Easy to confound A.L.T.E.R. for one of these 5-step-something acronym for a self helpy series. Unfortunately, though an acronym, and a 5 step process, it won't help you in anything. This is a careful observation of the development, maintenance and improvement of a hacker mind. A.L.T.E.R. = Amplify, Link, Transform, Endure and Rise.
The mind, a Penelope ... with OCD
Some might know Odysseus's wife Penelope, faithful wife, cunning woman, courted for years by suitors while Odysseus was away drinking banana juice in Tahiti:
She has devised tricks to delay her suitors, one of which is to pretend to be weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus's elderly father Laertes and claiming that she will choose a suitor when she has finished. Every night for three years, she undoes part of the shroud, until Melantho, one of twelve unfaithful serving women, discovers her chicanery and reveals it to the suitors.
So Penelope spent twenty years or so weaving and unweaving a single piece of fabric. And our minds really do the same with memories, obsessively and compulsively. Dan Gilbert writes:
The elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory-at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase ("Dinner was disappointing") or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating-not by actually retrieving-the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician's audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time
And just as Penelope's work is a hopeful, though sad, longing for a better future with her Odysseus, the brain's weaving and unweaving of memories is also a forward-looking task. Daniel Schacter explains:
We have argued in recently that memory plays a critical role in allowing individuals to imagine or simulate events that might occur in their personal futures. We have further suggested that understanding memory's role in future event simulation may be important for understanding the constructive nature of memory, because the former requires a system that allows flexible recombination of elements of past experience, which may also contribute to memory errors
Chunking, weaving, un-weaving, re-weaving. A 24 hour job. And yes, that includes dreams (check out The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives). Obviously, the humans we are weave more than just facts into that fabric. As Virginia Woolf reminds us how we build on feeling, our looking glass to the world:
And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.
The mind, a map ... with hyperlinks
So the mind is this chunking machine that keeps only traces of what we encounter in our lives, only to re-weave them into some fabric when the time comes to use them. It is from that same realisation that "The Internet is making you dumber" criticism spurs ... And other such nonsense, as Lifehacker makes clear in the following:
The reason we find it easy to believe the internet is making us dumber is because, in some ways, it's making us less self-reliant. Our GPS devices navigate for us and we neglect to remember things because we have Google search. That doesn't make us dumber, necessarily, but rather causes us to rely more on what psychologist Daniel Wagner calls transactive memory. This type of memory is actually very useful because it allows us to, in essence, store more data in less space. Instead of remembering the contents of an entire article, we can simply remember the name or a few key words that we can enter into a search engine to pull it up.
Let me draw this for you in such a horrific way it won't leave your mind in a while:
What leads me to the first letter of A.L.T.E.R. : Amplify. We're in a unique era where it is no longer necessary to struggle and store information with as much precision as possible. Quite the opposite, one needs to become skilled at storing "mental hyperlinks" to external material, in other terms, at drawing smart maps of the world.
Nanominded has already mentioned how Kundera describes friendship as a way to situate ourselves relative to others and the world. Situating oneself might have made us the creatures we are. Brainpickings explains how Adam Gopnik echoes Richard Dawkins in Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers. Dawkins had speculated that maps may have "boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross," and Gopnik goes on to write:
Cognitive science now insists that our minds make maps before they take snapshots, storing in schematic form the information we need to navigate and make sense of the world. Maps are our first mental language, not our latest. The photographic sketch, with its optical hesitations, is a thing we force from history; the map, with its neat certainties and foggy edges, looks like the way we think.
The mind, a parrot ... with docility
There's this tremendous article in Wired from a while ago that tells the story of Piotr Wozniak. A man who found the algorithm to remember anything. In effect, he created a program that is able to figure out, based on his own learning curve and skills, when to learn best. He called it supermemo. The system, as the article describes, automate learning and does away with the need to over-think when and how to remember information as it will push an article to you on the exact right day for your brain to register it best. A picture is worth a thousand clumsy sentences:
This is what exactly the aim of this series. Leveraging, among other things, the insight from an accomplishment such as Supermemo, how can we master anything ? I chose to break the process down into Amplify, Link, Transform, Endure and Rise. This first article tackles Amplify and goes on to show how to use, in consort with today's technologies, the chunking and weaving nature of our brains to our advantage. To back up this initiative maybe, a reminder of what Charles Duhigg, author of the Power of Habit jots down:
“This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioural chunks that we rely on every day.”
We are our minds. And if our minds rely on these chunks, then there's a need to become better at the process itself and. This first article is an invitation, among other things to be mindful of this constant task our minds are at. In the 'School of Life ' series, Philippa Perry, author of "How to stay sane" stresses the importance of this meta-thinking the A.L.T.E.R. series is championing:
We need to look at the repetitions in the stories we tell ourselves [and] at the process of the stories rather than merely their surface content. Then we can begin to experiment with changing the filter through which we look at the world, start to edit the story and thus regain flexibility where we have been getting stuck
Chunk, Weave, Amplify. Let's do this :)