An Introduction to Mechanical Thinking

Whenever I give a talk on my past life as a professional orchestral musician, one of the most common questions I get is, “just exactly what does the conductor actually do?”

Part of the problem in answering this question is, the audience is predisposed to hear a mechanical explanation. There is a collective cultural assumption that the conductor is somehow working as a sort of puppeteer, and each musician on the stage is acting as a marionette, blindly and mechanically responding to the movements of the baton. The idea that something else is going on, beyond a purely mechanical level, is entirely foreign to many. Most conductors, in my experience, were immersed in this dogma. The idea that the musicians are living divine spirits with capability of perception and collective group communication was totally foreign to them.

Another example: When I was in music school, they taught an entirely mechanical system for writing Bach style counterpoint. We all became little music-writing computers. If we followed the rules, even if we were tone deaf, we could create something that resembled medieval counterpoint.

We had no emotional connection to the notes, and I couldn’t even tell in advance what it would sound like. It was as though the appearance of being able to compose medieval counterpoint was more important than actually knowing how to do it. Like machines, we had no consciousness of purpose; we just blindly obeyed our operators. It was a mechanical result borne of mechanical thinking.

Another classic example of mechanical thinking: Every few years, someone suggests that the public school day should be lengthened. If kids learn ten things in five hours, so the theory goes, it stands to reason that they will learn 20 things in 10 hours. There is a common presumption that “learning” can be reduced to a time in results out proposition. If kids were machines, that would makes sense, but since kids aren’t machines, it does not work. Students in Finland are running circles around us with shorter school days and less homework. To a mechanical thinker, this makes no sense.

The desire to learn is the overriding factor, but since that cannot be reduced to a mechanical process, it is often disregarded.

Mechanical thinking is a reflection of just how powerful machines have become in our modern life. Machines are so wonderful, they are so productive, they are so useful, it is very easy, and very common, to think that human beings can and should work the same way.

Thinking of people as machines is also very appealing and popular because of its implied greater ease and simplicity, and more, because of the promise of total avoidance of risk and/or complex deep dark emotional issues.

We often see situations where someone is doing something immoral and yet all the people around them are just politely ignoring it. This is a common outcome of mechanical thinking. One becomes divorced from a conscious state, and instead just unquestioningly goes through motions. Machines have no empathy. Mechanical thinkers are very easy to control. Hence the endless popularity of teaching mechanical thinking.

When I dove into the life of being an author and speaker, I was inundated with offers of “systems” – read “machines” – where all I had to do was input my information and $2500, and out the chute would pop a million dollar writing and speaking career. We want to believe in the machines, but the First commandment tells us “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This new version of deus ex machina is blasphemy. Your highest power is within your divine self, not in any machine or system.

©  Justin Locke

PS Speaking of emotions, please check out the latest book! – jl

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4 Responses to An Introduction to Mechanical Thinking

  1. Sebastian T F says:

    Do you think mechanical thinking has a psychological aspect? i.e,

    Can mechanical thinking at a very early age cause growing kids to have low common sense and low social skills? This is a very important case to discuss because these problems eventually leads to many worse problems like social anxiety, low self esteem, addictions, depressions, etc.

    Do you think we could talk about this? I’m in need of some help


    • Justin Locke says:

      Hello Sebastian

      My apologies for maybe taking too long to respond I just saw your comment,

      Yes of course, exposure to a de facto de-humanized environment of course leads to such manifestations, esp in small children that are so in need of emotional and tactile interaction– and of course it happens in adults as well. You see this in kids who are handy at taking tests but have no hands-on experience at basic physical tasks, and in fact I suffered greatly from this myself as a youngster. It wasn’t until I got into music and dance that I was able to find my internal compass again, and it is heart rending to see people who have been so traumatized by the experience. Happy to help, let me know 🙂 — Justin

  2. Justin Locke says:

    note for personal stuff not for public viewing feel free to email me at


  3. Lisa Brooks says:

    You wrote that you were curious at to why this article got more views than others. I can only speak for myself. I found you because I see my 8 yr old grandson building “race cars” out of things he finds. He reporpuses items discarded and wanted to know how to support his critical thinking process. What I found here seems to be trying to dissuade me from doing that. It seems to imply I should support him emotionally. He has endless encouragement to share and understand his emotions and interaction with peers. So I have little to take away from it. I AM sad at your personal experience when younger and proud of your personal growth.

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