsoever. For me, the truth lies somewhere in between: Obviously there are more than just 16 types of people in the world, and so the test is limited in what it can tell you about a person, but it does seem to serve as at least one useful way to understand common patterns in people and how to handle them. As far as "pop psychology" goes, it's not the worst concept ever popularized.

The MBTI categorizes people according to four dichotomies which are often misunderstood, partly because of how vaguely they are named. For example, the first dichotomy is extraversion/introversion, which are words that are widely used, misunderstood, and misinterpreted in present-day popular discourse about human behavior. The MBTI interpretation of these words is based on Carl Jung's use of them, which is somewhat different from how people interpret and understand these words in our present day. Today, however, in this post, I want to focus on the second dichotomy, which the MBTI calls "sensing/intuition", and which I personally disastrously misunderstood when I first started trying to "type" myself according to the MBTI criteria.

In MBTI terms, I am a highly "intuitive" person. In more common everyday life, however, people understand "intuitive", when used to describe a person, to mean that the person is able to understand people, things, or ideas quickly and naturally without the need for logical analysis. This does not describe me at all; while I do have first impressions just like everyone else, my first impressions are often wrong, and I need to be able to calmly, rationally, logically, and slowly analyze people, places, things, and ideas at length before I can be certain that I understand them. In terms of the current popular parlance, I am not an "intuitive" person at all, but quite the opposite.

So what does it mean to be "intuitive" in terms of the Myers–Briggs test? Well, the "sensing/intuition" dichotomy is intended to measure how much a person uses their five senses to gather information versus how much they gather information intellectually or conceptually. Really, a much better word than "intuitive" in this context would be "conceptual". For example, a sensing person who wants to learn about a foreign country might find it most useful to watch a video about that country to see its sights and sounds, whereas a conceptual person would probably be more interested in reading an encyclopedia article about that country to understand it in terms of its history. When meeting someone for the first time, a sensing person may most vividly remember the person's hairstyle, clothing style, or body language, while a conceptual person is more likely to remember what the person talked about. In Myers–Briggs terms, I am extremely conceptual, what the test calls "intuitive", but I am not intuitive in terms of what people call "intuitive" in everyday life.

I say that I "disastrously misunderstood" this dichotomy when I first studied the Myers–Briggs test because I am, again, very "intuitive" in terms of how the test understands this word, and so I sometimes used the word to describe myself, which led to a lot of misunderstandings between myself and other people since they misunderstood what I meant with this word, and I misunderstood what they understood from this word. In any case, today I understand that I am a very highly conceptual person. I have always been this way, since my earliest childhood memories; I have always been more interested in concepts than sensations, ideas rather than experiences. Life with a conceptual mind is a difficult one sometimes, and I wanted to take a little time to describe some ways in which having a conceptual mind manifests itself in my everyday life so that people understand what it means and what it's like.

As mentioned, having a conceptual mind affects how I approach meeting new people, but it more broadly affects conversations I have with people in general. When I have a conversation, I want to learn new things about the world or its people. I don't see conversations as an end in themselves. Most people who "socialize" with other people seem to do so not because they actually want to learn anything or better themselves, but just because they like hanging out with other people. To me, that's an absolute waste of time if nothing of consequence is said while in other people's company. When I talk to people, I don't want to hear a funny story about their dog. I want answers to the question "Who are you, and why do you live?"

I don't usually notice physical details about a person. Or perhaps a better way to describe this idea is that I do notice physical details, but not visually. If someone has curly hair, I'll remember that they have curly hair, but not what the hair actually looked like; if someone asks me "Did the person have curly hair?" I will be able to say yes or no, but I couldn't actually reproduce, on paper, what the hair looked like.

Nor am I good at remembering people's names, especially if I am introduced to a large number of people all at once. When meeting one individual person, I can often remember the person's name in isolation, especially if I can connect it to some concept which is already known. I once met a man named Fred who, upon introducing himself, added: "Just think of Fred Flintstone and you'll remember". He understood how people remember things: The human memory works by joining concepts together, by forming links and associations between ideas, and so it's easy to remember someone's name if you associate that name with something known; trying to remember an uncommon name is much more difficult. In general, I am good at understanding things, but bad at memorizing data. I don't have a good memory unless I can conceptualize the information I'm supposed to remember. Perhaps more to the point, though, is my attitude towards people's names. Generally speaking, I am not interested in a person's name, because the name doesn't really tell me anything about the person. My general attitude towards names is: "Why should I care what someone's name is or was? A name is arbitrary, not even something chosen by that person, but by their parents. It doesn't mean anything".

Generally speaking, then, whenever I encounter anything, I am not too much concerned with how it looks; I am more interested in how it works. Even as a child, I was someone who had to compulsively open any toy or device I could get my hands on to see what was inside, what made the device work the way it did. People are often very prone to making judgments based on appearances of things, buying computers just because those computers have a sleek-looking exterior, but the real substance of a computer can only be found by looking beneath that exterior. The same is true of people and places. People fall in love with people and places based on how they look: "That person is beautiful, so I want to date them, have sex with them, or marry them", or "That place is beautiful, so I want to visit there or live there". These things were never of much interest to me; what makes people interesting is their personalities, their thoughts, their values, their interests, and their plans for the future, not what they look like. What makes a place interesting is what you can do there and what culture exists there, not what it looks like.

The same principle applies to food. I see food as fuel, no more interesting than gasoline for a car. I don't understand why people feel the need to talk about food. Eating is just as interesting as breathing: It's something you have to do to stay alive, but not something that makes an interesting topic of conversation. Nor do I understand why people feel the need to eat different things all the time. Why bother? Why change something that works without a good reason? That's just a waste of time and money. I eat things because they are practical and healthy. For example, one thing which I often drank when I lived in the USA but which I can no longer drink because it doesn't exist in Germany is 0% milk, meaning fat-free milk. Why would I want to consume fat with milk? I like milk because it contains a wide variety of nutrients, but I don't need to drink fat. I have mentioned this to many Germans, and always, always, without exception, they ask why I would want to drink 0% milk by posing the question: "But don't you think it tastes like water?" I do not understand the mentality that goes into such a question; who cares if the milk tastes like water? Why should that prevent me from drinking it? It is a symptom of someone with a mentality which is entirely incomprehensible to me when a thinking human being is capable of saying, in seriousness, "Oh no! This milk tastes like water! I can't drink this!"

When people travel, too, one of their priorities when travelling to foreign countries is often sampling the local food, as if this were one of the most important things in the world, and here, again, I do not understand this mentality. A country's cuisine generally has little if anything to do with its culture; the cuisine is simply a result of the country's weather and soil conditions, reflecting what kinds of foods can be grown in that geographical location. This has not much to do with the country's beliefs or values, yet people still make it a priority to try different foods when they travel. How can people, in good conscience, squander their travel time this way? People could be thinking about how their sensory perception of the world changes their psychological internal state, and they're getting themselves worked up about food? Why do people have their priorities so screwed up? Food exists to provide nutrients, nothing more.

Even xkcd got in on the food thing with this strip which claims that eating individual food ingredients is disgusting, which is absolutely false. I've never had a problem eating individual ingredients. Indeed, I tend to dislike it when everything is mixed together; the clash of tastes and textures bothers me. All my life, I've preferred eating individual ingredients because then you know exactly what you're eating. The idea that eating x and y mixed together is delicious but eating x and y separately is disgusting is a stupid and unmathematical idea cherished by people who do not understand basic math and science. You get the same amount of salt in your diet whether you eat a small pile of salt or sprinkle that salt over food.

Speaking of people not understanding math and science, I've written in the past about how I tend to keep things on the floor because they are easier to find that way, which is something that most people find intolerable for reasons that are absolutely unfathomable to me. The only way items can be physically accessible is when they're spread out so that you can distinguish them from each other and grasp them. When things are heaped into a pile, you can't pull specific items out of that pile, yet people consider that arrangement to be "oganization", which is a bit like smashing a window and then saying that the glass shards on the floor are now better "organized" than the flat plane of glass which was there before. Why even have floor space if you're not going to use it? People endlessly throw insane fits when there are things on the floor, even though this is the most functional way to organize things. Who cares if it doesn't "look good"?

All of these are manifestations of a mind which doesn't see the world "sensingly", using the five senses, but rather conceptually, thinking not in terms of what can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted, but what can be considered in the mind. Similarly, my recent musings on what I want music to be reflect a relatively analytical approach to something which most people approach entirely with their feelings, judging music not by its structure or instruments but simply how it makes them feel when they listen to it.

Besides music, another form of media which I tend to engage in is computer games, and being conceptual-minded is also visible in the types of games I play: Whereas most gamers focus incessantly on a game's graphics and tend to reflexively play the newest games just because they "look good", I will happily play older games because although they may be less visually impressive, they often have much more to offer in terms of game concepts. I also tend to not play games by just running them; those who've been reading my blog for years will remember that I have a tendency to "play games" by editing game data files or save files to change how the game world behaves, and I consider this to be as crucial to playing the game as actually running the game. One other thing which is nice about old games is that because they can be played in emulators, you can use emulators to implement things like savestates which might not have been available in the original games; many emulators even let you "rewind" the game so that if you make a mistake, you can go back a few seconds and try something over again. Stuff like this is standard in DOS and NES emulators. Can you do something like that with a multi-gigabyte Windows game? In theory, yes; in practice, no, at least not right now. In this regard, the 30-year-old games which I love to play are far more advanced than the games which are made today. Being conceptual-minded helps me realize that; people who are "sensing" would reach the opposite conclusion, thinking that newer games must be more advanced just because their graphics have higher resolutions and color depths.

More generally, being conceptual also relates to how I acquire information and what kind of information I consider interesting. In general, I consider it very important to distinguish between information and data. Data is something like raw numbers, which, uninterpreted, don't really tell you very much. Data is the high temperature in London on May 17, 1874; knowing this temperature, in itself, doesn't tell you anything important. Information is something which has meaning to the human spirit, such as the trend of temperatures in a particular place over a longer-term period, allowing you to see whether temperatures have been increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same. This is also why I don't get excited by nature documentaries: Is my quality of life supposed to be improved by knowing how fast the world's fastest animal can run, or how high the world's highest-jumping animal can jump? What is the point of that? That's just a waste of time. I'm not impressed by extremes; I'm impressed by things that are practical and usable.

In terms of acquiring and remembering data, I tend to be less unusual compared to most other people, because like most people, I'm good at understanding concepts, but not at memorizing data. I can understand if temperatures are rising or falling, but I'm bad at advanced-level math, because a lot of advanced math requires you to memorize formulas which don't make much sense. For example, one of the most important formulas in advanced math is the quadratic formula, which is notoriously difficult to memorize because its formulation is, to the human mind, just data rather than information which can be understood or interpreted in any way. Remembering the quadratic formula is so hard that there is a wikiHow article on how to memorize it. Similarly troubling to me in university were trigonometry formulas: They're easy enough to use if you have them in front of you, but trying to keep these straight in your memory is a disaster waiting to happen.

Because I am bad at memorizing raw data, I am also very bad at learning new languages, because most of learning a language is just rote memorization. Yes, there are some concepts which you need to learn when picking up a language, but most of learning a language is just memorizing the thousands of words you'll need to know to have a normal conversation. As a conceptual person, this is why I found German easier to learn than other languages: Rather than coining neologisms, German tends to form words for new concepts by just grouping several existing words together. As such, German emphasizes understanding of concepts rather than memorization of vocabulary. Many people complain about how difficult it is to learn German, but I personally found German by far the easiest of all languages to learn. Yes, German has four cases, but once you figure out how to use those cases, they're not difficult to apply; learning four cases is a joke compared to learning the 20,000 new words which you'd have to learn to be fluent in a language that has strong differences between words.

Of course, since being conceptual strongly impacts how I gather new information about the world, it also impacts how I regard current events, i.e. the "news". In general, I usually don't care much about what's happening in the news, because most news events are transitory and temporary. What people are talking about today in the news is likely to be long forgotten in 10 years. Only when something reflects long-term trends that will define history do I take an interest in the news. Otherwise, it's just a waste of time. I also don't have much interest in secrets or mysteries, because secrets and mysteries don't provide information, but just the opposite: A secret or mystery is the opposite of providing information. A lot of people seem to think that being secretive is interesting and alluring, and revealing "too much information" is boring and off-putting because it destroys the mystery. I'm the opposite; I only find things interesting when they reveal all the details. If someone hides information, my immediate response is "Okay, if you're not interested in giving all the details, then stop wasting my time and go away".

Perhaps the point which I've been getting at, the final point which kind of summarizes everything else I've written here, is that when you live with a conceptual mind, you tend to... conceptualize everything. And that makes it hard to have new experiences because you mentally strip away the extraneous trimmings of everything you see and reduce it to its essentials. For example, it's become difficult for me to read about History, because once you recognize and understand the patterns, you understand that nearly all of human history (or at least, History with a capital H) is just human beings trying to secure a life of ease and pleasure. That's really all History is. Sure, people talk a lot about "freedom" and other high-sounding ideals like that, but what do people actually do once they have freedom? How does the story of that freedom end? It ends with a bunch of people sitting around smoking, drinking, and having idle conversations. It always leads up to that conclusion. Any action or event that you can learn from "History" books is nothing more than this, and once you understand this, there's hardly any reason to read the book anymore since, like a murder mystery which you've read before, you already know how it ends and what the motive was. Give me something different: Give me the story of a human society or a human history that wasn't just trying to create a life of ease and comfort, and that might be a (hi)story worth reading. But any time I pick up a History book, I feel like this is a book I've read before, only with different names and dates.

You might think that this means that life with a conceptual mind is boring, and you'd be right, because once you understand the essence of the universe, you realize that everything--literally everything--that the human being can experience can be summarized using a few very simple ideas which repeat themselves endlessly everywhere, under all circumstances.

Is boredom a sign of intelligence or stupidity? In Terry Pratchett's novel Hogfather, a character declares: "Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom". Yet I'm not interested by "wonders"; I'm not impressed by the things that amaze sensing people. I'm more interested in ideas. It seems that I might have had the right idea after all, because in his later novel Thief of Time, Pratchett returns to the subject of boredom and notes: "You had to hand it to human beings. They had one of the strangest powers in the universe... No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom. Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them the up the evolutionary ladder". Is the constant desire to discover new ideas and experiences an advantage or a disadvantage? Does it help us or hinder us as human beings?

I can't really answer these questions authoritatively. Different people will have different ideas about them. But one thing I do know for certain is that because I am, by nature, a conceptual person, I live for good ideas. And all ideas are bullshit.

The real problem with being conceptual, the core problem with having a conceptual mind, is that there is no such thing as a perfect idea. Every idea is flawed; every idea, if followed to its absolute conclusion, yields incomplete, useless, and unsatisfying results. Every lifestyle, every personal (or impersonal) philosophy, every political system, every worldview ultimately results in the same thing: A group of stupid, lazy people who yearn for nothing more in life than to stimulate themselves in any way possible. All roads lead to this same point. All ideas lead to this same conclusion. All plans lead to this same outcome. Because that is human nature, and there is nothing else in our human universe that we can discover or build or strive for.

Emotionally, this means that people with conceptual minds can never be happy, satisfied, or content with their lives or their world. This is simply the nature of the beast; it can't be changed. But I'd still rather be who I am than someone who thinks that milk is impossible to drink if it resembles water, or that a person or place which looks good on the exterior is worth devoting oneself to for that reason alone, or who thinks that whatever makes you feel good must be good.