Book Review: Trying Not to Try

In his new book Trying Not to Try, the University of British Columbia Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition professor Edward Slingerland treats us to a work of seminal importance. Yet never was there such an important book that takes itself so lightly. Slingerland explains the correspondence between ancient Chinese philosophical ideas about wu-wei, or doing by not doing, and modern neuroscience. In doing so in erudite fashion, he also manages to discuss Woody Allen, magic mushrooms, his daughter's storybooks, Luke Skywalker and how hard it is to get a date when you're desperate.

The revolutions currently (and unfortunately, too quietly) taking place in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy departments heralding the importance of emotional processes have put paid to certain notions of the mind as a disembodied rational force. Due to the work of many over the years, people in the field are beginning to view feelings as cognitive maps of the body with an organizing provenance in the somatosensory cortex, not expendable literal "after-thoughts" of the older limbic system. As the scientist and writer Antonio Damasio has noted, feelings can no longer be brushed aside if we are to take seriously what we are learning about their anatomical and experiential importance. "What's wrong with feeling fine and being happy?" Damasio has asked. "Well, there seems to be a lot wrong actually if the well-being and happiness are substantially and chronically at variance with what the body would normally be reporting to the brain." We are learning that when we manipulate emotions too much with conscious cognitive control, either through cultural training or an individual pattern of suppression, we set up unhealthy patterns in the brain.

For instance, in a study of people with schizophrenia, researchers found that subjects exhibited over-active cognitive emotion control. People who develop schizophrenia in this way probably exhibit over-active cognitive emotion control patterns early in life that then deplete their ability to exhibit appropriate cognitive control to meet demanding adult situations. Additionally, dysfunctions in emotional regulation are linked to violence in non-clinical populations. Other researchers have found that emotional suppression over time reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain essential for making rational decisions and developing empathy. Again, over-activity in one area of a network, in this case the cognitive control network, may cause a compensation mechanism to occur that reduces its ability to function well long-term.

Amid this quiet revolution, Slingerland has devoted years to studying the cognitive science behind his own academic interest in wu-wei, also interpreted as effortless action, which features prominently in Confucian, Daoist and later Zen traditions. He has focused on the West's elevation of cognitive control mechanisms at the expense of embodied cognition. He identifies the anterior cingulate cortex as a sort of sentinel that operates to look out for conditions that might require cognitive control, activating the lateral prefrontal cortex, which actually induces the controlled, deliberative problem solving skills to address the given situation.

Colorful examples of alternatives to cognitive control abound in Slingerland's book. He talks about athletes, actors and others who reach peak flow-like states and the imaging experiments that show these subjects had deactivated their lateral prefrontal cortex. He relates endearing stories of ancient Chinese sages whose seeming bumbling and lack of purposefulness actually assured that though they did nothing, nothing was left undone. Amid the fun, he teaches an excellent lesson on how subsequent Chinese schools of philosophy responded to each prior school's quest to establish a way to achieve wu-wei under different guises. He establishes how Confucians such as Xunzi and the Mohist school embraced an effortful approach to cultivating wu-wei whereas those who followed the Daeodejing and the sage Zhuangzi favored a more relaxed, less effortful approach to attaining this mysterious state of the body-mind. He concludes that balancing between trying and not trying to cultivate wu-wei is an unsolvable, but tolerable, paradox. One wonders whether it might prove fruitful to examine the ability to attain wu-wei by both trying and not trying at the same time, recognizing that both processes are most likely occurring neurochemically in the brain at the same time amid its multitudinous responsibilities. (Because as much as one thinks he or she is perfectly conscious, rational and in control, the brain is still regulating autonomic bodily processes outside of consciousness; and when one achieves a more relaxed state of embodied cognition, one is still to some extent consciously aware one has achieved it to realize it at all.) Perhaps it is in forcing oneself to choose between effort or lack of effort that the confusion sets in.

It is tempting upon hearing that a part of your brain is acting as an authoritative dictator and overriding your natural feelings and moral sense to dismiss cognitive control altogether. This feeling becomes especially acute when one imagines how commonplace such a state is across cultures -- and in seats of high power. Yet Slingerland presents a very balanced understanding of cognitive control, noting that these cognitive processes evolved over the years as group cooperation strategies. Not all emotion came to be tolerated or useful for the functioning of society. To be fair, he notes that in certain circumstances, cognitive control certainly can be useful. However, without a certain spontaneity of emotions, he doubts that people can trust each other in complex societies.

Wu-wei may also be essential to morality. He writes, "Morality in the real world has to be spontaneous, unselfconscious, automatic and hot. Coming to some rational conclusion about the right way to act, and then trying to force your body to comply, simply doesn't work. It's not effective at the individual level and it's not sustainable on the social level. Realistic moral behavior has to spring from the spontaneous, embodied mind -- from wu wei. This does not necessarily eliminate the need for instruction and training. As we've discussed, the unconscious can be educated."

As the academy is beginning to open up to the non-cognitive revolution, Edward Slingerland's work serves as an interdisciplinary milestone because of its potential to relate difficult ideas in ordinary and playful language about practical, important issues like work, politics and morality. That 2,000-year-old Chinese ideas are coming to be seen as cutting edge is a testament to the richness inherent in the idea of wu-wei and the exciting nature of cross-cultural dialogues. While it will surely take some effort to spread wu-wei in a Western culture saturated by the idea that emotions have to be controlled by the mind, Trying Not to Try is a great step forward. Slingerland's writing, if not wu-wei, is without a doubt effortless.