This is the third part of the fifth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here. And the fourth chapter is collected here.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, helpfully distinguishes between two otherwise indistinguishable systems of thought operating in the human body. System 1 is fast. It uses memory associations to draw conclusions and make suggestions for action at an unconscious level. It is the source of our intuitions either at work or in our daily life. Ever finish someone else’s sentence? Realise that ‘something was off’ about your friend? That’s System 1 at work. Most of our thoughts and feelings are, whether we are willing to admit it or not, the product of this system. We have in our body, for good or ill, a powerful ability to jump to conclusions. System 2, on the other hand, is slow. It is what we use to control ourselves and to verify or disprove our beliefs. When you hold your breath or keep yourself from saying something inappropriate you are making use of System 2. If we are not vigilant or aware of our cognitive biases and habits, our System 2s simply give ‘reasons’ for why our System 1s are correct.[1] I wrote about this in an earlier chapter with respect to moral codes. Ask a person why they hate someone or some subgroup of people and they will no doubt give you lots of ‘reasons’. Really though, they just hate by association.

As such, learning to be more rational in the manner that leads to wisdom does not mean learning to be a better problem solver or crossword finisher. It means learning how to be “more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers,” and generally more skeptic of our intuitions, despite their reliability in certain contexts.[2] It means recognizing, for instance, that even our deepest thoughts are profoundly affected by our moods. People in good moods are more creative and intuitive but prone to casual and superficial conclusions; people in bad moods are the opposite—less creative but also less lazy; “good mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 form a cluster…sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together.”[3] Being rational involves recognizing and taking into account these and other important variables when reviewing our beliefs and feelings. It means getting to know the powers and weaknesses of System 1 for the purpose of learning when to accept its intuitions.

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This is the second part of the fifth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here. And the fourth chapter is collected here.

Once upon a time our distant ancestors lived in trees and walked on all four limbs. Then, over long stretches of time, having lost their arboreal habitat, they changed. The change did not occur suddenly, but at some point there was a transition towards the form of mankind we call Homo Sapiens, the Thinking or Knowing Human. Homo Sapiens is a dedicated tool user, possessing complex language skills and an ability to navigate sophisticated social environments. How did this transition from primate to mankind occur and why? Philosopher Colin McGinn, having examined archaeological, anthropological, and biological reports, speculates that the answers to the questions of how and why largely involve the human hand.[1] Whereas once our ancestors grasped branches, proto-humans began to grasp other materials, using them as tools and weapons. Perhaps because this strategy was so effective, early humans began to walk on two feet rather than on all fours, leaving their hands free to do more work. With its innate capacity to mold itself around objects, its fine sensitivity and delicacy, its general ability to learn and perform complex movements, and the sheer amount of brain matter dedicated to its use, the hand is our finest tool.[2]  Our brains in all likelihood co-evolved with our hands. From the hand we acquired our first symbolic language and our first social comforts. In many ways, it stands to reason that the quality of our humanity emanates from our hands.

Recognizing the entangled natures of what we normally separate into body and mind, contemporary anthropologists and neuroscientists insist on speaking of ‘embodied cognition’. Intelligence is not limited to the logical and abstractive functions of the mind. Our capacity for thought and imagination emerges from the body as a whole. But in recognizing this important point, we are still left with a number of questions, not the least of which is: how do we best think about embodied cognition? We can say with a high degree of confidence that abstract cognition, whatever its purposes and scope, involves the same areas of the brain that are dedicated to processing and implementing human movement. Cognition and movement use the same real estate. And both must take into account the condition of the body as a whole, and its current context.

Furthermore, if intelligence involves the whole body, where does the body end? Are tools part of our intelligence? Gestures? The environment? Some researchers, particularly anthropologists, want to argue that cognition is not just ‘situated’, that is, something that occurs in a given context, but that cognition is a product of the holistic interaction of person and environment. This is an interesting thought, but difficult to accept. Cognition, that is, problem solving and future planning, no doubt occurs in particular contexts, but it does us no good to expand the scope of our definition of ‘situation’ to include every possible thing. We may consider the tree, for instance, when we make a plan, but that does not make the tree part of our mind and body.[3] To think otherwise is to participate in a vague mysticism.

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 This is the beginning of the fifth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here. And the fourth chapter is collected here.

For my twentieth birthday, my mother purchased for me two books which, in retrospect, would seem to have defined much of my future life. One of the books was entitled A User’s Guide to the Brain. Knowing that bodies are meat, and believing that consciousness and the soul are properties emerging naturally from the interaction of body and brain, I wanted a professional’s description of how the brain works in relation to the body and how I could best maintain that relationship. Body-mind maintenance seemed to me an important part of happiness. The advice given in the final chapter of the book, labeled ‘Care and Feeding,’ has echoed in my memory ever since. We should exercise our bodies because it improves self-esteem and wards off depression; practice complex movement patterns because doing so increases neuronal connections in our brains and makes us more sociable; continue to learn new things for the remainder of our lives because it makes us more creative and resilient; meditate because it gives our minds rest and calms our nervous systems; keep working at what we love to do because it gives our lives meaning; and get plenty of vitamins.[1] Believing in the reliability of this advice made it possible for me to see the beauty and utility of Systema once it was presented to me. I chose to train at Fight Club not only because it looked bad ass (it did), but because it would provide me with exercise, complex dance-like movements, new skills to practice, and a training in breath relaxation and mindfulness. All I would have to do was eat right and never quit working if I wanted to maintain a healthy brain. I practice Systema with the intensity that I do because I do not want to die an old, weak man with ill-health who can no longer remember the life that he lived.

Virtue ethicists, following Aristotle, sometimes distinguish between theoretical and practical wisdom. The former names the highest form of knowledge one can possess regarding the universal principles of the natural and metaphysical worlds; the latter names the highest form of knowledge regarding moral conduct. To have practical wisdom is to have “the ability to act rightly as a result of knowing what ought to be done.”[2] The information contained in A User’s Guide to the Brain, assuming that it is reliable, provides me with the knowledge necessary to act rightly with respect to my brain. In that sense, it contributes to my practical wisdom, giving me the means to take right action. This does not, however, necessarily mean that I am in possession of anything like wisdom in its fuller sense. According to philosopher Heather Battaly, the practically wise person “deliberates well, judges well, and perceives the world as she should. She recognizes opportunities for courage, benevolence, temperance, and justice. She also knows, for example, when and what she should face and when and from what she should flee; and when and whom she should help and when and whom she shouldn’t.”[3] Given the general fallibility of the human body and brain, and the powerful influence of social and cultural forces on our persons, it is difficult to say if anyone is truly practically wise, that is, has the ability to act rightly in all circumstance as Battaly describes. In the Latin tradition, the Greek word sophia, meaning wisdom, was translated as prudentia, or prudence. Being someone who feels that he is generally lacking in deliberation, judgement, and perception, I would like to put aside the word wisdom and refer to myself instead as prudent. I feel more comfortable thinking of myself as a prudent man, even if perhaps I stumble accidentally into the arms of wisdom thanks to the assistance of men and women wiser than myself. The prudent individual can recognize moments of wisdom in others and strive to experience such moments for their self.

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Two Levels of Skill

In at least two sports now, I’ve noticed students practice a technique, and without delay, immediately turn to their coach/teacher with expectant eyes, waiting for feedback.

I’m sure this is common to many activities or sports where technique is essential, but am certain the trend extends beyond sport. We now have activity/fitness trackers on our phones/watches, heart rate monitors, calorie counters, and theoretical calculations on “optimal training zones” or optimal macronutrient ratios for protein, carbs and fats. These things can work, and they expedite the process of accurately matching what one feels against more objective measures of reality.

I like to think of these things as tools to help us get the actions right; they develop your first level of skill. If you need to hone your golf swing, you need to be able to follow directions from your coach. If you need to improve your strikes, some instructions from a teacher can help you identify what you need to do (e.g., relax the shoulder, reduce the tension in your fist). It doesn’t mean actually accomplishing it is simple, but its the basic model for improving your technical performance and the “optimality” of your actions.

However, in all of the examples above, the authority on what happened is outside of you. You turn to your coach, your heart rate monitor, your calorie counter, the video you took of yourself doing it…

This is a stage we must all go through, but we must not stay there. Over time, as expertise builds, you should be able to evaluate yourself. This is the second level of skill. Turn not to the outside first, but look towards yourself. Trust your own authority, believe in your own feelings, make your own mistakes and learn from them. In Systema, this higher stage is central to your development in the art.

If Systema is going to apply to your broader life, it should do so in this way. Learn to evaluate yourself in training, study how you feel and what you accomplished, and use your ability to do this in every interaction you have in the rest of your life. Community is important, feedback from your partner is critical, but all of it is based on everyone asking this question for themselves:

How do I feel about this?

The more you ask it, the more shades of colour you will see. The glimmers of happiness, regret, tension, and previously unrecognized habits will come to the fore. As they become conscious, you will develop awareness and then later control – you will know yourself with more clarity and with it, understanding and peace.

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New FightClub DVD “How to Use Tension”


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