Unlike the gazelle who is straight back to grazing.
I tried it today.
Grumpy, hungry, feeling ‘got at’ and like my morning had been taken away from me, I leashed the dogs and went for a walk. And listening to Mark Williams, I realised all needed to do was stop thinking about it all, and get back to mentally grazing – in my case simply enjoying walking among trees and new growth in the spring sunshine.
Instead of firing red amygdala…
…I found myself enjoying a park walk filled with the colours of spring.
There’s more to life than fight and flight; but you have to stop thinking to find it.
For some time, I’ve noticed that people at the top of them can drive themselves and whole organisations to anxiety, stress and overwork; seeking answers to problems which just may not have one.
In computation there are many ‘undecidable problems’ where any possible computer program may give the wrong answer or would run forever without giving any answer at all. A ‘halting problem’ is one where you’ll never know if the program would end. Some of the questions I get asked at the moment feel like these – decidedly undecidable.
Basically these are problems to which there may well be no simple or knowable answers. Finding the answer could take an eternity (and a mountain of work) or continuing to pursue a better answer misses the moment and makes the situation worse.
Computer science advocates ‘Optimal Stopping’; in essence stopping the analysis early enough to get a resource efficient, computationally efficient, ‘good enough’ answer.
The lack of ‘Optimal Stopping’ in senior folk is bad at the best of times. But with Covid-19 it’s a killer – if you keep chasing and asking more and more questions, you just dive deeper and deeper and deeper into the abyss…
So why do otherwise very intelligent, experienced and senior people do it? Turns out because the very apparatus that made them senior – spotting, sweating and sorting problems – ends up torturing them and others.
They worry and worry and chase and question, and expose bigger and bigger gaps between what is known, what can reasonably be done and the problems we have at hand. They’re trapped in a negatively spiralling perpetual motion machine. Because that’s what the mind is – it has an unlimited capacity to spot problems.
That’s perhaps a bit harsh on the mind though; in fact it’s only doing its job… It’s just trying to help us close the gap between where we are and where we want to get to. And this works beautifully for projects which have a start, middle and an end or which require getting from A to B.
But where the problems start, are when we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there – or even if we’re on remotely the right road. Especially with the biggest problems of all: how to be happy and live a fulfilling life.
And according to Professor Mark Williams what works for ‘painting by numbers’ problems just makes things worse, when contemplating the complexities of your own self-portrait.
When we find a gap between where we are and where we wanted to be, the ever helpful mind starts trying to close the gap; by asking us questions and spinning at top speed to help us find some answers:
“Why am I sad, why am I failing, why do I feel bad, what can I do about it, how do I fix myself, how do I fix the world”.
It turns out – thanks to that stripy hippocampus – we are easily triggered into repeated patterns of thought by environmental cues. So much of what we think is triggered by our surroundings and situations. If you’ve been in a bad situation before, just being in the same place or context can flip you straight back into the same spin again. Even different types of music can do it – apparently listening to Prokofiev’s Russia under the Mongolian yoke from Alaexander Nevsky at half speed can make you blue in double quick time!
But as well as environmental cues being triggers, so are our own moods. We can trigger ourselves. When we feel sad we can rapidly connect with other sad memories, and bring back negative incidents. As Kate Jeffrey explained, incidents which were stressful are deeply etched and tagged by the hippocampus into our memories.
And this links to the Oxford podcast on treatments, which explains the reasons people who’ve had depressive illness can relapse so readily. It turns out it is less the ‘content’ of the negative thoughts (although these thoughts create the exhaustion which drives the downward cycle) but the combination of contextual and mood-based triggers, which can flip the mind back in time in an instant – and recreate the cycle of past fears and past incidents that mean you’re quickly spinning, spiralling and falling again.
So what to do?
It turns out that the key is to spot the pattern:
The mind finds a ‘gap’ between your actual state and the desired state.
The mind starts searching for answers and starts asking you questions.
You hear the questions as criticisms or further evidence of the gap.
You start to think the gap may be permanent, pervasive and personal – it’s lasting, it’s going to affect everything and it’s your fault.
You step up an energy level, as the mind tries harder to help you close the gap; and repeat; and repeat; and repeat.
Anxiety and low mood kick in; and the cycle deepens.
Given the mind works at the speed of light this can be very fast, very intense and very exhausting. The bodily organ which consumes the most energy is the mind. No wonder people burn out and fall flat on their backs.
William’s treatment – our old friend mindfulness meditation… The only way to stop the cycle is to quickly recognise it, catch it before it spirals and ‘observe’ the thoughts – to avoid getting captured by them. The inner voice is always talking (and in fact always trying to help) but like a critical parent or a demanding boss, it can’t stop itself. You just have to take a breath and let it pass.
That’s why I’m back to mindfulness meditation as of today. I’ve had Williams and Penman’s book Mindfulness for years, and used to listen to the meditations a lot in the early 2010s. But I didn’t know the science then. For anyone with a lively mind it’s the best defence against depression; and we all need a bit of help right now.
I’m looking forward to tucking into their free Coronavirus resources here.
Out walking the dog, what should pop up on my podcast playlist than Keith Frankish on Philosophy Bites explaining why I was lost in thought, while the dog was 100% focused on the walk…
The difference between us is he lives in the immediate, whereas we spend a lot of our time elsewhere.
Consciousness is the distinctive feature of the human mind. Because a conscious thought is a thought about something that isn’t perceptually present. We can react to thoughts about the world detached from immediate perception.
So if we can do it, why can’t animals? Not least given we have ostensibly similar sensory apparatus and not massively dissimilar brains?
The crucial difference is we have language… Frankish’s proposal is that it is the presence of language that enables us to have conscious thought, not just conscious perception.
We don’t just use language for communicating with each other, we use language for communicating with ourselves; for stimulating ourselves in new ways, for representing the world to ourselves, for representing situations that aren’t actually real… situations that ‘might’ happen and this enables us to anticipate, to plan to prepare for eventualities that haven’t yet occurred.
This, I think is the function of conscious thought. Conscious thought, I think, is essentially a kind of speaking to ourselves.
And by talking to ourselves we can mentally shift in time and space in ways which my trusty hound probably can’t. He’s a clever little chap – but apart from chasing bunnies and squirrels in his sleep (you can see his legs twitching as he runs them down) he’s a creature of the immediate present.
As Frankish explains:
We might say that one of the main functions of mind generally, in us and other animals, is to lock us onto the world; to make us sensitive to the world around us so we can respond quickly to changes to enable us to negotiate the world in a rapid and flexible way.
But Homo Sapiens has another trick…
The function of the conscious mind, I think is quite different. It’s not to lock us onto the world, it is to unlock us from the world – to enable us to consider alternative worlds, to consider what we would do if things weren’t as we expect them to be, to make plans for how we might change the world.
So this ability to step back from the ‘immediate’ and use language – talking to ourselves – to reflect on what is, has, might or will happen is what our unique combination of language and consciousness give us.
So far so generically interesting. But potentially even more interesting is how I’m going to try and use this insight…
Here are the mental steps:
Most of the bad things that are happening to me in work (and there are plenty) are made worse be me running over them in my mind.
Because I’m quite verbally dexterous I may be guilty of sharpening them in my inner dialogue to the point of exquisite pain.
Treatments may vary but nearly all (bar the most serious) respond to ‘talking therapies’ which aim to change the inner dialogue.
Mindfulness, which helps too, is all about turning off the ‘inner talking’ and returning to the moment – in effect locking back onto the world as a trusty hound would.
Although bad things are happening to me at work (as they are for most people right now) they are still not as bad as the versions in my mind (at least not all of the time) and most of them are anticipated and haven’t actually happened yet.
My inner voice is currently more negative and ruminative than is good for me.
And talking to other people makes it even worse.
So what to do?
Simple – switch language, and here’s why:
People in several different workplaces down the years have commented that I’m very cheerful and animated when I speak French.
I remember that when I used to live in France I couldn’t really do numbers very well in French; it’s like I was saying them in my head but the ‘numbers bit’ of my brain wasn’t properly engaging.
If I’m thinking about something terrible – like getting made redundant or making other people redundant it makes me feel really sad.
If I consciously think about the same thing in French, there is little or no physiological effect… it’s as if the ‘pain connectors’ aren’t there; I think it, but more slowly and not sadly…
Perhaps it’s because I have to work at it. I think more slowly, and my vocabulary is less ‘fine’ in French – but it seems the pain and sadness just isn’t there when I think the same thought in French. In fact it’s not really the same ‘thought’ at all, its more a daisy chain of words which register in the mind but aren’t ‘felt’ in the same way.
So based on Keith Frankish, when bad and sad thoughts crowd in, I clearly need to switch to Frankish – or French as we know it these days. Whenever I start ruminating or feel chest clenching anxieties about work I plan to try thinking about them in French to get them under control.
Let’s see if it works… And if not there’s always Italiano! Vive la France.
There’s a strange paradox about consciousness. On the one hand we tend to believe that it’s a completely private space; so I can never somehow get access to your consciousness and you can never get access to mine. On the other hand it’s the only part of our mental life that we can actually talk to each other about.
So what is it for? We like to think consciousness is in the ‘driving seat’, that we are ‘consciously’ making our decisions and choosing our actions.
But Frith points out that lots of psychology experiments show that consciousness seems to lag behind decisions and actions, rather than the way round we like to believe; which is driving and directing them. It seems a lot of what we what we do is automatic: driven by subliminal processes, autonomous brain processes, reflexes and the subconscious.
So what’s the point of it? The hard core view, Frith points out, is that consciousness is just an evolutionary by-product and has no actual ‘function’. As Victorian zoologist, biologist and anthropologist Thomas Henry Huxley said:
“Consciousness has as much function on human behaviour as the steam whistle of an engine has on the workings of the engine.”
But the fascinating alternative thesis Frith develops, is that the purpose and evolutionary benefit of consciousness is not to drive but to post hoc rationalise our actions. After all, as Frith says, the whistle might not affect the engine itself – but it certainly draws the attention of others.
And through a series of clever psychology and neuroscience experiments Frith shows that:
People recall things more accurately when they compare notes with others;
We change our subsequent actions based on our conscious (and often inaccurate) retelling to ourselves and others of why we did things.
Frith’s fascinating conclusion is the point of consciousness isn’t real-time decisions; it’s to reflect with others on what we (and they) did, and to learn from it – as highly social beings.
So rather than consciousness being the solitary business of ‘I think therefore I am’, its purpose is to help us reflect and explain – so we can navigate and learn from each other. Consciousness isn’t about being ‘locked in’ on our own – with Descartes’ evil demon – instead it has evolved to help us make our way in our social and sociable human world.
It turns out we seem to actually hover above and slightly behind what we do; rather than right in the thick of it. Perhaps consciousness is indeed the conscience on our shoulder.
I reckoned I knew my psychology but it turns out far less that I thought; it’s a revelation! We are so much more a product of emotion and subconscious probabilistic inference than of conscious thought or deliberation. And we are fantastically suggestible in every respect; easily triggered and primed to find patterns where there are none and seeking to exert control where none is possible.
A roam around ‘Intro Psych’ reveals just how much we are a bag of impulses and how little we are the rational beings the Enlightenment set out to make us. That’s not to say we can’t do better than simply follow our instincts – but it’s well worth knowing how ‘hard wired’ they are.
One tiny vignette from Paul Bloom… the number one fears for Chicago preschoolers are snakes and spiders (as they are universally) even though the great majority will probably never have encountered the former. There’s something primal about snakes and spiders – it’s a simple survival instinct.
Week four was ‘Social Psychology’: group dynamics, stereotypes, bias, belonging and ‘fitting in’. And the most helpful idea for me here is the ‘Spotlight Effect’:
The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. Being that one is constantly in the center of one’s own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others is uncommon.
As Bloom points out the Spotlight Effect is a great thing to know about… Individuals are more anxious they’re being noticed than they should be; everyone is far busier worrying about themselves than taking an interest in you, and fear of failure and embarrassment are universal – especially in novel situations and with new tasks.
Only experts, practising in their narrow domain of expertise perform better with an audience. The rest of us fare worse, because of our fear of being in the spotlight. And Bloom (who comes across as a rather splendid person) points out that this sometimes drives the so-called ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’:
In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual’s observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behavior. This effect has been described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”.
FAE also leads to people believing (including sometimes Academics themselves) that because a person is impressive in their particular field of expertise they are similarly sound in all domains. Not so Bloom reminds us. And with a dash of ‘confirmation bias’ I’ve quickly decided (as above) that Bloom is a ‘splendid person’ not just a good psychology prof… FAE hard at work (I’m sure he’s a splendid person all the same!)
The Fundamental Attribution Error is a keeper, because it nudges us to remember that far more of what people do is ‘situational’; it’s what anyone would do, or how they would be seen in the same situation.
It also reminds us that when we blame others (not least at work) we tend to pin it on their ‘character’; whereas when we make a mistake or do something wrong ourselves – we are far more likely to blame the circumstances…
All in all, my enthusiasm for psychology is blooming under Bloom. As I concluded on WhatsApp:
I’m finding all this Covid-19 uncertainty as hard as the next person, but at least I’ve rediscovered a love of learning (which working professionally with Academics had damaged enormously!) It’s not all bad is it!
The full text is down below (and I’m hoping Terence and Philosophy Now will forgive me as I do recommend a subscription to what one of my favourite reads).
But the bits which got me thinking are these:
…humankind is possessed of a singular desire to control: to control our environment, to control society, to control other people (cf Nietzsche’s will-to-power). Control is hoped to be a way of ridding ourselves of uncertainty; and more than anything else, human beings are troubled by uncertainty.
This speaks to the worries and anxieties we all endlessly lock onto: the Existentialist ‘lack’, Buddhist ‘clinging’ and the endless ‘control dramas’ of interpersonal relations. We are both bored by and possessive about what we have, fear what we don’t know and worry constantly about other people and the future.
We’re all about control.. are we beyond help?
But, said Hayek, this belief [in control] is just hubris – the sort of arrogant over-confidence for which the Greek gods were always punishing people. In the absence of the gods, we’re punished by the circumstances we create.
Maybe the answer is, mentally, to bring back those Greek gods – capricious, mercurial, tempters and temptresses, spiteful and unpredictable; but ultimately (kind of) on our side.
If life was unavoidably a rollercoaster ride of being tossed about by Zeus and the others, perhaps we might enjoy it more. Let go of the illusion of control and it’s unalloyed fun when it’s going well and less painful when things go badly; it’s all in the lap of the gods.
After all, chance seems to be beating control hands down in 2020.
“Reason’s poverty, Man’s desire to control – This road walks the serf.”
Hayek’s reputation as an economist and political philosopher has suffered on account of his popular but vitriolic and unbalanced rant against state power, The Road to Serfdom (1944). In it he argued that even mild, well-intentioned attempts at central planning will inevitably slide towards authoritarianism. The book was appropriated by the worst zealots of neoliberalism. But there remains much wisdom in the fundamental points he returned to time and again.
The Enlightenment bequeathed to us a seemingly unshakable confidence in the capacity of human reason. Reason sets us apart from the beasts and gives us the power to shape our world after our own designs. It matters not that history is littered with the burnt-out wrecks of infallible schemes for the creation of the ideal society: we still cling to the belief that by the application of reason we can diagnose the illness and prescribe the cure for the human condition. Indeed, this belief is the very foundation of modern government. Every policy a government introduces is predicated on rational analysis, with the assumption that the policy will produce the desired effects. Along with this faith in reason, Hayek claims, humankind is possessed of a singular desire to control: to control our environment, to control society, to control other people (cf Nietzsche’s will-to-power). Control is hoped to be a way of ridding ourselves of uncertainty; and more than anything else, human beings are troubled by uncertainty. We wish to alleviate the pain of not knowing, and believe we have the ability to do so. But, said Hayek, this belief is just hubris – the sort of arrogant over-confidence for which the Greek gods were always punishing people. In the absence of the gods, we’re punished by the circumstances we create.
For Hayek in 1944 there was a broader context – of fascist and communist totalitarian regimes, that justified their murderous actions on the basis that they knew how to create the perfect society. Even if you start out with impeccably admirable intentions, any government that seeks to reshape society on the basis of some ideal blueprint will risk turning its citizens into slaves in order to realise that ideal. There cannot be a single right way to live or to organise society; and even if there were, we can never know enough or be wise enough to bring it into existence. It’s a thought worth pondering.
I took the redoubtable Chris Croft up on his offer of a ‘Year of Happiness’ emails over Christmas. I told a friend, and she did the same.
She emailed me last week as below:
This made me smile – in truth 2020 has been a car-crash from start to finish. And where we are now: locked down and cooped-up – as the economy stops dead and we improvise field hospitals – is simply incredible.
Chris’s advice in this week’s happiness email is to ‘worry less’. For once I very nearly didn’t bother to read on.
But as always he has a point; and a practical suggestion… make a list.
To start with, make a list all of your worries. There’s something very therapeutic about writing things down, because it gives you permission to get them out of your brain, and that takes them further away from you, where they seem less important, and more easy to work on and to kill them off.
Usually, my list of worries would be the same somewhat improbable ‘sum of all fears’ one it’s always been:
Losing my job;
Not having enough money;
Having to sell the house;
The whole family confronting me and saying: ‘Dad, you’ve completely failed us.’
Thanks to Coronavirus though these are bang on the £££money – compounded by the very real fear of the lack of it.
But now I can add:
Facing a riot/riots at work;
Facing a riot in our street;
Having to stop paying people;
Having to furlough people (whole new worry!);
Having to make people redundant;
Having to hold onto people’s money who want it back;
Having to pay other people for things we are no longer sure we can afford;
Loved ones getting ill;
Running out of food;
Not being allowed out to walk the dog;
There never being any jobs of the sort I do ever again
My pension disappearing so I can never escape work I hate.
That about captures it! A proper list of worries.
So what to do? Paraphrasing Chris:
But what if the worry really is about something serious? What can you do about that? And the answer is nothing, there IS nothing you can do. Just tell yourself, it’s going to be fine. Keep saying it till you believe it, and finally, put it into context, it’s not the end of the world if it happens.
Montaigne’s Essays talk of French life in the sixteenth century, in a way which is accessible, modern and make it seem much like life today. More letters and fewer screens back then; but the same dramas of human affairs.
Except… they were in the middle of a bloody civil war of all-against-all.
As La Boétie describes it:
The result: “almost universal hate and malevolence between the king’s subjects, which in some places feeds secretly, in others declares itself more openly, but everywhere produces sad results… It divides citizens, neighbours, friends, parents, brothers, fathers and children, husband and wife.”
What followed was a series of massacres starting in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day, spreading to twelve other cities: Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, Orléans, Meaux, Angers, La Charité, Saumur, Gaillac and Troyes; and killing c10,000 people.
The UK’s WWII ‘Blitz spirit’ and Dunkirk rhetoric is getting more than a bit tired, but I’d rather take Covid-19 than face religious slaughter.
My worries – like everyone’s – are very real; but pretty much every age which precedes us has known worse.
After some time away I have returned to Existentialism. I guess when working life is getting the better part of you, it pays to focus on the things under your own control – your mind, how you spend your free time and where you focus your attention.
And this is a key aspect of Existentialism, as Gary Cox sets out in ‘How to be an Existentialist’, because although it takes a body to have one, the mind is what defines us. Indeed understanding the nature and peculiarity of consciousness plays a key part in Existentialism.
Cutting to the chase, a key feature of consciousness – I discover – is it is always noticing what’s lacking: what isn’t happening, what is wanted and what the future is keeping from us…
Consciousness is always predisposed to find something lacking because lack is intrinsic to the very meaning of every situation for any particular consciousness. This is why, according to existentialist philosophers, a consciousness, a person, can never be completely satisfied. A person will always interpret a situation in terms of what it lacks for him.
If he is cooking, his meal lacks being cooked. If he is eating, his meal lacks being eaten. If he is half way through a movie the movie lacks an ending so far. If the movie is poor and he does not care about the ending then his situation lacks interest. If he is tired he lacks sleep (tiredness is lack of sleep). If he has just awoken and is ready for the day he lacks the things he hopes to achieve that day and so on and so on.
And if these seem like small things, it gets worse…
In general, a person always lacks the future towards which he is constantly heading, the future which gives meaning to his present actions and beyond which he hopes in vain to be fulfilled and at one with himself.
Ever onward, the endless march of time, towards a future that is presently lacking, an absent future that will fall into the past as soon as it is reached, a past with its own absent future.
It seems that the endless march of time constantly cheats us of what we are, prevents us from becoming one with ourselves, but really, what we are is this endless march forward in time, creatures that can never become one with themselves.
So this is why my jockey is constantly lost… I’m dashing through life seeking myself; doomed never to find me. As indeed are we all.
As Cox puts it:
Existentialism recommends bravely accepting that this is how life is and making the most of it. It recommends building your life on the firm basis of hard, uncomfortable truths rather than the shifting sands of soft, comfortable delusions.
Ironically perhaps, there is also the suggestion that people will actually be happier and relatively more satisfied if they accept what the endless temporal flight of consciousness towards the future implies, namely, that it is alien to the human condition for a person to be completely satisfied and contented for any length of time.
Existentialism offers satisfaction of a stoical kind through the acceptance of the inevitability of a certain amount of dissatisfaction.
And I’m all for stoicism. But returning to the starting point; if it is the restlessness of consciousness that defines, us then Cox points out:
We constantly encounter a world characterized and defined by the motives, intentions and attitudes we choose to have and the evaluations we choose to make.
This is not to say that the world is anything we wish it to be, far from it, but it is to say that there is a very real sense in which the world for each person is a product of the attitude with which he or she approaches it. This realization is, or should be, enormously empowering.
The person who chooses to be positive and confident or, at least, genuinely tries to be positive and confident, will encounter a very different world from the person who chooses to be negative.
So that’s where I’m focusing my consciousness; if you can’t change some of what’s happening around you, focus your mind on what you can.
In popular culture and media, dopamine is usually seen as the main chemical of pleasure, but the current opinion in pharmacology is that dopamine instead confers motivational salience; in other words, dopamine signals the perceived motivational prominence (i.e., the desirability or aversiveness) of an outcome, which in turn propels the organism’s behavior toward or away from achieving that outcome.
And thus dopamine doesn’t bring satisfaction. In fact, I’ve discovered, the opposite – the more you scratch the more it itches. Dopamine powers learning and curiosity; and seems to reward it. But once you’re in a dopamine cycle it just itches and itches and itches.
It’s dopamine which powers all addictions: drugs, gambling and alcohol most notably. But it also fuels any form of compulsive behaviour; wherever your subconscious tells you you need to “feed your need” from marathon running to marathon eating, dopamine is urging you on.