Thinking patterns and mental habit loops

The late historians Will and Ariel Durant spent four decades of their life studying, compiling, and writing the history of Western civilization.

The product of their efforts, The Story of Civilization, went on to fill four million words, across 10,000 pages, divided into 11 separate books.

After finishing the last one, they then took on an arguably more daunting task: to summarize all they had learned into a 100 pages in The Lessons of History. It’s an incomplete and generalizing attempt, no doubt, but it is also one of the most densely-packed sources of modern wisdom available to us.

There are many trends and patterns to be found in the past, and the Durants do a commendable job of highlighting them. The essence of their view, however, can be summarized by the following sentence from their short book:

“The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.”

In many ways, the Durants believed that despite all that has and continues to change in our external environment, the real battle is still internal, and real change isn’t produced until we face our minds and our thoughts.

There is a fair degree of nuance that needs to be accounted for with a statement like that, and it ties into larger questions of what progress is and how subjects relate to objects, but the fact that our thoughts — and their ability to change our minds — play a pivotal role in our experience of reality is self-evident in ways that are common-sense.

How we think affects everything from our ability to solve problems to how we understand meaning and value and purpose. The Durants made it their life’s work to improve this ability in the average person by disseminating information — mostly history and philosophy — in culture.

But information alone doesn’t make our thinking better; we also have to understand and update the way that the mind processes this information.

A mind that is stuck in habit loops

Based on popular psychology literature, some thinkers have codified the way that we form habits into a simple loop: a trigger, a routine, and a reward.

We first see something in our environment that sets off the trigger; the trigger leads to a routine we have internalized based on our past interactions in such an environment; finally, a reward at the end reinforces said routine.

If you observe this in your daily life, you’ll see that it’s roughly right. Our brain is a pattern-seeking survival machine, and habits are how it ensures that we don’t always have to think too hard about what to do when familiar situations arise, letting us conserve energy.

When it comes to the human mind, there are still no concrete theories of how thought emerges, but we know that it plays a pivotal role in facilitating how we interact with the information that the Durants, for example, we’re trying to impart on us. It has different forms and different shapes.

In the same way that we form habits of action relating to our environment, we also form habits of thought when it comes how we think about the world.

We are all born into a reality in which — at first, at least — we can’t even distinguish between our own separateness from the world.

With time, however, we start to recognize patterns around us, and we internalize these patterns — like we do habits — so that we can reuse them in the future. Usually, if a pattern persists in our mental habits, it means that it is valuable in some sense. But this is only the case if we apply that pattern to the right information.

One of the reasons that it’s so hard to change our mind about things is that our brains are stuck in these mental habit loops, which only look at the information from a singular point of view. They have learned something in one context, and they mistakenly apply it to other ones, mixing up the triggers that lead to routine thoughts.

We are all capable of overpowering these habit loops, of course, but it’s very easy and productive to always have them operating as the default mode.

To think well, our job is to be aware of their limitations and not to let them.

Diversifying your thinking patterns

Each of us face different challenges, at different times, in different ways, based both on our biology and our unique cultural upbringing.

No two people think exactly the same way because no two people have lived exactly the same lives. We are all a product of the different thinking patterns that emerged as a result of our experience of interacting with reality.

In fact, these different thinking patterns (mostly produced from our mental habit loops) are, in large part, what makes you, you; me, me. The identity we each have is born from the convergence of all of these patterns. They create what we call our subjective experience.

One of the things that the Durants are presumably getting to with their quote is that even though we have continued to see so much external change throughout history, it doesn’t truly make a difference unless we calibrate our internal, subjective experience with that objective, external environment.

Our subjective experience is limited and using it — and the thinking patterns that create it — as the baseline for understanding the world is a limited way to go through life, and it biases us in the wrong direction.

At its core, a thinking pattern is an implicit rule of thumb for the way we connect the different aspects of the reality around us. Given the complexity of this reality, the more diverse our trained thinking patterns and the better refined the associated triggers, the more accurately we will be able to interact with the information around us.

Because thinking patterns emerge from the mental habit loops we form as a response to experience, the only way to diversify them is to seek out new and conflicting encounters, whether that be through books, unfamiliar environments, or even hypothetical thought-games.

Outside of extreme external circumstances, any time we are struggling to solve some problem or lacking a sense of satisfaction and meaning, it’s due to the fact that the current thinking patterns that we are using to interact with reality are not adequately suited for the job.

Instead, we have to remodel the form and the shape of these patterns so that they can better fit with the form and the shape of the issue at hand.

The takeaway

At birth, we are born with our unique, innate biological machinery, but we don’t come with complete knowledge of how to use it.

As time goes on, however, bit by bit, things start to make more sense. We realize what food is good for us, we learn to avoid things that are painful, and we start to get attached to those who take care of us.

With even more time, we develop fully concrete distinctions between the different objects around us and how we, as subjects, are to interact with them.

What keeps this process going is our pattern-seeking brain. It forms both habits of action and habits of thought that it embeds into our conscious and subconscious memories to reduce cognitive load.

One of the problems with this, however, is that it’s really easy for us to get stuck in mental habit loops that don’t accurately assess the situation at hand, leading to both problems of comprehension and satisfaction.

To counteract this, we have to be intentional in diversifying our thinking patterns. We have to learn to recognize when we are falling into a mismatched pattern of thought, and we have to then use that information to update how we make connections between the objects in our environment.

To say that all issues can be solved with a shift in thinking patterns ignores the larger picture, but there is a truth to what the Durants learned from history:

How we think about what is happening around us is arguably more important than what is actually happening around us.

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