Listen to an audio explanation of the diagram
Mental symmetry is a meta-theory of human cognition based in cognitive styles which uses analogy to examine the mechanisms driving human thought and behavior. Translating this into English:
- A meta-theory is a general theory that ties together other theories. Currently, my main method of research is to examine the theories of others and explain their findings in terms of mental symmetry.
- My topic is cognition. In other words, when I examine the theories of others, I try to understand why they are thinking the way that they do and decipher what is happening under the surface within their minds.
- I use analogy to evaluate theories and concepts. Whenever a person performs some activity or builds some theory, the mind is being used. A person cannot do or think anything without using his mind. Therefore, it should be possible to discover the structure of the mind by comparing how people think and act in different contexts.
- My goal is to discover mechanisms and not just describe behavior or pose questions. This focus upon 'how does it work' is a result of my engineering background. I suggest that a search for general mechanisms makes it possible to combine theory and practice. If similar cognitive mechanisms show up everywhere, then one has discovered a general theory. But, if this theory describes how the mind functions, then it is possible to use this understanding to reprogram the mind so that it functions in a better manner, something which is eminently practical.
- Finally, what holds everything together is the diagram of mental symmetry shown above. It is fairly simple and does not contain any complicated math (though my book does use this model to explain some of the core cognitive mechanisms behind math).
If you are a beginner to the theory of mental symmetry, I suggest starting with A Programmer's Guide to the Mind which I wrote back in 1997. Even though it is slightly out of date, it still gives a good introduction to a number of basic concepts and is written at a fairly basic level. The book is divided into five sections and you can access the rest of the book from the Psychology page.
If all of this seems too complicated, then it is possible to approach this topic simply in terms of cognitive styles. Mental symmetry divides the mind into seven cognitive modules. Each cognitive style appears to be conscious in one of these seven cognitive modules. For instance, the Mercy person is conscious in the Mercy module. Therefore, if you want to know how a cognitive module functions, simply observe the behavior of a person with the corresponding cognitive style.
When one does research, it is proper to acknowledge others who are working in the field. Don and Katie Fortune have been teaching seminars since the 1980s using the same system of cognitive styles as mental symmetry and their main book has sold over 300,000 copies. They approach cognitive styles from a strongly Christian perspective and their website is here. If you want to know how a 'Christian perspective' affects a description of cognitive styles, I have attempted to analyze that. I should mention that I have not collaborated with the Fortunes, and instead of placing cognitive styles within a Christian framework as they do, I have attempted to use the theory of mental symmetry to analyze Christianity. But, since we have both been using the same system of cognitive styles for over 25 years, their work should be recognized and I admit that the writing style of Katie Fortune is more readable than mine. The original source for both their research and ours is described here.
Links to all my latest material can be found on the forum page where you can also post comments and questions.
My latest project is to put together the framework of a systematic natural theology by examining different branches of Christianity from a cognitive perspective. Please click on the Christianity tab for more details.
God, Theology & Cognitive Modules has now been out for about a year. This has led to some excellent interaction and I am more convinced than ever that this material is both accurate and significant. A few ideas have needed tweaking but overall the concepts are surviving quite well. It is available on Amazon. The price of the e-book version is $8.50 and the physical book retails for $27.95.
For those who have the book and are looking at the website, you will find a lot of supplemental material here. The model continues to evolve and my understanding becomes more precise, so I do not guarantee that everything on the website is 100% consistent with the book. The book refers only peripherally to personality traits, so I suggest clicking on various words on the diagram above for more information. Make sure that you also click on the sublinks that are on those pages. Also, the book only touches on neurology. More details can be found here.
In essence, the purpose of this book is to separate the content of religion from the attitude of religious fundamentalism, which can be done by starting from a cognitive model rather than from the specific words of some holy book. This does not mean that the content of a holy book is necessarily wrong. Rather, I suggest that it is the attitude of placing blind faith in a holy book that is inadequate, and that an attitude of blind faith in a holy book will warp a person's comprehension of the content of that book in predictable ways.
I have recently been extending the model of mental symmetry to the TESOL field, in collaboration with Angelina Van Dyke. TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) ties in very well with mental symmetry because students are experiencing major personal transformations in both linguistics and culture. We presented a paper at the Canadian national TESL conference in 2012 as well as at the BC TEAL conference in 2013. We are currently preparing a paper for publication, in which we use the theory of mental symmetry to analyze Slobin’s prerequisites for grammar acquisition, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms, Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphors, O’Donnell’s Community of Practice, Grice’s implicature, Arundale’s politeness theory, Culhane’s cultural model, Norton’s identity and power struggles, Habermas’ societal stages, Love and Guthrie’s cognitive development, Higgin’s possible selves, Dornyei’s motivational research, and Pollock’s Third Culture Kids. I can't post this paper online but you can download a copy of the PowerPoint of the 2012 presentation from near the bottom of this page. The 2013 version of the PowerPoint presentation can be found here and I have just added a 16 page written explanation to accompany the PowerPoint.
Back in 2006, I gave a two-hour introductory seminar on cognitive styles to some friends in Jerusalem. I have just posted this seminar in two parts to YouTube. Unfortunately, you cannot read the overhead slides on the video, but the quality of the recording is OK. This is not an academic seminar but was given to a religious lay audience at Christ Church Anglican church, which happens to be the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East.
For those who are interested in the history of this cognitive model, you can see what the mentalsymmetry website looked like back in 2002 as well as the level of understanding at that time. The earliest version of that website dates back to 2001. All the material on the current website is written by myself. The earlier versions contain a combination of material written by myself and my brother Lane Friesen. The 2001 version contains about 800 pages of hyperlinked descriptions of the seven cognitive styles backed up by quotes from 150 historical biographies, all written by Lane Friesen, which can be accessed the most easily here. Most of that descriptive and biographical material is not on the current website. When reading this earlier material please be aware that some of the neurological conclusions have been updated. However, the biographical quotes provide an excellent source, and the descriptions are still quite accurate, though they do portray the typical expression of each cognitive style and do not describe all the variations that result from culture and personal maturity.
I have been working on the theory of mental symmetry for almost thirty years. While my first two books have been hosted on another website for several years (the second book is still available at Book 2), I decided in the summer of 2010 that it was time to put together a website of my own on the subject. This website now contains over 1500 pages of information.
The theory of mental symmetry began life as a system of cognitive styles—a way of dividing people up into seven different categories. You will find a lot of information about personality types at www.cognitivestyles.com, along with a personality test which started out several decades ago as the project for my Master’s Degree but has since been massively rewritten and expanded. Lane Friesen is my older brother, he did the initial work on cognitive styles, and we did a lot of research together, though he no longer uses the diagram of mental symmetry.
The theory of mental symmetry has the following attributes:
- It can be used to analyze personality traits and predict personal compatibilities and conflicts.
- It maps onto major brain regions. Obviously, the brain is far more complicated than the diagram of mental symmetry. However this seems to be the simplest model that encapsulates mental functioning.
- It explains cognitive development. Mental symmetry does not just divide people up into various fixed categories. It also explains how the mind develops and the major stumbling blocks that emerge on the path to growing up, and appears to provide a theoretical framework for the research that was done by Jean Piaget on cognitive development.
- It explains economic behavior. Economists talk about value, money, inflation, and the marketplace. Mental symmetry explains the mental processing that lies behind all this activity.
- It explains many psychological conditions. Psychologists like to diagnose and treat various neuroses and psychoses. I have focused on analyzing how the mind works when it is functioning properly, which also provides a clue as to what has gone wrong when a syndrome strikes.
- It includes fundamental aspects of MBTI® (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) as a subset. The MBTI® categories are viewed as mental splits which must be integrated—at great personal cost—in order to achieve mental wholeness.
- It helps to understand history. Many years ago, I first read A Study in History, by Arnold Toynbee. While Toynbee came up with a number of significant concepts, it appears that the theory of mental symmetry allows you to go much further with the analysis of history.
- It can be used to explain the philosophy of science. In an appendix to my book, I analyze Quine's Web of Belief in extensive detail. Mental symmetry looks at the cognitive basis for scientific thought and extends this method to the subjective and the nonmaterial. Saying this another way, mental symmetry suggests how one can escape the materialism of scientism without abandoning the rational thought of science.
- It provides a rational, discussable basis for morality. According to mental symmetry, the ultimate personal goal is to achieve mental wholeness, which simply means having all seven mental modes working together in harmony. In essence, mental symmetry adds cognitive details to Kant's categorical imperative.
- It makes it possible to analyze religion. The cognitive science of religion analyzes folk religion but avoids theology. Mental symmetry uses a similar but extended approach to analyze folk religion, theology, and the cognitive science of religion. After all, a good cognitive theory should be able to analyze both the topic being studied and the researcher doing the studying.
- It provides a possible rational framework for UFOs and the supernatural. We all know that 'serious scientific work' avoids such fringe topics. However, in the same way that physicists explore concepts such as Flatland by altering natural laws in systematic ways, so I have found that if one uses the model of mental symmetry to explore the 'mirror image' of human existence, then descriptions of what we call the supernatural make some sense. This type of analysis seems to be consistent with the strangeness contained within quantum mechanics. Even if such a mirror-image non-physical realm does not exist, it appears that humans will be mentally driven to try to develop such a realm and will attempt to impose the resulting 'inhuman' structure upon the rest of humanity. I suggest that bureaucracy is one example of humans functioning in a mirror-image manner that is incompatible with normal human existence.
Obviously, when one is using a single cognitive model to analyze topics as diverse as religion, science, philosophy, psychology, culture, neurology, and 'aliens', then the very fact that these various topics are being mentioned in the same sentence may be taken by some to indicate that serious research is not being done.
However, if one takes a cognitive approach guided by a cognitive model, then one can tackle a rather broad range of topics in a rational manner. For instance, instead of trying to prove whether or not God exists, one can focus upon how the mind forms a concept of God, something which can be rationally analyzed independently of the existence of God. Even if God does not exist, a mental concept of God is sufficiently potent to drive the entire course of a society. One can also evaluate religions from a cognitive perspective. For, if one discovers that the steps which must be taken to reach mental wholeness correspond to the doctrines of a certain religion, then one can make the hypothesis that this is a valid religion.
MethodologyThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn is an insightful set of observations about how science works in practice and the many inherent contradictions that one finds in the supposedly rational pursuit of scientific knowledge. Kuhn makes the following general statement:
"The scientific enterprise as a whole does from time to time prove useful, open up new territory, display order, and test long-accepted belief. Nevertheless, the individual engaged on a normal research problem is almost never doing any one of these things. Once engaged, his motivation is of a rather different sort. What then challenges him is the conviction that, if only he is skilful enough, he will succeed in solving the puzzle that no one before has solved or solved so well” (p. 38).
My overall goal is to 'open up new territory, display order, and test long-accepted belief,' and I have found the theory of mental symmetry to be amazingly powerful for doing this. However, Kuhn calls this type of thinking 'revolutionary science', and he claims that the typical scientist 'is almost never doing any one of these things.' Instead, Kuhn says that normal science consists of solving intellectual puzzles guided by 'the rules of the game'. Thus, there is a major disconnect between what science claims to do (which is what the typical person thinks that science does), and what science actually does.
My personal experience lines up with Kuhn's observations. Generally speaking, I find that most academics are more interested in procedure and methodology than they are in discovering facts and building theories. Part of the problem is that there is no established methodology for the type of research which I am doing, because I am not using technical thought to solve problems within some paradigm, but rather using analogy to build a meta-theory that ties paradigms together. The idea of using analogy to analyze human thought has recently become well-established, for instance see Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied mind and its Challenge to Western Thought by Lakoff and Johnson. However, the tendency is either to use analogy in a non-rigorous way, by jumping to poetry or myth, or to suggest that the mind uses only analogy, as do Lakoff and Johnson.
Therefore, I would like to mention the principles which I have attempted to follow in order to make analogy semi-rigorous:
- Look at details: If situation A is merely like situation B, then this is not a rigorous analogy. But, if the details of A also correspond with the details of B, then this makes the analogy more rigorous. That is why I prefer to do a 30 page analysis of a single book rather than quote a few paragraphs from many books, because analyzing an entire book in detail forces the construction of more rigorous analogies.
- Compare many situations: If situation A is analogous to situation B, then the rigor of this analogy will be increased if one discovers that the same analogy is also present in situation C, or maybe even D. Therefore, I find that rigor can be added to the model of mental symmetry by using it to analyze more theories or fields.
- Compare independent situations: If one discovers an analogy between fields which normally are not related, then this is more impressive then discovering an analogy between closely related fields. Thus, I suggest that finding analogies between scientific thought and religious thought carries more weight than simply noticing parallels within science or religion. That is why the theory of mental symmetry attempts to analyze both the accepted and the unusual.
- Anchor an analogy in technical thought: Analogy goes beyond the boundaries of specific paradigms, but this does not mean that one ignores existing theories or established disciplines. Instead, an analogy becomes more plausible when an an analogy includes aspects of technical thought. Therefore, even though it is impossible in today's world to become an expert in many fields, I have attempted to become at least reasonably competent in the various fields which I discuss.
- Test analogies with empirical evidence: The theory of mental symmetry attempts to go beyond physical evidence, but this does not mean ignoring physical evidence. It is still possible to test analogies in the areas where analogies touch physical reality. In terms of an analogy, it may not be possible to empirically test the entire iceberg, but it is possible to test the part of the iceberg that sticks above the water. For instance, while mental symmetry explores many areas that are not studied by neurology, I have tried to make sure that the theory of mental symmetry is consistent with neurology in the areas where these two overlap.
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