It's all in your head-land

by colinmarshall 12 min read22nd Jul 200968 comments


From David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest:

He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear... It's too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it's as of now real... He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What's unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen... He hadn't quite gotten this before now, how it wasn't just the matter of riding out cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.

I've come to draw, or at to emphasize, a distinction separating two realms between which I divide my time: real-land and head-land. Real-land is the physical world, occupied by myself and billions of equally real others, in which my fingers strike a series of keys and a monitor displays strings of text corresponding to these keystrokes. Head-land is the world in which I construct an image of what this sentence will look like when complete, what this paragraph will look like when complete and what this entire post will look like when complete. And it doesn't stop there: in head-land, the finished post is already being read, readers are reacting, readers are (or aren't) responding and the resulting conversations are, for better or for worse, playing themselves out. In head-land, the thoughts I've translated into words and thus defined and developed in this post are already shaping the thoughts to be explored in future posts, the composition of which is going on there even now.

Head-land is the setting of our predictions. When deciding what actions to take in real-land, we don't base our choices on the possible actions' end results in real-land — by definition, we don't know what will happen in real-land until it already has — but on their end results in head-land. The obvious problem: while real-land is built out of all the information that exists everywhere, head-land is built not even out of all the information in a single brain — and that isn't much — but of whichever subset of that brain's information happens to be currently employed. Hence the brutally rough, sometimes barely perceptible correspondence between head-land and real-land in the short term and the nearly nonexistent correspondence between them in the long.

One might grant that while responding that running models in head-land is nevertheless the best predictor of real-land events that any individual has. And that's true, but it doesn't change our apparent tendency to place far more trust in our head-land models than their dismal accuracy could ever warrant. To take but one example: we really seem to believe our own failures in head-land, head-land being the place we do the vast majority — and in some cases, all — of our failing. How many times has someone entertained the dream of, say, painting, but then failed in head-land — couldn't get a head-land show, say, or couldn't even mix head-land's colors right — and abandoned the enterprise before beginning it? How many times has someone started painting in real-land, gotten less-than-perfect results, and then extrapolated that scrap of real-land data into a similarly crushing head-land failure? Even established creators are vulnerable to this; could the novelist suffering from a bout of "writer's block" simply be the unwitting mark of a head-land vision of himself unable to write? The danger of head-land catastrophes that poison real-land endeavors looms over every step of the path. The possibility of being metaphorically laughed out of the classroom, though probably only illusory to begin with, never quite leaves one's mind. The same, to a lesser extent, goes for experiencing rather than creating; someone who refuses to listen to a new album, sample a new cuisine, watch a new film or visit a new art exhibition on the excuse that they already "know what [they] like" appear to have seen, and believed, their head-land selves listening, eating or viewing with irritation, repulsion or boredom.

That most of what we get worked up about exists in our imaginations and our imaginations only is less a fresh observation than the stuff of a thousand tired aphorisms. No battle plan survives the first shot fired. You die a thousand deaths awaiting the guillotine. Nothing's as good or as bad as you anticipate. You never know until you try. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Fear is the mind-killer. It's all in your mind. Don't look down. Quoth John Milton, "The mind is its own place, and in it self, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." The more time I spend in head-land, the less time I feel like I should spend in head-land, because its awful, discouraging predictions are practically never borne out in real-land. (Even when one comes close, head-land seems to fail to capture the subjective experience of failure, which I find is either never failure qua failure or always somehow psychologically palliated or attenuated.) Experiencing a disaster in real-land is one thing, and its negative effects are unavoidable, but experiencing hypothetical head-land disasters as negative mental effects in real-land — which I suspect, we all do, and often — would seem to be optional.

Consider global economic woes. While you more than likely know a few who've had to take cuts in their incomes or find new ones, it's even likelier that you're experiencing all the degradations of destitution in head-land even as your real-land income has not and will not substantially shrink. You're living out the agonies of fumbling with food stamps in a long, angry grocery line despite the fact that you'll never come close. When one is starved for real-land information, one's head-land self gets hit with the worst possible fate. I hear of someone dying in a gruesome real-land freak accident, and I die a dozen times over in more gruesome, freakier head-land accidents. I visit a remote, unpopulated real-land location and my head-land map contracts, desolately and suffocatingly, to encompass only my lonely immediate surroundings. (Then my glasses fall off and break. But there was time! There was time!) I dream up an idea for implementation in real-land, but even before I've fully articulated it my head-land self is already busy enduring various ruinous executions of it. In head-land, worst-case scenarios tend to become the scenarios, presenting huge, faultily-calculated sums of net present real-land misery.

Fear of the ordeals that play out in head-land is a hindrance, but the paralysis induced by the sheer weight of countless accumulated hypothetical propositions is crippling. Even riding high on the hog in real-land is no bulwark against the infinite (and infinitely bad) vicissitudes of head-land. Say you're earning a pretty sweet living playing the guitar in real-land. But what if you'd been born without arms? Or in a time before the invention of the guitar? Or in a time when you would've died of an infection before reaching age twelve? Then you sure wouldn't be enjoying yourself as much. And what if you lose your arms in a horrific fishing accident ten years down the line? Or if you suddenly forget what a guitar is? Or if you die of an infection anyway? Despite the fact that none of these dire possibilities have occurred — or are even likely to occur — they're nonetheless inflicting real-land pain from across the border.

I call this phenomenon a blooming what if plant, beginning as the innocuous seed of a question — "What if I hadn't done or encountered such and such earlier thing that proved to be a necessary condition to something from which I enjoy and profit now?" — and sprouting rapidly into a staggeringly complex organism, its branches splitting into countless smaller branches which split into yet more branches themselves. More perniciously, this also happens in a situation-specific manner; namely, in situations whose sub-events are particularly unpredictable. The classic example would be approaching the girl one likes in middle school; the possible outcomes are so many and varied, at least in the approacher's mind, that the what-ifs multiply dizzyingly and collectively become unmanageable, especially if his strategy is to prepare responses to all of them. It's no accident that those never-get-the-girl mopes in movies spend so much time vainly rehearsing conversations in advance, and that doing the same in life never, ever works. There's a line to be drawn between the guys in junior high who could talk the girls up effortlessly and the ones who seized up merely contemplating it. I suspect the difference has to do with the ratio of one's relative presence in head-land versus that in real-land.

I would submit that, whatever their results, the dudes who could walk right up to those girls and try their luck habitually spent a lot more time in real-land than in head-land. They probably weren't sitting around, eyes fixed on their own navels, building elaborate fictions of inadequacy, embarrassment and ridicule; if they were, wouldn't they have been just as paralyzed? They appeared to operate on a mental model that either didn't conjure such dire possibilities or, if it did, didn't allow them any decisionmaking weight. "So the chick could turn me down? So what? What if space aliens invade and destroy the Earth? I don't know what'll happen until I try."

This brings up something else Wallace wrote and thought about — equivalent verbs for him, I think — though not, as I dimly recall, in Infinite Jest. In his sports journalism, of which he wrote some truly stunning pieces, he kept looping back to the issue of the correlation and possible causal connection between great athletes' brilliant physical performance and their astonishing unreflectiveness in conversation and prose. I'm thinking of Wallace's profile of Michael Joyce, a not-quite-star tennis player who has no knowledge or interests outside the game and couldn't even grasp the thundering sexual innuendo on a billboard ad. I'm thinking of his review of Tracy Austin's autobiography, a cardboard accretion of blithe assertions, unreached-yet-strongly-stated conclusions and poster-grade sports clichés. What must it be like, Wallace asked, to speak or hear prases like "step it up" or "gotta concentrate now" and have them actually mean something? Is the sports star's nonexistent inner life not the price they pay for their astonishing athletic gift, but rather its very essence?

One can say many things about bigtime athletes, but that they live in their heads is not one of them. I'd wager that you can't find a group that spends less time in head-land than dedicated athletes; they are, near-purely, creatures of real-land. The dudes who could go right up to the ladies in seventh grade seemed to be, in kind if not in magnitude, equally real-land's inhabitants. It comes as no surprise that so many of them played sports and weren't often seen with books. And not only were they undaunted by the danger (possibly because unperceived) of crushing humiliation, I'd imagine they were inherently less vulnerable to crushing humiliation in the first place, because crushing humiliation, like theoretical arm loss and imagined endeavor failure, is a head-land phenomenon. Humiliation is what makes a million other-people-are-thinking-horrible-thoughts-about-me flowers bloom — but only in head-land. The impact can only hit so hard if one doesn't spend much time there, because in real-land, direct access to another's thoughts is impossible. In head-land, one can't, as their creator, help but have direct access to everyone else's thoughts, and thus if a head-land resident believes everyone's disparaging him, everyone is disparaging him. "So what if they're thinking ill of me?" a full-time real-land occupant might ask. "I can't know that for sure, and besides, they're probably not; how often do you think, in a way that actually affects them, about someone who's been recently embarrassed?"

But there's a problem: saying someone "lives in their head" is more or less synonymous with calling them intelligent. "Hey, look at that brainy scientist go by, lost in thought; the fellow lives in his head!" As for professional athletes, well... let's just acknowledge the obvious, that professional athleticism is not a byword for advanced intellectual capacity. (Wallace once lamented the archetypal "basketball genius who cannot read".) So there's clearly a return to time spent in head-land, and arguing for the benefits of head-land occupancy even to nonintellectuals is a trivial task. How, for instance, would we motivate ourselves without reference to head-land? How could we envision possibilities and thus choose which ones we'd like to realize without seeing them in head-land? Surely even the most narrowly-focused, football-obsessed football player has watched himself polish a Super Bowl ring in head-land. Why else would he strive for that outcome? Head-land is where our fantasies happen, where our goals are formulated, and is that a function we can do without?

Hokey as it sounds, I do consider myself a somewhat "goal-oriented" person, in that I burn a lot of time and mental bandwidth attempting to realize certain head-land states. But, as the above paragraphs reveal, I often experience head-land backfire in the form of discouraging negative imaginings rather than encouraging positive ones. Here I could simply pronounce that I will henceforth only use head-land for envisioning the positive, but it's not quite that easy; I can think of quite a few badly-ending head-land scenarios that I'm happy to experience there — and only there — and take into account when making real-land decisions. The head-land prediction that I'll get splattered if I walk blindly into traffic comes to mind.

And I'm one of the less head-land-bound people I know! I wouldn't be writing this post if I didn't struggle with the damned place, but traits like my near-inability to write fiction suggest that I don't gravitate toward it as strongly as some. Still, I feel the need to minimize the problems that spring forth from head-land without converting myself into an impulsive dumb beast. The best compromise I have at the moment is not necessarily to stem the flow of predictions out of head-land, but simply to ignore the bulk of their content, to crank down their resolution by 90% or so. Since the accuracy of our predictions drops so precipitously as they extend forward in time and grow dense with specifics, they'd mostly lose noise. Noise simply misleads, and attenuating what misleads is the point of this exercise.

There are countless practical ways to implement this. One quick-and-dirty hack to dial down head-land's effect on your real-land calculations is to only pay attention to head-land's shadow plays to the extent that they're near your position in time. If they have to do with the distant future, only consider their broadest outlines: the general nature of the position you envision yourself occupying in twenty years, for instance, rather than the specific event of your buxom assistant bringing you just the right roast of coffee. If they have to do with the past, near or distant, just chuck 'em; head-land models tend to run wild with totally irrelevant oh-if-only-things-had-been-different retrodictions, which are supremely tempting but ultimately counterproductive. (As one incisive BEK cartoon had a therapist say, "Woulda, shoulda, coulda — next!") If they have to do with the near future, they're more valuable, and the nearer the future they deal with, the better you would seem to do to pay attention to them.

The concept behind this is one to which I've been devoting thought and practice lately: small units of focus. Alas, this brings us to another set of bromides, athletic and otherwise. One step at a time. Just you and the goal. Break it down. Don't bite off more than you can chew. The disturbing thing is how well operating on such a short horizon seems to work, at least in certain contexts. I find I actually do run better when I think only of the next yard, write better when I think only of the next sentence and talk better when I think only of the subject at hand. When my mind tries instead to load the entire run, the entire essay or the entire conversation, head-land crashes. (This applies to stuff traditionally thought of as more passive as well: I read more effectively when I focus on the sentence, watch films more effectively when I focus on the shot, listen to music more effectively when I focus on the measure.) When Wallace writes about "the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news" and "[hunkering] down in the space between each heartbeat and [making] each heartbeat a wall and [living] in there", I think this is what he means.

Ignoring all head-land details past a certain threshold, de-weighting head-land predictions with their distance in the future and focusing primarily on small, discrete-seeming, temporally proximate units aren't just techniques to evade internal discouragement, either; they also guard against the perhaps even more sinister (and certainly sneakier) forces of complacency. While failure in head-land can cause one to pack it in in real-land, success in head-land, which is merely a daydream away, can prevent one from even trying in real-land. I can't put it better than Paul Graham does: "If you have a day job you don't take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you're producing, you'll know you're not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate."

This is why I'm starting to believe that coming up with great ideas in head-land and then executing them in real-land may be a misconceived process, or at least suboptimally conceived one. How many projects have been forever delayed because the creator decided to wait until the "idea" was just a little bit better, or, in other words, until the head-land simulation came out a little more favorably? It's plausible that this type of stalling lies at the heart of procrastination: one puts the job off until tomorrow because the head-land model doesn't show it as turning out perfect today, never mind the facts that (a) it'll never be perfect, no matter when it's started and (b) it's unlikely to turn out better with less time available for the work, especially given the unforeseen troubles and opportunities. I provisionally believe that this a priori, head-land idea stuff can be profitably be replaced with small-scale real-land exploratory actions that demand little in the way of time or resource investment. Rather than executing steps one through one hundred in head-land, execute step one in real-land; if nothing else, the data you get in response will be infinitely more reliable and more useful in determining what step two should involve. Those dudes in middle school knew this on some basic level: you just gotta go up to the girl and say something. It's the only gauge you have of whether you should say something more, and of what that something should be. It's all about hammering in the thin end of the wedge.

For what it's worth, I've found this borne out in what little creation I've done thus far. I've reached the point of accepting that I don't know — can't know — how a project's going to turn out, since each step depends on the accumulated effects of the steps that preceded it. All I can do is get clear on my vague, broad goal and put my best foot forward, keeping my mind open to accept all relevant information as it develops. When I started my first radio show, I had a bunch of head-land projections about how the show would be, but in practice it evolved away from them in real-land rather sharply — and, I think, for the better. When I started another one a year later, I knew to factor in this unforeseeable real-land evolution from the get-go and thus kept my ideas about what it was supposed to me broad, flexible and small in number, letting the events of real-land fill in the details as they might. With a TV project only just started, I've tried my hardest to stay out of head-land as much as possible; the bajillion variables involved would send whatever old, buggy software my head-land modeler uses straight to the Blue Screen of Death. (Yes, our brains are Windows-based.) Even if it didn't crash, it's not as if I'd be getting sterling predictions out of it. I have, more grandly speaking, come to accept much more of the future's unknowability than once I did; that goes double for the future of my own works. Modeling a successful work in head-land now seems a badly flawed strategy, to be replaced by taking small steps in real-land and working with its response.

I could frame this as another rung in thet climb from a thought-heavier life to an action-heavier life. of approaching and affecting the world as it exists in real-land rather than as it is imagined in head-land. I've nevery been what one would call an idealist and I suppose I'm drawing no closer to that label. Some regard flight from idealism as flight toward cynicism, but it's cynicism I'm been fleeing as well, perhaps even primarily; what is cynicism, after all, but a mistaken reliance on pessimistic head-land conclusions?