The dojo

A recurrent theme of 2020 is can anything else really go wrong? And then it does! I exchanged as much with a most excellent and special friend yesterday in the following text message exchange:

Just inside the door from the wreckage in the back garden, our lovely little dog lies paralysed with a spinal stroke.

He can’t stand up unaided, and is making little progress as we enter the third week since he collapsed. Poor lad.

So what’s going well?

Not so much if I’m honest, but a good psychology resource has been helping this month – Dr Karen Reivich’s ‘Resilience Skills’ from the University of Pennsylvania currently available for free on Coursera.

There is so much to like about Dr Reivich’s exceptionally well-evidenced and practical explanations: the dimensions of resilience and how you can cultivate them, the killer ‘thinking traps’ which bring us all down, and how to disrupt them; plus how to manage anxiety and cultivate positive emotions – even in the worst of times.

As an illustration here are Reivich’s five ‘thinking traps’:

  1. Mind-reading – I already know what you’re thinking and what you’re going to say and do to me (no, I really don’t)
  2. Me – it’s all because of me and it’s all my fault (no it isn’t)
  3. Them – it’s all because of them and it’s all their fault (nope, not that either)
  4. Catastrophizing – it’s bad, it’s going to be terrible and then the walls will cave in on me (notwithstanding the image above, not wholly likely)
  5. Helplessness – it’s hopeless and there’s nothing I can do (but there always is…)

Reivich’s point is if you get into a negative spiral with these five, you just circle down and down. Which is a great insight – but what are you supposed to do about it?

She has three simple ‘Real Time Resilience’ countermeasures, which are easy to remember and easy to deploy. Each begins with a simple mental ‘sentence starter’.

  1. “That’s not true because…..” insert counter Evidence of facts which challenge the thinking trap.
  2. A more helpful way to see this is……Reframe more realistically or positively by broadening the context.
  3. If x happens, I will y……. make a simple Plan, with a practical step you would take if the bad thing(s) starts to happen.

These can be combined with another practical tool – worst case, best case, likely case, practical plan – which puts outer limits on what might happen (including some cheer-inducing good ones) and prepares the mind and body for action, not yet more rumination.

Sometimes simple is best. Walking and talking in the park with my 13 year old son (sadly without 🐶) he got the thinking traps straight away. The ‘sentence starters’ made sense to him too.

This week’s Penn course covers how to manage anxiety. As per my gazelles the key finding is everyone gets anxiety spikes – what makes the ‘Resilience’ difference is mentally and physiologically how fast you can return to normal function. And that’s a set of skills you can learn.

Locked-in and cooped-up, the biggest Covid-19 challenge is keeping mind and body healthy. 2020 is one helluva dojo, but however many times it knocks you down, the answer is: learn, change your mindset and get up again.

Spitting distance

Which comes first the thought or the emotion? Listening to more of ‘Why Buddhism is true’ by Robert Wright – it seems emotions shape more of context than the average rational actor might like to admit.

In essence the argument from ‘evolutionary psychology’ is that we have a number of ‘mental modules’ which operate just below our consciousness. They are sometimes collaborating – but often competing – for our attention. These modules pull our behaviour towards and away from things.

One example Wright gives, is how attracted experimental subjects are to the promise of a ‘busy museum’ or an ‘exclusive private one’ depending on whether they are shown a clip of ‘The Shining’ or a clip of a ‘Rom-Com’.

Study participants who had been exposed to ‘The Shining’ preferred the idea of a busy museum – safety in numbers. Only those who had seen the ‘Rom Com’ clip fancied the more intimate experience…

The argument is that these modules or algorithms are constantly running – and it is our emotional response to stimuli which selects which module comes to the fore. And what is the conscious mind doing while all this is happening? Running slightly behind post-hoc rationalising it all.

There are fascinating experiments which show how readily the ‘inner voice’ co-opts and instantly creates explanations for what we are doing – first to build our sense of infallibility and second so we can explain ourselves to others.

Both of these are highly ‘adaptive’ in evolutionary terms – a strong sense of self-competence gave us the confidence to keep hunting and gathering; and a strong narrative of our own competence meant other hunters and gatherers wanted us on the team. After all, who wants someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or why, as a partner in life, love, homemaking, the hunt, battle or active warfare?

And indeed these different roles we play are thought to have different ‘mental modules’ which put us in the right frame of mind for the actions required. There is a proposed ‘mate attraction’ module which makes us take more risks, a ‘social status’ module we use to assess and promote ourselves; clearly there are ‘fight or flight’ modules which prepare us to ‘punch and run’ – and there are many more which served their evolutionary purpose in keeping us alive and reproducing.

Some psychologists and philosophers are a bit sceptical of all this of course – and so they should be; that’s any scientist or philosopher’s job. There is a suggestion that these sorts of untestable evolutionary ‘fairy tales’ are a bit far fetched. Indeed the whole ‘genealogy’ approach of seeing behaviour and action as highly determined by social context and norms after Nietzsche and Foucault has been unfashionable in British and American Philosophy. More’s the pity as it’s clearly worth a closer look…

Foucault

…And so to spitting. An article I alighted on while looking for more on ‘mental modules’ pulls together genealogy, emotions, culture, behaviour; and one of the most powerful emotions of the lot – disgust.

In the paper by Shaun Nichols he posits that cultural norms which connect with naturally strong emotional responses ( those driven by evolutionary selection processes) will tend to survive – whilst cultural norms which are just cultural norms will come and go. As he puts it:

I maintain that emotional responses will affect the cultural viability of norms as well as other cultural items. In particular, norms prohibiting actions that elicit negative [emotions] will, I argue, be more likely to survive than [emotionally] neutral norms.

And to illustrate his point he uses spitting down the ages… In the Middle Ages spitting norms were getting a bit more strict, for example:

“Do not spit across the table in the manner of hunters.”

And:

“Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands, but beside it.”


By 1530, apparently, Erasmus’ etiquette book, ‘On Good Manners for Boys’ gives a “slightly more refined set of admonitions”:

“Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls on the ground, it should be trodden upon, lest it nauseate someone.”

But by the 1600s it’s no longer enough to put your foot on it…

“Formerly . . . it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank, and was sufficient to put one’s foot on the sputum. Today that is an indecency”

By 1729 a handkerchief is expected:

“When you are with well-born people, and when you are in places that are kept clean, it is polite to spit into your handkerchief while turning slightly aside”

And by the Victorian era spitting is quite simply off limits.

“Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. I need say nothing more than—never indulge in it”

On the one hand norms have evolved – and tightened – but the argument is that compared to other norms which have come and gone over 500 years, spitting norms are more durable because they connect to and easily elicit a ‘core emotion’.

It’s likely that a crucial feature here is that the disgust mechanism is at least predisposed to find saliva and mucus objectionable. That is, we come prepared to be disgusted by certain things and not others (cf. Seligman 1971; Garcia 1990).

…Disgust is a basic emotion (Ekman 1994; Rozin et al. 2000), and by common consensus, body products are at the core of the eliciting conditions for disgust (Rozin et al. 2000).

Indeed, Haidt and colleagues maintain that it’s useful to distinguish “core disgust” which is elicited by body products, food, and animals (especially animals associated with body products or spoiled food) (Haidt et al. 1994).

Similarly, Rozin and colleagues write that “Body products are usually a focus of disgust. . . . There is widespread historical and cultural evidence for aversion to virtually all body products, including feces, vomit, urine, and blood” (Rozin et al. 2000).

It seems to me we can all readily relate to that one!

So emotions – and the approach/avoid – response are always working in the background to bring the evolutionarily correct ‘mental modules’ to the mental foreground. We think we’re thinking – but we’re not; we’re largely reacting and post hoc rationalising.

And that’s good to know. Because once you recognise you’re a ragtag bag of evolutionarily conditioned emotional triggers – for modules which give us proven survival advantage – you can relax a bit. There’s no point trying to ‘control’ emotions; they control us. The point is to trust them a bit more. And be distracted by the ‘inner voice’ a little less.

The inner voice is perhaps more like a sports commentator than the illusory inner Chief Executive (which Richard Wright very much draws into question). The inner voice is all too often completely wrapped up in the ‘game’; excited and involved, telling us ten-to-the-dozen what’s happening now, not entirely wanting to predict the final result but unable to resist a bit of speculation and hyperbole… All rising voices, factoids and oohs and ahs!

…but in fact, it’s the emotions (as throughout evolutionary history) that are the star players.

The fear of fear itself

From multiple sources and stimuli this week, a penny has dropped… as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said one of the biggest things we fear is fear itself;

There’s a name and a proper medical definition for it: phobophobia. But there’s also a bit of chicken and egg about all this: which comes first – the feeling or the thought?

As a person who spends a lot of time in my own head, I’d concluded it was often the ‘thought’ that comes first. I’d assumed for a lot of things it’s thoughts which gets the fear cycle going; thinking of something going wrong or that could be painful, embarrassing, poverty-inducing or lethal for example. But now I’m not so sure…

A combo of a bit of mindfulness, and some very helpful prompting from someone posing the question – “Where do thoughts come from?” has had me pondering.

On one level it seems easy; thanks to our old friend Descartes. With ‘I think therefore I am’, Descartes has firmly planted in our minds that it’s the thinking that defines us; so it’s easy to assume it’s the thinking that comes first. But is it?

Lots of great thinkers suggest otherwise. Aristotle and Aquinas had us down as composites of flesh and blood and mind – and far closer to animals than pure ‘spirit’.

Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Human, and Divine

So back to the question I’ve been asked: “Where are the thoughts coming from?”

The short answer is I’m not entirely sure; but what is increasingly clear is they are not all coming from my Cartesian ‘conscious’ mind. Lots of them come unbidden. They ‘well up’ from the subconscious. And today I caught one ‘popping up’ from a place of pure feelings…

You have to be soooo fast to catch the mind. It’s like running a precision scientific experiment, it’s all in the milliseconds… But, while cheffing up a beetroot curry this lunchtime – from nowhere I had a vague generalised sense of anxiety – and a millisecond later a thought popped up to help me explain it. And immediately the two become one and the thought becomes the ‘source’ of the anxiety.

But it wasn’t. I simply concentrated on the feeling – and both went away. There is no reason to believe the specific ‘thought’ I had was anything to do with the general feeling of anxiety. I was ‘feeling’ anxious that my precious Sunday was half over – but the ‘thought’ was about a specific work-related problem I’ll be back to facing on Monday. Related but independent. Correlated but not causally connected…

What if the arrow of causation is the other way around… what if most or all of my thoughts are triggered by feelings… two books I’m reading suggest there’s something in this.

The first, ‘Why Buddhism is true’ by Robert Wright, points out that our emotions and perceptions were shaped by natural selection – not to be accurate, but to spread our genes.

All emotions and feelings, Wright points out, basically come from the same thing an amoeba has – a primordial urge to ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’. Our fancy mental apparatus can post-hoc rationalise it all, and give them more subtle and sophisticated names; but they are just differently packaged composites of approach/avoid.

The second ingredient comes from The Power of Negative Emotion by Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan.

Their argument is we need negative emotions not least to spur us into action.

Richard Wright’s point is that natural selection deliberately keeps us anxious; Biswas-Diener and Kashdan advise us to embrace and use that.

So today I slightly changed a mantra I have in one of my many lists of ‘things to remember’. It was:

Avoid fear as a motivator

And now I’ve changed it to:

Accept fear is a motivator

And why? Simply because it is; fear is a motivator, and avoiding it means avoiding pretty much everything.

The limbic system is way more powerful than conscious thought as a motivator – it has been keeping ‘all creatures great and small’ safe for hundreds of millions of years.

There’s no point trying to avoid fear, you just have to feel it; and then do something about it.

Goals + Agency + Pathways = Hope

A timely blog from the always readable Eric Barker brings us the science of hope.

Before his passing, Charles Snyder was a professor at the University of Kansas and editor of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. His books are Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications and Psychology of Hope.

Barker tells us that Snyder defined the route to hope thus:

Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes… According to the theory, people who are hopeful believe they are good at generating goal thoughts, creating effective pathways leading to goal attainment, maintaining agency thoughts to provide enough motivation for the goal pursuit, and handling barriers that arise.

After all, as Barker reminds us, right now:

You’re dealing with life and death, financial concerns, issues of justice, and the safety and sanity of those you love. We have to get all that back on track in a world where clear answers are less than forthcoming. Human nature is on our side but we have plenty of work to do. Planet ain’t gonna fix itself; grab a shovel.

And so:

We don’t need wishes. We need active hope. The kind of hope that comes from a good plan, one that you are confident you can execute.

But in the endless weekly grind of ‘lockdown’ and Covid anxieties, it’s hard to come up with a plan that feels up to task. It’s all either too wishful or too timid. So what to do?

It starts with the goals:

Goals + Agency + Pathways = Hope

When you have goals (knowing what you want) and agency (the drive to get what you want) and pathways (the ability to generate methods to achieve what you want), you get hope.

With this type of hope, you don’t wish things will work out; you know deep down in your bones they will. You never doubt it.

I’ve always rather hated setting goals… what if I fail, is this the right thing to be shooting for, will it be worth it?

After all as Barker says:

Asking yourself “What are my goals?” is an excellent way to make your mind go blank.

He advises getting specific:

List out the major areas of your life (“career”, “family”, etc.) and beside each one simply write “I want…” Then finish the sentence. Be specific…

No, even more specific…

Sorry, still not specific enough…

Don’t say, “I need to find a new job,” say “I’m going to spend one hour every morning job-hunting on LinkedIn and reaching out to contacts.”

Snyder says you want “Specific, growth-seeking, performance-based, moderately-difficult goals.”

We’ve covered the ‘specific’ part. What’s a “growth-seeking” goal?

The right goals for ‘right now’ forget hope for the applause of others, and focus on personal growth.

Snyder’s research shows:

There is evidence that people who set validation-seeking goals are more prone to depressive episodes and self-esteem loss than those who set growth-seeking goals (Dykman, 1998). Validation-seeking goals are strivings to prove one’s self-worth, competence, and likeability through attainment of a goal. In contrast, growth-seeking goals are strivings to learn, grow, and improve.

I’m pretty good at action (agency) and finding routes forward (pathways) but Barker helped me realise I could do with a clearer more positive goal right now. Not least given my first thought was the one Barker advised against – get a new job!

So instead I’ve worked on some ‘growth’ goals:

  • Practice forgiving myself and others for what’s happening at work,
  • Be curious; practice and learn new psychological techniques through conflict at work,
  • Take breaks several times a day to breathe, reset and be ‘mindful’,
  • Keep learning Italian and French, and
  • Keep learning more about psychology and neuroscience.

I still think I should get a new job though!

However, as chance would have it an email from Chris Croft dropped into my inbox today; reminding me to find some things to enjoy at work too… So I’ll be looking for laughter where I can find it, and for the opportunity to write and create at work this week, among all the other difficult things.

Both Barker and Chris Croft reckon you can’t be happy or hopeful without some written goals. I’ve concluded, especially when everything is going wrong, they’re probably right.

Hallelujah!

Bowling along a sunny street today, with the hound and my AirPods in – a couple of ribald thoughts came to mind. I smiled inwardly.

And then what should boom out via iTunes shuffle but Handel’s ‘Hallelujah chorus’

…And I smiled some more.

And he shall reign forever and ever

King of kings forever and ever

And Lord of lords

hallelujah

hallelujah

And he shall reign forever and ever

Forever and ever and ever and ever

Etc.

Stirring stuff.

And as I sang along in my head, I thought of my poor old ‘inner voice’ who I’ve been giving a hard time of late.

Ignored; in favour of mindfully contemplating my breath and feet and whatnot. Berated; for worrying and dredging up unhappy memories. Muzzled; from saying anything funny, spontaneous or inappropriate. Sidelined; in favour of endlessly listening to others, accepting their points of view (however unreasonable) and looking for common-ground.

My poor old inner voice feels a bit like King George III in the fabulous musical ‘Hamilton’, the under-appreciated autocrat to whom the people of America turn their back.

So, even though my ‘internal King George’ is a right old pain sometimes, I’ve decided to give him a standing ovation today.

Pompous, opinionated, selfish, self-absorbed, self-pitying, sometimes petty and childish and often wrong, my inner voice is thoroughly Hanoverian at times.

And like the Georgian era it can be bawdy and rowdy; but also rational, curious and enlightened.

So here’s to my very own internal King George! A day of appreciation is in order; and an internal reprise of Hallelujah with the obligatory standing ovation to boot.

Hallelujah was written for George II, who set the trend by apparently spontaneously rising to his feet to applaud it on its first performance – although possibly by some accounts more because of pins and needles, gout or the simple desire to stretch his legs.

A bit like the Georgian inner voice – always up to something…

Gazelle like?

A nice idea from Prof Mark Williams in the final podcast in the excellent ‘New Psychology of Depression’ series – think like a Gazelle…

Not because they are fast and agile…

Nor because they can evade danger…

Because sometimes they can’t…

But because of what happens after they’ve been chased…

They just get straight back to grazing.

The point here, is that a Gazelle’s amygdala fires ‘flight and fight’ just like ours…

But the difference is, once they’ve done fighting or flighting, guess what…

Straight back to grazing.

And this is the big idea. Because we have fancy things like a prefrontal cortex, language and the endless voice of conscious thought in our heads, when our amygdala fires we’re off to the mental races. The metaphorical cheetah has gone but we’re worrying about what it means for our future, worrying when it might happen again, remembering how terrifying it all was, and busy hatching a plan for how we avoid cheetahs for ever more.

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.

Mind the Gap

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.

I heard Kate Jeffrey explain in a super ‘Mind Bites’ podcast today how our beautifully striped hippocampus constantly encodes the environment, to help us learn, remember and get about effortlessly.

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”.

Once the spinning starts it’s endless and exhausting. And it’s a major driver of clinical depression, the incidence of which has rocketed in the last 50 years, now commonly starting as early as 13 years of age. All of this and more I learnt in a remarkable series of podcasts from Oxford University on depression by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman.

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.

Frankish

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.

Why?

Frankish explains:

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.

He continues:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Because I’m quite verbally dexterous I may be guilty of sharpening them in my inner dialogue to the point of exquisite pain.
  3. There is increasing evidence that most mental health problems contain a common ‘p’ factor of generic susceptibility.
  4. Treatments may vary but nearly all (bar the most serious) respond to ‘talking therapies’ which aim to change the inner dialogue.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. My inner voice is currently more negative and ruminative than is good for me.
  8. And talking to other people makes it even worse.

So what to do?

Simple – switch language, and here’s why:

  1. People in several different workplaces down the years have commented that I’m very cheerful and animated when I speak French.
  2. 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.
  3. If I’m thinking about something terrible – like getting made redundant or making other people redundant it makes me feel really sad.
  4. 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.

On the shoulder

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 says the neuroscientist Chris Frith in a podcast titled ‘What is the point of consciousness?’ in the always thought provoking series Philosophy Bites.

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.

In the spotlight…

A month into ‘lockdown’ I WhatsApped in reply to a friend this week:

For my part, I have been studying Introduction to Psychology on Coursera with Paul Bloom of Yale.

And here he is.

Paul Bloom

As I said to my friend:

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.

Wikipedia

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”.

Wikipedia

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!