Thursday

I found an interesting article about 'The Rules you work by' on EDge.org: www.edge.org/q2004/q04_print.html recently.
    "Lykken's First Law:
    The quality of one's intellectual productions is a function of the product of talent (e.g., intelligence) times mental energy. Although there are many and varied tests for assessing intelligence, psychologists have not as yet even attempted to construct a measure of individual differences in mental energy."

This is interesting because, like all questions that seem to cross the boundaries between fields of inquiry or addressing the shortcomings thereof, it seems to be the natural domain of another science: in this case I’d say that of philosophy. What Lykken alludes to in my reading of his law is the power of Will — in the broadest sense, as a phenomenon in itself. Philosophy has been thinking on the issue for centuries.

Science has been able to make personality mappings, neurological analyses of the brain’s composition, and has gone some way to explaine the interaction of these to form consciousness and thought. But it has kept relatively quiet on the wider differentiations of subjectivity amongst people, like for instance their relative willpowers, and why some people are tireless mental workers and others seem to lack the ability to marshal their abilities consistently despite talent or desire.

One need only look at the world of artists (one cannot get more subjective than that) to see the difference at work in an extreme form: some artists are masters of expression and can work systematically and consistently for all hours – they are in fact workers of expression. There are other artists, however, who work almost purely on an inspirational basis, whenever the mood or idea takes them – they are often unstable or riddled with doubt or fragile in other ways and consequently fashion their lives around this unpredictability with bohemian airs. But what if this difference could be expressed simply as a difference of willpower, of the ability to apply and execute demanding tasks with determination and consistent force. Or, as Lykken calls it, mental energy.

And anyone who’s ever had to write an essay due the next day will recall those midnight dialogues of self, of having to force the brain to generate perceptive sentences and correct deductions from references and research; of all the distractions, little breaks and indulgent snacks and the perpetual fact of tomorrow’s deadline and the possibility of extending it etc. One is really struggling with Will in a way that obviously defies essay planning and practice, one smarts against the necessity and urgency of working on demand at such a late and unprofitable hour. I mean there’s no one else to blame of course; it’s that having to apply oneself against the body’s need for sleep that drags out the hours. You find yourself thinking ‘if only I had more willpower and attention I would’ve started this essay weeks ago…’ It comes down to an issue of discipline, but really that implies a certain mastery of will as well.

At least, in those quiet midnight hours with the blank page in front of me, that is the time I start to think of the Will as possibly some universal force, say as Schopenhauer conceived it and Nietzsche extended to a theory of power. Some common motivating force in the universe which can also be applied to the small and particular; a common explanation for movement and action above and below. And that if one had a tap into such universal Will then one could also pump out several thousand seemly words on any topic at all. Which is of course childish reasoning fed on a steady intake of caffeine and exasperation.

But it takes that air of desperation to fully appreciate mental energy — and how little we appreciate its workings or sources and conditions. I think it is something subtler than motivational force like the millions of deluded positive therapies out there in New Age land. It’s a question of learning mental work, learning to exercise the brain and creating good habits and environments. But it’s also an issue of understanding action in the sense that thought can be an act. Every action in the world has its origin in a thought, in one simple combination and expression of idea. And if this is the primary or only way in which we truly affect the world, then it’s also the way to appreciate mastering one’s own life and actions. From the wilful control of thinking up. And by turning on that little edge of necessity in all one’s actions.

Mental work = discipline = will.

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