Finding Control With Food – Eating Disorders

For a very long time I had an unhealthy relationship with food. Since I’m feeling much better about it now I’m going to be honest with myself and explain how and why it was messed up.

My relationship with disordered eating stems from a control issue that I didn’t realize I had. I’m not sure where it came from but I think it has something to do with me moving from Ireland when I was 9 and it was aggravated to problem status when a really close friend was killed by a drunk driver when I was 22.

The death of loved one is pretty hard and particularly so when they are only 21. The seemingly normal and predictable world came undone when I was 22, calling many of my world view rules into question. Natalie was a really nice girl. Liking everyone, she engaged everything with a passion for fun and happiness. I don’t think anyone deserves to die that young and least of all someone who just seemed to light up the world with their presence. It was really sad. Apart from all the grief that her death brought to her friends and family, the world continues to suffers because it goes without her joy forever. It’s really hard not to cry when I think this deeply about it because she had that old soul wisdom that seemed to cut through the unimportant stuff and leave you seeing only the silver lining. I’ve not met anyone who could do this before or since. She had a gift and I wish the world still had her in it.

But it doesn’t and the day she died was the beginning of the end to my control issue. Unfortunately, like most issues, I was years away from seeing it. I needed to hit a bottom before it became visible and I was able to make enough sense of things to move past it.

In the days immediately following her death, I spend a lot of time in my own head. In between bouts of intense pain, I ran through many of my understandings about the world trying to pull something together that allowed me to make sense of what I was feeling and what had happened. First off, I realized that no one was answering my prayers. Secondly, I realized that all the compulsive behavioural patterns that I had developed to safe guard my life from suffering were ineffective. Third, my belief that the world looked after the good and punished the bad was eliminated completely. I was alone and powerless to prevent my death. The understanding of the world that I had been nurturing was wrong. I had no control over anything.

Over the next few years, life recreated itself around me. I had been burned but I went on living because that’s what human beings do. However, things were different. Having lost the sense of control that I had about the world, the rules I created were based on the assumption that I could be killed at any instant. While that is true, it isn’t very likely. It’s so improbable as to be wrong from any practical perspective; logically I knew this but my life experience had shown me something very different. This single cognitive distortion manifest itself all over the new world view rules that I created. I started to do a lot of things that were hurting my chance of living a long time because I believed that there was a great chance that I would be dead well before the consequence came back to haunt me. I took up smoking, skipping a lot of classes, stopped working out and started going to raves. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t think I was going to live that long regardless of what I did.

I became addicted to nicotine during this period of time. This was my first experience with addiction and my first conscious experiences with changing my physiological / emotional state with chemicals. Before the smoking, I got drunk when I drank alcohol, I got full when I ate food and I got tired when I worked out. I hadn’t noticed any emotional change in response to doing these things but with nicotine there was a big difference, the dose frequency. I was smoking about 15 cigarettes a day which loosely equates to about 450 dose per day (I’m basing this on the assumption that I took 30 pulls per cigarette). While I am not sure exactly how nicotine impacts the body, it, like most drugs, stimulates neural activity in the body and brain. Over time and repeated exposure to the drug, the body will adapt to the new internal environment that you are creating. As a consequence, normal function will come to depend upon the presence of the drug. When your body makes this adjustment, you learn very quickly just how chemicals can change your emotional state. The negative emotional state that nicotine withdrawal creates disappears INSTANTLY when you inhale the smoke. It happens so quickly that it’s almost impossible NOT to make the connection that smoking makes you feel better (of course it does, it make you feel normal).

This lesson stuck. I realized that I could bring stuff into my body that would not just make me feel good, but which would change the way I felt emotionally. Hmmmm, that was good because this was the first time since Natalie had died that I felt I had some control over something. What else did I have easy access to that I could use to change my emotional state? Well, food. I could buy a chocolate bar for 50 cents, eat it in 20 seconds and change my blood chemistry in such a way as to experience a physiological reward. That was fun so I did it, a lot.

If you’ve eaten a pound of chocolate, or even just a half pound (about 3 chocolate bars), you may have noticed that logical thinking about what you’re doing begins to disappear. The more you do it, the less you need to eat before your thinking is impaired. You find yourself in the zone and the chocolate stops being chocolate and starts being just something you are consuming because it makes you feel a particular way. I’ve spoken to some gamblers about the sensation of betting chips on poker and they describe it in very much the same way, over time, the chips stop being money and start being the fuel that drives the positive sensations of gambling. The more you do it, the better you get at finding the reward. Once you acquire that level of skill you can are free to use the food to evoke that emotional state for the reward or escape. I was about 25 now and this is about 3 years after Natalie died.

Things get foggy here and I’m a little disappointed about that because I don’t have a lot of memories from this period of my life but I didn’t do anything worth remembering. I was basically spinning my wheels until I learned some computer skills and got a job working for an IT company. I was living with my folks at the time to save money to pay off some student loans, so my eating habits had returned to normal. There were still times when I would over eat but they were on special occasions or when I would stay at my girl friends, so it didn’t impact my life at all. My body was changing though and my once iron stomach was starting to have difficulty digesting some of the meals I was eating. In hindsight, I think it was the quantity of food that I was eating in these meals because I am still able to eat smaller amounts of these food now without any difficulty. The IT boom was in full swing and when I got a promotion to manager I moved out. This was a few months after I got my first mountain bike and started riding.

I moved in with Tony and Beth again (2nd time) and we shared a 3 bedroom townhouse in Burlington. This was a fun time because I was making a lot of money and I was very good at my job. I felt like I was on my way again, that life had returned to normal after the death curve ball from 6 years ago.

But things weren’t back to normal. My relationship with food was deteriorating as I was starting to over eat more frequently and suffering indigestion more often. There were a couple of meals a week that didn’t get processed. To me it was normal to get sick when you are feeling sick. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t normal to feel sick so often. I figured it would pass on its own and I didn’t alter my eating habits.

It wasn’t the stereotypical binging and purging that you see on “The Intervention”. The purging wasn’t a conscious “hey, I need to get rid of this meal” thought, it was a “I will feel better if I throw this up” thought. And it was true, I always did feel better. I viewed the over eating as me just having a big appetite. Since I wasn’t gaining any weight, I was healthy. No one said anything to me for a long time, they didn’t have any reason to. It wasn’t as if I was sick or had a problem. 8 chocolate bars here, an extra large pizza there, 65 doughnut bites on the couch while playing Madden on the PS2, whatever. It was just food and I was hungry, and sometimes I ate too much.

Tony was the first to ask me about it. I remember him saying “do you think it’s normal to get sick as much as you do?” I said “yeah, I guess. It must be because causes it’s happening.” Then it was my girl friend’s roommate. Her comment about “getting that checked out because it ISN’T normal for someone who is healthy to get sick very often” didn’t immediately change anything and of course, I didn’t bother getting it checked out.

It began to change though, I started being more aware of what and how I was eating. I started to notice that once I began eating sugary high fat foods, a sensation gripped me that wasn’t there before. It was a drive or compulsion to keep eating. The only things I can compare it to are the drive to have sex or the drive to have a cigarette. Eating was the only thing I could do to make the thoughts go away so I kept eating. Maybe Tony was right, maybe there was something wrong with what I was doing.

Tony and Beth bought there first house and I moved out. I lived between my folks and my girl friends place. This meant that I wasn’t feeding myself anymore, so my diet improved. I was back to the gorging occasionally and didn’t get sick nearly as often. I also worked a lot and didn’t have the chance to lose myself in food.

A few months later I moved in with my friend Deb to be closer to work. My eating habits remained fairly good, but I was starting to gain some weight because I had been spending more time working and less time riding my bike. I decided to try the Atkins low carb diet because I had friends who had lost a lot of weight with it. It was fairly successful with a drop of about 12 pounds in 3 weeks. But the biggest thing I noticed was that my desire to eat sugar disappeared after about a week – I knew I was going without something, the diet wasn’t completely effortless but I wasn’t hungry. Again, the feeling was something like day 7 of quitting smoking – you physically don’t need anything but you are going without something that you find rewarding. The switch had been thrown and the light had gone on, I had drawn a connection between eating sugar and my drive to keep eating sugar. I did what most people do in a situation like this, I went over board. I developed a fear of carbohydrates and took deliberate steps to eat less of them.

Another stint living with Tony and Beth and then back to my folks place to regroup and figure out what I was going to do next. My IT management job had come to an end so I got a job with GoodLife Fitness Clubs and my issues with eating just seemed to disappear. Well, that isn’t exactly true. I still like to over eat occasionally but I work out a lot so I have a lot of opportunity to burn off the excess. I consider the whole thing history because I don’t get sick very often anymore.
Looking back, my disordered relationship with food was a behaviour learned in the time following Natalie’s death. It seems almost too simple to say it, but I was trying to find something to control. The predictable satisfaction of binging and my ability to prevent weight gain gave me these things. Over time, experience provided me with more information and I’ve modified my understanding. As I’ve grown past it I now try to control my eating habits and my fitness, not my mood and my weight.

And I’m really happy that it is behind me now.

Five Factors for Fat Loss Training

The Hierarchy of Fat Loss by Alwyn Cosgrove from T-Nation outlines the steps you need to follow to maximize your time when trying to get ride of fat. Visit the link for the complete article. It lists the exercise intensities that you should be working out at along with the amount of time you should be spending on each.

1. Metabolic Resistance Training – The first 3 hours of training in a week. Basically we’re using resistance training as the cornerstone of our fat loss programming. Our goal is to work every muscle group hard, frequently, and with an intensity that creates a massive “metabolic disturbance” or “after burn” that leaves the metabolism elevated for several hours post-workout. (Increase EPOC).

2. High Intensity Anaerobic Interval Training – Hours 4 and 5 in training week. The second key “ingredient” in fat loss programming is high intensity interval training (HIIT). I think readers of T-Nation will be well aware of the benefits of interval work. It burns more calories than steady state and elevates metabolism significantly more than other forms of cardio. The downside is that it flat-out sucks to do it!

3. High Intensity Aerobic Interval Training – Hours 5 and 6 in training week. The next tool we’ll pull out is essentially a lower intensity interval method where we use aerobic intervals.

4. Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training – Hours 6 to 8 in training week. Tool number four is just hard cardio work. This time we’re burning calories — we aren’t working hard enough to increase EPOC significantly or to do anything beyond the session itself. But calories do count. Burning another 300 or so calories per day will add up.

5. Steady State Low Intensity Aerobic Training – Anything above 8 hours
This is just activity, going for a walk in the park, etc. It won’t burn a lot of calories; it won’t increase muscle or EPOC. There isn’t very much research showing that low intensity aerobic training actually results in very much additional fat loss, but you’re going to have to really work to convince me that moving more is going to hurt you when you’re in fat attack mode.

I Hear Voices, They Tell Me It Is Called Thinking

One of the worst things I ever heard happened during my last year at university when I was 24. I was living with Tony and Beth, a couple, in a two-bedroom apartment and had fallen asleep on the couch. The lights were off and the sleep function of the TV had turned it off so I was in almost complete darkness. Tony has a great sense of humor. He will say almost anything and make it funny.

Initially I thought he was playing a joke on me because I was woken up to hear someone saying “you are a loser, you will never make anything out of your life, you’re worthless.” It was dark, so when I sat up and turned around to tell him to piss off, it took me a while to notice that I was alone. In fact, I could still hear the voice telling me that I was a failure as it dawned on me that there wasn’t anyone else in the room. I was completely alone and all I could hear was this voice reminding me of my shortcomings as a human being and my complete lack of worth as a person.

It was rather disturbing to realize that the voice was coming from inside my head. First off, what it was saying bothered me because I felt that it was probably true. Secondly, why am I hearing voices and finally, why is the voice telling me that I am so pathetic? I sat their scared and angry until I was fully awake. Once I calmed down I went to bed and hoped I would sleep it off.

The next morning was very different. The voice was still there but it wasn’t telling me that I was useless. Instead it was telling me that I needed to get up, that I needed to go to school, that last night I had woken up last night hearing a weird voice dictating negativity at me, that I needed to do laundry, etc…. It seemed to be saying all the things that I was thinking. I dressed, ate breakfast and left to catch a bus to school. I recall feeling kind of weird, that I was out of place somehow. It wasn’t a bad feeling other than making me feel a little uneasy, but things weren’t wrong.

Looking back now I know exactly what was happening. I had an experience that would lead to an epiphany and one that created an awareness of who I was and why I was the way I was. The voice had been there for a long time. I’m not entirely sure just how long, but it years, probably since 12 or 13. That night was the first time that I became aware that it existed. Up until them it would do its thing without me even being aware that it was there. Becoming aware of the voice was the experience.

The voice is an internal monolog that is the literal representation of my immediate emotional state. It allows you to think literally about an emotional experience. In many ways it allows you to engage your emotions in a logical way because it makes them something that you can think about in tangible terms – it’s hard to capture the essence of grief on paper unless you have the vocabulary to describe what the experience is like, once you do, you can reference the feelings with words that will allow you some access to the emotion itself.

I say that the voice had been there since I was 12 or 13 because that was the first time I started to feel shame. In order to manufacture shame, you need to have some understanding that you are an individual within a community of other individuals. This type of abstract thought does not develop until 12 or 13 years of age. I may be wrong with this, but so far no one I’ve talked to about this recalls hearing the voice before their mid to late teens and most become aware of it in their early twenties.

Leading up to that night when I heard the voice, I had been playing around with mediation. I had never been very good at it because my mind was always very active and all over the place. Any time I felt that I was getting close to having a meditative experience I would be drawn away from it by some thought. It never made sense to me how I could think something when my eyes were closed and it was quiet. Up until that point I believed that I thought in images and not in words – it’s weird to write this now because of course I can think in words, but back then I didn’t realize it was the case. After I heard the voice, the source of my distraction was obvious, random words or phrase would pop into my head or I would begin to narrate my immediate emotional state e.g. “I want to go to a rave” or “oh, this is starting to feel like I’m mediating” or “I want to have sex with my girlfriend.” You can’t achieve nirvana with all that stuff floating around in your head.

Anyway, that day at school was interesting. I noticed that the voice would paint a darker picture of what was really going on. It would put a negative spin on stuff that happened, particularly when it dealt with other people; it seemed to come alive when I was interacting with other people. Usually making guess about what people thought about my actions or about me. It threw out a lot of judgment and hearing it made me think that maybe this was why I felt lousy around people most of the time. In fact, it didn’t seem to ever say anything that was positive, at best it was neutral, but mostly it was just negative.

Over the next few weeks, while the experience was still fresh in my mind, I paid a lot of attention to what it said and how it made me feel. The strangest part was how easily I would accept the conclusions or observations that it drew. To not do so felt completely pointless because the voice was coming from me. If I didn’t accept what it said, it would mean that I was wrong or that there was some part of me that was trying to sabotage my fortune. There was definitely a relationship between what the voice said and how I felt, but the relationship was a two way interaction – sometimes the voice would say something that would make me feel bad, other times I would feel bad and the voice would say something about it. It seemed that it would either dictate how I should feel or it would observe what I was feeling.

The experience faded and after a while I stopped thinking about it. I accepted that the voice was there and that there wasn’t very much that I could do to stop it. In time, however, I learned to talk back to it and to question it. After a lot of work it became easy to discredit it. I realized that since it came from me, it knew exactly as much as I did, so it didn’t have any special powers. Once it became evident to me that it was a reflection of my immediate emotional state and that that was within my control, what the voice said must also be under my control, if not completely, at least in terms of tone. For a while, it became something that was there that I tired to ignore and not let affect me. I think it took about 5 or 6 years before it stopped making me feel anything.

About 2 years ago, I was having pho with my brother and he started talking to me about sociobiology / evolutionary psychology. When I mentioned the voice and the experience that I had years before it was cause for us to stop and reflect on the reason for the voice. The part of evolutionary psychology I like is the fact that if a trait exists within an individual, there is a survival reason for it. The challenge was for us to come up with the survival reason for it. It turned out that he has the voice as well and that it does basically the same thing for him that it does for me. He gained power over it the same way I did, by challenging it and the observations it comes up with.

Not that there are any hard and true answers with things like this, but we came to the conclusion that the natural tendency towards the negative interpretation of others perceptions of us makes us work harder to gain their approval because if we have the approval of others in our social group, we will be able to remain part of that group and will have an improved chance of surviving. It’s an antiquated approach because all you need to survive in today’s society is money, but with millions of years of evolution behind it, getting rid of this trait isn’t going to happen any time soon. If you are able to isolate the voice and observe it without reacting to what it is saying, you will find that it does alert you to a lot of odd things. When something isn’t right, this is usually the first way you’ll realize it. It will say something that lets you know that something is going on or that you feel a particular way about something.

At worst you are not aware of the voice as it dictates negative observation and social pessimism un-molested into your conscious awareness making you feel guilt and shame. Maybe it isn’t that bad. Maybe you realize that it is there and that you have learned to ignore it, remaining more or less unaffected by it. Or maybe you are lucky and you have challenged the voice and found out that it is full of crap most of the time. Maybe you have found out what it is good for and are able to use it as a perceptive tool to help you uncover the truth of the world. I’m somewhere between ignoring it and knowing what it’s good for but every now and then I still have to tell myself to wise up and stop reacting to what the voices inside my head are saying.

Stop Looking So You Can Find It

Last Friday night I was hanging out with Deb. We watched Manufactured Landscapes and I recommend it for anyone who doesn’t mind thinking a little to make their entertainment. We made dinner and chatted in the kitchen for a while before.

One of the things I said to her was that I understood what people meant by “once you stop looking for someone, the right person will come along”. She laughed and said “yeah right, that’s not how things were working with either one of us”. Her statement was correct, but I wasn’t meaning it the way she took it.

What it means is that once you stop looking for someone, you become open to finding the right person. When you are looking, you are seeking out something in particular. As a consequence, you are eliminating those who do not match on any of the desired characteristics. Their smile may not be bright enough, they may have a boring job, they may not talk to their mothers very nicely…. Once you stop looking for someone to fill the void, you automatically become open to everyone who may make you feel good.

I might have heard it compared it to a big ball of yarn that is unravelling. When you’re looking for someone, you’re trying to stop the yarn from coming off. But when you stop looking, the yarn unravels and once it does, the ball is gone. So too is the need for someone to hold it together. Then you are free to find happiness and unconditional love.

Stop Thinking About Cuteness

I was having Pho with Des today and he told me about an article he read. The article was about a movie the blogger had watched was particularly disturbing. When he went to bed that night, he was having trouble falling asleep because he couldn’t stop thinking about what he had seen. He asked his girlfriend if she ever had trouble falling asleep because she couldn’t let go of a thought. She said not any more because she plays the cuteness game.

The cuteness game starts by thinking of something cute and then trying to think of something that is even cuter. Then try to think of something that is cuter still, and so on. The game ends when you fall asleep.

It is immaterial that cuteness is subjective, all that matters is that you try to think of something that is cuter and cuter and cuter. The point is, when you’re thinking of cute things you’re not able to think about the creepy movie you saw.

I laughed when he told me, then he told me what Sarah said, she plays the size game. Same sort of thing, pick something and then think of something that is smaller or bigger than it, then continue in that direction. Not that you need an example, but a bread box is bigger than a loaf of bread which is bigger than a jar of peanut butter which is larger than a salted cracker, etc…. Again the game ends when you fall asleep.

I laughed even louder at that game because the whole idea of it is so profoundly simple that I feel like a moron for not thinking of it myself. Up until today I worked to silence my mind when I found myself thinking things I didn’t like. It had never occurred to me to just think of something else. I liken this to a bad smell. When faced with a bad smell you have two choices, you can try to get rid of the smell or you can try to cover over the smell with a better smell. Which one do you think is easier? It works the same way with thinking. You’ll have an easier time thinking about a litter of puppies playing than you will of turning your thinking off. Thinking is natural, not thinking isn’t.

We can control our thoughts and so we should take an active role in what we allow ourselves to think. There will be times when you will need to worry about something, to make sure you have addressed all of the known knowns, but at some point you will start to over think it, triggering a feedback loop that keeps you worrying about it. Even if you did leave the stove on, so what? You cook with it, it’s designed to be on. Make the decision about what you are going to do about it and start trying to think of three things that are cuter than a kitten. Smile and go back to living outside your head.

EPOC At Millcreek

Last Wednesday night I taught All Terrain at Millcreek. I really like the cycling room there because it’s enclosed, kind of dark and has such poor circulation that they have two industrial fans to move around the air; it reminds me of a rave environment. On Wednesday, as luck would have it, the mic wasn’t there meaning I had to cue with my hands and using verbal commands only as loud as I can shout. But by track 3 it was evident that I wasn’t loud enough and that my attempts to communicate were leaving me out of breath and not helping anyone. It was a little stressful so I did what I always do when I’m stressed, I worked as hard as I could. I was hoping that if they were able to copy what I was doing on the bike, they were going to get a heck of a workout.

The class went like most classes, really quickly and I was soaked by the end of it. I locked the studio door and changed. As I was leaving, I noticed that I was still pretty hot. My body temperature was still a little high and my breathing hadn’t returned to normal either. This was about 10 minutes after class ended and about 20 since the last working track. I seemed to float to my car and then sat in silence for about 10 minutes before I started it to drive away.

The drive was blissful. It was a sunny spring evening so I had the car windows open. There was a nice breeze and it was still bright out. Everything about it said that the winter was over and that spring was here. It was peaceful because I didn’t care about anything. “Stop at red lights and don’t hit any cars” was my only mandate. No speeding, no weaving, just mindless driving with plenty of time to get to where I was going. A quick stop to get some groceries and then to my brother and sister inlaw’s place to make dinner and go to bed – I had to be up for 5:15 the next morning.

The thing was, I didn’t feel any different from how I did when I floated across the parking lot. In fact, I hadn’t seemed to come down at all from the workout. I still had the narrowed spacey focus I get when I race and I felt nothing. Whatever was coursing through my veins was coating my insides numb and leaving my brain not much better. Shopping took a while and they I went to Des and Sarah’s to watch American Idol. I feel asleep around 10:30 and slept well until the alarm woke me up.

I get that feeling a fair bit. It seems to come on after every lap or race I complete, after a really really intense weight workout or when I get my heart rate up above 170 for longer than a minute 3 or 4 times in a cardio session. It doesn’t come on with steady state cardio or short duration resistance workout, only after very hard work; work that could be viewed as fight or flight because it taxes the body so severely. While not the result of the acute stress response initiated by sympathetic nervous system arousal, the physical symptoms / reactions are exactly the same – increased blood flow to the muscles, increased heart rate, a deadening of your ability to think clearly about abstract things.

I believe that this is the cause of EPOC (excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption). EPOC is the tendency for the body to continue to burn energy at an elevated rate after a workout; we know it exists because there is an increase in O2 consumption above baseline levels following certain types of workouts. Most of the evidence comes from studies addressing resistance training workouts which show a sustained increase in O2 consumption following intense exercise because adaptive change requires energy and intense exercise forces adaptive change.

While the amount of evidence on EPOC with high intensity interval training (HIIT) isn’t nearly as robust, anecdote and interpretation of the results of these type of studies indicate greater fat loss for HIIT vs. steady state cardio exercise. I believe that HIIT does one that that steady state does not, it forces the body to adapt to a variety of different intensities vs. just one, which I believe causes more EPOC than steady state cardio.

All things being equal I’d rather connect with the participants of the classes I’m teaching. But when the mic is broken and I can’t yell as loud as I need to, I’ll take EPOC.

Want To Be Happier? Keep Working At It

People will often talk about their weight being a “set point”. The notion is that we each have a specific weight and body composition that is predetermined by our genetic code. The idea has some merits because there are people who have a very difficult time increasing their body weight and have even more difficulty keeping gained weight on. The opposite is also true, there are individuals who are very active and eat a clear diet but who have difficulty keeping body fat off. The only thing that works for these people is to stick with what they are doing (exercise and purposeful dieting). Over time, months to years, they will usually find that maintaining the body composition changes becomes easier as the body adapts to being a lower or higher weight. Humans can, in essence, move their set point if they put sustained effort towards that goal. This makes sense because the body is always going to try to maintain stasis. It doesn’t care what the physical state is, it’s just going to try and keep it.

The same applies to emotional states. Marina Krakovsky’s article The Science of Lasting Happiness reveals that sustained effort can alter your emotional set point – this shouldn’t be surprising given that emotions are regulated by chemicals and are, as such, actually physical states. In fact, the amount of influence you have over your emotional states is very large:

Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and another psychologist, David A. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego, put the existing findings together into a simple pie chart showing what determines happiness. Half the pie is the genetic set point. The smallest slice is circumstances, which explain only about 10 percent of people’s differences in happiness. So what is the remaining 40 percent? “Because nobody had put it together before, that’s unexplained,” Lyubomirsky says. But she believes that when you take away genes and circumstances, what is left besides error must be “intentional activity,” mental and behavioral strategies to counteract adaptation’s downward pull.

40% is enormous. This opens the door for a lot of improvement. It may take a little work and sustained effort but in the long run you can be happier because of it.

You Cannot See What You Do Not Know Can Be Seen

This is a very similar post to “You Are Seeing What You Want To See” in which I spoke about Rachel’s people watching habit of not making any predictions about the nature of the people who are engaging each other. I wrote that one because I found her NOT making predictions to be unusual because it isn’t how I watch people. But as timing would have it, as I was writing that post I was listening to a book and a section in it struck me as extremely relevant.

The following quote is from Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything (Chapter 12):

At this point Arthur noticed a curious feature to the song that the party were singing. The middle eight bridge, which would have had McCartney firmly consolidated in Winchester and gazing intently over the Test Valley to the rich pickings of the New Forest beyond, had some curious lyrics. The songwriter was referring to meeting with a girl not “under the moon” or “beneath the stars” but “above the grass”, which struck Arthur a little prosaic. Then he looked up again at the bewildering black sky, and had the distinct feeling that there was an important point here, if only he could grasp what it was. It gave him a feeling of being alone in the Universe, and he said so.

“No,” said Slartibartfast, with a slight quickening of his step, “the people of Krikkit have never thought to themselves `We are alone in the Universe.’ They are surrounded by a huge Dust Cloud, you see, their single sun with its single world, and they are right out on the utmost eastern edge of the Galaxy. Because of the Dust Cloud there has never been anything to see in the sky. At night it is totally blank, During the day there is the sun, but you can’t look directly at that so they don’t. They are hardly aware of the sky. It’s as if they had a blind spot which extended 180 degrees from horizon to horizon.

“You see, the reason why they have never thought `We are alone in the Universe’ is that until tonight they don’t know about the Universe. Until tonight.”

He moved on, leaving the words ringing in the air behind him.

“Imagine,” he said, “never even thinking `We are alone’ simply because it has never occurred to you to think that there’s any other way to be.”

This reinforced the value of Rachel’s approach, or at least, pointed out a shortcoming of the approach to make predictions – in order for this approach to be effective, you need to be able to make the accurate prediction and this means you need to be able to see all of the potential outcomes and possibilities. If something is in the realm of possibility and you don’t consider it, the accuracy of your predictions will be called into questions.

This fact has been known to us for a long time and it is part of the reason why seniority and experience play a big role in business and the work force. It is why many company’s will hire externally for senior management positions – the assumption being that experience in other areas will open ones mind to the big picture and eliminate erroneous decisions resulting from too narrow a scope.

In the book there are devastating consequences to the people of Krikkit realizing that there was an entire universe outside of their planet, ones that I don’t think would have happened had they been aware of it all along.

Try To Fall in Love Once A Month – A Thought Exercise

Falling in love is a great feeling. The bliss of happy thoughts floating through my mind making everything seem a little brighter and better. It’s inspiring and it is an experience that is worth doing over and over again.

I am single, so I can repeat it a lot.

It isn’t the full fledged love that is so revered by romance novel readers, in fact, it isn’t really love at all. It’s more of an infatuation/distraction thing that I use to help me lose myself in thought. I don’t think it’s dangerous to my well-being because I’m not risking anything. In fact, it’s a device that I use to help me figure out what I’m thinking or, when thoughts are not coming, to inspire my thinking.

It does not deal with real people or at least any tangible aspect of real people. It isn’t love for the sake of companion or partnership – my goal with it isn’t to find lasting happiness, it’s to find a muse to riff on. Over the last years I’ve noticed that I write songs with more ease whenever I am feeling something. As with most expressive art, I have an easier time capturing feelings in if they are a little darker – I think that has something to do with negative emotional states being easier to maintain so you have a chance to actually capture their essence in words. But I don’t like writing lyrics or poetry all the time because going to that bad place, or staying in it, is uncomfortable. My last good stint of song writing was during my last few months in Chatham before I made the decision to return to Milton. It’s of no surprise that I was extremely unhappy during that period of my life.

What my quest for love deals with now is the idea of love and the possibilities that meeting someone new presents to me. I truly believe that relationships have the most potential right before the two people met. Before you know anything about another person, you can be anything to each other because limits have not been placed on the relationship. A world of opportunity exists provided we do not met or exchange any information that would place limits on these possibilities. This belief is both theoretically sound and useful in a practical sense as a thought exercise.

A commuter friend clued me into this practice. She takes the train to Toronto almost every weekday and develops “train crushes” on some of the people she sees during her travels. If you don’t commute on the train you may never have thought about it, but people tend to take the same train, riding on the same car, sit at the same spot and walk the same route everyday. Humans are creatures of habit and they naturally tend to automate the commuting experience because first thing in the morning you don’t really want to be thinking about anything. Well, she sees many of the same people day in day out and, over time, allows herself to float away in love fantasies. She has also noticed how finding anything out about these people will kill everything. Her crushes, like mine, only exist in a vacuum and will quickly fade away when new information is uncovered about the objects of our desire.

Why do we do it? Her reason and my reasons are very different. She didn’t have a blackberry or a laptop so she couldn’t work on the train. It was her, her iPod, the view of the Gardner and her crushes. But she has since got a promotion and all the mobile devices that come with the new position and now she works on the train. She doesn’t even consider train crushes anymore.

For me it is about creating a mood that leaves me hopeful for the future because I do my best thinking when I feel this way. Falling in love does this for me. I know it’s a state of mind so it’s always going to be there. I have little doubt that my cycling abilities will fade as I get older, I have the same certainty that my ability to feel love will remain high for as long as I live. Given this, I may as well learn how to tap into that source of positive emotion to fuel my writing, thinking and living. I’d be a fool to ignore this ability.

It’s worth mentioning that the death of these love feelings isn’t painless, but it isn’t too difficult either. Inside I KNOW that there is no mutual connection between me and them, there’s just a mental connection based on deliberate cognitive distortions. There *may* be a sense of perceived loss, but most of all, the muse dies and I go back to writing things that are more grounded in reality and somewhat less creatively inspired. There is a dissonant feeling when things start to go south. Initially I would start to feel a little out of sorts and be unsure of the reason why. But the process is clearer now. Once the out of sorts feeling kicks in, I know it’s time to put thoughts to paper, or screen, and let my fingers do my minds bidding.

Like this article right here, it reflects the end of love for someone.

I wonder if she is aware of the life we will not spend together or if she just realized that she really likes vanilla?

You Are Seeing What You Want To See

Rachel was talking to me about people watching. She was relating a story about an interaction between a man and a women that was fairly innocuous but extremely passionate if you watched their body language. When I asked her who she thought the two people were to each other she laughed and said that isn’t why she does it. It’s interesting for her to watch without trying to create their identities or piece together the lives they may be living. I wondered about this for a minute because while I like people watching and tend to pick up on some of the more subtle aspects of the interaction, I’m always trying to piece together who is who and why they are doing what they are doing. I started thinking about how this tendency may be corrupting or biasing what I actually perceive.

Human beings have a very good reason for trying to make predicts about people’s intentions and behaviour. We are social creatures so historically speaking our chance of surviving are increased if we are well liked by others because they will let us become part of the group. Apart from being social creates, we are also rivals to those in the same peer group – we need others to survive, but we also need to compete against others to thrive. Anything we can do to give us a leg up on the competition is most likely going to help us. To this end, we make predictions about people when we see them. In “Blink” Gladwell referred to making these predictions as thin slicing and uncovered a number of instances when they are very accurate. The fact that we have this innate ability that is often correct indicates a survival advantage to having it so it’s natural that we do it.

I’d assume that because it presents us with a survival advantage, we’re going to be better at predicting things that could hurt us and less effective at determining things that have nothing to do with survival. Rachel watching the two people in the coffee shop is an example of a situation that isn’t going to impact her life from a survival stand point. As a consequence, she has gained the ability to shut off the natural tendency to make predictions. What she lets into her brain is the raw sensory information and from there it is not interpreted. It simply exists as information and it is encoded without biases.

For the predictors, they thin slice a situation and begin to collect data that confirms their prediction. This can have disastrous consequence to the accurate interruption of events. There are countless stories of doctors making bad calls about stuff even in the face of imperial evidence that indicates an alternative cause. Doctors need to stay open and assess all of the information they collect in order to make the best guess about the cause of an illness – there is a reason why they are called educated guesses.

The issue with making predictions about stuff is compounded by the fact that we try to be right and will go to great lengths to BE right whenever we make a guess about something. For example, people who are betting on horses at the track will report a big boost in the confidence about their bet as soon as they put money down. This more complete buy-in after making a prediction likely helps us to conserve mental energy because we no longer need to think about the subject and buy-in is needed for the formation of survival rules – if you fail to believe the rule you created you are not going to modify your behavior and will have learned nothing.

Those prone to make predictions and seek to validate them need to pay particular attention to collecting ALL of the information and remaining open to new information that may become available. New information SHOULD change your opinion, either to reinforce it or to detract from it. Otherwise the accuracy of the predictions will always be suspect.