Tendrils of Mess in our Brains

Messes are intimate, secret, somewhat shameful. Mess is supposed to be kept backstage. Posting this picture of my messy workspace is almost as embarrassing and inappropriate as posting nudes, but it’s necessary aesthetic background:

Author's mess

Author’s mess

All the new thinking about mess is apologetics: what if mess is good? Perhaps mess makes us more creative. Messiness is a sign of intelligence. All that. As a pathologically messy person, I cannot concur with this glorification of mess. Being in a messy environment is stressful and discouraging. There is an unease that remains even when you block out the conscious awareness of mess.

This is not say that mess is a pure bad. Mess is not even necessarily ugly. The famous photograph of Albert Einstein’s desk, taken on the day he died, is a particularly picturesque mess. This is recognizably a mess, but it is calming to look at, and deeply touches our personal feelings. It has mono no aware.

Einstein's desk, a picturesque mess

Einstein’s desk, a picturesque mess

Most mess is not pleasing to look at, especially when experienced raw, without the benefit of a photographer imposing an overall order on the mess through composition and a monochrome palette.

Basement clutter (note: this is not my mess)

Basement clutter (note: this is not my mess)

Alan Watts is, as far as I know, the premier ordinary language philosopher of mess. He enters the problem with an observation: clouds are not a mess.

When you look at the clouds they are not symmetrical. They do not form fours and they do not come along in cubes, but you know at once that they are not a mess. A dirty old ashtray full of junk may be a mess but clouds do not look like that. When you look at the patterns of foam on water they never make an artistic mistake and they are not a mess. They are wiggly but in a way, orderly, although it is difficult for us to describe that kind of order.

Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy, p. 27.

Watts observes that elements of the natural world – clouds, foam on water, the stars, human beings – are not messes, though the nature of their order remains inscrutable, and Watts doesn’t try to pin down its precise nature. Mess seems to be somehow a property perceptible only in the presence of human artifacts. Is this the result of some kind of aesthetic original sin on the part of humans, uncanny beings severed from the holiness of Nature? I hope not. “Humans are bad” is a boring answer.

We can learn something about order from the mystery of mess. We start here: a cloud is not a mess, but an ashtray full of cigarette butts is a mess. In tracking down why this is so, we will find, through the lens of the mess and the non-mess, a clue to the hidden orders in our minds.

Mess Is Not Shannon Entropy

What is salient about mess is disorder. At the outset, we might be tempted to think of mess and disorder as the mere absence of order. But we will see that mess cannot be present without the visual implication of a legible order.

In the abstract language of information theory, the kind of disorder called entropy is the lack of structure or compressibility in data. Consider a rectangular field of pixels which can be either black or white. A field of pure black or pure white has maximum order in the sense of Shannon entropy: you hardly need any bits to explain how to recreate the image. This is not a mess.


On the other hand, consider a rectangle of pixels specified by a random process, with black and white equally likely. There is no way to compress this data: each pixel must be specified separately. It has maximum entropy (within this monochrome, rectangular, pixelated problem space). But it is not a mess.


Finally, consider this rectangle of black and white pixels:


This rectangle takes fewer bits to specify than the randomly pixelated rectangle. There are repeated letter forms, geometric forms, patches of black and white. There is much more order and compressibility here. And it’s a mess.

Consider also the clouds. When Alan Watts notes that they are not symmetrical and do not come along in cubes, this is a way of saying that the number of bits necessary to specify a picture of the clouds is quite high. They have high entropy, they contain a lot of information, yet they are not mess.

Is it possible for any fluffy white thing in the sky to be a mess? Imagine a skywriter convention, with many planes writing words in different fonts (some in single lines, some in dot matrix style) across the sky. Gradually the wind obscures the legibility of some letters. This seems like a mess. But, again, this sky requires fewer bits to specify: patterns of letters and dots are repeated and may be specified as mathematical shapes rather than pixel by pixel.

It seems that human artifacts made from natural materials do not decay into mess, while human artifacts made from highly ordered artificial materials (sheet rock, plastic) decay into mess. Compare this rough stone ruin overgrown with moss

Credit: Wikipedia User Finetooth

Credit: Wikipedia User Finetooth

with the ruins of a rectilinear room made from highly ordered materials:

Credit: Wikimedia User Editor5807

Credit: Wikimedia User Editor5807

The stone ruin is not a mess, but the rectilinear green ruin is clearly a mess. And again, it would take us more bits to specify the mossy stone ruin than the crumbling painted interior, with its straight lines and even flat surfaces interrupted by corruption and decay.

So here is a mystery: why are tableaux that are apparently more orderly (in the sense of compressibility in the data required to specify them) also more messy? Let me offer a few more hints, in the form of definitions supplied by my friends, before I reveal the answer. Sam Burnstein notes a connection to intentionality: “Messes are low-intentionality as a whole but high-intentionality in their component pieces.” “A mess is a decaying purpose,” says @allgebrah. Chris Beiser deconstructs the experience of mess: “Mess is an incomplete aesthetic experience composed of a surplus of objects that produce aesthetic experiences (often themselves incomplete) of vastly different types and durations, without a canonical ordering.” And Daniel Klein hints at the implied user interface of mess in conceiving of “mess as matter deficient in side-effect-free interfaces.”

And here is the answer: in order for mess to appear, there must be in the component parts of the mess an implication of extreme order, the kind of highly regular order generally associated with human intention. Flat uniform surfaces and printed text imply, promise, or encode a particular kind of order. In mess, this promise is not kept. The implied order is subverted. Often, as in my mess of text and logos above, the implied order is subverted by other, competing orders.

The information theory equivalent of a mess might be a chunk of data, pieces of which have been encoded using different symbolic systems, according to no particular order. If we discover the correct encoding for a part of the message, this seems to promise that it will work for the whole thing; but this promise is not kept.

Mess is only perceptible because it produces in our minds an imaginary order that is missing. It is as if objects and artifacts send out invisible tendrils into space, saying, “the matter around me should be ordered in some particular way.” The stronger the claim, and the more the claims of component pieces conflict, the more there is mess. It is these invisible, tangled tendrils of incompatible orders that we are “seeing” when we see mess. They are cryptosalient: at once invisible and obvious.

Every object and building implies a particular order, rendering some objects incompatible. If these incompatible objects are present, they are “mess.” Some buildings are more “exclusive” than others, aesthetically excluding large classes of objects. These highly ordered buildings are, for this reason, prone to mess. Stewart Brand, in How Buildings Learn (at around 14:50, h/t Graham Johnson), interviews the residents of an austere, rectilinear, highly-ordered Le Corbusier house. They note that they have had to get rid of “inessentials” in order to live there, forgoing ornate antique furniture and comfortable armchairs. A maison Corbu strongly projects a particular order onto its space, such that the vast majority of human furnishings are aesthetically excluded, rendered mess. Living within these constraints is a discipline, and “purifies the soul” in the sense of requiring you to live like you’re on a camping trip all the time. Houses with less austere order place more relaxed demands on their contents, including their occupants.

That which is “garbage” is aesthetically excluded from almost every visible order. Garbage is mess by its very nature, even if it is not the kind that rots. It must be taken away to where no one will look at it, because the decaying imprints of order it bears interfere with the aesthetic demands of all human spaces. Artists have been interested in garbage for precisely this reason. One of the few examples I have seen of garbage being incorporated into an order that is not “mess” is the nest of a bowerbird that has been decorated with bright blue plastic bottle caps and bright blue plastic straws.


Do non-human animals perceive mess? A bowerbird must. In order for the male to build and tidy up the bower (whose only purpose is for display), and for the female to judge it, they must have cognitive access to an imaginary order – a kind of ideal bower – to compare it to.

Like humans, some non-human animals exert effort to keep their feces away from their living spaces. (Sociologists call this the “fecal habitus,” in their manner of rendering the familiar alien.) Feces are aesthetically incompatible with human spaces; “mess” is used euphemistically for feces produced in ordered spaces and contexts that exclude them. Presumably, feces exclusion originated in a pathogen avoidance strategy. We keep feces, urine, vomit, and blood away from social contexts (to the extent possible) because they could be sources of highly ordered entities (bacteria, viruses) that will disrupt and conflict with our bodies’ own order.

The hygienic function of keeping incompatible orders separate extends into the objects of the mental world. Mess is stressful and uncomfortable; politeness demands that we cover, hide, or mask indications of orders incompatible with our mutually projected social order. At minimum, we must cover our nakedness outside of the intimate sphere. In masking parts of reality, we need not become less ourselves; what is masked forms the background against which the form of what is not masked is clear and salient.


When enough snow falls on a city to make everything look soft and white on top, it looks less messy. Limiting the color palette and softening sharp lines renders the underlying order more harmonious. The snow masks the conflicting orders implied by billboards, cars, dumpsters, and concrete sidewalks. A mess photographed in black and white (masking color) looks less messy. Strong composition of a photograph can mask messiness, foregrounding a certain subset of forms that interact harmoniously.

In my above example of the “mess” rectangle with overlapped text and logos, if either layer were masked, it would not be a mess. Covering certain aspects of reality is necessary to leave other aspects perceptible. We mask incompatible things from each other in order to prevent mess, and politely mask mess itself. Mess is intimate.

How can houses allow for the existence of mess without being a mess? Christopher Alexander’s ALCOVE pattern (in The Timeless Way of building) is a solution to the conflicting forces of intimate mess and social interaction, using a sort of mask. People want to be together, but they also like to do their own hobbies and activities. The person doing the hobby (say, me knitting) is absorbed in an imaginary order of the future, and only vaguely aware of the visual appearance of tools, materials, books. To observers who are not presently absorbed in this hobby, it looks like a mess. Knitting, for instance, requires not only knitting needles, but scissors, a tape measurer, a crochet hook, a yarn needle, and stitch markers. Loose ends are clipped off and accumulate, together with the unused remains of balls of yarn. Garments in progress have loose strands hanging off of them. Stitch books must sometimes be consulted. (This is not just my problem: producing containers for organizing hobby supplies of all kinds is a major industry.)

An alcove offers a little place to do a hobby that masks the distasteful appearance of mess and allows the hobbyist to be together with others without annoying them. If they all sat in one big room around a big table, the mess would distract and irritate. Multiple hobbyists’ incompatible messes might even flood together into a supermess, and swallow everyone.

Clothing in general, and costumes of particular social roles (business suits, priest collars), are like alcoves for our bodies. We take them with us and can interact with others safely within social orders, without getting distracted by the intimate order of the body.

Orders of Strands

What is likely to be a mess? I think one of the most common messes is your hair. We should be suspicious of our hair for several reasons: first, humans grow the longest hair of any mammal. Second, no other mammal has our hair pattern of unlimited-length head hair growth and limited-length body hair growth. Third, Donald E. Brown included “hairstyles” on the list of human universals.

Long strands, whether curly or straight, are difficult to keep organized. Thread is wound on a spool; rope is looped; electronic cables are intricately braided; yarn is organized in skeins and balls; hair is brushed, braided, waxed, shaved, dreaded, wrapped around hair donuts, trimmed, dyed, and pinned up.

Incidentally, another of Brown’s human universals is the production and use of string, yarn, or a tying material. Humans quickly became virtuosos at organizing fibers.

Hair is “a mess” if it has not been ordered according to the standards of one’s culture and situation. To have hair is to have a black hole of ordering effort: merely existing (sleeping, running, wearing a hat, going outside, etc.) disrupts the order of hair. The quality of being “a mess” is perhaps more perceptible in hair that has been carefully pinned up into a complicated style and slept in, than in hair that is merely unstyled and unbrushed. The tattered remains of a hairstyle imply an order incompatible with having hairs sticking out everywhere and being kind of smushed on one side. Merely unbrushed hair only suggests the alternate order of brushed hair.

Human hair, then, is a locus for the display of order. Its “natural” state is mess, implying that hair comes with an order deficit, requiring organizational effort to come up to the level of acceptable human. Our minds and personalities are similar.

The Order of Clouds

Alan Watts said that there is a way to turn any mess into not-mess: add symmetry. The example he gives is a kaleidoscope, in which a mess of incompatible things is turned into a shifting geometric pattern.

The kaleidoscope, transformer of messes, adds a particular kind of symmetry. It is not mere bilateral symmetry; Rorschach blots can still be messes. The kaleidoscope produces what Christopher Alexander calls local symmetries: the property of being composed of many overlapping sub-pieces that display symmetry. Watts says that clouds are not symmetrical, and they are not, precisely, but in their forms we can often detect local symmetries (particularly in stratoculumulus clouds).

Here is the earlier picture of basement clutter transformed with a kaleidoscope filter:


This no longer looks like mess. Shape and form at different levels of scale pop out. Deformed, fragmented, and reflected upon themselves, the components of the mess no longer conflict with each other as much. Conceptually, they are masked; whatever they were, whatever reality they implied, is lost in the new order of geometric forms.

“Local symmetries” is the most objective of Christopher Alexander’s Fifteen Fundamental Properties, described in The Nature of Order (see my The Quality Without a Name at the Betsy Ross Museum” and The Fifteen Fundamental Properties). “Alternating repetition” is also a rather objective property, and the kaleidoscope imposes that too (see the alternating arms). In this image, strong centers (perceptible, thing-ish subsets) are formed and support each other. The arms form thick borders.

The kaleidoscope transforms mess into non-mess by viewing the mess through a (literal) lens of many of the Fifteen Fundamental Properties. It imposes an organization so strong that it cancels out the whining from whatever garbage or mess you put into it. These are the properties that are found throughout Nature, as well as in beautiful architecture and objects – beautiful not in the sense that they are striking, but in the sense that they produce a sense of inner calm and the ability to recognize one’s self in them.

Are there truly no messes in Nature? That it “never makes an aesthetic mistake”? On short time scales, at least, there seem to be natural messes. When a tornado destroyed most of Cathedral Pines in Connecticut, the result looked to residents like a mess. People even cleaned it up, removing fallen trees from the newly-bare ground. The perception of the flattened forest, with trees scattered and dead, conflicted with the remembered order, the ideal, ordinary forest with trees mostly alive and pointing up. An enormous force disrupted the everyday order of the forest; this order repairs itself, but only slowly.

The underlying natural order of clouds and stars, Alan Watts says, is difficult to describe. It is a special order formed of many regular mathematical laws operating on an irregular world. Life exploits mathematical elegance, while making local adjustments everywhere according to the systems it interacts with – wind, water, sun, other life. The Fifteen Fundamental Properties are an attempt to describe, if not explain, the order of nature, which somehow never seems like a mess.

Clouds are an image of the interaction between air currents, water, and geography. Each element is a reflection of the others. Animals and plants are reflections of their environments, which change to become reflections of them. Being constantly rebuilt by independent entities and forces at all scales of time and space, constrained by each other, is how the order of nature never looks like a mess (except during tornado season).

An irregular world struggling to be regular always achieves a certain level of regularity which is interrupted by unusual configurations created by the very forces that produce the regularity as they act against a framework of three-dimensional constraints inherent in space.

Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order Vol. 1, p. 279

The properties predict several things about mess. A building or object that displays these properties is likely to retain them as it decays (see the mossy stone ruin), whereas things lacking the properties are likely to decay into mess. And a mess will be more pleasant if it is ordered by the fundamental properties. Alexander gives the example of a typical car repair shop: it appears rugged and even grimy, but it has the kind of “‘messy’ order that has been created by the real everyday needs of the people who work there.” He contrasts this with the superficially orderly, but shallow and sterile, storefront of a restaurant (id. at p. 337).

Just as the bowerbird has some kind of cognitive access to the imaginary way a bower should look, we seem to have access to a mental order hinted at by the fifteen fundamental properties, intuitively if not consciously.

Imaginary Orders

A great deal of our reality is made from imaginary orders we carry around in our heads. We use these imaginary orders to rebuild, navigate, and judge our world. A mess is a visceral clue to the existence of these invisible orders.

Perhaps we can braid some threads.

A mess is a juxtaposition of components, one or more of which implies an order that conflicts with the orders implied by the other components. In other words, two or more components create incompatible mental projections.

A joke (or humor in general) is the surreptitious introduction of a mental projection that is later shown to be mistaken. Incompatible mental projections quickly switch places in time. (See On Some Possibilities for Life as a Joke.)

A self is constructed from first-person experience and from mental projections of how others see oneself; these are often in conflict. (See The Essence of Peopling.)

A story or narrative is a mental projection of characters and events embedded in a particular causal logic. Listening to a story seems passive, but in order to process the narrative, the listener must construct a coherent mental world out of the details provided. Unconscious predictions are made, and then winnowed and changes as more evidence is presented and conflicts resolved. The experience bears a strong resemblance to the game, says Nick Lowe (in The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative, text from which is mangled with logos in an image above):

I would suggest that these homologies between the two different kinds of model universe [game and narrative] may be more than coincidental: that narrative universes and games are different cultural artifacts of a common underlying cognitive apparatus, originally evolved to interpret real-world experience to an intelligible system of mental representations.

As human beings, “projecting and sharing stylized model worlds in mental space” is both our ancestral job and our favorite hobby. The world that we interact in is mostly imaginary, constructed by all of us out of fantasies and guesses. As we get more intelligent, we will get more imaginary.

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. This might be my new most favorite piece by you, and I think it sheds a different kind of light on the idea of illegibility, which is a kaleidoscope responsible for many local symmetries around here.

    Also reminds me of a passing thought of mine in a 1999 post that I reposted here in 2011, on my hike through Namdapha national park. I never went down that bunnytrail, but think ‘mess’ is what I was meditating on in there. Specifically I think you just answered the question I posed in this bit, at least partially.

    “Why does this overabundance of life have such a still, deathlike facade? The place seems startlingly clean. Wait a minute. Clean? There is damp rotting stuff all around, there is a smelly green puddle just yards away. Would you sleep with a tub of compost in your room? No, this is not a clean place, not a tidy place. What is it then, this odd feeling of cleanliness?”

    • Thank you! I tried really hard to write this without using the word “legibility” but cheating in the comments, mess is the conflict of mutually conflicting legibilities.

  2. Love it. But is an ashtray full of cigarette butts really a mess?

  3. I also question the idea of clouds or the black and white pixel field as being incompressible. Yes, you need a ton of bits to express that particular cloudscape and that exact black and white pixel field but you can write a short program that will generate random similar cloudscapes or random pixel fields that will produce identical affects.

    But I think I’m nitpicking.

  4. I love this piece. Thank you for writing Sarah. I feel like I learned something I had long known but been unable to express.

    • Víctor Marín says:

      That’s what I love of this blog. You get someone to sort and cohere your loose thoughts and feelings, in exchange of being influenced by refactoring the conflicting ones.

  5. Wow yes. Especially liked these quotes:

    “Messes are low-intentionality as a whole but high-intentionality in their component pieces.” “A mess is a decaying purpose,”

    I completely agree with this about human messes.

    But natural ecosystems are also a confusing riot of parts with conflicting purposes. Each organism, each gene, is out there pursuing its own business. I think the difference is that biological purposes have been rubbing against each other and co-evolving for millions of years, while industrial-age human ones have not. Time rubs the sharp edges off the clashing purposes and produces something with acceptable aesthetics.

  6. As a literal optics framework the kaleidoscope example is fantastic. The re ordering and contextual repetition is really at the heart of all pleasing art. It reminds me of the mess of a shattered hologram. Each shard contains the original wholeness though we may only perceive the mess of the broken pieces until we change our relationship to them by looking closer at the individual pieces or farther out at the mess as a whole. I hadn’t considered the kaleidoscope/crystal matrix as a tool of refactoring until now. Thanks!

  7. It’s interesting to think about why some nests are good mess, but others are badmess. A rat’s nest is bad mess because while locally it may be orderly, they chew thru foundations like concrete and wood to make them in places that we would rather they don’t. To a rat, it is probably a good mess, but it’s adversarial to our own.

  8. “Posting this picture of my messy workspace is almost as embarrassing and inappropriate as posting nudes, but it’s necessary aesthetic background:”

    I wonder if the taboo of hiding our messes has to do with how easily they reveal our actual internal order as opposed to the desired facade?

    Also uncertain that messes aren’t related to shannon entropy. From what I understand most natural systems are in the business of maximising entropy. Some scientists even think order or constraints or symmetry occurs only so the system can dissipate energy gradients more effectively. Animals don’t have any real big energy sinks to guzzle and so they tend to operate pretty closely to maximal entropy. That is my hunch as to why animals don’t look like they make messes.

    Humans are the only creatures to have access to a steep enough energy gradient to operate very far outside ecosystems tendency to maximize entropy. We produce symbolic, repeatable, compressible patterns only because of our ability to access our own energy gradients. I understand that maximising entropy isn’t a mess, but restricting shanon entropy is needed to even create a mess in the first place.

    Also if the boundaries to a messy snapshot were extended beyond a 2d picture to the systems from which those images, or failing parts are derived maybe messes would tend to correlate with shannon entropy?? Maybe that is just another way of saying how far a mess deviates from intentionality?

    I think i am so curious about the connection of messes to shannon entropy because otherwise it sort of implies vast vast realms of subjectivity to almost any order we come up with. My pastoral hedge hog instincts hate this. I want to think there is some deep true order we are driving towards. I ridicule myself for this urge and have even gone to counterproductive ends to try to eliminate it but its there non the less.

    • One more thought on taboo of hiding mess, maybe its sort of an evolved protection mechanism to keep others for our ooda loops??

  9. My desk is not messy. My desk is an island of complexity in an over-simplified world.

  10. Thank you for the reminder that reading and writing should be pleasurable. So many words to potentially read in a day, it can be overwhelming, and often they are rushed through.

    Glad to have taken the time to carefully, well more so than usual, read your careful article. Will be back.

  11. Ann Denzer says:

    Thank you for your article. I have spent a lifetime trying to develop “organizational skills.”
    I’ve learned to hang up my clothes, organize my closet, and bureau drawers, and keep up with the wash. In my kitchen I have a dish rack, 2 pot racks, canisters, a rack to hang small cooking utensils, a rolling cart behind my refrigerator for supplies that won’t fit into my uncluttered cabinets, or organized drawers. My appliances sparkle, my kitchen counters are cleared. The sinks are empty and wiped dry. In the “the living areas the carpets are vacuumed, floors waxed, furniture beeswaxed, sheets clean, beds made, waste paper emptied, garbage out etc., etc., etc. I’m bathed, dressed, combed, and perfumed every day. So what am I now? OCD. I’m 82 years old, and I’ve learned messy? pristine? You can’t win. Leave some time for a good book, a newspaper or magazine, a crossword puzzle.

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