Paarth Madan

A medium to iterate on my own thoughts.

Breaking Down Abstractions

Posted at — Apr 1, 2020

We use abstractions every day

We use thousands of abstractions everyday to simplify life and progress without allocating too much thought to trivial things.

For instance, we all think of light switches in an abstracted way. It’s a “black box”, that when toggled turns a light on and off – this works.

If every time you wanted to turn on a light you would need to think about how the switch you flick closes a circuit, allows current to pass into the peripheral, which heats up a filament, and produces light, and applied this same style of understanding or detail to every situation in your life – your mind would be in constant overdrive.

Abstractions help.

Abstractions are generally sufficient, and make life for our mind more manageable.

The same is true for the thousands of other patterns our brain is able to recognize, and dispatch a small habit or procedure to respond to. We think in abstractions, and respond in them too.

Another example – the human’s reflex against, or aversion to, high heat.

It only takes a serious burn once to permanently create a habit, trip wire, and an abstraction to avoid contact with high heat. It’s important that we abstract this away, and think of high heat in this “black box” sense, where avoiding contact is sufficient, and necessary.

We don’t analyze why it’s important to keep your hand away from the stove, it’s just a natural response, that’s built on an abstraction we created prior.

Sometimes though, abstractions can experiences lossy translation. It’s important to then break them down, and understand the system in more explicit detail, and why the abstraction was created in the first place. Let’s use a case study to better understand

Exercising in Sets and Reps

The inspiration behind this post is related to a paradigm in fitness. For those who workout, or perform strength training, the notion of performing an exercise for sets and reps is quite common.

Simply put, if you perform an exercise, say squats, and you’re following a “3 set, 10 rep” pattern, it would mean you perform 10 reps consecutively, a total of 3 separate times with rest in between.

Here, the system being abstracted is applying stress and placing your muscles under tension, and the abstraction used is a numerical system that lets us humans quickly understand and perform the work.

There’s a problem here though. Often, we understand the concept of the abstraction without, at all, understanding it’s original purpose or why the abstraction was put there in the first place.

Running with the same example, it’s important to know that the numerical rep-set system is a framework – and that’s all.

It’s a tool to implement progressive overload on your muscles, but at the end of the day, your muscles aren’t aware of how much weight is being used, or how many reps and sets are performed.

It understands the tension and stressed placed on them.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of the numbers game when doing strength training, prioritizing solely an improvement in the numbers.

It’s easy to plateau this way, as well.

Better understanding the abstraction, allows you to leverage it in a more effective way. Knowing that time under tension is the end goal, even with the numeric system in place, you won’t feel immense pressure to hit your numbers, and instead perform each rep with intention and an understanding of why you’re performing it.

A Mental Exercise: Breaking Down Abstractions in Your Life

This is one example, but I propose that better understanding the abstractions, and perhaps the system they are abstracting away, can improve our ability to use them.

After all, it’s a mental exercise. Break down some of the boxes or abstractions you have, and you’ll start to realize, that while they are indeed helpful, it’s important to widen the lens and gain context.

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