Foolproof the mind

Posted on December 16, 2010 | Author: Vithal C Nadkarni | View 669

Last week, the renowned risk expert and philosophical essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb told your columnist during a meeting in Mumbai, "The mind can be a wonderful tool for self-delusion."


Indian seers said the same thing in Sanskrit, we reminded the best-selling author of Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan.


The sages also added an important rider: "The mind alone is responsible for delusion or bondage (bandha) as well as liberation or freedom (moksha)."


In his latest book on philosophical aphorisms called The Bed of Procrustes, Taleb explains what he describes as inherent limitations of the human mind: "It was not designed to deal with complexity and non-linear uncertainties," he writes.


Nor can this handicap be overcome by throwing more information in."More information means more delusions," he adds."


(Indeed) our detection of false patterns is growing faster and faster as a side effect of modernity and the information age," he warns.


For this, he blames our "overactive brains" which are more likely to impose the wrong, simplistic narrative instead of no narrative at all.


This is because our minds need to reduce information, which only means we are more likely to squeeze a phenomenon into the Procrustean bed of familiar categories and projections, Taleb adds.


Procrustes was a mythical Greek innkeeper notorious for amputating or stretching his guests to fit his inflexible bed after he'd fed them sumptuously!


The murderous innkeeper met his match in the hero Theseus, who went on to slay the Minotaur in his later adventures: "After the customary dinner, Theseus made Procrustes lie in his own bed," Taleb writes.


"Then, to make him fit in it to the customary perfection, he decapitated him".


The Indian equivalent of Procrustes can be found in the legend of the demonic siblings Ilvala and shape-shifter Vatapi from the Ramayana: Horrific hospitality is used by the duo to kill unsuspecting travellers: Ilvala turns Vatapi into a ram for the slaughter and offers the meat to guests.


Ilvala has the boon of reviving his brother by calling out his name thrice: Vatapi then emerges, ripping through the diners.


Finally, like Theseus, Sage Agastya ends the grisly story by digesting the unholy 'meal' with his ascetic power, to break the jinx.


One moral for modern times could be: No constraints for guests or minds! Give 'em free-size beds; safe meals.

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