The Dual-Mind Limitation

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dual mind limitationA bit of housekeeping: I promise to get back to more typical economic/market oriented fare in the upcoming weeks.  I am in the process of detailing several revisions to the four quadrant economy model to be followed shortly thereafter by the addition of several new layers to that model.  I am also finishing up David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and have committed to writing a review.  That will prove an interesting challenge as Graeber offers an endlessly fruitful reference to draw upon wrapped up in a perspective that is highly divergent from the approach I have taken in my own writing.

Before I get to that I am going to indulge my current fascination with learning and productivity curves one more time.  I’ll make some effort to keep us on topic  at the end of the post by relating this theme back to the current economic malaise.

A few weeks ago I explored the dynamics driving the oscillations, between periods of acceleration and stagnation, throughout an individual’s long term learning/productivity curve.  Today, one additional principle coalesced in my mind that I want to hash out briefly.

I will tentatively call this principle the dual-mind limitation:

It is difficult, bordering on impossible, for an individual to focus on both meta-learning and performance at the same time.

That may sound a bit vague or cryptic but the principle itself is quite simple.  The basic hypothesis is that we are only capable of maintaining two levels of awareness in mind at a given time.  You can perform and learn at the same time.  You can focus on learning and meta-learning at the same time.  But you can’t do all three.

A personal example…
I have written previously about the lessens learned from my experience with crossfit.  That experience offers an appropriate example here as well.  Suppose I am training some specific physical movement such as a muscle-up.  I might be focused at any of three levels:

  • performing the movement
  • learning the movement (coaching myself)
  • learning how to learn the movement (learning to coach myself)

Of those three, I can only do two at a time.  Supposing I am in the middle of a workout; the clock is running and I am trying to finish a specified number of repetitions as quickly as possible.  Obviously I am trying to perform the movement as well as possible.  At the same time I can observe my own performance and coach myself between repetitions – “keep you elbows in…push your head through…secure your grip before initiating the pull”.  Both levels of focus can be achieved seamlessly and will feel like one fluid experience.  But as soon as I start debating whether I am issuing myself the correct coaching cues, the performance is disrupted.

Likewise, if I am learning a new movement I can focus on learning and meta-learning at the same time, but that requires dismissing any attention focused on performance.  This would take the form of practicing the movement (learning) while also observing what goes wrong when I fail to perform it correctly (meta-learning).  I could then be devising new coaching cues between practice reps.  But as soon as I start trying to perform the movement quickly – rushing through it – meta-learning is lost.  I can’t diagnose previously unrecognized weaknesses or identify new practice techniques while also trying to move fast or lift heavy weight.

You have likely experienced the same phenomena in numerous other domains.  Productivity hackers commonly advise you not to write vague to-do items.  Your to-do list should be as specific as possible.  Why?  Because it is so difficult to multitask between three levels of awareness at once.  Vague to-do lists require you to:

  • Decide which item to execute
  • Decide how to execute that item
  • Execute it

Doing all three at once requires a degree of cognitive multitasking that very few of us can manage with any degree of competence.  If you can eliminate the middle step by maintaining a well specified list the task is dramatically simplified.

As we approach New Year’s Resolution season most people will commit to resolutions like – lose weight, get in shape, read more books, learn a new skill.

Fail, fail, fail fail!

If you have ever tried dieting without first committing to a very specific plan then you know that these resolutions are destined for failure.  You can’t at once – refine your diet plan, observe your adherence to that plan, and attend to the willpower necessary to adhere to the plan.


I am calling this the dual-mind limitation because I suspect it is caused by the hemispheric division within the brain.  We are able to maintain two levels of awareness at any given time because the brain is organized into two distinct hemispheres.  When we approach a task with our full attention one hemisphere is adopting the role of performer while the other is adopting the role of observer.  Switching to a new level of awareness requires that both hemispheres drop what they were doing.  Hemisphere A adopts the task previously performed by hemisphere B while hemisphere B adopts the newly required level of awareness.  The assignment of “A” and “B” to the left or right hemispheres will depend on the context and the direction of the attentional shift (towards performance or towards meta-cognition.

I’m not prepared to deep dive into the cognitive neuroscience just yet but perhaps in a future edition…

Implications for Mindful Learning Curves

This is just one more perspective that describes the cyclical nature of the mindful learning curve.  Periods of acceleration tend to be those marked by an emphasis on performance.  When a period of acceleration exhausts itself we are plunged into uncertainty…forced to regroup and develop a new situational awareness.  Periods of stagnation tend to marked by their emphasis on first meta-learning and then learning.

These cycles will frequently involve violent ups and downs because dual mind limitations prevent effective smoothing.  An effective shift towards meta-learning will demand a significant attentional shift away from performance.  The internal experience of stagnation will therefore be synonymous not just with inability to perform, but also with inability to focus on performance.  During periods of meta-learning performance is inhibited not only by simple performance anxiety but also by constant second guessing and meta-evaluation that interrupts flow.

Periods of acceleration begin to gain momentum once a satisfactory mental model has been reconstructed.

Dual Mind Limitations and Structural Change

Similar dynamics will apply to any organizational unit that regards itself as a functional whole.  The implications for our current economic malaise should be obvious.  Any singular policy focused on a monolithic unit such as the national economy will prove unable to promote both current performance and meta-learning (structural change) at the same time.  These are mutually exclusive intentions that a homogeneous or consensus-seeking group cannot pursue simultaneously.

This is why emerging economies adopted special economic zones and why they are now beginning to experiment with charter cities.  One set of policies, promoting current performance, is preserved in one set of geographic areas.  Another set of policies, promoting entrepreneurial experimentation and meta-learning, is developed for the newly established economic zones.  To the degree that the two policy environments remain distinct performance and meta-learning are achieved simultaneously.

Policy makers in developed economies around the world would do well to acknowledge this reality.  Until then we will drift aimlessly from one overly vague diet plan failure to another.

photo courtesy of eukalanato

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  • jonone100

    Your dual mind limitation was something very apparent to me back in the days when I used to do a lot of juggling. It didn’t really matter what standard I was at, the problem was the same. I found it impossible to watch myself in the third person whilst juggling (so to speak) – your meta learning. Seeing the patterns as you juggle is different to seeing them when you watch back a video or see someone else do it. You have to be zoned-in or things go wrong.

    I’m really looking forward to your next posts on the 4 quadrant economy. I’m wanting to ask if you’ll tie it in with a theory of mind, but really should wait and see :)

    • GregoryJRader

      Your comment made something click for me…
      When people talk about being “in the zone” sometimes they say it is as if they are viewing themselves from a third person perspective…that it is almost an out of body experience.  That actually fits with this model quite nicely if we accept that in certain circumstances when performance is flawless the observing hemisphere steps out of learning mode and rises to meta-learning mode.  The result would be that strange gap in first person experience.  There is no longer any internal voice observing the movement-by-movement performance but there is that eerie detached observer.

      I am gradually pushing towards incorporating theory of mind but that will take some time and a lot of additional research to move beyond speculation.  These last few posts are my first forays, just dabbling in the areas I feel like I have a firm grasp on.

      • Isaac Wyatt

        Do you read Jonah Lehrer’s work? You guys seem to be exploring similar nodes of the same network.

        This article really synthesized some key ideas for me, and I realized when I read the above comment that people probably unintentionally train themselves and their mind to spend more time on one kind of learning at certain times than others. eg: When I dream it is primarily in 3rd person.

        • GregoryJRader

          I have read Jonah’s stuff off and on for a while and just recently subscribed to the full feed.  

          I definitely think people generally have a comfort zone that results from a combination of constitutional temperament and adaptation to upbringing and environmental challenges.  Your comment about dreams is interesting considering that the two hemispheres record memories from different perspectives.  First person perspective is generally associated with right hemisphere mediated implicit memories.  The left hemisphere is more involved with declarative memory which can then be confabulated into a third person perspective.  Not sure how to tie that into dreaming…

          • Isaac Wyatt

            I’m not suggesting that anything mystical or supernatural happens during dreaming, but I wonder if there is some sort of reorganization or “de-fragmenting” involved in the process that during this time (in my example of dreaming in 3rd person) meta-learning is taking place.

            Is it possible that some people spend so much of their waking hours focused on the first two forms of learning/executing that meta-learning has to take place at a different time (during sleep)?

            This must come off as a rather childish notion with no real means of exploring or validating this idea, but for me, your article triggered some valuable introspection. Thanks. =D

          • GregoryJRader

            Yeah, I didn’t mean to dismiss the comment about dreaming.  I was just avoiding too much overt speculation on my part…

            The most accepted theory of dreaming (of which I am familiar) is that dreaming involves the encoding of right hemispheric implicit memories into left hemispheric semantic/declarative memories.  You relive the first person implicit experience and in so doing your left hemisphere gets another chance to encode and integrate a declarative memory.  This is generally supported by brain scans that indicate the right hemisphere is more active during REM sleep.  

            Third person perspective might indicate that the opposite is occurring for you.  The dream might be initiated by a left hemisphere declarative memory and perhaps your right hemisphere is then recreating the scene in an effort to find and integrate matching implicit experiences.

            It does make sense that if your conscious experience is dominated by one particular mode of experience (and I think most of us are to one degree or another) then the dream state would attempt to sync up the less dominant hemisphere.  

            But again, much of the above is speculative extrapolation…

  • Steven

    This model partially explains why women make less money in the same jobs: a typical man struggles with learning his job and performing his job.  A typical career woman has to struggle with learning the job, performing the job, and wondering if she should settle down yet and have kids.  So we should actually expect women to perform their job less well.  

    • GregoryJRader

      You don’t think men have equivalent meta-distractions?  This reminds me of a piece I once read discussing the preferred relationship status for start-up founders.  The conclusion was that relationship status is less important than the stability of relationship status.  The order of preference outlined was (from best to worst):

      1.  Single and not looking (the nerd who spends all day in his basement)
      2.  In a long-term stable/committed relationship (i.e. not looking)
      3.  Single and looking (distracted but no personal drama)
      4.  In an unstable relationship (distracted with personal drama)

  • Buila

    Re limitation implications.  Conceptual parsing (domains/crossfits) works for explaining/puzzling.  The 3 aspect examples/events are unique location-time specific living multi faceted-dimensional moving/evolving/pulsing 24/7 “wholes.”  Parsing/reverse constructing with development code…algorithms may be the best we can do?  Fair note.

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