Flourisch has a number of different categories of articles, each of them chosen for a specific reason and with the intention of helping you improve your life. In this article series we are going to explain what is so important about the Important Concepts category and why building a larger concept vocabulary will be beneficial to you. It’s got it all: science, intrigue, practical life advice. Hold on to your hats, cowboys/girls/every alternative, cause you’re about to get brain-educated and it’s going to be hecka fun!
The Body Budget
We’ve got to start this story of concepts by looking at a tiny bit of (sick as) evolutionary neuroscience. For the brain to develop and evolve in the way it has, some physical and energetic limitations apply. The brain has a set amount of energy it can allocate to each of its (and the body’s) necessary functions.
Thus, the main-brain-job is to regulate the energy assigned to each body/mind task. This allocation of energy is called the body budget. For the body budget to be most effectively distributed, the brain undergoes a constant self analysis and improvement cycle, like an individualised natural selection.
The self analysis involves creating constant predictions and simulations of experiences based on what it knows, followed by checking to see if what occurred actually matched its predictions. After that the brain either makes adjustments based on the results to improve the accuracy of future simulations, or pretends like it was right and experiences something that didn’t actually happen.
The greater the difference between prediction and reality, the more energy the brain uses to change the simulations. Thus, better foresight equals less energy used and a more efficient body budget. It’s a natural selection of ideas going on constantly in your mind!
Where do the predictions come from, and how does the brain make them?
Well, if you think about it, the only thing the brain receives are stimuli in the form of sensations. These are converted into experiences (like the collection of experiences of a crunchy red apple, or a cold morning, or literally anything else that interacts with our brains). The brain needs to make sense of these experiences in order to use them to make predictions. It does this by grouping them into concepts that get reframed with each new prediction-improvement cycle.
Concepts are bundles of experiences that are associated based on their shared goals. If we think of our experiences as a field, concepts are like the borders drawn between experiences. For example, the concept of fear has the general goal of keeping us alive in dangerous situations, so there might be a whole heap of different experiences – like seeing a snake, or standing on the edge of a cliff, or being confronted by another person – that are all very different but share the goal of “react in the right way so you can stay alive”.
In this way concepts are very fluid. Seemingly unrelated stimuli might be connected simply because of their goal-orientation (E.g. goal: something that could be used to break a window – rock, brick, television, roast chicken, opera singer, icy glare, etc.) Similarly a single stimulus could be under the banner of many concepts – you can use an umbrella to protect you from the rain, or to hit somebody over the head, or to knock something off a high shelf.
Concepts are like categories – they connect what we understand about a population of experiences into a single, usable tool. The data-collectors that are our brains build bridges between each related experience and collectively these make up a network that we understand as a single concept.
When a new situation arises, in order to make predictions, our brains simply need to remember a single specific goal oriented concept connected to thousands of experiences, rather than visiting each experience individually to figure out what will happen next. This reduces the energy required to predict and respond to whatever the situation is and thus creates both a more efficient body budget and a better response system.
The more concepts we have, the larger our concept vocabulary, the more specific ideas we can categorise experiences into and the more efficiently our brains work.
Where do our concepts come from?
The culture in which we develop largely determines the concepts we use. That means that the structures by which we see the world are built by the environments we grow up in. When compared with others from a similar environment, many of the concepts and experiences we have are shared, which is how we communicate – we exchange ideas and concepts that are collectively understood (such as emotions). This ability to communicate with other humans based on shared experience is invaluable, however, with the advantages also come limitations.
We inevitably grow up to think how the group thinks, we see the world in the same or similar ways to the prime we have been exposed to, and we share faulty or unfinished concepts that can harm ourselves and other people. Expectations of career success, beauty, happiness, love, suffering and many more are all determined not by our choices or what’s objectively best for us, but by the dictates of society. That’s why many of the problems we face within cultures are the same – longing for a perfect partner, the anxiety of being liked, the pressure of success, the perceived need to be thin, the pursuit of happiness.
None of these problems are OURS. None of them are YOURS. They are all problems normalised in a society and conditioned into us through the restricted concepts we collectively assume to be legitimate. But there’s a path to freedom!
Choose your own adventure!
That’s right, you can take control of the way you see the world by taking control of the concepts you understand. You are able to both add new concepts, and also reframe existing concepts to better suit you, your needs, and your life. No longer will you be trapped within the framework controlled by the invisible hand of political will, business interests, and antiquated traditions – you can live a life decided by you!
You can care about things that actually matter instead of getting sad when you see a cute couple, or feeling inadequate as you scroll meaninglessly through Instagram. The answer is as follows: firstly, reexamine the concepts you currently have (these could be emotions, desires, goals, expectations, the distinction between food you can and can’t eat, fantasies, objects, categories, ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING) to determine what’s useful and what’s not. Secondly, begin to build your concept library!
Build and create new concepts, add the concepts of different people and cultures to your own, mix and match, explore the possibilities, and make them uniquely yours! This seems like a big job, and it is – but Flourisch is here to help get you started!
The more concepts you have, and the more specific they are, the less energy your brain will use on failing to make accurate predictions, the more energy you will have for willpower and self-control. Once you begin to build a truly gargantuan concept library you begin to see how concepts overlap. You begin to recognise the fluidity and the interconnectedness of all things.
You realise that concepts simply create arbitrary but useful borders between things that are, in fact, all a part of a single existence. Thanks to the strides in psychology and neuroscience, understanding the inner workings of the human brain with the goal of self improvement is becoming easier and easier, and Important Concepts is one way to turn that knowledge into a practical reality!
Another way to look at it:
Concepts can also be viewed as frameworks or models for looking at, and responding to, the world. They are the tools for adaptation to each and every situation that approaches us.
The more models we have to understand the world, each with its advantages and flaws, the better equipped we are to adapt and respond. Slowly, over time, the array of models will begin to fill in the gaps between themselves and you will begin to see through many possible perspectives simultaneously. You will accept that every single model is flawed in its own way, and many of them actually contradict each other, but they each also have their own advantages.
That’s why looking through the narrow blinders of only a handful of models/concepts will bring more hardship than necessary to you – you won’t have the ability to adapt. That’s why broadening your knowledge is so important on a scientific level. It’s not just about knowing stuff, it’s about understanding, it’s about responding, it’s about awareness, and it’s about maintaining your body budget. Not only will you get the benefits of seeing the world more clearly, your body and brain will use energy more efficiently.
Connecting the science to the spiritual:
By spiritual I mean the development of wisdom and the ability to respond to life’s hardships while maintaining stability and equanimity. If you look at what the results of building your Concept Library are biologically, it’s pretty easy to see that concepts are just another form of wisdom (or wisdom is a method of gaining concepts).
To gain Wisdom is to walk the path of flourishing, which is why we’re here. We can think of the process of flourishing as a skill with many potential ways to develop it. One of those ways is to broaden your experiences, another is regular meditation of the right form, and the one I’m suggesting here is to build your Concept Library.
All are ways to develop wisdom, all are ways to live better lives, and all are steps on the very long path that is life. Some methods, such as meditation, will result in a more intuitive understanding, while the process of building concepts provides more cerebral re-organisation rather than the gaining of experiential knowledge itself. They are all helpful tools to have in your kit.
Questions and Answers
This sounds really tough. How do I choose each concept? What do I do when there are thousands of possibilities to choose from? Won’t I get overloaded?
The great thing about our brains is that they are realistically limitless when it comes to storing new information. This is based on the way we associate experiences to ideas. A single concept might encompass ten thousand individual memories or feelings, though only a few of them will be directly accessible in a complex way. Because of this our brains don’t get overloaded, they actually get more efficient as more of our experiences are categorised into usable chunks, rather than as a billion individual stimuli.
This is why concepts are important, and this is why many of my articles try to focus on single concepts. To assist your progress in the journey of re-framing, building on, and creating new concepts with which to understand your existence.
I’ve given you not only a biological and scientific motivation to work on these, but also a connection to real personal and spiritual development. We are all searching for similar things, but different schools of thought call concepts by different names. My aim is to connect these concepts for the benefit of you, my readers. Look for the invisible strings that tie life together and you will find practicable responses in each and every one.
The next article in this series will focus on how you can begin to re-frame some of the concepts we’ve been given by society without our choice, and offer you the chance to start taking back your brain. Subscribe to receive email updates in the sidebar to get notified of its release.
You can check out the book How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldmann Barrett and buy it here to help support Flourisch. Many of the ideas shared in this article are an interpretation of information in this book and it’s a fantastic and enjoyable read!
Remember, I really love you, truly. I want you to flourish, to be happy, to gain wisdom, and that’s why I’m writing these articles for you. I hope you understand how much I really care for you, and I hope they help.