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.

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.

Gaia II – Truth and Beauty

James Lovelock ends ‘Gaia‘ with a rather profound summary: 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I googled for the origins, and should have guessed the first two paragraphs – they are from the King James Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. 

But the third line is interesting too. If indeed ‘beauty’ is the lion’s share of ‘all ye know’ and ‘need to know’ on earth, and ‘truth’ the rest; does this give a simple recipe for the ‘good life’? 

Perhaps not quite that simple. The meaning of this line from Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn‘ has been heavily debated down the years.

Still – this week I found from myself looking at nature more intently as a result of Lovelock and Keats. But Lovelock’s own ‘last word’ set me thinking too…

There can be no prescription, no set of rules, for living within Gaia. For each of our different actions there are only consequences.

This connected my with my developing ‘inner Buddhist’. Life takes is course; many thing happened before us and many more will happen after. 

This morning, I scanned my instagram photos from the last few years, to look at what I take photos of… 

Far from exhaustive; but a funny old selection of the beauty of nature, mankind’s profound and profane imprint on it – and our ongoing search for truth…

Truth and beauty might not be such bad guides. 


Ecclesiastes – King James Version 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Gaia 


I’m reading James Lovelock’s famous ‘Gaia’ – the first airing of the hypothesis that the planet (and not just we creatures on it) is itself a self-regulating living system.

Lovelock got plenty of stick for this book. A scientist accused of straying into mysticism and anthropomorphism for personalising Gaia as a ‘being’ or a ‘living thing’; not just a bunch of chemical and physical processes.

He freely admits in the later foreword, that he had to write a much more dull and prosaic version to get anywhere with the scientific community. 

It’s one of those books like ‘On the Origin of Species’ which more people will know of than will read. But I’m glad I picked this out of an otherwise lifeless ‘Science’ shelf in the local library. 

It’s a super read. And even allowing for all that has changed in our knowledge and understanding in the 40+ years since it was written; like ‘On the Origin of Species’, you feel you are witness to a remarkable moment of synthesis. A whole array of concepts and ideas join together in one person’s mind and become a new picture on how the entire planet – and possibly the whole of creation works.

The simple facts of how the ‘perfect’ level of of the supremely reactive ‘vital’ ingredient oxygen (21%) is kept in the atmosphere are fascinating. It simply could not and would not be there without deeply interconnected living systems. 

Similarly the seas – without Gaian processes they’d get saltier and saltier within 80 million years; instead of the aeons at a stable 3.5%, which allows half the earth’s biomass to life in three-quarters of its surface.

It’s a terrific read. A moment in historic and scientific time maybe; but as important a science book as has ever struck the popular conscience. It’s also a book which reminds us that the planet we live on is so much more wonderful than we yet understand.

Joy

The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years. 

It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.

Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’. 

So what makes for joy? Here’s what The Book of Joy says:

Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness. 

I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:

However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: 

  1. Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
  2. Our ability to experience gratitude
  3. Our choice to be kind and generous

These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.

I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging. 

As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.

Scienceing the sh1t out of it

I met some old professional friends for an annual reunion yesterday; and was pressed (as we all were) to recount my year. This made me think. 

First what did I want to say, why and to what purpose? Second, write it down (good old Chris Croft at work here again).

So I chose to describe my last year/18 months through five books:

1) Fierce Conversations

Gifted me by some free coaching from my previous employer, I was far more honest than I normally would be in workplace assessment; and was suitably diagnosed as: perfectionist, passive/aggressive and chronically unassertive with a strong tendency to take the problems of the world on my slender shoulders.  

Prescription: more ‘fierce conversations’ to assert my needs and proactively and reasonably manage the expectations of others.  

2) Depressive Illness – The curse of the strong

Faced with the first sight of what my new job entailed, I realised I’d made a horrible mistake… Massive construction projects with big problems, chronically unhappy people, no status, no power, no levers and probably hired as a fall guy. 

A very deep and sudden slump in my mood was explained and then arrested by this priceless little book. And since I’ve helped three other people by buying it for them. 

The essence: if you always work harder when more pressure comes on, and you don’t feel you can escape, you will blow a fuse. Simple and unavoidable; your body does for you what your mind won’t and cuts the power.

Prescription: ‘leave the Hoover in the middle of the room’ as I’ve written before; learn to deliberately leave some tasks undone, and some people potentially disappointed, as the inevitable reality of more demands than you can possibly meet.

3) Learned Optimism

Now this has been a BIG change… having written on it before I won’t rehearse it again.

Prescription: unless you are an Air Traffic Controller or a Loss Adjuster, as Eric Idle famously sang ‘always look on the bright side of life…’

4) The Anatomy of Peace

The simple if obvious discovery, that, nearly everything that happens to you, spirals out from your own attitudes and behaviour towards others. Correcting the behaviour of other people directly (however selfish, antagonistic or hurtful) is impossible; the only way to change things in others is by startling with yourself. 

As I said to someone this week, quoting Oogway from the marvellous Kung Foo Panda: “a man often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it” as here

But I have discovered progressively (since an epiphany half way through this book on our family holiday in Italy last summer) change how you yourself are ‘being’ and everything else changes for the better. 

Prescription: stop trying to correct things in others and invest in listening, understanding and accommodating them.

5) The BIG Book of Happiness – 87 Practical Ideas

My current favourite – there’s just so much to learn from this as here

Having reeled of my five books and the linking story, one of my pals said: ‘it’s quite impressive how you’ve analysed, researched and read stuff and figured out a way through all this.’

That struck me as very kind. I’d simply thought of it as ‘installing new upgrades’ and a few ‘power ups’ as my son would say. 

But on reflection later in the day, I concluded I’ve largely followed Matt Damon’s advice from ‘The Martian’ when he was faced with a hostile climate and a low apparent chance of survival – I’ve scienced the sh1t out of it. 

Classical mistakes: Quantum Biology

Hard to know where to begin, but picking up a copy of this book is a good start… Very well written, pretty accessible; and utterly mind-blowing.

Given recent forays into maths I just about get Erwin Schrödinger’s puzzlement in 1944 at this central question of heredity: “how could identical copies of genes be passed virtually unchanged from one generation to the next?”

As Life on the Edge explains – all the laws of classical physics and chemistry are statistical laws; which means they are only true on average and are only reliable because they involve very large numbers of particles interacting. 

Knock billiard balls around on a table for an hour and you can predict most will end up in the pockets. Thermodynamics works like this and predicts the average behaviour of lots of particles, not the behaviour of an individual molecule. 

As Schrödinger pointed out all the laws of classical physics and chemistry – including all those relating to fluids and chemical reactions – are based on this principle of averaging large numbers. ‘Order’ emerges from ‘disorder’.

Schrödinger not only observed that the statistical laws of classical physics couldn’t be relied on at the microscopic level; he quantified the decline in accuracy. The size of deviations from the classical laws is inversely proportional to the square root of the number of particles involved.

A normal balloon filled with a trillion particles deviates from the ‘gas laws’ by only one millionth. But a tiny balloon filled with only one hundred particles will deviate from ‘orderly’ behaviour by one in ten.

And here is where Schrödinger locates the problem – the ‘order from disorder’ principle of classical laws cannot govern life, because some of the tiniest biological machines are just too small to be governed by classical laws.

At the time Schrödinger was writing his book What Is Life? he calculated that a single gene might contain about a million atoms. The square root of a million is one thousand. So the level of noise and inaccuracy in genes should be one in a thousand – or 0.1%. And yet genes can be faithfully transmitted with mutation rates of less than one in one billion.

Schrödinger concluded that the machinery of life could not be founded on the ‘order from disorder’ of classical laws – but must be subject to the strange, but strangely orderly rules of quantum mechanics.

This is just the most abstract of the arguments and examples for quantum effects in life. Life on the Edge gives us the science of smells, migrating birds, the extraordinary efficiency of photosynthesis, the relevant complexity of the mind and more. Enough to completely persuade me that Schrödinger was right – quantum effects are everywhere in life’s most basic processes.

I’ve always thought the quantum realm was abstract and perhaps just a little unreal – Life on the Edge will persuade you that it’s quantum mechanics not clockwork, that makes all living things tick.

Nostalgia

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Turns out Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be…

Traditionally associated with wallowing in a rose or even sepia-tinted past; nostalgia has a bad reputation for losing us in misty-eyed escapism to a lost time that never really was.

I’ve always believed nostalgia was a thing to avoid; at best a source of melancholy and at worst downright sadness. But not so according to the New Scientist:

First described by Johannes Hofer in 1688, the word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostros, to return home, and algos, meaning pain. Hofer observed it as a disorder of homesick Swiss mercenaries stationed in Italy and France… a disease which whose symptoms included weeping, fainting, fever and heart palpitations. He advised treatment with laxatives, narcotics, bloodletting or if nothing else worked sending the soldiers home.

As recently as 1938 the New Scientist continues:

It was described in the British Journal of Psychiatry as “immigrant psychosis”: a condition marked by a combination of homesickness, exhaustion and loneliness.

However, in the last two decades nostalgia has been recognised as an emotion found in all cultures; a mix of happiness and longing. Its bittersweet nature is apparently “unique but universal” – and most of us experience it at least once a week!

Why?

One theory the New Scientist offers is that nostalgia gives us a sense of continuity in life: “Nostalgia reminds us we are the same person we were on our seventh birthday party as on our wedding day and at our retirement celebration.” 

It turns out nostalgia is an antidote to loneliness; not its cause. It lifts us when we are feeling down and boosts well-being. 

And it helps you cope… less nostalgic people feel less connected to others, that life has less meaning, are less likely to seek help from others and deal with loneliness less effectively.

Whereas: “reflecting on nostalgic memories boosts optimism and leaves people more inspired to pursue their goals.” Wow! What’s not to like?

Music is a particularly effective summoner of nostalgia by all accounts (explains my blog about Teddy Mac, Alzheimer’s and Sinatra’s: “You make me feel so good”).

So yesterday I tuned into Absolute 80s on the radio for some teenage kicks, and sent my folks some BFI black and white archive videos of our home town. I used to think that sort of thing might drive them to melancholy; not now.

I’m embracing and prescribing a regular dose of nostalgia – rose tinted spectacles all round!

Optimism Epiphany

   

I’ve had an epiphany. It all comes down to three Ps; and avoiding learned helplessness

First discovered in dogs and then in humans, Wikipedia takes up the strain here:

Research has found that human reactions to a lack of control differ both between individuals and between situations. For example, learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalizes across situations.

An influential view is that such variations depend on an individual’s attributional or explanatory style. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. 

For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”), are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.

If you want to bounce back fast from setbacks and beat the blues, Martin Seligman’s book and the thesis of learned optimism are well worth a read. It’s certainly working for me. 

I’m ruminating less, and actively breaking up permanent, pervasive and personal interpretations of bad situations when I hit them…

I’m regularly reminding myself: 

“It’ll pass”, “it’s just one part of my life”, “it’s not me that’s causing this.”

And directing myself – and others – toward action, not helplessness: 

“Ok but what can we do about it right now”,  “OK if we can’t fix that, what else can we fix” and “if anyone is going to make this better we can, so let’s have a go.” 

I feel a lot better, and people around me do too. It transpires the main benefit of pessimism is you predict the future better. 

Optimism might help change it.

Habit Forming

  
Is the great Greek wrong on this one… 

I stumbled across  an interesting article in Time – (it quoted an academic from my place of work) which suggests he might be:


So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behaviour with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.

Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.

However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.

Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.

So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When I finally realized I would never succeed at making going to the gym a habit, I began looking for how to establish a routine instead.

This makes sense, when you think about it. I’ve read elsewhere that as much of 40% of the time we are doing things which have become habitual and have no conscious deliberation – we are on Autopilot.

This suggests three things – all of which I’m trying… Make boring but useful things a habit (taking my vitamin D for example); make things which take some effort but are good for me into a routine (write a blog every Saturday); and more counterintuitively – make sure things which are supposed to be enjoyable, don’t become a habit. 

Why? Because once you stop thinking about them, you’re no longer consciously enjoying them. Not having a drink on Monday or Tuesday has become a habit (good). So sometimes sharing a bottle of prosecco with my other half on a Wednesday, has become a treat (need to be careful it doesn’t become a habit though…)

It’s worth reflecting on what you want to do without thinking, what you can’t do without thinking and what you enjoy doing – and need to think about to consciously enjoy. 

Habits aren’t conscious. They may help to make us excellent; but our best and most enjoyable work and experiences require conscious effort. 

I’m sure Aristotle would buy that.