the revelations

a few weeks ago my copy of “the revelations” by erik hoel arrived. here I relate some of the subjective experience of reading the book, with an eye on pointing out particularly enjoyable turns of phrase, allusions, and decoding the signals I received. I was primed to read this book by the swarm of memes around Hoel.

my experience of this book is one of being drawn down a funnel. the mouth of this funnel for me was the article “enter the supersensorium”, which introduces some of hoel’s own research into neuroscience and some conclusions that reasonably follow from it. specifically, he introduces the “overfit brain hypothesis” which draws from experiences in deep learning and applies them to biological neural networks. the hypothesis is that during the course of the day, human brains are always learning our environment. this implies that the more frequently we encounter something, the more likely our brains will estimate it to be. hoel suggests then that dreams are a mechanism for loosening this overfitting, by mixing and matching disparate sensations from the course of the day in odd ways, it surprises us, and keeps our mental models from become too rigid. hoel then takes it a step further and applies this to fiction itself, suggesting that one explanation for the human appetite for fiction derives from our desire to dream, the loosen the overfitting by getting surprising juxtapositions in stories related to us. this is a bold hypothesis. and one that is worthy of much investigation and effort to understand. it’s not just bold, but plausible, and has implications for day to day human behavior. as it is not just any fiction that can bring the benefits of dreaming for loosening the overfitting, but art. that is, works that challenge us, that are just beyond our reach, that cause us to have to reconsider existing patterns and look for extensions or exceptions.

the overfit brain hypothesis is such a daring piece that combines original scientific work with excellent writing that I was drawn deeper. from hoel’s writing page, I was drawn into an article he wrote on bitcoin. his take on bitcoin was unique to me. he treated it as a subject for understanding from first-principles approach, which is very hard to do. rather than describing it in terms of software engineering or crypto, he described it as a “hyperobject”. this is a relevant example of what you get from reading hoel. bold ideas, well stated, and currently just beyond the horizon. a perfect recapitulation of his definition of art.

I received my pre-ordered copy on april 6th, and began reading immediately. I typically read paperback books, but this was a first-run, hardback edition. it was a superior experience. now that we have the option of reading ebooks, the paste-and-page edition has some notable benefits. having a physical object in my hands while reading enables me to index the story in terms of where in the book it happened. the right or left side of the fold, top or bottom of the page, towards the beginning middle or end of the stack of papers that makes up the book. this extra physical index makes the story more accessible and enjoyable to experience.

there is another device buried in this book, the gears of which are always turning and aligning the reader to the rhythms of the story. as hoel has described previously, the chapters of this book are aligned with the days as experienced by kierk, the primary character. each chapter begins with him waking up, the cognitive lights coming on, and action resuming. the end of a chapter is usually kierk going to sleep. hoel doesn’t torture the reader to keep this convention working, it flows well in the book. sometimes there are bits and pieces of dreams, either in the waking or in the going to sleep bits of the chapter that were a joy to read and consider. the end result of aligning chapters with days in the story is a much more understandable structure for the reader to keep up with. as I mentioned reading the physical copy of the book helps remember the content, this alignment also helps. epic poems had rhyme and meter to allow readers to remember them easier, acting as a sort of verbal checksum so the individual could be helped along in memorization. not that you should memorize this book, but the alignment of days to chapters does help keep the whole story in mind.

the joy of reading “the revelations” was expanded and improved by wanting to understand what hoel was after, what messages he was inserting, which sort of mental experiences he was attempting to convey to the reader. this anticipation keeps your mind open, such that when you take in a new paragraph, there’s a whole layer of interpretation that comes naturally, that you can choose to be conscious of.

synesthetic descriptions were major chords played on a well tuned piano.

I really enjoyed inhabiting this space with the author. not only did we go on adventures, but hoel was also able to relate something of what it is to be him qua author, to be his characters, and to inhabit this mental superstructure that was the result of his writing. it gave hoel the opportunity to make extemporaneous observations that would otherwise not be welcomed. a perfect example would be the comment that psychiatric drugs are much like chemotherapy, that they are poison to both the mind and the mental illness they are treating, but it is hoped that the mind is stronger than the poison, and the illness not. these are the ideas of a polymath.

my suggestion to the interested reader is to wade into the hoel memeplex. start by ordering a copy of the revelations by erik hoel, then while you’re waiting for it to arrive, go and read the articles I linked above. pick one from hoel’s bibliography that strikes you. by the time the book arrives, you will be ready to go.