Frame of Reference
My family and I recently rented a condo. Upon entering I was disappointed to discover that the condo was a 'pit’. Still ruminating on the unit’s ‘grubbiness’ while I brushed my teeth in the Jack and Jill bathroom dividing two of the unit's bedrooms, my six year old, James, burst in. He paused, looked up at me and smiled from ear to ear saying “Daddy, you found a secret room!” In one moment of childhood innocence, I was reminded yet again how often I forget ‘frame of reference’, and how much of this wondrous world I miss when I do.
‘Frame of reference’ is often analogized by
Positive Psychology’s proverbial ‘half empty-half full’ glass. Yet my own tendency towards pessimism always rejects that particular analogy outright: the stark image of a glass always seems so limiting. As if deliberately highlighting the zero-sum nature of the situation the proverb is usually raised in, my pessimistic tendency pushes back: “as it makes no difference, I will stick with my with the glass half empty thank you very much!”
Yet understanding the truth of frame of reference is really far more powerful than the proverbial glass, as understanding frame of reference often allows one to change a zero-sum problem to non-zero sum. And while an image of a glass is limiting to me, even the most pessimistic parts of me cannot resist the idea of entirely new universes.
To explain what I mean, I will use an analogy: your mind as a ‘biological’ computer. Your mind, like any good computer, must perform calculations in order to ‘solve’ equations such as A=pi r squared (which is the area of a circle). In the language of those who study information science: “your mind manipulates information in order to make it useful”.
As you probably already aware there are three types of information: ‘operations’, ‘variables’, and ‘constants’. Operations are the action in an equation-- addition, subtraction, multiplication. Operations tell equations what our brain is to do with variables and constants. Variables on the other hand, are the changing part of an equation: “what if I buy 4 feet of cloth instead of 3”?
As operations imply action and variables are, well, variable, most people have some kind of intuitive sense that operations and variables are changeable. Constants on the other hand, by definition do not change. Constants are the fixed part of a mathematical equation (in the formula for the area of a circle, the constant is the letter π or ‘Pi’, or is 3.1415926…). Without ‘constants’ such as π, our brain could not possibly calculate equations. Indeed, almost all our knowledge would be ‘meaningless’ or ‘useless’ without constants. We rightly hold them in high regard.
So the idea that constants such as π might be anything other than 3.1415926… is completely ‘foreign’ to many of us; to even suggest π could be 6 or 4 or 1.786 (which it indeed might be in other universes) is just too bizarre to accept… to some the idea is even threatening.
Yet the simple fact of the matter is that most things our mind understands as ‘constants’ are in fact not constant at all. They are only constant to us personally, because our brain was designed to treat them that way. And what is more, while many constants my brain accepts as constant are also constants to you, many others I accept as constant you do not. In truth, I see only my own personal universe, and you see only yours. And I will certainly never see yours if I do not learn where your constants and mine differ.
If this all seems a little bizarre to you, or if it seems as if I may be ‘playing on words’, I hope, as you continue to read, you will see this is neither bizarre, nor any word play. For if you miss what I am saying, that would be a shame, as you will miss out on the simply beauty of one of the most powerful ideas philosophers have ever know. To add to that sentiment, I truly believe, if we are ever to ‘move on’ as a species from our current predicament, we must all recognize the fundamental truth of frame of reference: a truth I actually see as the core of most religions in the world today. And though I am a lifelong atheist, as anyone who knows me will surely attest, yet I too recognize frame of reference commands me to have faith in you, as I will never learn all your constants.
Jean Piaget, the self described ‘genetic epistemologist’, was perhaps the first to recognize the process by which the human primate mind learns its constants. His findings were developed into a theory of childhood cognitive development still widely influential today in educational/behavioral circles. Piaget would say that we were born with a very few constants, and then learned the rest of our constants or π’s early in life. Interestingly, he would point out we do not learn most of our constants first. Constants come after we learn ‘operations’. But that is for another essay.
Once our mind has locked onto its constants or π’s, describing a constant or π as anything than what we know it as becomes very bizarre or foreign to us—this tends to happen quite early in a child’s life. It is therefore perhaps fortunate that all human primates have nearly identical genetic code (our individual DNA’s unique sequences represent an infinitesimally small % variation of the total DNA we share with our primate cousins— we are most definitely all cousins). It is further fortunate that without minimizing how each of us sees our lives as highly unique, still a visiting anthropologist from another planet who knew nothing about human primates might describe our lives as possessing less variation than we often realize: we all come from our mother’s womb, all grow up in a social communities, all obtain calories from a very narrow dietary menu, all live life spans on the same planet which can be easily be described using Gaussian (or small variation) tools, etc… Indeed we are all very similar.
Our minds are so similar that for all ‘practical purposes’, most of us agree on most constants. A very exciting field of science known as evolutionary psychology, is based entirely on just this: the fact that we share so many ‘constants’.
Yet the simple fact of the matter is that not ALL my mind’s constants are your mind’s constants. ‘For all practical purposes’ is not the same as ‘identical’ and the proverbial “never judge a man until you have walked in his shoes” still holds true. My experiences will occasionally lead my brain to conclude certain things are constant which your experiences lead your brain to conclude are not. In fact, researches are showing we human primates do not even hear the world the same way.
Our brains were never designed to ‘see’ the entire fabric of the universe; instead they only see our own private universes; I see mine, you see yours. The fact that our universes may be nearly identical (say compared with the universe of an octopus-- a very intelligent animal if you were unaware of this truth) is comforting, yet they will never be 100% identical.
A recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Steven Pinker reminded me of just how important it is that the scientists who study our brains remember this. For clearly science is narrowing in on what the evolutionary psychologists call a ‘periodic table’ of human morality: the ‘constants’ within the structure of our brain which our mind uses to make moral calculations. And as we human primates share so much in common, it should not be too hard to reach significant agreement around what these major constants are, assuming there are not too many.
Just how this knowledge will ever become ‘practical’ is hard for me to say. There are still almost 6.8 billion people on this planet, each with their own similar but never identical private universes, and each with their own frame of reference. No matter how much we recognize the similarities of our own private universes, still yours will never be identical to mine.
Where I do see understanding frame of reference as ‘practical’ is where it gives us a road map to solve problems. And one problem it clearly gives a solution to is perhaps one of our biggest problems of all, how we ‘open our minds’ and solve problems in the first place. I at least see the road frame of reference suggests as it reminds me that my constants are just mine, but they are not universal and are probably not constant at all. If I am having trouble ‘solving a problem’, my trouble may arise just as much from fixing constant I never should have fixed, as it comes from failure applying logic on constants I ‘knew to be true’. Framing problems is really half the problem-- for many of us, it is more than half the mental work.
Researchers at the University of London recently came to similar conclusions when they set out to understand how our brain solves new problems to reach “Eureka” or mental pay dirt moments. Their key discovery should have been obvious all along, that in order to reach “Eureka” moments; the mind must be ‘open’. Translated, something the brain believed was constant was in fact not constant at all. The mind needed to turn something constant into something variable to reach “Eureka”. Solution did not follow by applying more logic on ‘what was known’; solution followed recognizing something you thought was true, was wrong in the first place. In fact, this seems to be the very function of sleeping.
Another example of how this has practical applications is in the sphere of solving interpersonal conflict. If you ever have the privilege (misfortune?) of working with a group of people sidelined through interpersonal conflict and a facilitator is called in to mediate, I suggest you watch the facilitator work closely. They work by focusing on what each individual team member holds as ‘truth’ or constant and through their explorations of everyone’s constants; they give other team members the chance to view each other’s private universes and frames of reference. Facilitators expose how the constants of one person’s private universes are really variables of another. And once trust is reestablished, teamwork usually rapidly follows. Facilitators can do this even if they often do not understand many of the technical details of the project the team is working on.
Next time you surf the internet for fun, I suggest that you do it from the following frame of reference: look at each web page as a place where one person (one biologic computer) is sharing their constants and their own private universe with every other biological computer out there. You may see, as I do, layers of parallel universes, where people of similar mental constants aggregate in ‘safety zones’ (places where people find their personal mental constants hold true).
You may then notice the web is really just a network of places where similar minds seek the safety of similar minds. You will find sites where people hold Christianity, Islam, Judaism or even science as their guiding constant. At each of site human minds seek safety and dialogue with minds of similar constant. Liberals share constants with liberals, conservatives with conservatives, etc...
Yet on each of these websites, if you read in the comments sections, you will see both agreement and conflict as the minds recognize they shared some, but not all, of the same constants.
We live in a fractal world indeed.