Modern re-interpretation of stoicism

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Stoic mind

Stoicism is a philosophy of mind that should be studied by everyone with interest in mental health and well-being.

From the point of view of neuroscience, stoicism could be best defined as the ability to work around negative mental side effects of adversity. This is the interpretation that I use throughout this site. The original philosophy of stoicism was born in times of a hazy understanding of the brain. No wonder it clashed with the philosophy of epicureanism that carries its own load of value. The two camps can easily be reconciled.

Knowledge and training may be used to stop Signal A from activating Concept X. Conditioning will then suppress activation of Concept X. If activation of Concept X leads to distress, we will reduce chances of distress. Suppression of negative activations is central to achieving a stoic mind.

As pleasure and pain are essential components of control systems in the brain, extending stoicism to the ability to suppress all forms of carnal expression would make stoicism potentially unhealthy. For example, self-control in cold exposure may help obtain the benefits of winter swimming. However, if that self-control is taken too far, it may result in nerve damage, or even frost bite (e.g. in mountain climbing). See: Harms of self-discipline

Most of all, we should embrace the pleasure of learning. Passions of creativity change this world and should be welcome. Passions and pleasures fall out form the ancient definition of stoicism. I am a proud epicure of learning and productivity.

Learned helplessness

Suppression of negative emotion can be achieved with conditioning. The signal that needs to be suppressed will compete with a signal that we want to dominate (competitive inhibition). Alternatively, we may condition an active inhibitory signal (e.g. cell body inhibition). A user of SuperMemo noticed that learned helplessness has many hallmarks of stoic reconciliation with one's fate. However, in learned helplessness, we observe the suppression of the quest for solutions to problems. Helplessness suppresses behaviors, while stoic conditioning suppresses negative side effects of natural emotional reactions.

Conditioning that leads to either (1) a stoic mind or (2) a helpless mind can be modelled with the concept of the war of the networks. As such, it may span from being (1) easily unlearned to (2) irreversible (in case of severe synaptic or neuronal loss).

It is hard to say if suppression of negative emotion might lead to harmful side effects of the war of the networks. We should always be wary of the interference with natural emotional states. Expressing anger may have many positive effects. It may energize the quest for goals. Expressing sadness may also be cathartic on occasion.

Art of stoicism

Stoicism as an art of self-control requires lifelong learning. It is probably best tackled with philosophical reading, musing, and self-experimentation.

In my positive interpretation of healthy stoicism, we should work around problems by finding positive interpretations of reality via creative learning (see: Learned optimism). For example, a failure in an exam may be an incentive to start up one's own business.

Healthy stoicism is best achieved via learning and creative elaboration. A rich set of backup options leads to a peace of mind

Due to the importance of sleep for creativity, and the importance of creativity for problem solving, sleep should be an important component of a modern stoic approach to life (see: Natural creativity cycle).

Emergence of stoicism

Stoicism is rewarding. It eliminates the penalty of negative emotion. As such, all individuals may naturally drift towards stoic attitudes given the right conditions. The reward of stoicism needs to compete with other rewards that might be more instantaneous. Moreover, the magnitude of the reward may extend in time. This is why it is easier to be stoic when there is a great deal of room for self-observation, self-reflection, and even deeper self-analysis. In addition, conditions that favor learning and creativity will also favor conditioning stoic attitudes. This is one of the reason why freedom improves social contentment. Unfortunately, modern lifestyles tend to assault the reward system, which may give preference to instant gratification, which in the end may suppress the conditioning needed to develop a stoic mind.

Reader comments

As soon as it text showed up on the net, I received scathing criticism from practitioners of stoic philosophy. Most of the criticism derives from poor understanding of my words. I will then only bulletize the clarifications:

  • I am not a student of Greek philosophy. I am looking for neural interpretations of a healthy human characteristic: the stoic mind
  • we know about the brain much enough for Greek philosophers to come to study our new understanding of how to best achieve a healthy stoic mind
  • the ancient interpretation of stoicism leads to the intolerance of impulsivity, which I list among 50 bad habits acquired at school
  • poor understanding of the physiological value of emotions resulted in an unnecessary conflict between stoics and epicureans
  • being optimistic does not imply being wrong. In learned optimism, we can counterbalance 1 unhappy fact with 33 happy facts that are all acquired through valid learning and creative elaboration. See: Myth: Optimists are less realistic
  • the term "suppress emotions" should be interpreted as a battle between signals (positive and negative signals). Those battles are subject to conditioning. A good knowledge of an injury helps reduce "the pain". High productivity can suppress the sense of loss (e.g. in case of a death in family)
  • anger can be extremely valuable. It can anchor valuations in knowledge valuation network. I am very unhappy with the destruction of the environment. However, I do not physically lash out at polluters. I rationalize. A mere mentioning of climate change is my rational micro-contribution to the cause. In the year 2011, I gave up using petrol-driven vehicles. That's now nearly a decade of using my feet to move my body around. I channeled the negative into a healthy passion for moving around on my steam
  • my own stoic thinking is rooted in the Intrinsically Valuable State

Further reading



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru