Inner conflict: Dragons and OODA loops

Artem Grinblat

My fascination with dragons started when as a boy. I’ve heard that a crane would beat a snake, deflecting and countering with its beak, that tiger beats crane, overcoming its defences with a flurry of paws, that snake beats tiger, finding a gap for precision strike, and that dragon beats them all, having four legs as a tiger, tail as a snake and long neck as a crane.

As fire-breathing cat-snake-birds, the dragons might represent our fear of predators but also, as Jordan B Peterson notes in this five minutes video, our strength when we conquer or tame them. They are also a symbol of flexibility and adaptation, of being able to show and combine efficiently what might be different and even opposite traits. And we might share this flexibility with dragons.

This might be due to our culture being a step ahead of evolution. Naturally equipped to crawl and swing from the trees, we often need thousands of attempts and 17 falls per hour just to learn to walk straight. From our birth onwards we’re seasoned to learn, now and again repurposing the neural subsystems. Or it might because our consciousness is not just a dragon but a hydra.

Psychology keeps rediscovering the multifaceted nature of our consciousness. We can see it in the number of terms coming from different "schools": emotional learnings, implicit schemas, core beliefs, mental models, parts, emotional conditionings, ego-states, complexes, COEX systems, brain agents, neuroclusters, subpersonalities, working models.

There might be evolutionary advantage to that. We can understand each other better when our mind creates independent models of personal behavior. These models can then live in our mind in parallel, allowing us to understand complex social situations intuitively, in real-time and with minimal disruption to our forefront mental process. We can also pursue different goals, even if they require different and incompatible sets of memories, habits, reality models and outlooks.

If you want to explore this more, I like the musings of Kevin Simler, his Neurons Gone Wild. By the way, the computational capacity of microtubules in a single neuron (10^9 tubulins/neuron) might be, according to some calculations, as high as 10^16 operations per second. Individual neurons are smart. They also migrate between the brain’s neural networks, which always reminds me of "desks with wheels" in Valve.

This idea of splitting our (neural) computations into independent subsystems brings us to inner conflict. We know, of course, that inner conflict is a thing. But most of the sources I’ve encountered seem to treat the inner conflict as a thing in itself. What if the same organizing principles that influence our social life govern also our inner life (the microcosm)? (Anecdotally, people who communicate more on the inside tend to communicate more also on the outside). If we would allow such an assumption to coexist with other neurological and psychological theories, then it might allow us to use our knowledge of social and political process to better understand the inner world and vice versa.

Social anxiety, for instance, might then be seen as a conflict between two parties: one that wants to invest the time and resources into mingling with people and one that wants to save these resources for inner use. Instead of treating the neural subsystems as very simple and passive cogs in the machine, this model allows us explore them, forming strategies and alliances in pursuit of their own habits and interests.

Apart from dragons, what fascinated me of old were the quotes from the Hagakure [Ed. note: 1714 Japanese text] in Jarmusch’s "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". I felt in some of them an answer to a question I never learned to ask. You can say that in my mind there are monks and hermits who passed that sacred wisdom from days of yore, and there is also a younger team of scientists who studied both the OODA loops and cognition, and recently those scientists and those monks have found a way to communicate.

"When the time comes, there is no moment for reasoning. And if you have not done your inquiring beforehand, there is most often shame. Reading books and listening to people’s talk are for the purpose of prior resolution."

The way my inner scientists understand this is that waiting for more information is as well a decision. Thus shame here is a condition where we can not make even that simple decision to wait. It might be a condition where we can not at all resolve the decision conflict, such as when one party says "We have to act now, the situation is urgent," and another party says "But we don’t know how to act." It is a state of confusion.

Hagakure invites us to seed a goal, intent of improving our future decision making skills. An independent community of seekers, a "brain agent," would form then around such goal and we will start noticing the information pertaining the decision making. The inner school of decision making will start to collect the knowledge and grow. Any activity then, be it reading books or listening to people’s talk, will start to improve our decision making skills.

To paraphrase Joseph Riggio, we can often guess the active "brain agents" of a person by paying attention to what that person is noticing.

"There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.

"When one understands this settling into single-mindedness well, his affairs will thin out.

"Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought."

Every decision is a conflict. But that conflict might have a different shape. It might be a dinner meeting of Owe Bergsten with Nintendo or it might be a civil war of attrition that was going for half the person’s life. (Might be even a case of something like a mass genocide if we account for Nikolay Linde’s model of schizophrenia (in Russian)). Hagakure might be hinting there that it pays to minimize the decision conflict, to avoid the prolonged existential decision conflicts, to keep the decision conflict in a sheath.

If the only decision we need to make is of what to do in the moment then we have a lot of clean OODA loops, like a lot of clean katas in a swordsmanship exercise, and we hone our decision-making ability to a sharpest edge. It also makes the decision shorter, leaving more time for the states of inner clarity and peace.

"In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, "If discrimination is long, it will spoil. " Lord Naoshige said, "When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly." When your mind is going hither and thither, discrimination will never be brought to a conclusion. With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths."

The seven breaths might be alike to the "code smell" heuristics we have in programming: If we see a decision conflict longer than that, then we might want to treat it as a risk or an opportunity for improvement in our decision-making process. We might want to check, for example, our situational awareness, the implicit orientation, the implicit guidance and control between the brain agents. Acute and prolonged decision conflicts can drive a wedge between the parts of our psyche. Some of them are designed to have vastly different opinions and outlooks and we need to apply some understanding and effort in order for the system to work as a whole.

Artem Grinblat is a software developer and a hypnotherapist whose interests are currently in projective psychotherapy, advanced waking hypnosis effects, with unloneliness in remote development and self-hypnosis software.

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