From the Publisher
“I always suspected I had few bad habits of mind. Thanks to André Kukla, I am now certain I have many. If that makes reading Mental Traps sound like a dispiriting experience, it shouldn’t. Kukla has a light touch with weighty ideas. Readers will be enlightened and entertained, as well as improved.”
— Jamie Whyte, author of Crimes Against Logic
“While it may be unlikely that any single person will have fallen into all mental traps so cunningly described by André Kukla in this exhilarating book, it is absolutely certain that every person will have fallen into some of them. That’s why it will ring loud bells and switch on bright lights in the minds of all who read it. Which means, of course, that everyone ought to.”
— Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh, author of Godless Morality
“Ever looked TWICE for your lost keys in an EMPTY bowl? Returned more than once to check you’d locked the door? Ever spoiled a moment by niggling with your partner over trivia? Ever been unable to get yourself to do something you really know you should? EVER LOST OUT because you couldn’t decide between two great lovers, or two great investments? OF COURSE YOU HAVE! André Kukla shows us how to think about these Mental Traps. If you want out of the big sandtraps and onto the green, read his book. KUKLA IS RIGHT! We could all be bopping along much more comfortably towards our goals. His nice, clear, straightforward examples steer us past the trap horizons. He helps us out of dark mental ditches into which we have fallen. His stories give us insights we need to talk about to those who know us INTIMATELY — or over the watercooler, in the coffeehouse, or at our bookclub.”
— John M. Kennedy, FRSC
Read an Excerpt
Mental traps are habitual modes of thinking that disturb our ease, take up enormous amounts of our time, and deplete our energy, without accomplishing anything of value for us or for anyone else in return.
The word “value” here, and throughout this book, refers to whatever seems worthwhile to us. This book is not a moral tract. It doesn’t take the side of useful work against recreation, or social involvement against self-indulgence. If we’re content to watch television all day, then this activity will not be counted here as a waste of time. Watching television has value for us.
The fact remains that we often exhaust ourselves in troublesome pursuits that don’t in any way further the actualization of our very own values, whatever they may happen to be. These useless pursuits are the mental traps. Mental traps keep us from enjoying television as readily as they keep us from serious work. They are absolute wastes of time.
Mental traps are identified not by the content of our ideas but by their form. Any aspect of daily life – household chores, weekend recreation, careers, relationships – may be thought about either productively or unproductively. We fall into the same traps when we wash the dishes as when we contemplate marriage or divorce. It’s not the subject of our thinking, but how we deal with the subject, that makes the difference. When we rid ourselves of any one trap, we find that our problems in every department of life are simultaneously eased.
We build unproductive structures of thought on every conceivable timescale. One and the same mental trap may hold us in its sway for a fleeting moment or for a lifetime. And the momentary traps are just as pernicious as the lifelong traps. Because of their brevity, the mere moments of wasted time and energy are especially difficult to grasp and correct. They’re over and done with before we’re aware of what we’re doing. The result is that they’re fallen into with monumental frequency. It’s doubtful that the average twenty-first-century urban adult is altogether free of them for more than a few minutes at a time. By the end of the day, the cumulative effect of these brief episodes may be an entirely unaccountable exhaustion.
The basic idea underlying mental traps was concisely expressed a few thousand years ago:
To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven.
When we deviate from this profound advice – when we begin at the wrong time, proceed at the wrong pace, quit too soon or too late – we fall short of what we might otherwise accomplish.
Again, there’s no attempt here to prescribe the content of our activities. To everything there is a season. Both the enjoyment of good food and the scramble up the ladder of success may be legitimate parts of our life. But if we try to advance our career while we’re eating dinner, we ruin our digestion–and we can’t really do good work as we pass the salt and slurp the soup. Neither of our values is well served. Given the same values, we could make far better use of our time and resources.
Our lapses from doing the best thing at the best time and in the best way fall into recurrent and readily identifiable patterns. These are the mental traps.
If mental traps are injurious to us, why do we fall into them? Why don’t we simply quit? There are three reasons. First, we’re often unaware of what we’re thinking. Second, even when we are aware of our thoughts, we often don’t recognize their injurious nature. Third, even when we recognize their injurious nature, we often can’t quit because of the force of habit.
If the thinking that goes on when we’re trapped remains below the level of consciousness, we can’t even begin to change it. We can’t choose to stop doing what we’re not aware of doing in the first place. If we didn’t know that we wore clothes, it would never occur to us to take them off, even if we felt too hot. By the same token, when we don’t know that we’re thinking unproductive thoughts, the option of stopping doesn’t present itself.
The idea that we can be unaware of our own thoughts may strike us as paradoxical, for we tend to equate consciousness with thinking itself. But the two are by no means identical processes. We may be exquisitely conscious of the taste of an exotic fruit or the feel of an orgasm without having a thought in our head. And we may be filled to overflowing with an unbroken stream of ideas without noticing a single one. The following mental experiment will convince us of this important point.
When we aren’t occupied with any definite business or pleasure, our thoughts often wander from one topic to another on the basis of the flimsiest associations. This experiment can be conducted only when we happen to catch ourselves in the midst of such wanderings. For those who don’t fall asleep quickly, the time spent lying awake in bed is especially rich in this material. As soon as we catch ourselves wandering, we can begin a backward reconstruction of the sequence of ideas that led us to where we are. If we were thinking about the beauty of Paris, we may recall that this was preceded by a thought about a friend who has just returned from there. The idea of the friend’s return may have come from the recollection that this person owes us money, which may in turn have come from ruminations about our financial difficulties, which may have been elicited by the idea that we would like to buy a new car.