Why We Slouch

All physical structures can sag, but only sentient beings like you and me can slouch. To slouch is to adopt a degenerate behavioral posture. One that is aware of the potential for less degeneracy, and retains within itself a seed of an ability to actualize it, but consciously takes it out of play. Slouching is a posture of self-aware incompleteness of presence; a kind of dehydrated behavioral state of lowered availability that is less than fully engaged in the here-and-now.

Slouching is the essence of enlightened mediocrity; the recognition that you’ll live longer overall if you don’t try to be 100% alive all the time. Slouching is a good thing. I attribute many good things in my life to my ability to slouch well.

When you slouch, you sag like a non-sentient physical structure, your body physically conforming to a shape dictated by the interaction of environmental forces and backstop constraints. Think couches and floors. When you slouch and sag, these constraints activate, and support you automatically against a prevailing environmental force, without any need for you to adopt an appropriate attitude towards optimal performance in the environment.

When a chain is hanging under its own weight between two supports, it adopts a shape known as a catenary. A child who goes “boneless” as a form of passive resistance also takes on a rough catenary shape if picked up and carried by hands and feet.

Here’s a question that’s I’ve been wondering about. Why do we slouch? The answer to save energy is no answer at all. That’s merely a possible (but not necessary) consequence of slouching; one shared with many other efficient behaviors that look nothing like slouching.

So why do we slouch?

***

To slouch is to make the decision to sag. It is a controlled crash-landing into a more degenerate energy state. The decision is in fact a meta-decision. You are deciding not to make certain decisions for an indeterminate period of time. You are burning metacognitive bridges.

This does not mean the decisions do not get made. It merely means the interaction between environmental forces (gravity being the prototypical one) and backstop constraints (the ground being the prototypical one) will be making the abdicated decisions for you for the foreseeable future.

The condition imposed by these environmental factors is what we know as slack. A state of restful, but reversible (at least for a while), degeneracy. The longer you stay in the sagging state, the more irreversible the degeneracy.

To slouch is to trust the environment to make the abdicated decisions well. To slouch physically is to trust that your body will sink into the couch, or floor, and reach a new sagging equilibrium, like a catenary. You trust that the sagging will not continue indefinitely, even though in certain depressed moods you might think you want it to.

Slouching can be a dynamic state. To drag one’s feet is to walk with an inefficient, sagging sort of gait, letting go control of any leg muscles not absolutely essential to not-falling-down. It is also a metaphor for deliberately working slowly. To slouch in a dynamic way is to have sluggish, blunted responses, laden with inertia.

Slouching is a talent.

Just below conscious awareness, our body is constantly regulating thousands of behaviors devoted to maintaining high-energy static or dynamic equilibrium conditions. Hundreds of those can be brought into conscious awareness and gear-shifted into a new equilibrium as necessary. With training, many more can. Sometimes the trick to learning to slouch in a particular way is to learn to tense-up or accelerate in the corresponding opposed way. Gain control to let go control.

It is easier to relax into shavasana — the corpse pose — at the end of a yoga session if you first try to tighten up all your muscles, or if you take a few deep breaths. It is the easiest pose when you begin practicing, but soon turns into the hardest pose. To sink into the floor, you just need to lie down and relax your muscles. To sink out of yourself takes a little longer.

***

Posture is an interesting term to consider in relation to slouching and sagging. When a parent tells a child to “stand up straight, don’t slouch,” they are correcting physical posture. When a boss tells an employee they need to work on their “attitude,” they are correcting psychological posture.

In certain fields, such as military strategy, posture is a term of art that applies to organizations and groups, as in aggressive posture. A posture is a predisposition to particular patterns of action; potentialities arrayed to respond to conditions with particular biases. The term stance is related, adding connotations of tactical detail and preparedness for particular actions. If potential energy is a scalar and action is a vector, a posture is something in between: a scalar that is sympathetic to particular vectors. Potential energy, but with a grain to it.

Posture and stance, between them, cover the ground between contemplation and action.

The art of slouching is the art of letting go of postures, stances, and preparedness. This doesn’t mean there are no potentialities in the sagging equilibrium, or that the potentialities are randomly arranged. It just means the potentialities are now inherited from the environment via some sort of coupling that is simpler than your own brain. You are now a medium, not a message. A partial zombie.

If you have ever done a trust fall (an exercise favored by a particular breed of motivational speaker) you understand the difficulties of complex slouching. Falling backwards, while resisting the near-unconscious impulse to break the fall, is something that is very hard for the human mind to allow. It needs to believe without a doubt that there is something trustworthy waiting — like a mattress — to let go. The interesting thing about a trust fall is that you have to trust people rather than objects. The difficult part — and the point of the exercise — is to trust other humans as much as you might trust a mattress.

Occasionally, to slouch is to trust a human more than a particularly temperamental part of the material environment. If you are walking across a shallow but raging river that might sweep you away, it is easier to hold on to a human with steadier legs than trust the ground and water beneath your feet on your own. If you’re hiking on a treacherous trail, it might be easier to follow in the footsteps of a more sure-footed companion.

This is imitation, a special sort of slouching and sagging.

***

Imitation can be considered a form of cognitive sagging into the behaviors of someone whose decisions you trust more than your own. But note that it is not the same as being controlled by them. They might not even be aware that you are imitating them. They are not in charge of your behaviors. They are not in any sense responsible for the imitative behaviors (in fact, they may lack the information and competence to be responsible — an unfit person trying to imitate a fit dancer on a television screen might injure themselves without the target of imitation ever knowing).

Imitation is not the same as a ceding of control or responsibility. It is still a sagging behavior because, fundamentally, there is nobody in charge. There is just a slightly more complex and energized coupling between a part of the environment and a part of an agent’s behavior.

An imitated person may however choose to take charge of an imitative behavior for their own purposes. This is not always easy, as you would know if you’ve played the children’s game of repeating everything someone else is saying. There is generally no breaking out of the repetition game with a truly committed player. You have to find and exploit an asymmetry that allows you to do something they cannot repeat, like speaking in a language they don’t know. Therein lies a lesson.

***

Given a properly skilled behavior domain, such as dancing, it becomes easy to break an imitation. You can start performing behaviors that an imitator simply cannot keep up with.

The fact that there are limits to imitation tells us why imitation belongs, categorically, with sagging. Even if it there is energy and intelligence to it, it cannot keep up with fully sentient behavior. Imitation puts hardware in play, but not necessarily the software.

On the flip side, of course, imitation is the foundation of a great deal of teaching. Often the student requires a period of mindless ritual imitation before they are able to bring understanding, intentionality and control to what they are doing.

New skills often start as imitative slouches, and then become animated by an expanding awareness. Imitative learning can be the start of a consciousness-raising. You can become more alive, and achieve a state from the perspective of which the old state seems like unconscious slouching. Zombies don’t know they are zombies until they stop being zombies.

The idea that learning progresses from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence (shu-ha-ri) maps to this model.

All learning is learning to slouch in new ways, in relation to behavioral potentials you could only unconsciously sag into previously. Ignorance is uncontrolled and unconscious sagging in your behavior that you are not aware of.

Slouching is after all a letting go of control, and you cannot let go control that you don’t actually have.

***

Let’s recap.

To slouch is to make the decision to sag.

To sag is to let the interaction of environmental forces and backstop constraints take over control of a regime of behavior.

When you sag, some static or dynamic part of your behavior transitions into a sagging equilibrium where the environment dictates further behavioral responses.

To be able to slouch, one must be able to trust that the sagging equilibrium is safe, and be able to let go control of the appropriate subset of behaviors.

This generally means trust in physical, non-sentient parts of the environment, such as gravity, couches, and finite-intelligence unconscious behaviors within yourself.

But sometimes it means trusting other sentient beings more than your own sense of the environment. Imitation is sagging into another human’s behaviors. Imitation is not ceding control or responsibility. It is still a sagging behavior because there is nobody in charge.

Learning is learning to slouch in new ways; expanding your consciousness by discovering new behavioral ground to sag into; acquiring new modes of control that you can then learn to let go.

***

Let’s level it up a bit.

We are both sentient beings and physical objects. We relate to ourselves as both. In Martin Buber’s terminology, we have both I-it and I-thou relationships with ourselves.

To slouch is to switch to an I-it relationship with a part of ourselves, and then letting that part go. There is a two step process here: seeing-as an object, and letting go control.

The it then begins to behave as its normally do — controlled by natural laws prevailing in the environment.

To sag, via imitation, into another person’s behaviors is slightly more complex. A chain hanging from two posts needs no special sensing or actuation in relation to the environment in order to sag into a catenary, but to follow in the footsteps of another, you need to at least have an active pathway between your eyes and your leg muscles.

One way to understand this is to note that complex sagging involves being aware of the it parts of yourself, and the laws they obey, like gravity. Imitation is mirroring after all, a process that is closer to gravity than consciously controlled behavior. When you let go control via imitation, you are externalizing a part of yourself. You are alienating it temporarily.

In the future, we may be able to create neural links that create a direct master-slave relationship between a mind in one body and muscles in multiple other bodies. But until that day arrives, we are restricted to the low-bandwidth, high-latency air-gapped analog connection mediated by relatively high-level reference tracking algorithms in our heads that connect eyes and muscles.

***

There doesn’t seem to be word that means the opposite of slouch or sag. We have the physical antonyms like straighten up, but no general term for intentionality and active control returning to a behavior in a sagging state. I am just going to call it unslouching. The act of unslouching puts you into a new unsagging state. Elan vital flows ones again into a dehydrated behavior, animating it with new life.

The act of slouching is a degeneration. It destroys information — whatever control behaviors were in place are trashed and garbage-collected — and settles into a sagging state that contains less information than the state it degenerated from. The act of unslouching is a regeneration. It adds information. It is at least a relearning; it is sometimes a new learning.

It is tempting to conclude that unslouching is a generalization of learning, but it is a different kind of thing. Unslouching is a process of becoming more alive, with an expanded consciousness. Any learning is incidental, and not strictly necessary.

Think about letting your arm relax and dangle. Previously controlled states (angles at shoulder, elbow, and wrist) now become uncontrolled (or rather, control is transferred to Mother Gravity). Any mental states corresponding to control of those states are now superfluous, and the mind is likely to just discard them, rather than continue expending energy maintaining them.

To slouch is to trigger a process of cognitive atrophy. To slouch is to unlearn by letting go. But since atoms and information can neither be created, nor destroyed, what you’re really doing is restoring a degree of control and ownership to nature. You slouching is the same thing as nature doing a stock buyback of investment in you. Not quite as complete as dying, not quite ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust. Perhaps we should call it bits-to-bits.

***

Here’s an interesting trick to try: let your arm dangle but continue to think about swinging it in a controlled way without actually doing it. You will notice that your arm does not dangle as freely. You really do have to let the associated mind states go, a trick many uptight people never learn, which makes them poor learners overall. If you can’t let go, an instructional process cannot take over.

Structural properties (such as the length and density profile of a hanging cable) might modulate the evolution of a sagging equilibrium, but the state itself contains no real information that is not already in the environment. The sagging behavior is merely an informationally passive transformer of things happening in the environment. The transformation might dampen or amplify environmental forces, but it does not add information.

But the opposite of a sagging state, an unsagging state, is one where a decision process has active control of the state. The opposite of dragging your feet could be any of a huge number of more information-rich gait states — walking briskly, walking meditatively, jogging, running, skipping, or hopping.

What these non-sagging states share is that there is someone in charge; someone injecting regenerative energy into a degenerate condition. The entity in charge, however, need not be part of the entity being controlled.

Military drills are explicitly built around someone else being in charge. The most basic drill commands are a pair that simply put one person in and out of charge of another.

Attention!

At ease!

At ease! is a command to enter a sort of limited, easily reversed, slouch. A return of nominal control to a primary agent.

***

The condition of an agent being “in charge” of itself presents a special challenge: bootstrapping. When you are at ease, you are not in control of your state. The environment is. Absent a drill sergeant, it is by no means obvious that you can get back in control, because you might have — without knowing it — ceded control of the getting-back-in-charge process as well.

To take the simplest case, when you settle into a couch, the body starts to wind down. Many more things start to let go in a cascade. And before you know it, you’re so immobile you’re making jokes like, “can you go pee for me?” and watching television programming that does not interest you because you can’t reach the remote without unslouching.

Slouching is not the same as relaxing. To relax is to restore fungible resources that have been temporarily exhausted by action. To slouch is to destroy capability by letting it atrophy. In the short term, slouching is relaxing. In the long term, it is a different pattern of stress; one that banks longer-term survivability by giving up shorter-term aliveness.

***

Sagging is a one-way door to a sort of reverse mission creep. A snowballing degeneracy that has a tendency to expand in insecure environments.

Mission creep is when you take charge of one thing and are forced to take charge of more and more things due to the unanticipated consequences of your decisions with regard to the first thing.

Reverse mission creep is when you let go one behavior, and before you know it, you’re letting go more and more behaviors.

One reason this happens is that when one behavior sags, other behaviors must now serve as backstops. The increased strain on these backstop behaviors exhausts those behaviors, increasing the temptation to let those sag. And so on.

Consider a chain hanging in a catenary shape on the deck of a ship being tossed about by a stormy ocean. If the ship is tossed about with sufficient violence, the chain is heavy enough, and the posts are weak, the transmitted forces might break the supports. The sagging object then enters a new sagging equilibrium in relation to the next set of backstop constraints past the first structural breakdown. In this case, the loose chain and posts sliding about on the deck of the ship, soaking up the energy of the storm and doing further damage.

Recall what I said earlier: a sagging state is a passive transformer and transmitter of the environmental forces it is subject to. Depending on the details, it might dampen or amplify those forces. These then act on the sagging substrate via the backstop constraints. These transmitted forces might cause breakdowns and cascades of further sagging.

Just because nobody is in charge, doesn’t mean nothing happens. At ease does not equal at rest under all conditions. Nature is a good steward of all atoms and bits that have slouched into her, but not necessarily a gentle one who respects boundaries we care about.

***

Here’s the thing about slouching: it is not a guaranteed-reversible behavior. Unslouching is not guaranteed. At ease might mean cascading through a series of increasingly expansive (and energetically expensive) slouching states, with steadily narrowing pathways for control to return to any locus.

That is what it really means to go “out of control.” The energy in the system exceeds our control authority. The dramatic way this can happen is when the energy in the system increases. The more common, undramatic way is for the control authority to dissipate through the snowballing degeneracy of a runaway slouching.

But on the other hand, when unslouching is possible, it requires information to actualize. If you’re not going to let your arm dangle, you need an idea about what to do with it instead.

This is not a theoretical problem. One of the most basic problems beginning public speakers and actors face is “I don’t know what to do with my hands.”

Entire books could be written about that.

Giving your body things to do while you talk is a good example of an unslouching challenge. One that even the best public speakers, actors and directors have trouble solving well. So you have the familiar cliched gestures of TED talk givers, actors known for doing far too many things with cigarettes, and directors like Aaron Sorkin whose characters walk-and-talk far too much.

This is not a challenge specific to the verbal performance professions. It is a challenge inherent in any kind of unslouching, the challenge of behavioral invention.

***

Slouching destroys information, and sagging is the resulting degenerate state. To take control is to bootstrap into a non-degenerate state with more active dimensions by inventing behaviors to occupy them.

The dangling arm is no longer one of billions of pendulums owned by Mother Gravity around the world. It is now three angle variables sitting, waiting, in your brain. Controllable, energized, active states waiting for a controller. Characters waiting for an author. Actors hanging around waiting for a director.

Sometimes it is obvious what kind of behavioral Lorem Ipsum filler makes for safe, but non-sagging states. If you are a Buckingham Palace guard, you can stand at attention for long periods, not reacting to anything except legitimate commands from a commanding officer.

To unslouch without sufficient information to fill behavior takes serious discipline. That discipline can break down as energy continues to drain. You can sag without intending to.

An unslouched state without non-degenerate control information flowing through it is an unstable state. Inducing laughter is one familiar approach to triggering the instability. If somebody is trying to keep a straight face, standing at attention, we are tempted to make funny faces or tell jokes to make them crack a smile.

Potential for control without a controller inevitably attracts external attempts at control. To be stable, an unslouched behavior needs more than someone being nominally in charge. All available control must be exercised meaningfully. Attention and focus must be channeled to a sufficiently demanding, non-degenerate control task.

“Don’t think of an elephant” is not a stable state.

“Think about a giraffe” is a somewhat stable state.

“Think about two pink giraffes waltzing” is a much more stable state.

But what if there are no good ideas in the environment? What if you cannot invent behaviors to stabilize the expanded aliveness?

Thinking about giraffes to avoid thinking about elephants is fun as an exercise, but not actually a very good reason to spin up capacity to think or act.

Attention abhors a vacuum. If you unslouch without suitably inventive ideas to drive non-degenerate behaviors, the mind will lock on to the nearest available behavioral outlet. It will mess around somewhat arbitrarily, offering up control to the first available entity that wants to take charge.

And when we sense that all entities in the environment that might want to take charge are hostile, we consider whether it worth being unslouched at all. Sometimes we decide it is not and stay slouched.

And sometimes we decide it is worth it to be more alive, even if someone else is in charge.

***

We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

To slouch is to put yourself in a state where you are at risk of an unraveling, cascading through a widening gyre of increasingly degenerate sagging states until you unravel entirely, and irrecoverably.

On the hand, to unslouch without any specific purpose in mind, and sufficiently inventive behaviors ready, is to put yourself at risk of being owned by hostile forces.

The only way out is a process that resembles learning: inject novel information into a slouch, to reanimate it, to rehydrate it.

Some unslouchings are like the proverbial riding of a bike. No matter how long you slouch out of bike-riding, it comes back to you. Other things atrophy more irreversibly (driving is one of them). Still others evolve through the cycle of degeneration and regeneration. You might slouch out of tennis, and unslouch into golf a decade later.

Slouching is integral to learning but is not learning per se. Without slouching, learning eventually plateaus and stalls. Without slouching, you cannot let go the old control behaviors in order to create the room to learn new ones. Without slouching, you can learn up to a local peak of excellence, but you cannot evolve.

***

So to return to the question, why do we slouch?

We slouch to limit the amount of intelligence and aliveness we bring to a party. We seek to limit the intelligence and aliveness when we don’t know what to do with 100% of ourselves, and don’t trust others who claim to. Slouching is life banking at a negative interest rate, when we suspect liquid life will attract an even more negative interest rate.

Slouching is nature doing a stock buyback of investment in your life, because you cannot be trusted with it.

We slouch because it is not always wise to be all we can be.

We slouch to insure ourselves against being owned more comprehensively than we are able to own ourselves. We slouch when we suspect the environment is more likely to kill us than make us stronger if we engage it too energetically. When carpe diem looks suspiciously carpe mortem.

We slouch because we suspect it is better to be less alive today, so we are still alive tomorrow, rather than fully alive today, and dead tomorrow.

We slouch to invest less of ourselves in whatever is going on, so we are more likely to survive long enough to invest more of ourselves in whatever happens next.

Slouching is our way of telling the universe, I’m going to sit this chapter out. 

We slouch to learn where to put our trust, and where not to.

It is not just individuals who slouch. Good organizations slouch, getting into a rhythm of breathing in and out in response to the opportunities and threats in the environment. Good organizations sag into the scaffolding of their best habits, letting inertia take over for a while. Good leaders and managers know this. There is a time to take control and direct behaviors, and there is a time to let go off the reins and let slouching reign.

Entire economies embody the wisdom of slouching and unslouching, letting go control to unlearn, taking back control to relearn. Slouching and unslouching are the essence of creative destruction.

The universe is always an opportunity rich environment, but not all environments are equally rich for all sentient beings at all times. When you suspect you might get outplayed, the smartest move sometimes is to disable your ability to play or be played, by letting surplus life energy drain out so it cannot be used against you, and then allowing it to flow back in when it is safe to come out and play again.

Sometimes when it is dangerous to be a book, it is smart to be a doorstop instead. But the real trick is turning into a book again.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. the earth slouches at 23.5 degrees, happy winter solstice.

  2. http://Romeo%20Stevens says

    Okay, which one of you let Venkat meditate? His Vanaprastha only lasted what? 2 or 3 years?

  3. This is going to be required reading for all my kung fu students. This is a perfect encapsulation of the importance of ‘unslouching’ that martial arts teaches. Great article!

  4. http://Zygia says

    What about going into flow as “unslouching”? Engaging?

  5. http://Michele says

    To think it over more how to presevre the “shared reality” the Digital Maginot Line talks about.
    Why else would we slouch, it’s a way to summon up all of our mind.

    ☺️

    • http://Michele says

      When you suspect you might get outplayed, the smartest move sometimes is to disable your ability to play or be played,

      Never expected you’d deal with romance here — but well said. If you can neither lie nor be lied to (play/have them play you, in both cases the way that satisfies them) just do no romance.

  6. Very engaging read! I’ll try to reflect more on a very neat insight and how I can nudge myself out of distractions,

    “If you unslouch without suitably inventive ideas to drive non-degenerate behaviors, the mind will lock on to the nearest available behavioral outlet. It will mess around somewhat arbitrarily, offering up control to the first available entity that wants to take charge.”

    Cheers!

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