The Silk Road

I’ve just finished another terrific Coursera course with the University of Leiden, this time on the Cosmopolitan Medieval Arabic World. As promised by the course leader, a number of my preconceptions and beliefs about this place and time in history have changed…

The sophistication of medieval Baghdad, the mixing and mingling of peoples and cultures, the virtuous circle of stability, good rule and prosperity from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East and across the arc of the Turkic silk route to China; all these and more brought technological, intellectual, medical, social and philosophical advances.

Expansion of the four Caliphates 622-750 – Wikipedia

So, nice to see some of that encapsulated in a useful aphorism, which dropped into my inbox on Monday; and that I’ve quoted three times this week:

He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare,

He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.

Ali ibn-Abi-Talib c.602–661, fourth Islamic caliph: A Hundred Sayings

I first started to realise this about enemies in my late thirties, and learnt some formative lessons in making one or two in my forties. But I’ve only really fully embraced the truth of the matter post 50…

It is really really really not worth gratuitously falling out with people. There’s pretty much always an amicable way forward and it’s always worth seeking one.

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.

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.


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!