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11 Reinforcement & the creation of concepts

In the previous chapter it became clear that concepts disappear in course of time when they are not reinforced. That is why people are constantly working on strengthening their existing concepts and creating new ones. Our spirit is a concept machine that, like our heart, works faster or slower, but is always active.


11.1. Recapitulation

For the sake of clarity I give a brief summary of the previous chapters.

  • Apart from concrete memories, my mind also contains types, basic elements of the things that have been observed
  • My mind contains a very large number of distinguished types that do not exist independently of each other, but are grouped together more or less strongly. Such a group of connected types is a concept.
  • About conscious concepts one can speak, write, think, one can give them a name. Following from our definition, in addition to all conscious concepts that correspond to notions, there are a large number of motor and unconscious concepts
  • If a certain type occurs to me in one way or another, I say that that type is being actualized.
  • The bond between a number of types that belong to a concept has the consequence the concept can be realized as soon as one or more types of it are actualized.
  • A type can be actualized by means of sensory impressions, for example when I see or hear a thing, but also by non-sensory ones, for example when I think of something.
  • The realization of the concept is always non-sensory, something which only takes place in the mind.
  • There are material concepts such as a tree or your shoe, but also non-material such as the Second World War or the Pythagorean theorem.
  • A concept will weaken over time, lose strength, if it is never realized anymore.
  • The degree of weakening depends on the time during which it is no longer realized, and also on the strength, the sharpness and the complexity of the concept.

11.2 Reinforcement of concepts

11.2.1 During his conscious life one is constantly focused on and busy with strengthening his concepts

Formulated in this way it seems as if strengthening our concepts would be the only goal in our lives, which of course is not the case. After all, I undertake actions throughout the day that are aimed at completely different goals, either in the short or the long term. I save money for the purchase of a car, buy food to prepare a meal, put my clothes in the laundry to have clean clothes again tomorrow, walk to the station to get a train. In contrast I never consciously intend to reinforce any concept. Nevertheless, the claim can be maintained. After all, people use their concepts in everything they consciously do, for whatever purpose. Besides, we also carry out a lot of automatic actions, a phenomenon I leave out of consideration for the time being.

Suppose at some point I feel hungry and want to eat something. That does not happen by itself. I have to realize concrete 'eating concepts', for example, think about the 'hamburger' concept. That concept is connected with different ways in which I can obtain a hamburger sandwich. Going to a burger restaurant for example. Or taking a hamburger out of the refrigerator, heating it myself in the frying pan and then putting it on a sandwich with lettuce, ketchup and mayonnaise. I can also buy a ready-made hamburger in the supermarket and put it in the microwave oven. Whatever I want to do, in my mind all sorts of concepts have to emerge to be able to have such thoughts, like:
'hamburger restaurant',
'take out of',
'frying pan',
'microwave oven',
'put into'.

If I then carry out one of these ideas, I have to walk to the refrigerator and find a form that I recognize as a hamburger. If I see it, the experience supplies a reinforcement of my concept 'hamburger', and probably also of the concept 'there is a hamburger in my fridge'. The latter is a concept which was created when I put burgers in the fridge the last time. Incidentally, without that concept of course I could look randomly in the fridge to see if there happens to be something I recognize as a burger.
In order to actually eat a hamburger sandwich, I next have to perform a whole series of actions. This chain of actions is accompanied by a permanent chain of realized concepts that each realize new concepts. And each realization in turn implies a reinforcement of the relevant concept.

Hamburger namaakThings can go differently. Suppose I take a hamburger out of the refrigerator which surprisingly turns out to be a plastic display model. I have never seen it before, it isn't what you call a direct realization of my concept 'hamburger'. I look at it carefully, feel it, maybe smell it, I put it on the table to hear the sound, squeeze it to feel its firmness. I notice it looks treacherous on a hamburger, otherwise has little or nothing in common with it. If I had to give it a name I would call it a plastic imitation burger.
Conceptually, the following happened: my existing concept 'hamburger' was unexpectedly not realized, on the other hand a new concept was created with a number of well-known types, such as the appearance, which did already belong to my concept 'hamburger', combined with a number of types (hard, stinks to plastic, sounds hollow, is light, inedible) that until now didn't fit my concept of 'hamburger'. Because I was looking for a real burger in the fridge, this fake model attracts my attention, I focus on different aspects = types (consistency, smell, sound, weight) and through that conscious attention these types are connected in my mind to the new concept. When I think of it later, those types will reappear themselves, I'll be able to say I remember that plastic imitation burger, and also remember and recognize the different aspects (= types) of it. Thanks to a new experience I consciously focused on, a new concept was created in my mind.

Although the example of the imitation burger has been made up, a similar case occurred a few years ago in the Netherlands when a supermarket chain thought it necessary to supply fresh mussels with a plastic imitation mussel shell in every package. It was intended to grab the mussels from their shells, but judged as completely unnecessary by most customers, mussels are simply eaten with the first shell picked from the scale. The vehemence with which this addition was complained about, which led to a quick termination of the action by the supermarket, indicated that the misguiding experience of an element that presented itself as the concept 'mussel' but turned out to be something like a concept 'imitation mussel', not only was experienced as superfluous but even evoked negative feelings.

The example of the burger makes two things clear:

11.2.2 Every activity we undertake involves the realization of a chain of concepts


11.2.3 If a combination of types actualizes that our mind can't connect to a concept that exists for us (= a concept we know), we tend to focus on it and create a new concept


11.3 The creation of new concepts

Our daily activities do not only lead to the reinforcement of existing concepts, but also, as in the case of the plastic burger, frequently to experiences we can't bring home in any known concept. This phenomenon regularly passes without us paying special attention to it, but it often happens that unknown experiences catch our attention and lead to the formation of new concepts.

When on the beach I walk along the tide line, I experience a lot of shells. I see them, I feel them when I walk over them and hear them. If I am not a specialized shell connoisseur, my attention will generally not go to any shell in particular. However sometimes I look closer and see the shells I all recognize, until the moment a special shell shape that I didn't know before strikes my attention. I pick up the thing, look at it from all sides. It is clear that it is a shell, but I don't know this form. I decide to take him home to find out what exactly it is. At that moment I have already created a new concept that will become sharper and more powerful as I look up more information about it or talk about it to others.

We do not have to go to the beach to create new concepts, that phenomenon constantly occurs in daily life:
- I read an offer in a brochure from a supermarket and intend to buy it next morning
- I see a pink car passing by
- I see a woman walking in a long dress with a little shivering dog
- I see a new store in the mall
- I hear a new music hit
- I am involved in a collision between a car and a bicycle
- and so on

In daily life we ​​constantly create new concepts because very often impressions occur to us that do not fit into a concept that we already know. If such an experience sufficiently attracts our attention, it is the autonomous working of our mind to create a new concept. The result could be that the number of concepts we possess is constantly increasing, unless at the same time as many existing concepts disappear. Maybe that is also true, from introspection I cannot obtain information about it, I do not have a built-in counter that can keep track of the stand. At the same time it is clear that many new concepts only have a short life. Concepts are often already weak at creation because we do not pay too much attention to them, if there is no reason to pay more attention to them, such a concept will not be realized anymore and soon weaken further. For example, when I see a car with a special advertisement, that attracts my attention, I am aware of which product is being advertised, but an hour or so later I don't know any more what the ad looked like and what product it was related to.

However, a new concept can also have a long life. When I buy a new armchair and put it in my living room I will see it all day, sit on it, read a book or watch television. Every day the concept will be realized, so be strengthened. Even if I get rid of the armchair one day, the concept will continue to exist for me for a long time, especially if I come across the chair later in photographs or in films.

In particular, creation of new concepts occurs when we learn. All the knowledge we gain from learning and studying leads to the formation of new concepts with the express intention to give them a long life, which unfortunately does not always succeed. Repeating a lot in the beginning and then practicing a lot results in regular realization, thus in strengthening the learned concept and in a longer life. On the other hand concepts that are realized very little after their creation will weaken and have a relatively short life. I remember that in my time as a student at Mathematical Analysis I had to be able to reproduce a proof of a mathematical theorem which comprised three or four pages in the syllabus, concerning the introduction of real numbers, I believe. At that time I learned all deductive steps neatly from memory and was fascinated by the ingenuity of the evidence. Because in this field I have not gone any further, no realization of the new concepts has ever occurred, with the result the evidence as a whole is still vague in my memory, but both the name of the theorem, what had to be proven and certainly all the evidence steps have escaped me completely. On the other hand, if I learn how my new coffee machine works and how I have to maintain it with the aid of the instructions, the use of that knowledge is so often repeated it remains firmly anchored in my mind. From the moment the coffee machine is defective and I purchase a new one, these concepts will probably also weaken quickly.

11.4 The concept machine

We have seen that throughout our entire conscious life we are constantly confronted with both sensory and non-sensory experiences. I am using the 'we' form, in anticipation of chapter 13, in which I will argue how the step out of the I-perspective can be made. These experiences can have a passive nature if events occur outside of us without being influenced by us or if thoughts arise randomly, but they can also be actively promoted by ourselves if we focus our senses on certain objects or send our thoughts in a certain direction.

Our mind is generally focused on fitting all these experiences into already familiar concepts which, if it succeeds, will be strengthened. If that fails, two possibilities arise: existing concepts can be extended with new types or new concepts are created. Concepts that are little or never realized will weaken automatically and can disappear completely. The consequence of this mechanism is that our stock of concepts is highly dynamic. Concepts are created, disappear quickly, others become more and more powerful through regular realization, they are expanded by sharing new experiences or loses power because the corresponding experiences never occur again. The total conceptual content of my mind today is not the same as yesterday and will be different tomorrow, thanks to the continuous flow of experiences, both sensory and non-sensory, that reaches us every day.
In 11.2 I stated during our conscious life we ​​are constantly focused on and busy with strengthening our concepts. The thesis must therefore be broadened:

11.4.1. During our conscious life we are constantly focused on and busy with either strengthening and expanding our concepts or the creation of new concepts

Realization of concepts can therefore lead to the reinforcement of existing concepts, to supplementing or adapting them and to creating entirely new ones. These three possibilities together I summarize with the term concept development.

11.4.2 conept development means: strengthening, adaptation and creation of concepts

Therefore conceptually we are always active at times when we live consciously. In this way, our mind is a powerfully performing concept machine that, however, does not always and not always work on the same force in every situation. When we are fresh and relaxed we strive for a lot of impressions and consciously process these impressions, which urge is much less when we are tired. Fatigue can be caused by physical work, but also by gaining a lot of impressions, such as a walk through a museum or when, during a conference, we hear a number of lectures even while we sit quietly on a chair. This way we can come to a condition where we hardly want to process any new impressions. Interestingly, according to medical-biological data, the energy consumption of the brain at mental effort hardly differs from that used at mental relaxation. Wikipedia says about it:
"Although the human brain represents only 2% of the body weight, it receives 15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization. (...) The energy consumption of the brain does not vary greatly over time, but active regions of the cortex consume somewhat more energy than inactive regions: this fact forms the basis for the functional brain imaging methods PET and fMRI".

It seems the phenomenon, unlike physical exercise, is not caused by a large energy consumption. But everyone knows the intense fatigue that can occur when consciously processing a large amount of information in a short period of time. In such a mentally fatigued state, we like to do things that the concept machine does not have to work hard for. A rather stupid television program is a pleasant pastime for many people in the evening, as opposed to studying in the evenings, usually experienced as extra stressful. Letting the dog out or a long bike ride without thinking can then be beneficial, which again makes clear there is a difference between muscle fatigue and the need for activities of our concept machine.

While carrying out such light activities, we do of course take many impressions and many concepts are realized, but in one way or another they slip away from us, we do not have to make an effort. As a result, few existing concepts are strengthened or created. Apparently the degree of activity of the concept machine depends on the extent to which we consciously focus on the realization of the concepts. However, even if we are mentally or physically very tired by whatever cause, our concept machine, albeit at a low level, always works. We cannot stop it completely, except by going to sleep and even then we still regularly have dreams that indicate at least some activity of the machine.