Distracted? There’s an App for that…

Eric Barker writes a great blog; I’ve told three people about the thesis in this post, in the last week or so.

Neuroscience increasingly suggests we’re all more a bunch of impulsive Apps than a well designed rational operating system.

Makes a lot of sense to me; and has reminded me to actually make a bit of time for mindfulness for a week or two – as opposed to reading about it, avoiding it and constantly distracting myself by doing other things. Let’s see how I get on…

“The human brain wasn’t built top to bottom as a single project like Apple builds a computer. It evolved over millions of years in a very messy fashion. Various systems (or “modules”) came about to drive you to accomplish different tasks like seeking food, fighting, reproduction, etc. But here’s the problem…

They were never integrated. So these systems compete to steer the ship that is your brain. Your mind is less like a single computer operating system and more like a collection of smartphone apps where only one can be open and running at a time.

Here’s noted science author Robert Wright:

In this view, your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part. The modular model of the mind, though still young and not fully fleshed out, holds a lot of promise. For starters, it makes sense in terms of evolution: the mind got built bit by bit, chunk by chunk, and as our species encountered new challenges, new chunks would have been added. As we’ll see, this model also helps make sense of some of life’s great internal conflicts, such as whether to cheat on your spouse, whether to take addictive drugs, and whether to eat another powdered-sugar doughnut.

Now modules aren’t physical structures in the brain, just like apps aren’t hardware in your phone. They’re software; the human nature algorithms that Mother Nature coded over thousands of generations of evolution.

So you want to diet but you see donuts and your brain’s hunger module (like the “Grubhub” app) hjacks control and says, “Food! Eat it. Now.” Or you want to be nice but your mind’s anger app (“Angry Birds”) takes charge and you’re saying things another app is really going to regret tomorrow. You’re like a walking live performance of Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

So how do we prevent hijacking by the wrong module at the wrong time and make better decisions? First we need to learn how those inappropriate modules get hold of your steering wheel…

Feelings. Nothing More Than Feelings.

Whichever module has the most emotional kick attached to it at any point wins the competition to be “you.”

Under this lens, many of the confusing and frustrating things about human behavior start to make a lot of sense:

  • Of course people are hypocritical. They’re made up of competing “selves” with very different goals and different information. Uncle Al is the most reasonable guy in the world — unless his “politics module” takes charge.

  • Are people good or bad? They’re both. The metaphorical angel on one shoulder and devil on the other are just different modules in the brain with different motivations.

  • Why do you lack self-control? Because now the word doesn’t make any sense. It’s actually “selves-control.” Your behavior isn’t inconsistent; the “you” in charge is inconsistent.

Here’s University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Robert Kurzban:

Some modules are designed to gather benefits, others are designed to deliver benefits, and they exist in the same head, sometimes in conflict. In the same way, this analysis does away with the question of whether individual acts are “really” self-interested. Different kinds of acts advance the goals that some, but not other, modules are designed to bring about. So, both meanings of “self-interest” seem to be a problem because different modules have different designs, and are therefore built to bring about different outcomes.

Here’s Robert Wright:

The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings… via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you.

How To Prevent Brain Hijack

Buddhism recognized this problem over 1000 years ago. And it also came up with a solution: mindfulness meditation.

And neuroscience gives it a big thumbs up. Studies show meditation trains your brain to be less reactive to emotional swings and can prevent the wrong module from hijacking control of your brain.

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The Silent Cinema

Now here’s a peculiar thing…

Having done a fair bit of listening to people with soothing voices inviting me to contemplate my feet… and having read a couple of harder core books from the Dalai Lama… I’d concluded mindfulness and meditation wasn’t really me.

I’ve learnt how to breathe, seek enjoyment and find peace ‘in the moment’. I’m getting pretty good at it; and had assumed that was it.

But one slightly terrifying day in July – the 29th to be precise – I met and said ‘oh, fancy that; hello’ to the actual ‘me’ inside. The most bizarre experience I think I’ve ever had.

The simple process is to imagine yourself in a cinema, completely caught up in a film. Then imagine yourself sitting deeper in the chair and detaching yourself from the film and noticing all the people sat around you (especially vivid if you think of them as wearing 3D specs).

Next imagine yourself alone in the movie theatre… and then imagine all your thoughts and sensory perceptions are on the screen.

Now imagine that screen going blank…

What’s left?

The silent person watching the screen inside.

I found it frankly really weird. For the first time I met the silent, energetic, unstable whoosh of raw consciousness and mental energy which is the ‘me’ that sits deep inside.

I’ve not been back since if I’m honest. I noted it down and slightly left it be. It feels like a thing not to be messed with. Pure consciousness is enlightenment, life and death and personal identity all wrapped up in one bouncing, pinging, luminous, easily distracted, unstoppable beam of ‘always on’ energy.

I get meditation and Buddhism now; and fear pain and fear itself a little less. But I’m not sure I want to go back into the cinema and turn everything off again…

I’ve kept myself busy since writing ‘Enlightenment’ in my iPhone notes on 29th July. My next entry is a ‘to do’ list for two weeks of camping – on the 30th July – which feels a good enough excuse; especially given all that’s happened since.

But the quiet seat – in the totally silent and empty cinema – is a place I will have to visit again; even if I don’t fancy it much.

Absent a sudden and violent death, the silent cinema is an important place to know the way into I reckon… That’s the purpose of Buddhism I suspect – to be able to detach the ‘silent witness’ and the constant flow of mental energy from the ego, angst, fear and pain which capture it for most of the living years.

A bit scary though.

POSTSCRIPT

Having written this, I popped back into the ‘silent cinema’ this morning. All very painless. Eyes closed: hearing the planes, noises off, feeling the grumbling in the stomach and the ache in my shoulder – and slowly turning attention away from them and towards inner silence. A few thoughts and ideas ping around, a sense it’s all a bit self-conscious in there and then quiet; just quiet… a couple of good thoughts float by… then eyes open and life’s Technicolor cinema immediately fills the screen again with dazzling light, noise, distractions and opportunity.

Life seems even brighter today after a few minutes in the silent cinema.

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The Old Grey Goose

Just 13 days after the fateful phone call, the old grey goose – aka my mother-in-law – passed away.

As I texted a work colleague:

Thanks a lot, we’re all in good shape. Kids are getting there and Eleanor and me feel grateful we all saw her fully alive the other weekend and that she’s subsequently gone so quickly and gently. A decade too soon; but how you’d want to go if you had aggressive cancer: I’ll be in and just fine tomorrow. The old grey goose has flown off to her final peaceful resting place. It’s all good.

As I wrote to her after we saw the weekend before last:

Dear Hilary – as you said as we left your room today, there is so much I also want to say; but your energy is precious and I don’t want to take more of it than I should.

I just wanted to tell you – as I said to Eleanor in the car – that you looked very beautiful today; you had a kind of luminousity, your hair is lovely and the warmth and light you have brought to all our lives shone out from you and touched us all very deeply despite the pain and weakness in your body.

We will all remember this weekend very positively; I am so very glad we came.

Love

John

I had a good old cry after sending it – something the kids have never seen before; but I think made us feel better.

She was a wonderful woman with a central place at the heart of all our lives.

All too quick; but I think it’s what she wanted – the old grey goose valued her independence more than anything, and never wanted to be a burden. She is at rest.

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Sunny

😎

After two house moves in two weeks; last Sunday, post visiting a loved one in terminal decline and absolutely physically and emotionally shattered – I cried for the first time in a decade. It was just too sad.

But five days later the sun has come back out. Life is very simple. Get some sleep, be kind, work hard, do stuff, and crucially (as I’ve recently discovered) ruminate less; and the sun comes out.

My single biggest achievement in the last year – and arguably in my life – has been to train myself to think, act and be more positive. If you’re kind, interested, positive and helpful there is no situation you can’t improve.

For me it is a feat of application, discipline and will. It’s not my natural disposition. But sunny is the best way to be. Today it absolutely was; and I absolutely have been.

: )

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The swift flight of a single sparrow

After a couple of weeks of solid change – new house, new office, new term, new school year – I wrote to my old philosophy tutor the other evening.

He has written extensively on the ‘Episodic Life’ – a view that life as a story (the ‘Narrative Life’) isn’t actually how some people experience events; and may actually be something of a self-limiting straitjacket.

I’ve certainly found that a bit of letting go (à la Buddhism) and a bit of consciously setting out to enjoy new ‘episodes’ in life has got me through the last hectic fortnight. In fact I’ve quite enjoyed it!

Here’s what I wrote:

“After much denial I’m coming to the view there’s a lot to be said for the ‘episodic’ life. If Heidegger is right (and I think he is) that we wander as a tiny candle flame briefly through a dark, largely empty and uninterested universe – then why wouldn’t you see what every day on Gaia brings, and let the universe serve you up the answers for what fun to have next.

I’m starting think there’s a spot of hubris in my previous attachment to the ‘narrative’ life. A lot happened before us, little we do really affects the myriad lives and physical processes around us and we’ll all be gone before you know it.

I still think Aristotle’s fundamentally right; happiness is a life well lived – but maybe a slightly more eclectic approach to the journey might save me the angst of Kierkegaard and the earnestness of Bentham and Mill.

Keep writing Galen – I’ll catch up with your beautiful mind one day!”

And here’s what he wrote back – it’s rather lovely:

Thanks John. Heidegger … sounds like the Venerable Bede.

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus.

Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors.

In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.” 

Here’s an article on the ‘Episodic Life’:

https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story

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Fear factored

A book I’m currently reading urges us to think of ‘fear’ as the mental equivalent of physical ‘pain’.

On one level they’re the things we want to most avoid; but looked at another way they are just simple signalling mechanisms. Pain is the body’s only way to draw our attention to a problem. Fear is the mind’s.

This opens up the possibility of a different approach to fear. Not do everything to avoid it; but objectively acknowledge it, accept it and maybe sometimes push through it…

The idea is that fear is just the psyche’s way of signalling boundaries to us – which is very much the same role pain plays in the body. They are both acutely and finely tuned signalling mechanisms.

Just like a burnt finger keeps us off hot kettles; so fear keeps us away from scary situations. But as a very experienced sports coach told me at work – strength is built by how you recover.

So the idea is to recognise when fear is signalling a boundary and just feel it – don’t fear it. And if it still seems like a good thing to do, push through that fear a bit.

I can’t say I’m quite there on this one yet. Stuff you don’t know how to do, can’t control or which could go very wrong still seems pretty scary to me. But if you accept it’s always going to feel scary, that calms the troubled waters a good deal.

And then what?

Well if you accept fear is often just a signal of the new and the unknown – and that variety is the spice of life – then trying new things and meeting new people are indeed things one might fear; but they’re not things to avoid…

To test my thesis I’m going paddle boarding this week on holidays: a thing I don’t know how to do, with the risk of humiliation and getting wet, for the first time, all on my own, with a lesson from someone I’ve never met.

Exactly what I’d generally avoid – so here’s to giving it go!

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Bouldering

I've had 'bouldering' on my to do list for a while.

Not even sure what it was, I thought it was some kind of paddling through streams, clambering on boulders thingy. And that seemed like a good 'Dad and Daughter' activity – following clambering about in trees last Christmas holidays.

So I googled it – and it turns out it's not quite that. It's low level free climbing without ropes; and what great fun it has turned out to be…

Climbing shoes tightly on, we've been three times now; and have tackled 'slabs', overhangs, bulges and 'volumes'… with a bit of traversing yesterday to boot.

The indoor walls we've found are generally full of cheerful, lean, taughtly-muscled young folk – but they're all very encouraging and just seem happy that you share their interest.

It certainly tests the muscles though! And even though you don't get that high, it's high enough to test the nerves a bit too.

What a lovely little world we've discovered – in an old disused biscuit factory (of all things) which has found a new life.

Bouldering is a keeper. There's no better place to hang out for an hour at the weekend.

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Re-wiring

Talking to a nice person at work this week, as we descended several flights of stairs; she said:

"Yes John, but you're about the most positive person I've ever met."

I nearly tripped and fell down the remaining stairs… As I subsequently texted to one of my finest friends:

And a good week it has indeed been – against all the odds!

Which goes to show why being more positive and following my new motto: trust the universe to provide an answer – is a goodie.

Still, another marvellous former colleague of mine (now working in a real zoo; not just a human one) offered an even better motto to end the week…

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Forgiving 

I’ve just finished Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s ‘The Book of Forgiving’, picked up (as all the best things are) at the local library. 

It’s a simple and powerful read, which is studded with some terrible stories of personal loss, sickening violence and genocide; and the remarkable power of forgiveness in the face of them.

The basic argument is forgiveness doesn’t excuse responsibility – it explicitly acknowledges and names it. Only once the ‘story’ is properly told, and the ‘hurt’ is ‘named’, is there the possibility to forgive. 

And doing so is the way to be freed from being a victim – including forgiving yourself if you were ever a perpetrator.

There is a straightforward path to forgiveness which helps people exit the alternative – a never-ending cycle of harm and revenge.

I saw this diagram the night before interviewing someone on a difficult HR standoff. It certainly helped me to listen for longer: to let the person ‘tell their story’ and ‘name their hurt’, which seemed to move things forward.

The final two steps – ‘granting forgiveness’ and ‘renewing or releasing the relationship’ are about seeing  ‘perpetrators’ as human beings – recognising none of us was born evil and we all have within us the capacity to do terrible things.

Easier said than done; but nobody said it was easy – and it’s the only path to forgiveness.

The ‘hurts’ Tutu has seen in South Africa and Rwanda – so many violent murders – seem too huge to ever forgive. But the Truth and Reconciliation commissions he oversaw all basically followed this fourfold path: tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness and renew or release the relationship.

As both he and the Dalai Lama have said: forgiveness is both a source and a sign of true personal strength, 

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Think small


I’ve signed up to a terrific blog from a chap called Eric Barker from UCLA. Loads of great resources, links to thought-provoking books and simple ‘to do’ lists to do more.

This week’s top tip is how to create a habit: 

Think small. Real small. No, even smaller. From Stick with It:

“Focusing on small steps allows people to achieve their goals faster than if they focused on dreams. Focusing on small steps also keeps people happier and more motivated to keep trying because they get rewarded more frequently.”

Simple – I couldn’t agree more. 

This is one of the top lessons from Martin Seligman [as here]. Break stuff up into smaller chunks and you get more stuff done; and feel good about getting more stuff done. Simple. 

Thinking small wins big. Here’s to more from Eric Barker.

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