Being fearless is not the same thing as being brave. In fact, being fearless has nothing to do with bravery. It might even indicate that someone is acting like a coward and avoiding the things that scare them.
I once attended a seminar and the leader spoke about being fearless. They suggested to the group that everyone would be happier and make more of their lives if they simple did not have fear. At the time it felt like it was the truth. It landed like an profound realization that the only thing that was holding me back from the life I wanted was fear. There was a collective delusion in the group that somehow we had been given a magic pill and upon swallowing it the world was ours to dominate.
About a week after the seminar I started to realize that I was broken because the knowledge that my fear was all that was preventing me from making the life I desired wasn’t enough. I was the same person and I had the same concerns that I had always had. Fortunately the organization had other seminars that I could attend that would teach me more of the knowledge I needed to finally break through and be all that I was capable of. Who knew that self improvement would be so expensive and depend so much on people other than myself? I said fuck it and went back to my life being afraid of the things that made me scared and occasionally doing something that terrified me.
It turns out that the lesson they should have been teaching is about being grateful for fear. Fear indicates something significant. Some fear is very important to notice and listen to. When you are doing something dangerous, fear is there to tell you to stop. Mouthing off to people at a bar is a dumb thing to do so it should scare you enough to not do it. Driving recklessly or night swimming are two other things for which fear is the appropriate response. You will live a lot longer if you always maintain a healthy dose of fear for these two activities. I’m not talking about trying to get passed the fear of doing dangerous things. I’m talking about everything else, which is most things.
With fear about something that has no survival risk, the feeling of fear is information. It can reveal to us that we do not have confidence in our ability to do the activity or certainty that the outcome will be what we want; both are what we would expect for something we new at. Very few people are good at anything the first few times they do it so trepidation is natural.
Fear can also reveal that there is something at stake. Human beings are loss adverse so the notion of losing something should trigger some level of fear.
Fear can also be misinterpreted excitement. It is very hard to tell nervousness from excitement. It is possible that when we have fear for what we’re about to do, we are actually just excited about it.
Fear can also tell us that something important is about to happen and that our brain and body is just getting revved-up to perform better. There is a sweet spot when it comes to heart rate and performance and it’s well above your resting heart rate.
Now none of this matters if we give in to the fear and don’t take action. If we have no confidence in our abilities, we’ll never gain that confidence if we never do the thing. If we’re afraid of losing something, we will never gain the right to have that thing if we never take the risk, and we’ll never gain whatever is there for those who try. If we are simply excited, we are never going to actualize the reason why we were excited if we don’t do the thing. And if we are just getting revved-up to perform better, by giving in to the fear we’ll never experience the joy of that performance.
So no matter what the reason for the fear, a life worth living exists when we accept the fear and take action anyway. Sure, we will get hurt, we will lose things, there will be a cost to not being successful, but there will always be an upside. You will learn something, you will get at least a little bit better, and you will get some hands-on information about what the world is and how it works, or a way that it doesn’t work.
The lesson they were teaching at the seminar about being fearless is probably impossible but it is at least impractical. If there is no fear, there isn’t much reason to do something. There probably isn’t going to be much growth in it because you are so good at it that you know the outcome or it matters so little that it isn’t worth doing.
Instead, I would teach people that without fear there can be no bravery. Someone who is brave is afraid but does it anyway. They take action in spite of their fear. They know that the outcome is uncertain and they still do it. Being fearless is not the same thing as being brave. In fact, being fearless has nothing to do with bravery. It might even indicate that someone is acting like a coward and avoiding the things that scare them.
Brave people may act fearlessly but they are absolutely loaded with fear.
In fairness to the seminar leader, had they told the group that fear is a good thing and that without it, we would never prove to ourselves that we were brave, I don’t think many people would has signed-up for the next seminar. The truth is not a magic pill that they can sell. There is nothing proprietary about introducing people to the notion that being brave is a skill that we can learn by identifying the things that scare us and then doing these things in a progressive and systematic way. With each rep, we are over-reaching a little bit while learning the required skills and accumulating the wisdom that eventually make possible the most terrifying things.
Anyone who has a desire to manipulate other people need only learn how the brain processes data and generates information in order to figure out how to bypass the normal vetting mechanisms that have been programmed into our perceptual system. When someone is communicating, you will be much better off in the long run if you take the time to consider WHAT they want you to believe and, more importantly, WHY they want you to believe it and HOW they will benefit if you accept it as true.
Traditional gaslighting is a cooperative act in which one person says and does things that cause a second person to begin to doubt their sanity. I spoke about it in the post Gas Lighting – Vice-Signalling And A Lack Of Self-Respect. It is highly controlling, it is regarded as a form of mental abuse, and it is a partnership of sorts. There is a clear perpetrator, the individual who is trying to get someone else to believe things that are not true and to then begin to loss confidence in the accuracy of their subjective experience of reality, and victim, the individual who is being manipulated. Doubt is the internal state that the perpetrator is trying to trigger and once it has been activated, the gaslighting of the victim has been successful.
Gaslighting is similar but it is a distinct type of mind control than those methods employed by cult leaders. Group manipulation relies on the buy-in from other members of the group to influence the more skeptical members. The entire group is subjected to the same consistent messaging and, overtime, people will either conform or leave. Those who choose to leave are labelled as treacherous and are shunned by those who choose to remain. Dissenting, balanced, and alternative opinions are not allowed and great control is taken to make sure the group is never exposed to them.
While cult leaders will achieve their goal using many of the same tactics as the gaslighter, the main differences is in scale. The cult leverages the other members of the group to ensure buy-in – an uninitiated or unconvinced cult member will hear the message from the leader and feel social pressure from the other members. With gaslighting, the gaslighter tends to work alone in a one to one relationship between them and their victim. Starting a cult is much harder and requires some skill and the possession of some very specific traits by the leader – charisma, passion, unflappability – but once it gets going, the unified actions of the group present a collective message so forcefully that it by-passes or overwhelms the normal resistance to bullshit. Gaslighting on the other hand is easier to do but it is more fragile and will erode very quickly in the face of external information that causes the victim to gain a more balanced perspective.
With gaslighting, it is the traits of the victim and how they are expressed that determine the effectiveness of the manipulation – they feel close to the perpetrator, they trust the people they are close to, they tend to less skeptical, they defer to others as the source of expertise in areas that they have sufficient experience to know what is what, they are high in agreeableness, they tend to avoid conflict, they accept as true or potentially true things that others would immediately doubt, they do not want to do anything that would cause friction with the person who is gaslighting them, etc…. There is nothing wrong with how they process sensory input and the information that their brains generate, they just choose to process things differently under certain circumstances. However, the instant they begin to push back against the other person, and accept and endure the negative emotion associated with doing so, is the moment of liberation. Once other sources of information begin to flow in, they instantly start to reframe their understanding of the world. The outcome tends to favour objective reality as they quickly learn that the other person is full of shit and has been manipulating them.
Critical to traditional gaslighting is the use of counter factual statements in an ongoing and consistent way, along with the use of demonstrable lies. Both are very effective tools for achieving a state of doubt or uncertainty. Counter factual statements act as conditional justifications to explain something, but rely on a non-factor or a non-occurrence to do the heavy lifting. They take the form of “if, then,” “and yet,” or “yes, but” to complicate things and distract the victim from the known facts. They are gentle or subtle ways to influence ones thinking. Lies, on the other hand, are hyper direct and serve to change what the victim believes or knows to be true.
With gaslighting by proxy, none of these tools are used. In fact, if we were to book end the events that comprise the gaslighting by proxy we would notice that there is nothing untruthful or demonstrably wrong ever said. The perpetrator does not lie and will tend to speak fairly directly and concisely about the facts and events. The adherence to the truth is very context specific, however, and these moments will occur randomly. It is this quality about them that make this such an effective way of manipulating people.
Historically, a liar tells lies while a truth teller tells the truth. Unfortunately, this binary way of thinking about the world and about the actions of people is a heuristic that sacrifices specificity in favour of cognitive ease. Once we label someone as a “truth teller” or a “liar,” we enable an automatic evaluation process that has us believe or not believe a person. Generally, we will listen to a truth teller and ignore a liar. But this is just the general case. Our brain cannot help but listen to and hear, to some extent, the words of a liar when they are speaking. This doesn’t matter at all when what they say is untrue – we hear it and the brain ignores or filters it out – but when what they say is true, more cognitive effort is required to fully process the statements and make sense of the world. At best, it is mentally taxing and requires a lot of deliberate effort to maintain an accurate view of things. More likely though, because of the energy demands of keeping things clear, will be a reevaluation of the person some distance away from the “liar” label and an off-line reframing of the world to reflect this change in status.
This is an error that corrupts long term memory and pollutes our heuristic database with a rule that does not reflect reality.
Consider what our brain needs to do when it is confronted with evidence that a known truth-teller knowingly told a lie. Depending on how well and how long we have known them, we might be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and change nothing about what we have stored. We may create a conditional rule to capture situations under which the person may not tell the truth. Or we may update their label to “liar” and set about ignoring them. The length of time and the amount of experience we have with them will impact how we respond. Strangely, the better we know them the tougher we will be on them. The false statements of spouses, best friends, and adult relatives will have a much bigger effect than the lies of a TV personality, politician, acquaintance or more distant relative. Those held in higher regard will fall much further and much faster than those who do not factor into our life very much. Regardless, in most cases, finding out that someone we considered to be a truth-teller has the capability and willingness to say things that are not true will result in a reduction in our tendency to believe without evaluation.
When we now think about the opposite situation – a liar tells the truth – the reaction is confusingly different in terms of proportion and weight. They have a track record of lying, which means we will keep our psychological distance from them and that they will not be very important to us. Because we do not care about them, we have not been hurt by their lies. In fact, our evaluation of them is probably so low that we are not impacted by the things they say. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being complete non-factor and 10 referring to an extremely important and critical component to our life, the known liar is a 1 and close friends, immediate family and significant others are tens.
These rankings matter and come to be because of how we share the burden of understanding the world among all of the people that we know. With 10 out of 10 people, we lean on their brain and intellectual processing to help manage and maintain certain aspects of our world view; either through shared experience, individual expertise, or the innate ability to connect with other living beings in a synergistic way. When we learn that one of these top tier people is not completely trustworthy, we lose this ability to share the cognitive burden of understanding the world well enough to thrive. It is psychologically damaging and can be very destabilizing. When the same thing happens with a 5 out of 10, there is a much lower impact. Imagine finding-out that a client had lied to you about something. It might be annoying, but it will not trigger an existential crisis. A 1 out of 10 person lying to you will have little to no impact and it may not ever register that you have been lied to.
So when a known and labelled “liar,” or a one, says something that is untrue, we do not need to do anything in response to it. Our world view already includes the information that they do not tell the truth. However, when they tell the truth, the automatic reaction, to ignore, creates an output that is not congruent with reality. The binary labelling of liar fails to capture the possibility, more accurately the reality, that sometimes they are going to tell the truth. No one is always just on thing. Our prediction that they will lie is shown to be inaccurate, throwing a error, and forcing our brain to open-up to new information in an earnest attempt to get clarity on what has happened in order to update the rule to allow for more accurate predictions.
This is the essence and mechanism of gaslighting by proxy.
Assume that we are the intended victim and that a politician is the perpetrator. They want to lower our confidence in the understanding of the world that we possess because they have realized that they need us to believe them for some reason – say reelection. We know they are liars because in the past they have said a lot of things that are not true, so they have a very low ranking – 1 out of 10. As such, we do not spend much time considering what they say. However, as they get closer to the next election, they begin to say more things that are actually true. It isn’t that they stop lying, they just being to tell the truth more frequently. Eventually we begin to hear these true statements and will immediately begin to update our world view to include the fact that they do not always lie or, the affirmative, that they do tell the truth. This is all that is required to trigger the reframing process. It does not matter at all that the next thing they say is a lie because we already knew they lied thus eliminating the need for any reframing.
This puts us into an interesting position. If we deliberately stop the reframing process, it will cause a level of anxiety because our brain will be aware that it is running a rule that is not accurate. If we take action to eliminate the negative emotion associated with the now revealed inaccurate rule and allow the reframing process to run its course, we open ourselves up to being manipulated. The reason is very simple, the reframing will only ever go in one direction, away from the “liar” and towards “truth teller.” Since they were already a labelled “liar” and given a low significance in our life, the movement cannot go any further and will only go in the opposite direction. But the moment the reframe moves at all, it will never go back because the person has shown that they can tell the truth therefore the binary all or nothing poles cannot ever be reached again. They will never be a liar nor will they ever be a “truth teller,” they will be something in between.
Since the goal of any type of gaslighting is to create doubt, this middle ground is exactly where they want us to be. It isn’t necessarily a hopeless situation. We are able to take the time to evaluate every claim they make for accuracy, but this requires effort and is deliberate mental work, both of which serve as disincentives to doing it. But unless the work is done, we will never be certain of the truth or falsehood of their statements.
This is the by proxy aspect of this form of gaslighting. WE are the proxy. How our brain reacts to them telling the truth is what causes the doubt to surface. Whether or not they previously set about trying to convince anyone that their lies were true is not relevant – that is they do not have to have participated in traditional gaslighting. What triggers the process to happen is the fact that historically they have a pattern of lying and suddenly they begin to tell the truth from from time to time.
One could argue that the truth statements of a pathological liar are not important, and this would be a bad argument. The truth matters, facts are important because they impact the world in very real ways. It is not responsible to disbelieve a factual statement simply because it was made by a habitual liar as doing this will cause the brain to update existing long term memories with incorrect information. It is equally irresponsible to believe a false statement simply because it was made by someone who occasionally tells the truth. And this is why gaslighting by proxy chips away at our certainty about the world. The perpetrator is using our own brain to do the leg work to foster doubt, and they using the truth to cause this to happen.
The video below is the second half of the True Hollywood Stories – Rick James bit from the Chappelle show. It is not safe for work due to language, simulated violence, and drug references. I have included it because it contains an example of behaviour that mimics gaslighting by proxy and not because it is an example gaslighting by proxy. However, when you watch it, notice the part with James talking that they repeat and pay particular attention to what happens in your brain and how you feel the wrongness of what you have just heard. When our brain sets about addressing this type of discomfort we open ourselves up to gaslighting by proxy.
I have watched this bit dozens times and continue to feel my brain stumble. And it is a big stumble, one that I am powerless to NOT notice. I laugh because the context provides the necessary cues for my brain to know how to regain its stride – it is the Chapelle show and Charlie Murphy is doing most of the story telling so it is intended to by funny, even if it is relating some aspect of the truth.
But without the context to determine what to do with the information, the brain will simply treat it the same way it is programmed to treat other context free information – the process described above. This is the big difference between shows like “The Daily Show,” which is clearly comedy show (even if some people do not find it to be funny), and “PBS NewsHour,” which is an earnest attempt to document and share a collection of important current events; AKA the news. Seeing a clip of a politician or a CEO of a large multinational corporation on the Daily Show will be handled differently than the same clip appearing on an objective news show. As such, when context is provided, gaslighting by proxy is next to impossible. When it isn’t, the brain will have to work to provide the context to prevent the manipulation, the work being a big disincentive, or avoid doing the work by letting the information in and processing it using the existing heuristics; making one vulnerable to manipulation.
As amazing as the human brain is, it is not full proof or fool proof. It has a finite processing capacity and, as such, it has the innate capability to create general rules to accelerate the decision making process as well as to simplify the handling of massive amounts of input. These rules are good enough to ensure that we do not suffer an easily avoidable death, but they tend to lead to errors as we journey deeper into the realm abstract reality; not because the brain gets it wrong but because the brain does not have the accurate information or adequate information to generate a correct answer quickly.
Context is very important in determining what to do with information and in figuring out what the information is intending to communicate. Context is not a static thing nor is it locked to a particular moment in time. More often than not, the context of the person who is communicating something is different from the context of the person who is listening to and hearing them. What one hears today is about something in the future or the past, meaning that in order for a message to be accurately understood, it must be processed under the same context in which it was intended. This step is cognitively demanding so unless it is attacked with deliberate and conscious effort, it will occur slowly and over time in an unconscious and passive way. This can result in the message taking hours, days, weeks, months or even years to land as intended in the brain of the listener. If you want to get things right as quickly as possible, accept that it is going to take effort and will require that you spend a lot of time considering things that were not said, are not obvious, and that may even seem to be a little paranoid.
Anyone who has a desire to manipulate other people need only learn how the brain processes data and generates information in order to figure out how to bypass the normal vetting mechanisms that have been programmed into our perceptual system. When someone is communicating, you will be much better off in the long run if you take the time to consider WHAT they want you to believe and, more importantly, WHY they want you to believe it and HOW they will benefit if you accept it as true.
Any failure to adequately surface and consider the context from which the communicator is approaching things will leave you open to being manipulated via your own perceptual processes and the innate code that helps us generate rules to simplify the in-flow of massive amounts of data. Gaslighting by proxy is one example of how a subversive actor can go about using a persons own processing abilities to cause the brain to throw an error thus allowing them to exert control over what is stored on their victims brain.
The world is very complicated… Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.
I lived in residence when I attended the University of Ottawa during my first year. The school is bilingual, French and English, and it is located in the down town of Canada’s capital city. As such, it offers a unique opportunity that no other school in the country can – proximity to the political establishment and to the government industrial complex. This means access to most aspect of the government along with exposure to a wide selection of people (diplomats and embassy workers) from many other countries. It would be a common occurrence to ride the bus during the evening rush hour and be surrounded by people who do not look or speak the same way I do. As a consequence of this high level of diversity, a lot of international students would attend the University.
This aspect of the city was great, particularly for anyone living in residence, because first year international students were offered a room on campus. I got to meet and spend time with people from places that I had never thought about before. This type of exposure, particularly during this phase of my life had a profound impact on my concept of what a person was or could be. I was just one of billions of people and while we all kind of looked and behaved in the same sort of way, it was clear that the thoughts that people have are wide and varied. There were patterns though, which is a powerful piece of information to have access to as one transitions from high school teenager to university adult.
We were all there to figure things out and most of the people on our floor spent a lot of time talking, particularly later in the evening when our critical faculties were drained from a long day of consuming lectures and text book material. The most fruitful conversations tended to unfold on Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday evenings because these were the days when we were operationally the furthest away from the weekend and the negative effects that alcohol has on the quality of discourse. Our heads were clear, people listened and heard, and the only thing we really needed to do was study, so everyone seemed to put in the extra effort to keep the conversations flowing in order to reassign the work to tomorrow. The entire thing was a formula for insight – time, bright clear minds, and an incentive to continue probing; so we could avoid doing any direct work.
During one of these late night chats, I said something that was accidentally wise. But because it was an accident, I did not have the presence of mind to deliberately have a good conscious think about it every day. It remained in my brain doing stuff, but I didn’t pay attention to it enough to maximize the impact it would have and to allow it to fully shape the direction of my thinking. This is the nature accidental wisdom, without the hard work to reflect on and create an impression of value, we do not treat it as well as we should and after not too long, it more or less leaves us.
The concept I brought up was “personal relativity” and it was in response to the topic of regret. We had been talking about grad weekend, and one of the girls mentioned that she didn’t talk to her date any more. He had wanted to move their relationship to the next level while she was fine with taking things slow and pacing the upward trajectory so as to leave some things undone for a later time. His desire was to have sex after the formal at the hotel room they had rented, while she wanted something much less intimate. They didn’t have sex and their relationship did not make it through the summer. This had left her a little heart broken and wondering if her decision to wait had been worth it or if it had been the wrong thing to do.
She was a second year student, so she was about 18 months past the grad weekend and around 16 months post break-up. The time had given her plenty of opportunity to reframe things in a way that made them easier to deal with, and the fact that he no longer spoke to her served to validate her decision as the right one. As she was unpacking the situation and kind of outlined how things had evolved, I felt the need to tell her that no matter what she had done, there would always be a time when it was viewed as the right thing to have had happen and a time when it would be viewed as having been the wrong thing. The reality didn’t actually matter because there was not a right or wrong thing in it given the shift in her thinking about it. All we have is one opportunity to do what we think is best, and that is based on what we know at the moment in time when we have to make that decision.
Sure, they could have slept together and stayed together forever. Maybe the only reason the relationship ended was because she were not ready and he was; although that doesn’t really make a lot of sense because a life long partnership will not end simply because one partner wants to have sex and the other partner does not. But this doesn’t actually matter given the amount of time between prom night, the eventual break-up, and the evening when we are having the conversation.
Sure, they could have slept together and still broken-up towards the end of the summer, on the same day that they broke-up in reality. While it feels like this version of reality would validate the correctness of her decision to wait, it doesn’t matter in exactly the same way and amount as the “do it and live happily ever after” scenario.
The truth is, and it is always true, that life runs in one direction and there are no chance to redo any of it. Even if we get to repeat an experience, it isn’t the same experience no matter how close to the same it might appear. Materially, the world chances from instant to instant, so the notion that a mulligan is a redo is inherently flawed. What seems like a second chance at something is actually the first chance at something else, something that is very similar to the thing that was done before.
There was a moment when everyone was considering what I had said and it was clear that something was happening inside their heads. It wasn’t so much that a light was going on or that they suddenly had access to an insight that they had been struggling to surface, it was more like they had realized something very sad yet promising about their existential experience of life. The decisions we make are, so long as we take proper care to consider the known and the possible unknown information, always going to be correct. Any post hoc evaluation that considers information that we did not have access to at the time, and could not have reasonably imagined, is an evaluation about a future present (relative to when the decision was made) or a past present (relative to when the evaluation is being made) and does NOTHING to alter quality of the decision that was actually made. Even if future present or past present seem kind of confusing, the fact that there are two or three unique moments in time being combined in order for an evaluation to occur is a nonstarter. Relative to the moment in time when you chose, your decision was logical, sound, and valid. Relative to any time in the future, your decision cannot be viewed through the same lens and any value judgments about it are meaningless and inherently flawed.
This is sad because it sets up a situation in which every decision we can make will be viewed as wrong. It is promising because it gives us permission to leave the past behind and learn from the outcome of the choices we make. It is this promising aspect of it that I wish I had been able to constantly keep in mind. The knowledge that a mistake was made should cause a little pain, but only enough to serve as an incentive to learn from and a disincentive to repeat the mistake. It should never turn into regret or manifest as a generalization about ones tendency to make mistakes. And under no circumstance should it ever be internalized as an identity statement.
The world is very complicated and there is too much to know for any one person to know everything. We are going to be mostly clueless about most things and possible know a lot about one or two subjects. So long as there are at least a few people to know each thing who are capable of sharing or teaching it to others, the massive blind spots each one of us have are not necessarily going to cause much of an issue. Problems arise when we don’t seek out, listen to and hear, or adjust our course based on the things that those who know tell us. Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.
Personal relativity is not a way to banish negative emotions from your life, nor is it an easy justification for being careless. It is simply a way to highlight the complexities of being alive, of managing your way through life knowing that you exist in an information void, and of giving yourself permission to be more charitable when your fallible nature contributes to a stumble. The concept of time is hard enough to wrap your head around, so it makes no sense to assume that your understanding of its experience is accurate.
Regret is built on the belief that you should have done differently, while assuming that you could have done differently. Personal relativity is built on the fact that you did what was correct at a very specific moment in time with all of the information you had access to. Just because the future present reveals something that would have altered your decision does not change anything about the past.
Each one of us has a perspective that is unique – we are the centre of ALL of our experiences and are therefore the centre of the universe. But so is everyone else. Personal relativity captures this aspect of experience while also including time as another dimension. So just as you will never know the experience of being someone else, you will never know the experience of simultaneously being yourself at two different moments in time.
Be mindful of what is going on, of what you know that is relevant, of what might possibly be known by others that is relevant, of what is not yet known by anyone that might be relevant, and of what is possible but has not yet happened that might be relevant. Once you have primed your brain with as much of this information as you can, trust it to make a logical and rational decision knowing full well that something may pop-up one day that seems to reframe your action as a mistake.
So you get clear on what you are doing in the moment and notice the “I am” verb / adverb pairing. Realize that this specific action is taken by a specific type of person, or a person who has a specific identity. Your brain knows this intuitively, so by stating the verb, unconscious thought processes are triggered about the noun that embodies the specific verb.
“I am” statements reveal state or identity. Given that state is a transitory thing, what you are now is likely going to change fairly quickly. Also, by declaring your state it becomes obvious what action needs to be taken to change it. “I am hungry” or “I am cold” are two examples of states which, if unpleasant, have very simple solutions, eat or put on a sweater or jacket.
Identity is not transitory. It changes less often and has a number of properties / characteristics / behaviours that tend to be expressed / displayed and remain fixed. “I am a smoker” is an identity statement and predictably a smoker will smoke. They’ll likely buy cigarettes, have smoking rituals, have friends who smoke and display and experience a level of discomfort when they are unable to smoke when they want to. Their identity will impact their state.
“I am an X smoker” or “I am a non smoker” are also identity statements and they fall on the smoking continuum. An X smoker may still have cravings for nicotine and these cravings may have triggers; usually the behaviours or activities the person displayed or took part in when they used to smoke. Not smoking is deliberate and requires mindful effort. A non smoker doesn’t have these cravings and if they do, they do not pack the same punch. Not smoking is effortless for them because they identify as a non smoker.
What is critical to consider when it comes to identity are the congruent behaviours that accompany an identity, given that it is impossible for someone to behave in a way that goes against an identity. A non smoker cannot smoke so if someone has a cigarette, they are some type of smoker – an occasional or social smoker for example. You can also be a smoker who doesn’t smoke or who currently doesn’t smoke because you choose not to. But if you identify as a smoker who chooses not to smoke, you are simply choosing not to smoke right now.
The power of identity is revealed when we understand and clearly and honestly define our identity as something for which particular negative behaviours are in-congruent; or for which particular positive behaviours are congruent. Given that in-congruent actions cannot be taken and congruent actions can, any shift in identity will be accompanied by a change in behaviour.
If a smoker changes their identity to become an X smoker or non smoker, they will stop smoking. The same applies when an identity shifts to say I am a healthy eater. Healthy eaters consume more of certain foods and eliminate other types; added are vegetables, gone are sugars, trans-fat and high calorie low nutrient liquids.
When considering this deeper, we are wise to look at it from a linguistic perspective, specifically how we use the words in terms of the parts of speech.
The word that follows “I am” can either be a noun / pronoun or a verb / adverb. Depending on which is used, there will be a natural and likely unverbalized assumption made. When the next word is a verb / adverb, the natural assumption will be a noun. When the next word is a noun, a list of verbs will bubble up. This is where the power lies given that most of our thinking is unconscious. Anything we can do to trigger empowering thoughts, either conscious or unconscious, will move our life in the direction we want it to go.
The first thing we need to do is be very clear on what exactly is happening in the present moment. This is always going to be a verb because we are always going to be doing something. Even if you are sitting there doing nothing, you are still sitting, sitting is something, and doing nothing, and nothing is in most cases actually something. So you get clear on what you are doing in the moment and notice the “I am” verb / adverb pairing. Realize that this specific action is taken by a specific type of person, or a person who has a specific identity. Your brain knows this intuitively, so by stating the verb, unconscious thought processes are triggered about the noun that embodies the specific verb. Whether or not you ever become consciously aware of this noun, the identify statement exists and fires a lot of mental activity in your brain about all the things associated with that identity. This cognitive cascade lights-up many areas of your brain and moves data / information around. This stimulation does what all stimulation does, it promotes the formation of actual tissue to support future similar thoughts. By thinking something once, it becomes easier to think it in the future, which makes thinking it in the future even easier, and so on.
The moment we are clear in what exactly is happening in the present moment marks a vital inflection point. If what is happening is what we want / need to be happening, we don’t necessarily need to do anything. We’re going to be fine now and in the future if we leave things on autopilot and let the unconscious thinking proceed naturally. We can however, improve future outcomes by bringing into consciousness the noun that naturally flows from the verb. By paying attention to the noun and noticing the cognitive cascade, we increase the amount of stimulation and promote greater tissue growth. Greater tissue growth increases the likelihood that we’ll be the verb in the future and the empowering pattern continues and grows.
If what is happening is not what we want or need to be happening, our better future depends on us doing something about it because if we do nothing different, we’re going to lay down the tissue that makes doing the same thing more likely in the future, which makes more of the same a great probability.
To change course we have a few options. The simplest is to stop doing the verb that isn’t helping and start doing the verbs that will. Remember that action is the only thing that shapes the clay of life. If you are the kind of rare person who doesn’t need to know why things are the way they are and can just get after doing the things, bringing forth the noun that you want / need to be and cultivating mindfulness will be sufficient to move you towards greatness. There is a particular noun that you are wanting to be, just be the verb that this noun embodies.
If the simplest way of direct action is not who you are, you will need to give a voice to the noun that comes up as a result becoming clear on what is happening in the present moment. Doing this has a down side in that you continue, at least for one more rep, to lay down the tissues that are the consequential effect of these thoughts. This notwithstanding , shinning a light on the noun and consciously forming an “I am” implied identity statement creates a mental white board in working memory to examine your action, the identity you may hold of yourself that facilitates the action and what cognitive distortions may be occurring that would yield such an identity – it allows you to talk back to the thought and interrupt the pattern. More importantly, it creates the space for you to insert a different identity with a conditional / explanatory verb used to help maintain congruence. For example, “I am a healthy eater who didn’t bring a lunch and decided to eat a doughnut.” This reframe if very different from the “I am eating a doughnut” followed by the unconscious automatic implied condition reaction “therefore I am a poor eater” that accompanies mindless action.
More consequentially, you are not giving yourself a pass and simply creating a similar future. You are taking responsibility for eating the doughnut while outlining the solution to prevent the same action in the future – bringing you lunch. And it is this paying attention to a new action that will go a long way in manifesting that specific future. Remember, attention increase stimulation which increases tissue growth.
The key to this is to be aware that the verb becomes the noun. If you like the noun, maintain the verb. If you don’t like the noun, change the verb. If you can’t change the verb, deliberately and consciously choose the right noun that congruently produces the appropriate verb. Check in often and repeat as often as is needed to lay down the neural pathways that make the verb and noun indistinguishable from each-other and who you are.
Money, and specifically other people making as much money as they can, is the external reason why most human beings favour salience over statistics when it comes to managing health risk. All of the companies that stand to make a profit from treatment have a number of people on staff who are very aware that preventing an illness or disease will lead to a much better outcome than relying on their company’s treatment. But the majority of the marketing budget is directed towards proving the need for and advertising the availability of their products.
According to the Internet, Benjamin Franklin said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” sometime towards the end of 1736. He was making reference to fire safety and not to public health; germ theory was over 100 years away and while diseases that were preventable simply by employing good hygiene were killing thousands of people, these deaths were mysterious and void of the spectacle associated with fires. Today, in most western countries, fire prevention technologies are so effective and ubiquitous that most fire fighters spend the majority of their time attending MVA and medical calls. This is fantastic, but it only happened because most fire departments are run by the local government as not-for-profit essential services.
Compare this to what most people assume the quote is making reference to, health. The statement remains true in this realm, but the nature of the health industry is very different from that of the fire fighting industry. For one thing, it is much larger in scale because life is very complicated and maintaining optimal health can be achieved in a number of seemingly very different ways. The causes of sickness and disease are numerous and there is a very large life style component to it. Cancer, for example, can be caused by exposure to chemicals and different wave lengths of electromagnetic energy that are naturally occurring, but these carcinogens can also be consumed in quantities that are much greater than what occurs naturally in the environment. This allows for people to twist the narrative in such a way as to blame the person with lung or skin cancer for the emergence of the disease. It may not be demonstrably true, but human beings who have a vested interest in convincing people to believe a particular thing tend not to realize the role this conflict of interest plays in their efforts to propagate a story of Randian personal responsibility.
This, when coupled with the length of time it can take for a disease to run its course, makes possible something that fires do not, the creation of a number of profit centers that have the illusion of being concerned with addressing the illness. With fires, you have two unique inflection points, before the fire and during the fire. Before the fire we have prevention. During the fire we have suppression and elimination. Generally speaking, government regulations are the realm of prevention and suppression while municipal fire departments are concerned with verifying the completion of the prevention activities and performing the elimination activities (the actual hands on efforts to put fires out once they begin). The private sector is involved in all areas, but primarily in the manufacturing of fire prevention, suppression, and elimination of equipment used in these tasks. General motors manufactures fire trucks, various machine companies make water pumps, hoses, and water proof gear, GE makes smoke detectors, other companies make metal pipes and sprinkler heads for fire suppression systems, and various manufacturing companies make the electronic components and devices that are used for monitoring heat and smoke. Other companies will sell services that support and ensure that the government regulations are followed and that buildings are up to code.
From a capitalistic point of view, there is some money and many civil servant jobs in fire elimination, but the bulk of the profit is generated in the manufacturing and sale of the equipment that addresses the prevention and suppression aspects of fire. This is actually how it should be and it is not a random outcome. There were times when fire departments were privately owned for-profit ventures and this lead to the very predictable outcome of services being denied to people / companies that could not afford to pay the price being demanded to put their fires out. Fires spread however, so this arrangement became unworkable very quickly as a fire that burned in the house or business of a person who could not afford to pay the private company to put it out would quickly become a fire that was burning in the neighbouring houses. City blocks would be destroyed unnecessarily simply because the fire department was a private venture that decide on the cost and withheld the service from those unwilling or unable to pay for it.
This needs to be compared to the health industry, which is profit driven at nearly every step. The only piece that is not completely infected by capitalism is that of single payer or socialized health care which is only just mostly infected by it. Canada is a good example of a single payer system that serves to line the pockets of nearly everyone involved. While the citizens and permanent residents of the country will get treatment if they go to hospital or a health care provider, not everything is covered and there is an incentive for the providers to adopt a mostly transactional methodology when administering services. The users need to pay out of pocket for many things and while the government has attempted to eliminate the possibility of a two tiered system, it is not entirely illegal for a doctor to charge their patients for certain services, particularly unproven treatments that may or may not do anything.
As is the way with people when incentives are involved, some number of the providers WILL act in the ways that ensure that they maximize the amount of money they make. This can be an ugly mark on the illusion of socialized medicine, but it tends to manifest itself in all of the areas other than treatment of acute illness and life threatening disease. For example, if you break your leg, the hospital will diagnose and treat you, if you get cancer, you will get access to the specialists who are trained to treat it and to the medications that have been scientifically proven to destroy the cancer cells. You will not, however, be given free access to emerging treatments that have not yet been proven effective or deemed to be effective treatments by the provinces health ministry. Some medicines that are free to patients in British Colombia are either not available to people in Ontario or are available only to those who are willing to pay the drug company directly for them.
The situation is worse for non-fatal or terminal illness, diseases, or pathologies . Connective tissue injuries like ligament tears or cartilage damage are treated using an opportunity cost model more than the triage model. Someone who is younger, an athlete, or who has a very high earning potential, will get access to treatment much faster than someone who is older or is retired. Statistically this is a good approach given that the government stands to collect more tax revenue for a person who is highly skilled and closer to the beginning of their career than someone who is retired and living off of their savings or social welfare programs. The opportunity cost of delaying treatment for the currently employed is much higher than it is for the person who is in the twilight of their life. Even if we were to factor money out of it, which is impossible, fixing an ACL tear for a younger persons will statistically lead to a greater increase in the time of restored mobility than fixing it for an older person – a 25 year old person may get 55 years while an older person might get 3. Statistics do not deal with the individual cases, so the sound logic of treating the younger contributors before the older no-longer contributing will not have an impact on the older person who is delayed treatment, but the approach the government is taking is at least defensible from this perspective.
Another characteristic that makes things foggy is the role that soonness and salience play in evaluating and ranking risk. Human beings are almost powerless to do anything other than believe that negative outcomes that are going to occur soon and that are very easy to imagine are worse than the ones that will arrive later or that are tough to get a handle on. A fire that is burning right now is much more dangerous than the 4 instances of skin cancer that are on someones back. Fire triggers a visceral feeling while early and mid stage cancer remain primarily abstract. Everyone can see the value of preventing and putting out fires quickly, it is much harder to see the problem that cancer is causing within a person until it crosses into the realm of a health crisis; at which point it is probably too late to actually cure the person.
This creates a problem for people in assessing risk and determining value of prevention. While a fire may destroy a row of houses, as long as the people and pets get out, most things can be restored within a few months. It is more than a simple inconvenience, having your home burn down can be life altering, but if the living beings get out of the house, it is going to be life threatening only to the fire fighters. And yet when we happen across a fire in progress, it is a compelling sight, one that seem to mandate attention and action.
Cancer, obesity, chronic stress, mental illness, etc… do not have this salience. We likely see people who have cancer everyday and go about our business as though they are not on fire from the inside. We when encounter an obese person, any negative reaction we have has nothing to do with their increased all cause mortality risk and is more likely to come from a value judgment about what we perceive are their life style choices. Those we encourage who are suffering from mental illness or chronic stress tend to be categorically dismissed as being weak in the head or in need of some relaxation. The physical nature of these diseases is invisible and we cannot see that their bodies are actually running so quickly as to be physically burning out.
I have no doubt that if Benjamin Franklin was alive today that he would make the same statement, this time about health. But with more authority and urgency, because the cost of prevention is so much lower than the cost of these diseases running their course. And I have no doubt that people would agree with him and “like” his post before returning to worry about things that are bright and shiny, and much less of a problem than cancer. Each year in the US just under 3 million people die; of which about 3500 deaths are attributed to fire and 609640 are attributed to cancer. This means 0.124% of the total number of deaths are due to fire while 21.67% are the result of cancer.
This begs the question, why are we all so misguidedly idealistic? Or why is there a pragmatic void when it comes to risk assessment?
Well, there are two reasons, the first is that our statistical intuition is dreadful and the second reason is money.
Regarding the first, there is a cognitive bias labelled “the law of small numbers” that captures the human tendency to overweight the importance of a very small number of occurrences and to then generalize or apply this exaggerated significance to the general population.
However, and I believe that this is the most important part of it, people can learn the facts and then apply them to life EVEN if they never actually gain the ability to do it intuitively. They just need to learn the information, create a rule to guide their thinking, and then put in the effort to use the rule by consciously thinking about the relevant subject. KNOWING that they cannot trust their innate thinking about the topic and having the willingness to put in the mental effort are the only things that are required to get it right. But this is neither natural nor is it cost free.
The Monty Hall problem, for example, is something that I now understand but still don’t feel completely comfortable with. My guess was that the odds did not change once one of the possible choices was eliminated. But, having looked at the math, it clearly makes statistical sense to switch your choice. Even still, it doesn’t feel that way. The odds seem to have gone from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2; this is only the case when you switch choices – and even then, a mathematical case can be made for an improvement in the odds from 1 in 3 to 2 in 3 but only if you switch. I do however get the question right now because I learned the correct answer, studied the relevant math and committed to memory the fact that my brain makes this error.
My incentive for putting in the work to learn how to avoid these types of mistakes is a desire to avoid being wrong or the desire to be right in the future. For whatever reason I am motivated to operate this way – likely because my brain responds very well to thinking and releases a big reward when it figures things out.
In this case, no one has a vested interest in withholding the information that is needed to inform my understanding and to illustrate how I can avoid making statistical errors. Monty Hall himself became aware that there was a benefit to switching after one of the three options was revealed not to be the big prize, so his suggestions to switch were likely an earnest attempt to actually help the contestants out. So even though the information was available, very few people knew it, and fewer still went onto the show Let’s Make A Deal to put it to work for themselves.
The key consideration with cognitive biases and the errors they contribute to are that they are well documented, proven, and discussed. It is not a lack of wisdom that is preventing people from educating themselves and taking the necessary steps to avoid making the mistakes that they cause. This is not done by most people for one of three reasons: a lack of an incentive to learn and take steps to avoid them, the existence of a disincentive to learn about them, or an external variable. In the case of the law of small numbers, as it applies to health, it is primarily the third reason.
Money, and specifically other people making as much money as they can, is the external reason why most human beings favour salience over statistics when it comes to managing health risk. All of the companies that stand to make a profit from treatment have a number of people on staff who are very aware that preventing an illness or disease will lead to a much better outcome than relying on their company’s treatment. But the majority of the marketing budget is directed towards proving the need for and advertising the availability of their products. They have a vested interest in selling the problem and solution (treatment), and this conflict of interest stops the entire company from doing anything to educate their potential customers about the law of small numbers, the value of prevention, and the quality of life benefit to anyone who puts in the work to avoid the need to ever become one of their customers.
This is a slight head scratcher to me. Not the actions of the corporations that sell health treatments, but the lack of action by their potential customers. On one hand, I understand and accept that putting effort into doing anything that is different from our automatic behaviour feels like and IS work. It has the very real sensation of “paying now” for something that is so far in the future that it doesn’t exist. The effort spent today cannot easily be viewed as the cost of a long healthful life and is instead experienced as a loss of something scarce and very valuable. But on the other hand, there is no denying the existence of disease and illness. Cancer, for example, is something that is very real and which society no longer has any difficulty talking about. Most people who reach adulthood know at least one person who has died from cancer and a few people who have gotten it. Practically everyone knows that food choices and ones level of activity are correlated with disease and illness risk and yet obesity and inactivity are now major contributers to decreased life and health span. The belief that technology and science will offer up a suitable treatment when sickness punches our ticket is an understandable, while overly optimistic, rationalization for not doing enough to prevent illness.
During all of my time working at gyms and in the fitness industry, it was painfully obvious that less than 10% of the population who were not athletes or fitness enthusiasts would ever make the move into one of these groups. I am biased here, but all evidence points to moderate amounts of intense physical exercise and the mindful eating of appropriate amounts of food, mostly plants, as being preventative measures in terms of disease and illness. The cognitive enhancement benefits of improvement in circulations, along with the increase in energy / vitality are massive bonuses. However, there seems to be a prevailing belief that there are chemicals we can take that will mitigate all of the negative effects of not taking the actions that have been proven to help us delay and avoid disease.
This is where I begin to blame the corporations and other companies. While they are not responsible for the things that people hold as truths, they are responsible for selling them the promise and the chemicals that will treat whatever comes along. Their efforts and motivation to sell more of their products get them to play their role, which is at best misleading / incomplete and at worst a blatant lie, in the cooperative act that results in us buying their treatments.
There is a saying that is credited to Henry Oberlander that captures the fact that everyone is willing to give something in trade for whatever it is that they want. On our side of the table is the desire (want) to change nothing about how we live our life and on their side of the table is the promise of a treatment for the negative outcomes of a life not lived with an eye on the needle of preventative actions. It’s a win win insofar as we get to feel safe and secure that we can change nothing and our future will be fine and they get to feel rich. Except ours is just a feeling while theirs is a fact.
To their credit, most of the treatment sellers are NOT engaging in a campaign of outright disinformation and many of them are selling goods and services that are an effective treatment. You can take the pills every day for the rest of your life and die from something other than the disease you didn’t prevent. In this regard, the treatment is kind of like a cure, except for the fact that the company gains a life long customer and the customer gains a life long dependence on an exogenous chemical or external service to make-up for what their body cannot do, but must have done, because of the illness.
Prevention is effectively the front loading of effort and it is a gamble. We work today in the hopes that we are able to shape the future and cause a very specific outcome. Life does not last forever and over its course the body begins to breakdown and lose its ability to fix itself. Prevention can be viewed as the taking of specific actions that have been demonstrated to extend these self-repair mechanisms OR avoid those actions that have been shown to destroy this innate ability.
Human beings have a preference to avoid spending energy, mental or physical, and will only spend it when they have an incentive to do so. The consequences of not taking preventive action are so far in the future that they do not register as a disincentive for NOT taking known harmful actions. The same temporal distance also serves to negate the incentive someone has for taking preventative actions.
Our brains are not very good at dealing with statistic so we have a tendency to make gross generalizations or to create ALL or NOTHING rules to increase cognitive ease when thinking about things. When we are given a solution to a problem that we do not have, we will update our understanding of the world and the implicated subject to include the fact that the problem has a known solution. The operational impact of doing this is the perception that the risk associated with the problem has been eliminated. This grants us an unjustified freedom of action because our brain holds the belief that there are no consequences to any action that might lead to the problem.
We WANT to believe that the future will be safe and the same as or better than the present. Anyone who wants to sell you something can leverage this desire by presenting their product or service as a solution to a future problem. While there is a philosophical difference between a treatment, a cure, and never needing either, there is no actual distinction between the three when exist only as future possibilities.
Living a good life, one full of the actions that promote long term health and void of the actions that harm it requires effort and sacrifice, and the outcome is never a sure thing. While we may one day become old, we are alive right now and open to the pleasure and joys of a diverse range of activities and actions. Saying “no” to immediate reward in favour of a future possible reward just doesn’t have the same kick as saying “yes” to what we can have right now.
The important thing to keep in mind is that your actions now will have an impact on the person you live to become. While the treatment for the consequence of your poor actions, or lack of action, may seem like something future you will be fine with, present you has a conflict of interest and therefore cannot be trusted. They want to experience the pleasure of doing what they want all while NOT having the disease or illness at preventative actions might eliminate.
You need to take sometime to have a good think about your future and really get a handle on what you want it to look like and how you want it to unfold. Hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and impaired mobility, while not necessarily real to you today, are very real for a lot of people who didn’t look after themselves as well as they should have. Their present experience is that of someone who is relying on treatment to combat things that were mostly avoidable. Some of their money is going to people and companies who have a vested interest in a growing population of sick people.
… you go to a baseball game on a rainy day and notice a lot of empty seats. When asked about the game later, you comment that the game was an absolute blow-out in favour of the home team (your team) and that the stands were practically empty because of the rain. You assume that people stayed away because of the weather and never consider that the game was against the worst team in the league and even though they won, it was uninteresting to watch because it was never competitive.
I really like the sentence “what you see is all there is” because it is implicated in so many of the cognitive errors that people make. I first heard the sentence when I was talking to my brother about how two different people can draw wildly different conclusions based on what appears to be the same information. He replied making two points: it is very unlikely that two people will draw different conclusions if they consume and process the same information and read the book “Thinking – Fast And Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.
I’m not certain about the first point, although probably. He was absolutely correct with the second point. The book is a master piece from the very beginning. A heart felt introduction lays the landscape – the book covers the topics of research that two psychologists collaborated on over a number of years. They developed a very close friendship, one that seemed to complement one another in terms of how they engaged and thought about the world. The work they did together has been highly influential and led to Kahneman being awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He maintains that had Amos Tversky not died in 1996 that they would have shared the honour. Unsurprisingly, “Thinking, Fast And Slow” is a heavy and demanding read. It is important and brilliantly revealing as it dissects, in terms of understanding, how and why people are the way they are and why the world is the way it is.
“What you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) is a way of making reference to the brains tendency to immediately process available sensory or perceptual information and to quickly and automatically make predictions based on ONLY this information. For example, you go to a baseball game on a rainy day and notice a lot of empty seats. When asked about the game later, you comment that the game was an absolute blow-out in favour of the home team (your team) and that the stands were practically empty because of the rain. You assume that people stayed away because of the weather and never consider that the game was against the worst team in the league and even though they won, it was uninteresting to watch because it was never competitive.
All you saw was the rain so therefore THAT must have been the reason why people didn’t show up. The truth is actually that people do not pay money to watch boring baseball games.
WYSIATI is the mental process of paying attention to only what is visible or that comes to mind when considering a decision. It is an “in the moment” and automatic phenomena and we are able to overcome it only when we take the time to consider what is not visible, what is not known, or what is known but currently not being brought to mind. Unless we take care to slow things down and work to create a mental placeholder for the things that you cannot see or that do not immediately come to mind, we are going to move forward considering only what is right in front of us; both literally and metaphorically.
This phenomena is likely the underlying cause of many other cognitive biases and its effects can be seen in a variety of different places causing predictable errors with decision making.
A great example of one of these biases is that of the survivor or survivor-ship bias because it has a near one to one relationship with WYSIATI. If you have never heard of the survivor bias consider the saying “history is written by victorious” and allow your brain to build the connection between these two things. You may notice that in your minds eye you begin to see two groups of people, one being the winners of the war and the other being the losers. The winners might even appear as larger, more clear, and in vibrant colour while the losers are smaller, blurry or lacking detail, and in black and white or grey scale. It is obvious from these images who is going to speak with more authority and clarity, and which group is going to have the volume turned down because their opinions are not worth listening to or hearing. The consequence to this is that one group gets to say everything while the other group doesn’t get to say much at all. If these just happened to be the two different sides of a war, it is obvious who gets to write down what happened and who needs to keep their mouths shut, accept their place, and to remain grateful for the fact that they didn’t get killed when their side lost.
Regardless of what gets captured as “history” by the group that has been given a voice, the other group still exists. Their silence, or the censorship of their stories, is not the same thing as them not existing. They remain alive and their version of events lives on in their brains, even if no one ever listens to or hears it. Pure or objective history is a single thing and is a point by point record of what ACTUALLY occurred regardless of the outcome. The text books may not contain any single sentence about it, instead being filled with the writings of the winning side, but this does not change reality at all. However, if you were given a test on the history of this specific event, you would be considered correct if you were to recite what is captured by the text books and would very likely lose marks for mentioning anything that was objective history but which did not match what the winners chose to put to paper.
Looking at this example it is easy to see that even though there is an other side to the story, it is as if there wasn’t because this side has never been shared. WYSIATI because you have never been exposed to anything else IN SPITE of the reality that something else did happen and this fact means that you are almost certainly wrong about history, or at the very least, profoundly ill-informed.
How this example relates to the survivor bias is that the winners are the survivors and the losers are the ones who did not make it. Both groups did exist, but we never hear from the losers because they never get to voice their experiences. If they could tell their tales, they would enrich the narrative and balance things out. This second thing is actually much more important because without their stories, the narrative seems completely balanced. It is only by becoming exposed to these stories that the lopsidedness of the initial history become obvious. But what you see is all there is and since you only get to see the stuff from the people who survived, your “objective” perception of things is completely skewed.
The big example that is used to illustrate the survivor bias is that returning war planes during the second world war. Everyone knew that both sides were losing a lot of planes because they were shot down by enemy pilots or anti-aircraft fire. They also knew that they could probably lower these numbers simply by adding more armour to certain areas of the plane. To this end, they set about collecting data on the damaged planes in hopes that they would uncover a pattern of vulnerability. Their efforts did reveal a lot of interesting things. The outer portions of the wings sustained a lot of damage, as did the rear wings, and the areas behind both engines extending back and across the centre of the aircraft including the fuselage. The initial thoughts were “reinforce these areas, add armour to reduce the chances that the plane would go down from enemy fire.”
This seems to make sense, the planes return with damage to some very distinct areas. Adding armour to these places is going to make the planes safer. It seems like the right thing to do.
What doesn’t come to mind initially are the areas with no damage. Look again at the image, the areas of impact are concentrated, as are the areas of no impact. There are very clear boundaries between them. This may or may not be significant.
Think about the history that the planes would write if they could write it. They’d tell you about getting shot, by the enemy, and of limping home, with holes all over their wings and body. Probably a close call for some of them. but no matter what else happened, the damage sustained was not sufficient enough to take them down. ALL of the ones that made it back made it back. If these planes are used for 100% of the samples in the study, you are only going to learn about damage that was not catastrophic. Putting more armour on these planes might be helpful, but all of them made it back safely without having any extra armour.
What really needed extra armour were the planes that did NOT make it back because their impacts were mission ending. But these planes never got to tell their story or write their history because they did not survive. If 50 planes went out and 25 of them returned, we can conclude that the armour on the 25 that did not make it back was not adequate to handle the impacts from the enemy. We do not know anything about the nature of these hits and we learn nothing about these hits by looking at the planes that returned damaged. This is a case of WYSIATI and the survivor bias.
What we are not seeing and need to see in order to solve the armour question is the damage on the planes that did NOT make it back because the damage was too severe for them to keep going.
Let this sink in if it doesn’t seem right or if you have never before thought about things in this way. Without taking the time to stop and really consider the problem, we make the error of assuming that the survivors DID something that allowed them to survive. But when we take some time to work the problem through again, we begin to open up to the possibility that maybe they survived because something was NOT done to them. This is exactly what was happening to the planes. When you look at the damage patterns of those that survived, you’ll notice a complete lack of damage to the engines, the front of the plane, and the fuselage right at the cockpit. So the planes that returned had working engines, intact forward facing aerodynamic surfaces, and pilots that were still alive.
The story about where armour should go was not logically told by looking at the survivors UNLESS you took the time to consider where the damage was NOT and to think about the consequences of damage to the unharmed areas.
Make no mistake about it, the other side was working with this information. In fact, by not having any access to the survivors, they were able to focus all of their attention onto solving the problem of how to destroy more planes by looking at the ones they destroyed and uncovering patterns. It was pretty clear to them, shoot the pilot, shoot the engines, or shoot any leading aerodynamic surface. Shooting the wings in general did not seem to have the devastating effect of hitting these other locations.
There is a good and a bad to the survivor bias and to the phenomena of WYSIATI. The good is that both can be counteracted to varying degrees by taking some time to think about what isn’t visible or what isn’t being said – to essentially give a voice to the vanquished. By asking the questions “what do I not know but is very probable,” “of everything there is to know about this situation, what happened to the stuff that isn’t known,” “what percentage of the totality do I know,” and “to make the best decision, is what you know more valuable or is what you don’t know more valuable?”
Asking these questions about the planes, you’ll get answers like “the planes that didn’t make it back may have been hit in other places,” “those planes crashed,” “50%” assuming that 50 planes left and 25 returned, and “what we do not know is more valuable because those planes got hit in the places that actually need improved armour.
The bad thing about the survivor bias and WYSIATI is that they do not feel like anything OTHER than sound rational decision making and analysis. The only reason you will know they exist is if you have learned about them or are the type of thinker who defaults to knowing there is stuff that is unknown and that this stuff has a big impact on things. Both are learned behaviours and even when we know them, both require effort to cultivate sufficient doubt to move you off of feeling certain and onto the task of figuring things out.
This effort requiring quality means that most human beings will continue to have their thinking impacted by these biases because most people are unwilling to put the effort into thinking about the impossible and the invisible. For most things and most people, the cost of being wrong is not all that high and most often the effort required to do the work to counteract these biases is greater than the work required to maintain an incorrect point of view. It is easier to justify why you are right than it is to put in the work to correct an error.
The brain does not make errors. It is a machine that operates in a purely logical way. When it doesn’t have accurate information or when it doesn’t have sufficient information, the output it generates may not be correct. It can only do what it is programmed to do and it can only do this with what it has access to.
This means that we need to use our attention to make sure we bring in the most accurate information we can, that we take sufficient care to interpret the information accurately while correcting errors quickly, and that we put the effort into surfacing or activating as much of the relevant information as possible. Experientially this is going to feel like work but there is a big pay off. In the short term it will mean improved decision making, and in the long term it will result in enhanced levels of expertise and a boost in cognitive ease.
WYSIATI exists because the brain is not able to bring to mind or activate everything it knows about a topic instantly, nor is it able to activate everything all at once. With enough time it will probably cycle through everything, but each new activation causes something else to fade away. All of it will serve however as input so given enough time, if your brain has the information stored, it will generate output that is correct. When we do not take enough time, we do not supply it with sufficient information to generate the correct answer.
When someone is an expert in a particular area, they are rarely impacted by WYSIATI because the information that they have stored in their brain is very accurate and they have created a new automatic and unconscious process for activating all of the needed information and giving the brain the input it needs.
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.
If I was to say that I think about him every day, it would be a lie. There are days when I don’t think about him at all and there are days when I think about him a lot. I am sure there is a pattern to when I become aware that I am thinking about him but the only real predictor is that I am doing something new or particularly interesting – I am more likely to think about him when I have travelled somewhere for vacation or am at the cottage trying to fix something that he would take care of quickly and almost without thinking about it.
This makes sense given my dads curious nature and drive to figure-out how things work. He first moved out of his parents house and to a different country when he was 16 – London, England – and moved around a fair bit until we moved to Canada when he was in his mid thirties. Having children meant that he needed to put down roots in a place that would offer them the best opportunity to lead a safe, productive, and happy life. Ontario Canada was a great choice. Other than the occasionally brutal cold periods in the winter, this part of the world has a lot going for it.
Canadians are an eclectic bunch. We have a shared identity that is not well defined as most of the people who live here are either immigrants from another country, or are first or second generation of people who were. We all have an idea of what it means to be a Canadian and most of these ideas are slightly different. There is not a strong nationalist aspect to it which is a huge blessing. We’d all rally together to make sure there was a strongly worded letter sent to anyone who was trying to do our country harm, and most of us would apologize for using a tone that was more harsh than what we are known to take. This works well because we do not represent any existential threat to the United States, the only nation that we have on our border. They don’t really think much about us, which is fine for us because we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves either.
So my parents made the decision to move to Canada to give my brother and me the opportunity to live the American dream. I believe that my mom would find happiness anywhere she lives, that is her nature. She has a peaceful mind, reasonable wants and needs, and is very low in negative emotion. You do the best you can and then you move forward, or you do the best you can while moving forward. Choose and do the one that works the best. Spend as much of your time paying attention to the things that are important to you, take reasonable steps to avoid harming other people, and be kind to animals. Her world view is not one that would trigger a family of four to move to another country let alone another continent, but it’s a world view that would not say “no” to the request, particularly when the reasons for the move were to help two young people achieve more of their potential. The fact that my dad was able to achieve more of his was likely just an unmentioned or unanticipated bonus.
My dad absolutely LOVED Canada. While this was almost a guarantee, based on the human need for consistency, he would have loved it if he had been born here or if his family had moved here when he was young. It is a comfortable place to be, a place that evokes a peace of mind or sense of security and safety for anyone who sets foot inside its borders. Most people are from somewhere else which gives everyone the ability to kind of blend-in as opposed to stick-out. This fact makes Canada a very interesting place to live. It eliminates the sense of there being a right way and a wrong way to live; the right way being what the average person does and the wrong way being anything else. The fact that there is no such thing as an average Canadian, at least in terms of how they choose to live their life, makes practically any life choice that does no harm to other people the “right way to live.” This means that there is no such thing as “Canadian values” there are only “human values.”
After we moved to Canada, my dad didn’t spend much time travelling. There were a few trips back to Ireland to visit, a few family vacations to the US, and a business trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. He enjoyed these, particularly, Washington DC, but he never made any specific mention to them as being quests to find something that was missing. This was nothing like the way he talked about every trip including our emigration from Ireland. Canada was home, it provided all of the opportunities that he needed personally and wanted for his family. Here, he was with his people and it really worked for him. He had been a Canadian his entire life, so he never felt at peace in Northern Ireland, England, or in the Republic of Ireland. His values were mostly aligned with the people who lived in those places, but not entirely, and he knew this on some level. But in Canada there was a complete alignment given that so many of us are from somewhere else.
My dad’s curiosity and desire to make sense of the world did not stop once he realized that he had found where he was and wanted to be from. For the 30 years between our arrival in Canada and his death, he took advantage of every opportunity to learn and figure things out that he had. I believe that he had always gotten a lot out of learning and figuring things out, but began to actually NEED to keep learning and making sense of the world when my brother was born. He is remarkably bright and seems to absorb information effortlessly and almost without having to pay attention to things. He figured out how to walk before most of the children who were his age had mastered crawling, he skipped most of the baby talk going almost directly to speaking in sentences, and he entertained some of the people in the village we lived in by reading them the news paper when he was 3. This worked for my dad because there was someone for him to talk to and teach who was interested in just knowing things, but who learned at a lightening fast pace that forced my dad to keep hitting the books to make sure he kept a few steps ahead. It is kind of funny to think about now because most people know a lot about their jobs and a few other things, but my brother was way too young to bring onto any of the job sites my dad worked at as a carpenter. Most of the lessons took place at home, at the kitchen table or on the sofa in front of the TV. The Internet didn’t exist back then, so my dad would have to go to the library or take courses to learn things to teach. This worked for him because my dad enjoyed learning and got a lot out of teaching the information to others. He took electronics courses, moving over to computer classes when PCs began to find their way into more homes.
When my brother was around 10 or 11 my dad realized that he was fighting a losing battle. There was no denying it any more, the times of him being the smartest person in the room, at least when my brother was also in it, were gone. There was a sort of a reversal of roles when my brother began to teach things to him, but this was never going to last very long. My dad had a strong sense of responsibility to make sure his children had the opportunity to take advantage of whatever gifts or talents they had, his children did not share this sense of responsibility (or much sense for that matter). My brother tried to help him keep up, but it’s a disconcerting dynamic for a child to suddenly find themselves having to contend with. All at once and for no clear reason the teacher had become the student and the student the teacher and the incentives each had while playing these roles were not at all the same. While my dad was teaching out of a sense of responsibility to help his children and a sense to society to make sure someone with a good brain matured to become a contributing member of society and a tax payer, my brother was teaching my dad because my dad was interested in learning. My brother was a student because young people don’t know very much and need to learn in order to escape this state of ignorance. My dad was a student because he was curious about the world and knew that a lot more would be learned when you have to teach someone. However, at some point towards the end of high school, they both figured out that it wasn’t going to continue for much longer. My dad would remain curious and would lean on my brother to teach him things, but it was more of an independent learning approach with my brother in the academic advisor position.
My brother has a lot of intellectual horsepower, which is both amazing and slightly frightening when you notice it in action. If you are not prepared for it, and even when you are, you can be left feeling kind of thick. I’m two years younger than him, so he was always going to be at least couple of years ahead of me in terms of development and knowledge acquisition as we grew-up. It wasn’t until I went to university and began to learn stuff that didn’t interest him that I began to gain an appreciation that we were different, that I wasn’t just a less powerful version of him. My parents always knew this and while they tried to make sure that they didn’t privilege one of us more than the other, they were NOT willing to handicap him. My relationship with my dad was more similar to the father son relationships of my friends and what you might see on TV. My dad was a carpenter, and I took a greater interest in this area of his life than the abstract things my brother found rewarding to consider and spend time on.
I’d like to think that my brother and I were the perfect complement to my dad’s curiosity and sense of parental responsibility to teach your children how to be useful and contributing members of society. Being a carpenter in Ireland is very different than being one in Canada. Their different climates necessitate different building methods and the flip flop in humidity levels plays havoc on wood in a way that the constant moisture in Ireland doesn’t. The early years in Canada put my dad behind the 8 ball in terms of becoming a Canadian carpenter who was able to deliver the high quality results that had become second nature in Ireland. The gap is a large but not insurmountable one, and he had closed it within a few years. I have little doubt that had the gap been larger, things would have turned out a little differently. The truth is that there isn’t enough of a difference between being a carpenter in Ireland and one in Canada to keep it interesting for 30 years and my dad had already grown tired of it a few times BEFORE we moved to Canada. The teaching role that my brother’s brain obligated my dad to play afforded enough of a balance to the carpentry work that he was able to keep at it for a while. The need to learn the rules of being a Canadian carpenter extended this time frame. However, after a while there stopped being enough new stuff for my dad to keep doing it, which was great because it happened to coincide with my brothers need for more information and a deeper understanding of everything. Carpentry was something that my dad loved to leave behind and then learned to love getting back into.
This became the rhythm and cadence to my dads life for the last 25 years. He would move back and forth between dealing with things and dealing with ideas. It didn’t really matter to him which role he was playing, he was capable of both and since there was a lot about the world that he didn’t know, there were opportunities to learn from both sons. I believe that I am more curious about why the world is the way it is and how the world works while my brother is more curious about things that do not yet exist or are on the bleeding edge of what is known. When my dad would find his way back to carpentry, I would spend more time with him and probably spent about a year total working with him on various jobs. When he was sick of carpentry he would begin to pursue something that was in the realm of ideas or vapour and would spend more time learning from my brother.
For example, I have a very clear series of memories in my head of walking in on a conversation between them. The bulk of the conversation had already taken place and they were closing in on the home stretch. It was obvious that my brother had explained a new concept or idea to my dad and my dad was struggling to figure out what to do with it. The look on his face told me that he had understood the essence of it but was not having any luck with answering the “so what” or “what good will that be” questions that tend to accompany new ideas. I’d estimate that this was in 1993 because my brother and I just happened to be home from university at the same time.
“I can’t answer that exactly, insurance, research, education, and communication obviously. No one really knows and that is the cool thing about it, it’s real, it’s here, and it is going to be everywhere soon enough.”
My dad, looking slightly pensive, like a person who is driving a car in heavy fog, “it’s not like I don’t believe you, I’m just not sure I’ll ever understand it.”
Well he did come to understand it and found it to be one of the most useful inventions that he ever had the good fortune to be alive for. And this conversation with my brother came to mark the beginning of the final phase of my dads learning, one that lasted nearly a quarter century.
When my brother left I asked my dad what they were talking about and he did his best to teach me. He took the idea, the vapour, that my brother had shared and converted it into a thing that I might be able to understand better. In doing so, he also began to understand it.
“He called it the Internet. It’s a thing that you can connect your computer to and it will let your computer connect to other computers. But it’s not like a phone line that connects your computer to another computer, it’s more like your computer becomes the telephone company and everyone else’s computer becomes the telephone company, so everyone is able to connect with everyone else, all at once, and share information instantly.” I obviously had no idea what he was talking about because, at the time, the Internet was not much of a thing, let alone the thing that it is today. I do however have to give him a solid B+ for the description. The Internet is a thing that is very much like what he described.
If I had to list off some of the things that I am glad my dad got to live through, I would put the creation and spread of the Internet very close to the top of the list. He really took advantage of it in a way that added tremendous value and satisfaction to his time on the planet. It gave him access to mountains of information and knowledge that he always suspected was out there and knew would be better written to his brain. Whatever curiosity he had could be indulged at will, meaning the joy / reward he got from learning became available to him, endlessly, effortlessly, and constantly.
On this day, the eighth anniversary of his death, I am thinking about him a lot. I am grateful for having had him in my life for as long as I did and while I would like to be able to talk to him still, I don’t think I would change much about any of it. It would be nice to say “thank you” for believing in me, for letting me know that it is fine to not be satisfied and that it is right and noble to imagine a future that is better than today, and for modelling the making of great sacrifices to turn that vision into the reality we know as here and now. As time rolls on, many of the lessons he tried to pass along continue to work their way through my brain and find their way to the surface. As one of my first and most influential teachers, his words remain and continue to help shape my understanding of the world. In this way, he is still alive and continues to be an amazing father.