Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Useful Metaphor: 1000 lights on a string, and a handful are busted


Many years ago, probably back in my graduate school days, I came up with a rather awkward metaphor/analogy for thinking about intellectual progress in things like, you know, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, the various disciplines having to do with figuring out how humans work.

The problem is that us intellectuals are prone to silver bullet solutions, the one Master Idea that solves everything, the key to all mythologies in George Eliot’s formulation. In recent years mirror neurons, neuroplasticity, and theory of mind have had that sort of aura. My analogy is this:

Remember those old Christmas tree lights, the ones wired in serial? Imagine you've got one string of them, with 1000 lights. All of a sudden, a bunch of lights go bad at miscellaneous places in the string. The string won't light until you find all the defective bulbs and replace them. So you start at one end of the string. Remove a bulb and test it. It it's good, put it back and move to the next one. If it's bad, put it back and see what happens. If the string lights, you're done. If not, move on to the next bulb. It's frustrating to locate bad bulbs, replace them with good bulbs, and the string still doesn't light. How long's the process going to take?

We’ve got a whole bunch of these local insights, they all “light up” some set of issues. But who knows how many of them we’re going to need to get the whole thing lit up.

The same analogy might apply to reconfiguring your life. A friend of mine had a number of setbacks in the past year, mostly involving close family, so he’s feeling kind of down. He’s got a lot of reworking to do, and things may not really get better until it’s all worked-through. You’ve got this string of 1000 lights. 87 of them are bad. It’s going to take awhile to find and replace all of the bad lights. And it’s possible that, in the process, some other lights will go bad. But here you are, you’ve fixed 91 lights and the string is still dark. How can I keep on going? You struggle on. You find another bad light. You replace it with a good one. SHAZAAM! Lights!

You know what they say, it’s always darkest before dawn.


  1. You analogy reminds me of the story of Thomas Edison and the light bulb. I don't how many materials he tried before he found the right one for the filament. Life and science are much the same in that respect we just have to keep trying until we find what works. Having to kiss lots of frogs before we find a prince also comes to mind.

    1. Yes, the Edison story works. I've seen numbers from 1000 to considerably more.