I Am a Strange Loop

I Am a Strange Loop is one of the best books I have ever read. My roommate recommended it last fall, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. Maybe because it’s about my head, and yours too.

Douglas Hofstadter is a brilliant cognitive scientist. He’s spent his incredible life thinking about the nature of consciousness, and this book is probably the best recap of his ideas on the philosophy of mind. There is some math-y stuff that’s a little harder to digest in the first 1/3, but it gets really, really good.

I was so inspired by the book that I wrote an essay for a NYT contest a few weeks ago using his idea of self-referential loops. It’s going to be a while before I hear back – if I even do – but I want everyone to know about this book and don’t want an essay to sit in my computer in the meantime. I think there’s a bit of oomph missing, but I like it enough…

The prompt was “What’s something everyone around you knows you’re obsessed with and why” or something like that, and the contest was specifically for young writers/ millennials.

Here it is:


I cannot stop asking friends: do you see chickens or eggs? The following story and exploration explain my fascination with a certain class of paradoxical cycles. Once upon a time, a fisherman set free a magical golden flounder. The fisherman’s wife, seeking a better life, insisted that he ask the fish to grant them a wish for a nice house. The fish granted the wish, but the unsatisfied wife demanded more. The fish granted more, and the humble couple continuously ascended in this manner. As King and Queen, their final request was to make the fisherman equal to God, after which the fisherman returned home to find his wife in their original hovel.

The Fisherman and His Wife is an example of a “strange loop”, a term coined by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter to describe a category of cyclical, often paradoxical phenomena. The topic is nuanced, but all strange loops cycle upwards or downwards through hierarchical systems, ending up at the same place they started. They are terribly confusing and exceedingly delightful. I drive my friends crazy describing such counterintuitive mind games, as conversations about loopy things inevitably loop in loops themselves.

I am obsessed with strange loops because they are my favorite lens to interpret the world through. On a personal level, I consider the concept a microcosm for countless things, especially persistent self-development. Whenever I find myself newly content – say, with an eight minute mile pace – I see eight year olds and octogenarians running marathons, making me realize I am essentially capable of nothing. Practicing anxious self-hate, I wonder how I could become so paralyzed by fear, by vice. But at some point in each recovery process, I focus outward and look into the eyes of other people. Upon recognizing solidarity in uncertainty, I always learn something new, discovering joy and renewed resolution to improve. Readjusted contentedness restarts the loop.

On a more systematic level, strange loops represent my age cohort’s uniquely standard experience. We are coming into our own in times of amplified contradiction, incessantly bombarded by loopy dilemmas like doing work we are passionate about versus finding passion in our work. The paradox of choice is real and dangerous; it forces us to encounter ambiguity, misinterpret reality with perpetually incomplete maps, and freak out. Yet, as strange loops do, we necessarily emerge from painful inconsistencies by creating extraordinary work, community, and positive direction. Strange loops teach us that oftentimes, the good follows the bad only because the bad happened in the first place. Therefore, the idea can not only inform us how to cope, but how to thrive.

So, strange loops inspire my trust in harmony. The fact that paradox is a double edged sword is scarily encouraging. As “lazy” and “soft” as young people are, we are also “fired up” and “brave.” Call me out for clichés and naiveté all you want, but I will embrace you and ask: do you see chickens or eggs? Usual response: what the hell are you talking about?





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