Open to letter
Published: 2023-02-18 . Back to ≈

I want you to write me a letter. A good one. After all, I wrote one for you. Did you not know? It’s right here:

Hi, there.

We probably don’t know each other. And that’s sad.

It might be sad because fate has slated us to be deep friends, and yet, in defiance of fate, we have failed even to speak a word to each other.

It might be sad because you and I share a passion for some of the same things, and we could be collaborating or learning from each other.

It might be sad because you’ve seen patterns in life that I have failed to notice or have experienced ways of being and doing that I have not. Maybe the bit of universe that is you sees the world around you in a unique and beautiful way—a way in which I could also learn to see it. But you have yet to let me view it through your eyes.

It might be sad because we could be exchanging pleasantries that would brighten our worlds just a bit, but instead we are just casually avoiding eye contact.

Perhaps we can agree that this is a problem. We can probably also agree that writing a letter to solve this problem isn’t normal (by the way, are you normal?). Maybe there are good reasons for this and maybe there are only bad reasons.

I can think of a few of bad reasons:

  1. The world has no particular use for us to get to know each other. There’s no money to be made, and much of our modern culture has been shaped by raw capitalism.
  2. We’re generally too busy to give the idea of writing a long-form letter a second thought.
  3. Many of us actually long for the deep engagement represented by writing a letter, but lack effective signaling mechanisms for finding others who share this desire.

My writing this letter is my attempt to help solve the first and third problems—you’ll have to work out the second problem for yourself! This is my invitation to do a thing that is economically worthless, quite abnormal, but perhaps just what the world needs; and write me a letter back.

So far, believe that this letter isn’t a very good one. Let me see if I can fix that. I want this letter to be about something. So I’m going to pick a random thought which I have not written about before, and write something about it. For you.

Actually, it’s not a random thought after all all. It comes from pondering the question “What should an open letter to the world be about?” and mostly coming up with nothing. It’s pretty common for me to feel at a loss for ideas when there aren’t enough constraints. When faced with a space of possibilities that is too large, my mind goes silent. The fountain of ideas slows to a trickle. And I think it could be fun to explore why this is the case.

My intuition is that much of the “information” contained in the brain—for example, the creative ideas about which I might want to write a letter—is encoded in the way in which networks of neurons respond to different stimuli and internal brain states. But this means that in order to access some of these ideas, we need to “activate” them by putting the brain in the right state or presenting it with the right stimuli.

It’s a bit like memories. There are many memories which I am unaware that I have until the right situation or state of mind causes the memory to be vividly recalled to mind. This often causes me to wonder how many more moments I will have with that individual memory in my life; and also how many other such memories have already entered by conscious awareness for the last time, though in principle they could still be activated by the right stimuli.

So why are highly open-ended questions difficult for the mind? It may just be because we are actually dependent on constraints to bootstrap our creativity. It is the constraints which provide the kind of structure that the mind needs in order to activate the circuits corresponding to various memories, ideas, feelings, and moods. Often, by the time the constraints have been fully stated, these activations have already cascaded into the overall shape of an idea to explore.

Based on this bit of reflection, one recipe for creativity in decision spaces that are too large would be to recruit other parts of the mind—for example one’s critical thinking apparatus—to help introduce some reasonable constraints until such a point where, paradoxically, creativity can flow more freely. Or maybe just take some drugs…

Now, I’ve spent some time writing down thoughts and giving you a feel for what a letter from me could look like. And since I’ve made the argument that constraints are a boon to creativity, I won’t fail to leave you with a few, hopefully evocative constraints.

Please write me a letter about one of the following:

  1. Time
  2. Memory/Identity
  3. Curiosity and longing
  4. Being open vs being closed
  5. An illusion that you have maintained
  6. A story with true parts and false parts
  7. An irreversible decision you consciously made
  8. A risk that paid off for you or one that blew up

I’d love to see where your mind goes with one of these. Or, if you have a rich fountain of unprompted creativity, please throw away my list and write as you will! Or maybe you have something specific and pointed you want to say. Fine, too.

In any case, I’d love to get a thoughtful letter from you.