YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being…. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
A few years ago many aspects of life became very clear to me when I started to notice that I had absolutely no idea why I would spontaneously think a particular thought. Unless I had been thinking about, working on, or paying attention to something very specific, there was a good chance that some of the things that would enter my mind would have next to nothing to do with any of my other recent thoughts. This was very obvious during my daily meditation sessions when I would be concentrating on the sensation of my breath on the area of skin above my upper lip and around the openings to my nostrils or during the body scans. For anyone who has never spend much time meditating, the moments of mental stillness are few and far between and the practice is generally the act of noticing that your attention has wandered and then returning it to whatever it was that you are trying to pay attention to.
I practice vipassana which is just one of a number of different approaches to cultivating mindfulness. It is not the best or worst, it is not good or bad, it is not right or wrong. It is just an action that someone can take that will help their brain develop a new skill that will eventually find its way into all areas of their life. While I do not practice and have never practised transcendental meditation, or formally any other types, all of them share a number of properties and methods that yield similar outcomes. By consistently practising the deliberate focus of our attention, over time we cultivate the skill of being able to control our attention, to know when it has wandered, and to gain awareness into what is currently going on in our mind.
It isn’t easy for me and it can be very boring and it tends to require a lot of mental effort. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not innately run the code that allows them to easily pay attention to one thing. Our DNA was formed over millions of years when our ancestors did had to constantly be on the lookout for some predator that was looking for a meal. As a consequence, those who were able to notice the threats sooner gained an evolutionary fitness advantage. Over time this trait was passed along to the point at which practically all members of the species had it. This does not mean that we are not able to pay deep and unwavering attention to something, it just means that we need to have a big incentive to do so.
It is a matter of death on one side and novel experience on the other, and avoiding death tends to win. The fact that death as a consequence to our not paying attention to a potential threat is not as much of a factor in modern life does nothing to alter the DNA or gene expression that was so critical to our survival. We default to a wandering mind and our attention is very squirrel-like in its ability and tendency to notice the smallest changes from moment to moment. This is a feature and not a bug, even if it is mostly an antiquated feature.
This is where meditation comes in as it serves to teach and help the brain learn the skill of focused and sustained attention. Once developed, it gives us another tool to use that can help shift our mental functioning away from that of a prey creature and towards that of an apex predator. The old behavioural pattern or trait will remain and it will be activated whenever the brain perceives a threat, but our actions will no longer be unconsciously compelled to notice every little change. It doesn’t always work that way and even life long meditators experience moments when their mind bounces around and they feel almost powerless to stop it.
That is evolution for ya. It is particularly effective at cultivating traits that become our baseline or default way of operating which are tremendously sticky.
Anyway, after years of daily practice and a number of residential silent retreats, I could no longer deny that there was a lot of thoughts occurring on beneath the level of consciousness and when there was nothing going on to keep them out, sometimes they would find their way into my awareness. Over time, and with practice, this doesn’t happen as often and I have become better at noticing as thoughts emerge and letting them go before they hook my mind.
The key thing I take from this, and what I’m talking about now, is the fact that when we practice consistently and over a long enough period of time, our brain will create the code that allows us to maintain a very intense focus on something even when there is a lot of other stuff occurring. This new process can and will eventually become automatic, and once it has, the brain will be able to integrate it into its operating system to allow it to run in parallel with many other processes. The outcome will be an ability to pay complete attention to one thing while simultaneously running the threat detector baseline process that will automatically shift our attention onto something that absolutely needs to be addressed. This gives our brain the paradoxical capacity to be aware of what is important while paying full attention to something that isn’t.
The above video contains the audio of the mission control loop from STS 93, which was the 95th launch of a Space Shuttle. During liftoff, a gold pin that had been used to close off one of two liquid oxygen ports in the engine became dislodged. Once free, it hit the inside of the engine bell resulting in damage to three cooling tubes and causing a slight hydrogen leak – the engine nozzles were cooled by the liquid hydrogen fuel flowing through small embedded tubes before being released into the combustion chamber. It was a potentially catastrophic event that alarmed the mission control engineers.
They would need to quickly assess the data and make the call on whether or not to abort the launch. This was something that had never been done before and it was very risky given that the space craft would need to reach an abort height and speed to ensure that it would make it to one of the abort landing sites in Europe or Africa. Unlike traditional rockets that had an abort engine to pull the capsule away from the rest of the craft and allowing for a safe water (for the US) or land (for the Russians) landing, the Space Shuttle had nothing like this. An abort BEFORE the minimum speed and altitude meant the astronauts would have to climb out an escape hatch and parachute to safety.
When you play the video, do not watch it and try to listen to it using head phones. What you will hear is the audio lifted from the flight directors loop. This audio is cleaner than the original and yet it is still very muddy and chaotic. There are moments when three or four people are speaking at once and it can be very hard to decipher much of anything. Keep in mind that the primary mission control engineers, their back-ups, and their support teams are all listening to the same loop and each person is listening to hear any information that is relevant to their specific role. If they missed something, the odds of them making an error increased dramatically.
Errors in space flight, particularly during the take off phase, can mean death. There is a heck of a lot on the line and computer code can only handle the things it is programmed to handle. When things go sideways into the unknown, unanticipated, or the uncoded, human beings are needed to process the relevant information, share the output, and then make quick decisions. This is why the flight director loops are open for all the engineers to hear and for the primary mission control engineers to talk. You never know when what you know is the thing that someone else needs in order to solve a problem, so everyone gets to hear what everyone else is saying.
This approach has a near perfect track record in terms of preventing death and accidents. Neither Space Shuttle accident had anything to do with the immediate actions taken by the mission control team and there was nothing that they could have done in real time to change the outcome. The same is true for the fire on Apollo One. Even the potential issue associated with the thruster malfunction on Gemini eight had already been solved by mission control when CAPCOM told them to disconnect from the agena target vehicle in the event they had any difficulties while out of radio contact.
Before you listen to the clip again, consider the complexity of what is being asked of each of the flight controllers. On the surface level, they need to have a lot of knowledge about their role, all that can go wrong, how to address these problems, and how to identify when something IS a problem that needs to be addressed. But on a deeper level, they need to cultivate the skill of focused attention and then use it to hear the information that they need in order to do their job correctly. They need to listen to everything but only hear the things that are important to them even when it is coming from a team member who isn’t a part of their specific group. At the deepest level, while they are doing their jobs and listening to hear what matters to them, they must also have a level of mindfulness to notice when their brain has tracked in on a hunch or gut instinct. Finally, they have to do all of this while the lives of people they know are on the line, something that tends not to favour logic and rational thinking.
Most of these things are skills that no one is born with. Each person needed to put in the time and practice to provide their brains with the stimulation to force the adaptation that results in the unconscious capabilities in skills that are novel and arbitrary. And yet all of them are able to do it.
The human brain doesn’t care what sensory information it is tasked to handle, it simply goes about figuring out how to deal with it and then begins to grow the tissue to support or control this process. It only needs consistent practice and recovery over time and will do the rest. We have the easy part, we just need to pay attention and put in the work. The tough part of determining which neurons need to connect to which other neurons in order to create competeney and to allow for parallel processing is taken care of by the brain.
YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being, including the mission control flight engineers. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
If you doubt this, spend some time listening to the flight director loops that are available on YouTube and you will be pleased and delighted to notice just how quickly you get good at hearing what each of three people is saying simultaneously. Better yet, pick a skill that you want to have and then pay very close attention while you practice it every day for 15 minutes over a twelve week period of time. In a couple of months you will be better at it and you will be, in fact, completely powerless to NOT improve.
It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.
There is a video that my YouTube app continues to suggest to me called “Don’t Talk To The Police.” I recently cleared my search and watch history so the app has no idea that I have already watched the video. To the best of my recollection, the video is basically a criminal defence lawyer giving a lecture to a university class in which he relates his experience and knowledge about the nature of conversations between law enforcement personnel and members of the public. His view is that NO ONE but a lawyer should talk to the police and in the event that someone is a lawyer, they should keep their mouth closed and let their lawyer do the talking. What is extra funny about the video, at least as I am remembering it now, is the presenters comments to a second speaker who will follow him, a member of law enforcement, in which they both agree that you should not talk to the police.
The lawyers view is that the police have a job to do, one that is potentially very dangerous and challenging. They have been tasked with enforcing the law and identifying people to charge with crimes. For the overwhelming majority of the public, the police satisfy these tasks by playing a crime prevention role and the administration of traffic tickets for moving violations. For the civilians who get pulled over, it can be slightly intimidating and unnerving. This isn’t a big surprise given that getting a traffic ticket can be expensive and can increase the cost of our mandatory insurance. Driving however is a privilege and since the government has a monopoly on violence and a responsibility to keep all citizens safe, we agree to certain things whenever we make the decision to drive. As such, if we are driving a motor vehicle and a police officer pulls us over we must show them our licence, vehicle ownership, and proof of insurance. In the event a driver doesn’t have a licence on them, they MUST reveal their name. Other than these three items, we have no obligation to say anything else. They can ask us any number of questions and we are free to refuse to answer them, just as we are free to say anything we want.
HOWEVER, choosing to remain silent or refusing to answer their questions, while not an indication of anything subversive, can lead to a more complicated interaction and a less desirable outcome. E.g. if they were considering just giving you a warning, refusing to answer their questions may serve only to ensure that they give you a ticket. If, in the very unlikely case you do happen to match a person of interest who they are looking for, not answering their questions does nothing to eliminate you as being the person of interest.
In all cases OTHER than being pulled over while driving, you have the right to say nothing to the police, to tell them that you do not answer questions or to request a lawyer to be present when they are questioning you. You maintain these rights forever and regardless of what the police may suggest. This is the essence of what the YouTube video is all about. Do not, under any circumstances, talk to the police or say more than you are legally required to say. You do not have to identify yourself, you do not have to explain what you are doing, where you are going or coming from, where you live or work, give a reason for being where you are, or identify any of the people you are with. In the event that they need to know these things, they will arrest you, take you to the police station, and allow you to connect with and bring-in your lawyer to do the talking for you. They cannot compel you to talk REGARDLESS of what they may try to do.
This is important. They are just doing their jobs, but since a big part of their job is to identify people to charge for crimes, it is safe to proceed under the assumption that they are trying to figure out what crime they can charge you with. This is such a big part of their job that the US has the Miranda warning that law enforcement personnel need to give to those they take into custody (those individuals who have been deprived of their right to liberty, which is the freedom to walk away at will). There is a script that most of us have heard dozens of times on Law And Order and on any number of crime shows, but a verbatim reading of the script is not actually a requirements. The law enforcement person must make the detained person aware of four things:
1) they have the right to remain silent 2) anything the suspect says can and may be used against them in a court of law 3) they have the right to have an attorney present before and during the questioning 4) if they cannot afford the services of an attorney, they have the right to have one appointed, at public expense and without cost to them, to represent them before and during the questioning
If they do not make a person aware of these things and proceed with questioning them, there is a near certain chance that any of the information they uncover will not be admissible in court. This may not matter if they are able to surface the information independently, but if the only source of the information is the non Mirandaized suspect, it cannot be introduced during a trial.
Related to the Miranda warning is the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment gives a number of rights to citizens of the US as they relate to crime procedures. There are a number of rights, but the relevant one here is that of the right to NOT incriminate oneself. When someone pleads the fifth, they are invoking the right to not answer a question that they believe may lead to self-incrimination. This is similar to the Miranda warning but is used in more formal situations such as criminal trials, depositions, and speaking in front of congress or other legislative bodies. The point of each is the same, there is a separation between the government and the individual citizens and while the government holds practically all of the power, the citizens must have the right to safely resist this power in a way that ensures they are not victimized by the government without having the opportunity to consent to it.
So back to talking, or not talking, to the police. Given that one of their main responsibilities is to identify people to charge with crimes, it makes sense for us to unpack this a little more. Crime is not always or mostly a zero sum type of thing. In some instances, there will be one victim for each perpetrator – think about a mugging or a common assault. But in most other cases there can be more than one perpetrator – a gang attack, criminal syndicate, or most white collar crimes. With the exception of Bernie Madoff, who by all accounts was the sole perpetrator of a ponzi scheme that netted millions of dollars, most white collar crimes involve groups of people who are aware of what is going on and many more who are wilfully ignorant to what is occurring. This means that it is possible for hundreds of people to be guilty of a crime even if there was only one victim and even if there was no victim. People can be guilty of conspiracy and “after the fact” crimes.
This being said, the police have a responsibility to assume that EVERYONE they interact with might have broken the law. This is most likely true given the number of laws that are on the books. The police do not need to be actively investigating a crime in order to arrest someone for it, all that is required is a substantial belief that a crime has been committed by the person to whom they are speaking OR sufficient evidence of guilt that there is a reasonable chance that the person would be convicted at the end of a trial. Note that the person who gets convicted does not necessarily need to be the person who committed the crime, nor does a crime actually need to have been committed. A reasonable belief or sufficient evidence of guilt are enough to garner first the charge and then subsequent finding of “guilty.”
This is the underlying reason why the lawyer was telling the law students to NEVER speak to the police. His motivation is not to be a jerk or to make the job of police more difficult, although it could be for the first point and absolutely does cause the second. The human brain is not a fully logical operator, and it does NOT take in and process ALL of the available information because there is just too much. It then uses this incomplete information to manufacture an on-the-fly meaning and to then make predictions about the future based on this meaning and the experience it has previously had. Further to this, once it makes a prediction, this is used in the process of manufacturing meaning. The consequence to any interpretation and prediction is the re-prioritization of what information is important and what can be ignored.
This entire process makes a lot of sense as it serve the primary goal of all living beings, which is to remain alive. This is a remarkable achievement given just how complicated the physical world is. But the world of law and order exists primarily on the brains of human beings. It is therefore more abstract than tangible, which renders the human brain inadequate for accurately addressing it in an error free way. Ideas are the currency of thinking. Since these are made-up of electrical activity within the brain, they can only exist when someone is thinking them. The brain has a finite capacity and a finite speed, so the complex ideas that contain “law and order” come into existence when they are triggered and will fade away quickly when they are no longer being activated. This is the very reason why we cannot trust our brains completely in the moment and the reason why the clarity of our thinking will always benefit from taking more time to process and assess more of the information AND have a willingness to see the things that are not deemed to be meaningful by our initial interpretation.
The willingness is critical because without it, if someone has a vested interest in seeing things a particular way they will see things that way. Any conflict of interest has the possibility of altering the meaning that a person puts onto something, which will then alter the predictions they make, altering what information they pay attention, further impacting the meaning. Things can and do speed off into the realm of untruth very quickly rendering the predictions inaccurate and changing the way a person thinks, and about what they think, so profoundly that their predictions seem completely accurate.
In the case of the video, the lawyer is speaking to the conflict of interest that the police have when interpreting meaning out of their conversations with people. Since crime is everywhere and since most drivers routinely break the law, there is a near certain chance that any time a police officer speaks to someone that they are speaking to someone who has broken the law. The overwhelming majority of the people and crime pairings are inconsequential in the grand scheme of life – rolling a stop sign, speeding while keeping-up with the flow of traffic, etc… – but they are crimes nonetheless. Ones that, had the cop been looking for someone to be committing them WHILE the person committed them, they would have intervened and issued a citation for the violation. The fact that they did not see it while it was occurring is irrelevant to the fact that the person did violate the law.
We would like to believe that the police have no incentive OTHER than upholding the law when they do their jobs, but this simply is not true. Some officers are tasked with investigating a particular type of crime and are less inclined to care about other types of crimes, but, when all is said and done, crime is crime and there is a belief that someones past is the best predictor of their future actions. While moving or parking violations are not necessarily gateway crimes for drug trafficking, armed robbery, or tax evasion, there is an all or nothing quality to crime that is a slippery slope. It implies that maybe the speeder WILL become a thug because they have already shown a propensity if not a predilection towards violating the law. Since the police have the responsibility of enforcing the law and since most adults who drive violate the law fairly consistently, any conversation an officer has with an adult is also a conversation with a potentially violent criminal.
Three things here:
The first is that I am not suggesting that this makes anything more than narrative sense. I’m guiding you down the path in such a way as to make the conclusion seem inevitable. The fact that it matches reality is why I am doing this.
The second is that I am NOT suggesting that people who work in law enforcement are unethical or are behaving in any way that is different from how most people behave. They are effectively identical to everyone else and are simply doing their jobs as well as they can. If you or I were tasked with doing their job, we would do it in the same way because that is what the job requires. The consequences for a false negative are too high, and there is, after all, a slow and more methodical second evaluation in the form of the court system. This means that false positives can be sorted our later.
The third is about the incentive a police officer might have when doing their job that can be best understood when laid out in a blown syllogism.
If no crime occurs THEN there is no need for a law enforcement agency THEREFORE the police MUST charge people with crime.
There are a few things wrong with this, but it is an overview of the approach that is used almost the world over. Those who work in law enforcement have a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of a certain level of crime because without the crime, there is no need for a law enforcement agency.
Make no mistake about it, I have no problem with the police or with the desire to enforce the law in such a way as to allow people to live as safe a life as possible. I don’t have a problem with a law enforcement officer engaging me with a mindset that I am guilty of something and will talk myself into admitting to it if given a long enough time. Even though I am mindful to the rules of the road and the way in which I operate the cars that I drive, I likely commit at least one moving violation every time I get behind the wheel.
The problem I have is with talking to people who have already made-up their mind about the topic and are simply talking to me in an attempt to surface “proof” that they are correct. The video is used to illustrate the very natural tendency for people to uncover the things that they have an incentive to find, and it is much easier to appreciate this phenomenon when we examine the actions and behaviour of law enforcement personnel.
The fact of the matter is that EVERYONE operates the same way and will use conversation as the means to validate the predictions that they have already made. The only way to combat this biased information seeking behaviour is to limit what we say and to gain a more complete understanding of what we stand to lose when we keep talking.
Take a moment to think back on a real life crime show that included a part that had the interrogation of the prime suspect. When a lawyer is not present, the detectives work hard to get and keep the suspect talking because they know that very few people are capable of relating personal information and experiences without revealing some aspect of questionable behaviour. Once revealed, these details will be used as a wedge to cause their entirety of their story to unravel. We feel great when we believe that the person who is being interrogated is guilty. But we also feel good when the person looks a particular way or is from a particular geographic location. Having bad teeth or being from a country that is not as highly regarded as the US are not indications of guilt or criminal intent, but they are sufficient enough for us to manufacture meaning and make a prediction. So if we feel good when our “not based on anything” opinions are validated, imagine what can go wrong when the police form an opinion and set about getting the suspect to keep talking.
It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.
The filtering process itself is highly influenced by the information that is currently active in the brain and also by the information that is NOT filtered out.
Once a prediction is made, evidence that does not support the prediction or which invalidates it is filtered out. At this point, a cognitive error has occurred and the brain has moved into the realm of fiction.
Once the brain has created this fiction it is very good at asking the questions that reveal information that supports it. However, without information, the brain is mostly powerless at keeping the prediction alive. This means that saying nothing is a more effective way of maintaining the truth than trying to convince someone of it when they have made their mind up about it.
The sayings “their silence speaks volumes” and “if they had nothing to hide they would be willing to talk” are complete bullshit and they actually reveal a lot more about the mind set of someone who says them than of anyone who chooses to say nothing.
Uncomfortable silences benefit those who are seeking information MORE than anyone else, and they benefit those who are seeking biased or fictional information most of all.
If you take anything out of this post try to make sure that it is the following: the words we say change the world in ways that make taking them back impossible, so be sure to speak only when it is necessary, helpful, or true. Even then, always keep in mind that people tend to hear what they believe they will hear while filtering out most of the things that they do not believe they will hear or that they have an incentive to not hear.
NOTE: I am not a lawyer and this post is not intended to be nor is it actually legal advice. Any statements that can be interpreted as being legal advice should be interpreted as being statements about the nature of the human brain and of human behaviour. When in doubt, say less or nothing while seeking out the skilled professional in the area of concern. If someone is pressing you to talk or answer questions, they have a conflict of interest that will be served by getting you to say something. Do not give in to their desire until you have had the opportunity to fully assess the situation, uncover what you stand to lose, and involve the needed experts.
You are a chemical addict, you were born one because your parents were both addicts, and all of their ancestors were addicts too. In fact, all of your friends are addicts, everyone you have ever loved, cared about, or respected was an addict. Frankly, the strength of your character isn’t enough to keep you on the wagon. Okay, maybe YOUR’s is, but statistically speaking it isn’t.
Occasionally, but more frequently recently, people ask me “what the hell are you talking about?” when I make the claim that human beings are born addicted to chemicals and spend the duration of their life seeking them out. I suppose that I should or could be more careful with the language I choose when discussing my opinions about the subject, because it is next to impossible for a person to hear my statement and not automatically assume that I am talking about them. But since I am, maybe my word choice is exactly what is needed.
You are a chemical addict, you were born one because your parents were both addicts, and all of their ancestors were addicts too. In fact, all of your friends are addicts, everyone you have ever loved, cared about, or respected was an addict. Frankly, the strength of your character isn’t enough to keep you on the wagon. Okay, maybe YOUR’s is, but statistically speaking it isn’t. There have only been a small number of human beings who have ever lived that were able to overcome their addiction, all of which suffered the fatal consequences of ridding their bodies of the chemical of choice.
Look at the video below, with the sound off, then take a few minutes to consider what you have just read, what you see in the video, and what I am getting at.
Funny baby eh?
Well that baby is you. Maybe not right now, although it is possible. Everyone is that baby a number of times throughout their life and when we take the time to realize this fact, we gain a level of insight into the essential nature of what it means to be a human being.
“What the hell am I talking about?”
Well, that baby has no experience with ice cream before this video was recorded. It is accustomed to having one of its caregivers feed it. It has learned that when a caregiver presents food to it in this way, by holding it up in front of its face, that the food will find its way into its mouth if it opens it. Its young brain has collected a lot of information, created and tested a few theories, and arrived with a cause and effect pairing that has a high degree of predictive accuracy. This is a remarkable thing to have happen and yet this less than a year old baby has done it.
But it has never had ice cream before this moment. I am certain about this fact not because of the title of the video but because of how the baby reacts to the ice cream. Watch it again and you will notice that the baby does not reach for the ice cream UNTIL after it has had a moment to process what has just occurred. Then notice that it doesn’t seem to have any aversion to holding onto the it in-spite of the fact that ice cream is very cold.
The adults in the video are laughing because it is superficially very funny. It’s as though the baby goes “oh, they’re about to feed me, I’ll just open my mouth and the food will go in.” Adult moves food to mouth and baby takes a lick because this is what its experience has taught it to be the best action to take in this type of situation. It is not reaching for anything, it is letting the adult move the food; its little arms are kind of hanging there, not completely relaxed but not taking any purposeful action. There is a moment, a very short one, and then things change, slowly then dramatically and the adults begin to laugh.
The first thing that happens after the ice cream and the baby connect is a moment of assessment. It isn’t entirely clear what is going on in the baby’s brain here, at least by trying to read its face, but we know from our own experience with eating new things that there is a cascade of events all of which are aimed at determining what role the food will play in our future. There are three potential outcomes, two of which are very important. Should this be eaten again, should this not be eaten again, or does it not matter one way or the other. The first two are critical assessments because the brain is programmed to do the things that increase the chances of survival and never repeat the things that reduce the chances. This assessment is made automatically, unconsciously and very quickly. In this situation the brain registers a “not a survival risk” then “can be eaten again” followed by “MUST EAT NOW.”
You can see the look of absolute novel delight on its face followed by the automatic and impulsive seeking behaviour as it reaches out, grabs the ice cream and pulls it into its face and mouth.
But there is even more to it. Coldness is a sensation that human beings are programmed to notice and avoid unless they have cause to try and lower their body temperature. The video looks like it is being filmed in a mall, which is going to be kept at a comfortable temperature, so the baby is not seeking out something that will cool it off. However, coldness in general and a dramatic contrast in temperature specifically are sensations that the brain CANNOT NOT notice given the very narrow and relatively high temperature that the body must maintain in order to continue functioning effectively. The baby, or the baby’s brain, is absolutely aware of the temperature of the ice cream, likely from the first moment when it touches its mouth, but definitely when it grabs and holds onto it.
Survival is THE most important thing to living beings, everything else is at best secondary. We have temperature receptors in our skin because they improve survival fitness. While they are important to human beings, they were MORE important to whatever species first developed them, and because they helped those beings survive, the instructions to develop them remained and were passed along to whatever species was next in the evolutionary sequence. The survival advantage they afforded was greater than the energy cost of growing and maintaining them.
Cold temperatures destroy tissue, and anything that is close to or below the freezing point of water is particularly dangerous. The contrast between air temperature in a mall and the temperature of ice-cream is impossible to perceive as anything other than great and given the cause and effect understanding that the baby has already generated, its brain is attributing the cold contrast to whatever it touched its mouth and then to whatever it just grabbed.
The baby does not, however, withdraw from the ice cream nor does it let go of it. It assesses the taste and then reaches for, grabs onto and pulls close to its mouth the very thing that is cold. This is something that a living being will do under two circumstances. The first is that it does so consciously, the second is that it does so because there is a survival advantage in doing so. The first one is a non factor here because the child does not have the level of brain development that is needed for consciousness to emerge. This leaves the second one, there is a survival benefit to enduring the coldness.
So the brain of the baby is aware that there is something about ice cream that will improve its chances of remaining alive and that this improvement is GREATER than the threat represented by the coldness. Being a brain and being in control of the body, it reaches out to the survival substance, grabs onto it, takes control, and begins to eat it. It is programmed to do this whenever it can, so once the assessment has been made that ice cream will improve survival the outcome is automatic.
Ice cream is not good for us though. If we eat too much of it, it will begin to harm us and it is entirely possible that someone could eat themselves through ill health and arrive at death. BUT, and this is very important when considering what evolutionary fitness means in a practical sense and what survival actually means. Survival is everything other than death. Given this binary definition, eating so much ice cream so as to cause illness is achieving the goal of surviving. Also consider the time frame we are dealing with. It takes WAY longer to eat ourselves to death by ice cream than it would take to starve ourselves to death by simply not eating.
Eating crappy food does not present the existential risk that NOT eating food presents. In fact, a case can be made that when we do not have access to a lot of food, eating things that are high in calories is actually a very pragmatic approach. When the choice is between dying or eating crappy food, the brain does not register that there is a choice to be made and will simply cause the body to do whatever it has to do in order to eat.
Recall that I mentioned about temperature receptors that we have in our skin being the result of a change to the genetic code of one of our early ancestors? EVERY gene we have is the result of a change in the genetic code of our ancestors but not every change that occurred was helpful. A new trait was only helpful if it increased the likelihood that the creature would survive and reproduce within the environment that the creature lived in. Therefore our ancestors lived in an environment that favoured beings that ate ice cream while enduring coldness MORE than ones that would avoid coldness even if that meant they did not eat ice cream.
Given that the earliest that ice cream could have been invented is 3000 BCE, which is not long enough in the past to impact evolution in any meaningful way, we have to assume that the ice cream is a place holder for something else. In this case, it is holding the place of high energy food – sugar and fat. Am I suggesting that the human brain is programmed to seek out and consume sugar and fat containing foods, even when there is some level of physical discomfort associated with this consumption? Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting. I’ll go one further and say that human beings have the genes to motivate us to eat high calorie foods because there was a time in our evolutionary past when there wasn’t an abundance of food leading individuals who ate high calorie foods to have a survival advantage over those who ate lower calorie foods.
When was this time? Not every long ago. Food insecurity was a fact of life for the entire planet less than 150 years ago. The discovery / invention of farming about 11000 years ago improved the food scarcity situation for human considerably, but there were still seasonal cycles of abundance and scarcity, and the occasional famine when weather changes, disease, or war interrupted the food supply causing the death of the young, the old, and the weak.
We always need to keep in mind that the genes coded on our DNA are the ones that favoured our ancestors at the time they lived and are not the ones that necessarily serve our survival needs today. They are amazing, but some of them are not what we would select for modern life. Oh well, that isn’t how things work.
What does any of this have to do with YOU being an addict?
Take another look at the first 5 seconds of the video again and notice the look on the baby’s face right before it tries to exert control over its environment by grabbing onto the ice cream, pulling it towards its mouth and getting down to eating it.
That look is very important and arguably the most revealing thing in the video; and possibly the most revealing thing in any video that is hosted on YouTube. Something very important has just happened inside the brain of the baby that causes a number of physiological changes that lead to psychological changes and then to physical actions. The first is a profound level of delight that nearly every human being who sees the video feels to some extent. The second is a focusing of attention onto the ice cream that is so tight that it clears EVERYTHING else out. The next thing is a targeting / aiming followed by the seeking and consumption behaviour that has the baby grab the ice cream and begin to eat it. This desire for more is so powerful that the baby effectively ignores the sensation of coldness that represents a threat to survival. You can see some slightly grimaced looks each time its gums hit the ice cream but whatever the cause of them does not rise-up to the level of changing course. The baby, upon tasting the ice cream, gets after possessing and eating the ice cream in a near maniacal and single-minded way. To the baby there is nothing else BUT the ice cream.
The baby is an addict and the video captures a moment when it got a fix. On the surface it appears that they are addicted to ice cream but this is only partially correct. It isn’t the ice cream, nor is it anything that is contained within the ice cream, at least not directly. The baby, and you and me, are addicted to what the brain does in reaction to the ice cream. And the brain doesn’t just react to ice cream in this way, it reacts to many things in the same way. The younger the person is and the lower their experience with the world, the smaller is the list of things that will trigger this reaction.
What we are seeing on the video is the result of the baby’s brain releasing dopamine into the synaptic cleft between the neurons that make-up the reward centre of its brain. This causes a sensation / level of activity that the brain is coded to seek out. Once it learns how to cause the release, it will begin to engineer life in such a way as to ensure the consumption of or participation in the things that will trigger the release. This process is what is understood to be the mechanism of psychological reward, which functions to reinforce particular actions and to incentivize the repeating of these actions.
For babies, the only actions that will trigger a dopamine release are those actions that at one point improved evolutionary fitness. This means high calorie food, social connection, contact with caregivers, any successful pattern match between immediate sensory data and something contained in long term memory, and the creation of a stimulus : response / cause : effect pairing EVEN ones that are not accurate. This last one can be understood to be learning, even when what is learned is not accurate.
The key to the entire thing is that living beings need to take action in order to survive and the dopamine reward system is what emerged to motivate a being to spend energy taking an action within an environment that was energy scarce. In a world that is both “act or die” and “act and die,” this system is fantastic at causing individuals to both take actions and to take very specific ones.
Take a second to think about some of the stories that you have heard about someone who got addicted to crack cocaine. Crack is considered to be more addictive than powder cocaine although all crack users say they would rather use powder than smoke crack. The key difference between them is the method of delivery – crack is burned and the smoke is inhaled while the powder is snorted. The smoke finds its way into the blood stream faster than the powder which means it hits the brain faster. It is the same underlying mechanism of action, that is to delay the re-uptake of dopamine thus prolonging the effect of dopamine. It isn’t the cocaine itself that causes the effect, it is the impact that the cocaine has on the dopamine that cause the physiological and psychological changes. Crack is more addictive because you feel the effects faster, but for less time.
A common horror story about crack and cocaine addiction is that of a person who replaces every action in their life with drug seeking and consumption behaviour. While this might make sense for a baby or someone who knows nothing about life, it makes very little sense for someone who has the life experience and skills enough to be able to afford to buy drugs given that if they know enough about the world to earn money they probably also know that cocaine is a highly addictive drug. But when we remember that the dopamine reward system exists to motivate beings to take action, the only thing that is actually stopping someone from becoming a cocaine addict is their brains lack of knowledge that cocaine powerfully activates their reward system. That is all. It doesn’t really matter what you know consciously, once the nervous system has the experience of pairing an action with the activation of the reward system, the lesson is learned and the pairing will last forever. It is such a powerful system that it will have a baby grab onto freezing cold ice cream and repeatedly eat bites of it, and when it is dialed up, it is powerful enough to motivate someone to do nothing BUT take the actions that most quickly and intensely trigger it to be activated.
Okay, you are not addicted to cocaine although you have all of the requirements for a life destroying addiction to it. You have a dopamine reward system that will motivate you to take the actions that cause it to become active. This system shows a down regulation or tolerance in response to repeated activation in both a perceptual sense and in a real synaptic level sense – repeated exposure to the same stimuli will, over time, result in a diminished release of dopamine while any increase in activation at the neural junction will, over time, result in a decrease in the number of receptor sites which means a larger amount of dopamine will be required to trigger the same level of activation. These are basically the only requirements that are needed in order for someone to develop an addiction for something; so while we are not born addicted to anything, we are very close to having one and just need to uncover the ways to get the brain to release the chemicals. Once our brain learns what actions cause the release, this is sufficient enough to manifest seeking behaviour which has the goal of triggering a release. After a few of them, the magnitude of the response begins to drop, resulting in an increase of the required behaviour. From this point on, the down regulation of dopamine receptors results in a low level of activation which makes the baseline level of dopamine release to be experienced as less rewarding. Below a certain level, this will result in withdrawal-like symptoms, the primary one being a overwhelming craving for the activities that trigger release. If an individual continues to display the behaviour, their level of tolerance continues to grow resulting in a linear increase in the severity of withdrawal symptoms. However, if the individual stops the behaviour and puts an end to the activation, there will be a return to baseline through the up-regulation in the number of receptor sites allowing the brain to return to its pre-exposure level of activity. How long this takes will be determined by exposure length, duration and quantity, level of down regulation, overall health, diet, amount of rest, and a persons physiological ability to facilitate organic tissue growth.
The brain is coded to release reward chemicals in response to things that increase the chances of remaining alive and that improve evolutionary fitness, with the objective of motivating the individual to repeat these actions.
This system is powerful, but it not a direct system in most cases. While there are a number of things that will trigger its activation directly – such as the consumption of fatty high sugar foods, social connection, matching a pattern between sensory data and long term memory – most of the activation is indirect, either through the ingestion of exogenous molecules or the interpretation / perception of sensory data.
Living beings know innately or learn very early in life that there is a stimulus response relationship or cause and effect connection between things in the external world. This piece of wisdom is the key stone in the effectiveness of the dopamine based reward system because it allows the brain to learn that action A caused the release of rewards. Once this is learned, the brain will begin to repeat action A in order to get more reward.
When we look at the baby in the video, we are able to notice three critical yet completely distinct moments and one that is invisible but clearly present – the action, the release of the reward chemicals, the invisible moment of learning (the pairing of the ice cream to the reward), and the reward seeking behaviour which is the repeating of the action.
The baby is now aware that ice cream causes the release of reward chemicals so it will be motivated to eat ice cream again in the future and it is one very big step closer to developing an addiction to fatty high sugar substances.
If no action is taken, no learning will occur. If an action is taken but no reward chemicals are released, the brain will learn that there is no incentive in repeating the action.
Before wrapping this up, please take another look at the video and then come back to read to the end. Human beings are in a unique place in history. We are running the code that allowed all of our ancestors to survive long enough to reproduce and to have a survival advantage over other individuals who did not have the code. But our larger brain has given us the ability to communicate very effectively with other individuals along with the capacity for creativity. Working together in groups and using these two skills, we have developed the ability to consistently change the external environment in a way that eliminates the majority of the things that the evolved code helped us to survive in spite of. This has rendered the reward system mostly irreverent and potentially problematic in that it motivates us to seek out things that are no longer rare and are only of marginal survival advantage if at all helpful.
We are born addicted to dopamine, given that we will seek out things that trigger its release and given our ability to develop tolerance to this chemical. We are not born addicted to cocaine, other drugs, or to specific fatty high sugar foods. However, it is very simple for the brain to learn the association between actions and rewards, and to then develop an addiction to those actions. The baby at the end of the video is a lot closer to becoming a compulsive eater of fatty high sugar food than it was at the beginning of the video. This would not be the case if it had never had the experience of eating the ice cream.
Be very careful when taking any new action, particularly ones that have you consume external molecules. Pay very close attention to how you feel in the moments immediately surrounding you taking any new action when you notice that you begin to feel fantastic, good, heightened in a positive direction, or any state that is higher than your baseline. Be very mindful when choosing to repeat that action. If the action is NOT necessary or if it pointless, useless, or unhelpful, consider NEVER repeating it again. Your brain has already learned that the action causes the release of reward chemicals so you are only a few repetitions away from creating a compulsive or habitual pattern of behaviour that will, over time, start to make-up a larger portion of the actions that you take.
We are born addicted, over time we learn what it is that we are addicted to.