Monday, March 2, 2015



Humans are naturally symbolic creatures. Thousands of years ago we started taking the dye from plants, or blood, and smearing it on cave walls, in such a way that other humans would understand the intention and thought behind the drawing. This is an example of abstract thinking. Symbolic thinking. Not relating to the "presence" or rather concrete thinking that accompanies being in the moment with a wooly mammoth. But rather creating symbols representing the event.

Being aware of concrete versus abstract thinking, and the ability to switch between them, is a skill one can cultivate, similar to cultivating the skill between switching perspectives. Here are two of a multitude of examples describing abstract versus concrete thinking in our daily lives.


Most people are very present to their bodies. They feel full after eating, they feel energized after running, they feel exhauasted after thinking, they feel enraged after an emotion. This is a concrete way to view one's body, and usually the default mode for people.

But abstracting the body allows for a slew of possibilities.


What are your goals in life? To make money? To experience joy? To travel? To buy fancy cars? To have fun with friends? To find a purpose? To be an accountant?

Whatever your goals may be, your body is a tool to achieve those goals. You use your willpower (the topic of a future blog post), to direct your neurons to move your body in certain ways throughout your day. You choose to direct your fingers to type out a line of code on the computer screen to achieve your career goals. You choose to direct your feet to push on the gas pedal to meet up with friends at a club or restaurant. You choose to use your body to walk to a real estate agent's office to discuss a potential condo, and you choose to use your neurons to consider an offer by the counter party.

In this subtle shift of perspective, your body is abstracted into simply a tool used to achieve your goals (large or small) and as such as simply a tool to implement your desires.

Your body gives you feedback, making epinephrin course through your veins in a fight-or-flight situation, telling your neurons that something is amiss. Your body can be abstracted away into simply another tool to achieve your personal goals; the same way a car gets you to the restaurant, your foot gets the gas pedal to the floor.

Our "bodies" are not a single entity, but naturally abstractions defined in our heads. Our cells and atoms are constantly changing and switching with the atoms around us. We are not a single entity but a collection of biological systems. There is no static "body", but rather an abstraction consisting of biological systems, "foreign" bacteria in a symbiotic state in your gut, electrical signals coursing through our synapses, all able to be directed to achieve our goals.

Viewing your body as such allows you to not be so immersed in "negative" feedback from your body, and see your body for how it is: an abstracted tool to achieve your goals, given the biological constraints.


One goal may be to live longer. Or to elicit a certain reaction from the opposite sex via attraction to achieve the goal of sex. Or to have more balanced hormone levels so you can feel the emotion of pride in your fitness. Or feel the joy of being full after a late night snack.

This may be a foreign way to view your body for some people, but it is a natural abstraction of our most innate goals.

By abstracting away your body, you can see it as a tool to achieve your health or fitness goals. You can think of how the feedback your brain receives from your hormones, blood sugar levels, adipose tissue, stomach wall, or others' reactions to your body (via photons hitting your eyes and sound waves hitting your eardrum).

Abstracting your body away forces you to truly think about what your goals are in terms of your body, and whether those goals are worth exerting your mental or physical energy. Abstracting away fitness can allow food to be thought of as "flavored fuel" to achieve your goals. Some ingested substances (food, alcohol, drugs) make you feel bloated, some make you feel satiated, some make you feel energized, some make you feel ecstatic, some make you self-reflective.

Abstracting your body away allows you to put substances into your body which achieves your goals. And unlike what some fitness gurus make shame you for believing, those goals can include a night of inebriation or ecstasy, a feeling of satiation after eating fried chicken, etc.


Abstract versus concrete thinking in relationships is interesting, because we naturally do both, although we don't consciously switch between the modes of thinking.

A concrete way of thinking includes thinking about the personal dynamics between you and your spouse. Being immersed in the moment bs'ing with friends late at night. The physical sensations associated with intimacy or sporting events.

But abstracting away the relationship allows you to consider the value the other party brings to your life. It allows you to consider the goals you share together (a naturally abstract concept), and whether that party allows you to achieve your goals. It allows you consider the other party's age, background, or social status; whatever tends to be important to you.

This is not concrete thinking regarding the other party (the love you two share, for example), but rather an abstract way to view the relationship.

Let me be clear: this is absolutely objectifying people, and there's nothing wrong with that (morality is another topic for another post). Objectifying people is simply a form of abstract thinking and is not necessarily pejorative.

Both modes of thinking are important, but by putting each mode of thinking at odds with each other ("I love him, but he doesn't fit in with my familial goals!") can cause a constant background stress. Once you are able to recognize the two modes of thinking, you can make a conscious choice to switch between them, and prioritize different aspects of the relationship consciously.


Be cognizant of abstract versus concrete thinking, and be more intentional about switching between the two modes. Recognize the many aspects of your life from fitness, time, relationships, travel, food, sex, money, career, friendships, which can be thought of in both concrete as well as abstract terms, and practice the skill of switching between these modes. Or at least be aware of which mode applies to a given thought.

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