Optimism is a skill

The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all…

I have been called cynical and I can accept that. I consider myself to be skeptical given that I believe most people have the ability to do things and just choose not to. Cynicism is a little dark in that the world and everything in it is going to crap, which is not the view that I hold. Mine is closer to knowing that things could be better if people choose to make them better. As a collective, I don’t really believe in people. When talking about individuals though, I believe in them.

That seems like a violation of statistics given that the median or mean usually make the best guess when it comes to the predicting the performance of an individual in a specific group. Some people will be better, some people will be worse and some will fall right in the middle. There is no reason for me to believe that an individual person can when, within the group, the average person doesn’t. I think that reflects two interesting things about by experience of reality.

The first is about the direction I look and the second is about the impact personal choice has on reality. Stats are all about the what happened before. When making a prediction about the future based on stats, you are actually looking backwards in time to predict the future. This is great for generating a list of probabilities, which is valuable information, but it is always looking back since it is based on things that have actually happened. We can look forward as well, to consider things that have not yet happened. This is turning away from statistics towards the realm of imagination. We have agency and when we use it to choose what we pay attention to and what actions we take, we dramatically influence how reality unfolds.

The point here is that the future has not yet happened, so we can choose to do the things that will influence the outcome. Just because we have become very efficient at causing our life to be how it has up until now doesn’t mean that it MUST happen that way. But, all things being equal, it will probably be the same as before, more or less average with a slight improvement over time.

My belief that an individual can do better is a forward looking view. It basically says that things can be different and that everyone has the potential to make them different. We are powerless to change the past, the future can be anything. All that is needed is for us to choose to do the things that will contribute to a brand new future and to then put in the extra effort to make them happen. While statistically this isn’t something that the average person will do, anecdotally, people can and will choose to do the impossible from time to time.

So a future that is different from the past is possible, but unlikely.

The cynical label does not surprise me given where it comes from. People who do not know me have not yet experienced the optimism I am capable of. They hear my thoughts about the group and assume all they need to about me. People who know me well have identified that I am more than willing to be optimistic in the face of another challenge that was just like that last one. Those who did not rise to the opportunity and for which the optimism was misplaced cannot call me cynical or won’t call me skeptical. They know I’m a realist for being skeptical of their potential actions given their previous performance.

Optimism is a skill. People learn to be optimistic or pessimistic and the lessons are lifted from their experiences. Importantly, these experiences do not need to have ever happened. A pessimistic person can have a negative thought about something that has not and may not happen and this can reinforce their world view. This is no different from other things, thoughts carry almost the same weight as real life experiences and are subjected to the same cognitive biases, just in the opposite direction. For example, when someone experiences something that goes against their world view, they will tend to dismiss it by coming up with reasons why the experience does not represent reality. When this same person has a thought, it will be coming from their brain and is subject to all of their values and beliefs. It will be filtered and will usually reflect their understanding of the world meaning that a pessimistic person will have pessimistic thoughts – about their actual lived experience AND about things that have not yet happened – which further contribute to their pessimistic world view.

Cultivating optimism is fairly straight forward and you grow it in same way your create more of anything, focused attention and repeated practice over time. It has the unique property of being on one side of a continuum, which makes different from learning how to play guitar. Most skills are binary and independent meaning they do not really have an opposite, you either have skill or you don’t – the opposite of being able to play guitar is not being able to play a guitar, so you either either play it or not (or play with a level of prophecy or not play with that level). The opposite of playing guitar is NOT playing drums. This is an important distinction because acquiring a skill that is binary is not a zero sum endeavour. Learning how to drum does not eliminate your ability to play guitar so after you learn something about drumming, whatever guitar skill you have will remain more or less intact.

Coexistent / dependent skills that exist on a scale or continuum do not have this property. They are non-binary, and they exist on different type of scale that has absolute skill on both ends and no skill in the middle. But at either end are the skill and its opposite or its counter skill.

Optimism coexists on a scale with pessimism on the other end. In the middle is no skill and this is where everyone starts off. To learn how to be optimistic or pessimistic one approaches it the same way they would anything, they pay deep attention when trying to be optimistic or pessimistic and they practice frequently and consistently, overtime. So far this is exactly the same. The divergence occurs when one engages in the opposite behaviour – the optimist acts pessimistically or the pessimist acts optimistically. These are opposite behaviours and the practice of one impedes the formation of the other. The more one practices, the worse they get at the opposite. When compared to binary skills were skills decay is the result of not practising, coexistent / dependent scaled skills decay when not practised and when its opposite skill IS practised.

This is the big challenge that is presented to people who wish to become more positive. Let’s assume that they want to become more positive because they have noticed that there is a cost associated with their level of negativity. This is an easy assumption given that there IS a cost to being negative, one that isn’t paid by neutral people. Since they are negative, they have obviously spent a lot of time practising this negativity. They are highly skilled in finding and pointing out what is wrong with any given situation. Most likely they have automated this process so that what immediately comes to mind when anything happens is the worst possible interpretation or prediction. This changes their psychological state which creates an internal physiological state that is unhappy and stressful. These further impact the mental state and the thoughts that arise and even the parts of the brain that are functioning or active, causing the negativity to re-up, increase or cycle. It’s a toxic mental disaster and tough to break free from.

For the sake of illustration, lets say that on the Negativity – Positivity scale, that runs from -10 to + 10 they are a -8. That’s a very dark place to be and this value reflects a skill level that is remarkable. A lot of work has gone into becoming this proficient at being negative. The up side is that they do have the capability to take action and to work hard at cultivating a skill, the down side is that this is evidenced by the existence of a skill at a level that does not lend itself to improving anything. Regardless, if we want to move a -8 to a -6 we need to add 2 to it or we need to let 2 negativity skill units decay. In this case, if a -8 negativity person want to become a neutral or a positive person they have these two options.

What does this look like from a practical point of view? Well, to an outsider the immediate elimination of toxic negativity as the vocalized negative thoughts will land as a shift towards neutral. But this does not necessarily indicate a shift away from internal negativity and the person may still be automatically uncovering and giving internal voice to negative thoughts. They probably are doing this because they are very good at it, when they do it they are maintaining their skill level. Eliminate the toxic component will improve their life but it will do nothing to move them towards neutrality.

What matters here is the internal voice or thoughts. negative thoughts create negative emotions that lead to negative actions. The opposite is equally true, positive thoughts create positive emotions which lead to positive actions. To shift someone from a -8 to 0 the negative thoughts need to be eliminated to allow for the skill to decay thought lack of practice or positive thoughts need to occur to add skill units to the opposite skill (a process more akin to mathematical averaging). This is much faster given that skill decay is actually organic decay or cell death that prunes back unused connections during cell turn over. This takes a while and given that it is a passive process, things can occur that prevent it from happening – it’s easy to imagine a negative spontaneous reaction to something that serves as sufficient stimulation to justify the maintenance of a neural network.

Clearly then, if you want to gain control over the movement towards a neutral level of negativity you need to take action and create positive thoughts and when when negative thoughts show-up transform them into positive thoughts. This is very simple to do and while it may seem fake or corny to a negative person, it is neither of these things.

Creating positive thoughts is just a matter of taking time to look around and identify the good things that you see. Gratitude journals accomplish this task for all who take the time to complete them. The key element is to cultivate a genuine sense or feeling of gratitude about the things you are grateful for and to sit with this feeling for a period of time. You need to trigger the emotions that are associated with gratitude and allow their associated chemicals and neurotransmitters to flow throughout your body.

Some personal examples here might be helpful. Being grateful for family, friends and other loved ones, for health, for your home, your job, your possessions, your capabilities, values and beliefs, you can be grateful for modern healthcare, the Internet, technology, science, math, the education system, your ability to read, to think, to rationalize, that you are alive, for your ancestors, for the planet, for the seasons, of the fact that all the bad stuff will eventually fade away, for clothing, for the invention of air conditioning, central heating, the discovery of electricity, for the space program, for gravity, the wind, etc…. There is no limit and there are many things to be grateful for.

Initially it might take a while to trigger the emotion and to then to sit with it but with practice firing the emotion will get easier and you will get to linger in it for as long as you want; you’ll choose to stay with it because gratitude feels good. In the early days of practising gratitude you will need to sit in the emotion for 30 to 60 seconds and you will pick 2 or 3 things day to be grateful for. It is a five minute exercise at most that is done everyday. Within a day it will begin to shift your negativity level.

Given that we are working on creating a skill, the relationship between practice and fluency can be used to our advantage. It makes sense to practice being grateful, being positive, and seeing the up-side to daily occurrences. Throughout the day, take a few moments to think about something you are grateful for and to really bath in the emotions these thoughts trigger. When something good happens, think about it, trigger the positive emotional response and soak in these good feelings. Take a few moments during the day when you are feeling absolutely nothing at all to try and see the positive aspects of the things that have happened. Here we are dealing with the things that didn’t trigger a negative thought and that you lived through without paying any attention to.

Changing negative thoughts in to positive thoughts is a two step process. The first step is identifying when a negative thought arise. The second step is changing it into a positive thought. For best results, each one needs to be identified and transformed. For a very negative person, this can be time consuming and mentally draining. Do this keeping three things in mind. The first is that it gets a lot easier with practice. You are in essence creating a new process and skill of mindfulness which takes time and practice but is well within everyone’s capabilities. The second thing is that this gets a lot easier when you done in conjunction with the gratitude journaling because the journaling practice shifts thoughts towards the positive size of the scale. The third thing to keep in mind is that you are remarkably negative. This can be a little overwhelming when you begin to pay attention to your thoughts and notice the sheer number of negative ones. The number doesn’t matter, negativity is a skill and a habit it isn’t who you are. You’ve made the decision to be a positive person so the transformation has already begun. Missing some isn’t a big deal simply do your best to identify and convert as many as you can.

What do you change these negative thoughts into? That is up to you. When someone at work does something that demonstrates their incompetence, be grateful that you have the abilities. When their error increases your work volume, be grateful that you have a job. When you have to clean-up after someone else, be happy that you can and that you don’t leave a mess for other to deal with. When someone cuts you off in traffic be grateful you are not in the same hurry they are or that you don’t have spend any of your life with them. You have creative licence here to change the negative thought into whatever you like. There are no rights or wrongs, you are basically trying to interrupt the conditioned pattern of negative thought, negative feeling, negative action. Over time identifying that a negative thought has popped up will be enough to shut it down but until then every one that you notice pop up gets converted into something positive.

Final thoughts:

I am grateful for the abundance of low cost high quality food. While I don’t eat most of it the fact that it is there makes me feel good, but only when I think about it. I’ve normalized this part of life and don’t as a general rule think about it unless I put deliberately effort into doing so. Most of the good things in life are like this; we are so accustomed to them being there that we just filter them out and ignore them. This is even more true for a person who is on the negative side of the scale, they have definitely habituated everything to the point of eradicating the potential positive feelings associated with modern life. The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all and we know how to develop those.

No Evolutionary Reason To Become Healthy – Particularly As We Get Older

Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.

As a personal trainer I found that there were two groups of people who were extremely easy to train and who were almost certain to get good results. The first group was competitive athletes. These individuals were unstoppable, self-motivated and relentless. They did what they were asked to do, as hard as they could, and paid very close attention to their actions. They ALWAYS improved and most of them probably achieved their physical potential in terms of movement proficiency, explosive speed and strength. If you want to feel capable, train these people. They will improve and you will feel like you can do no wrong.

The next group of people who were great to train were women, usually parents of 2 or more children. These individuals acted like athletes – the followed instructions perfectly, paid attention when they worked, and were highly motivated to get the best possible results out of the limited time they had to spend training. They also improved, although not necessarily as quickly as their potential would allow because balancing being a mother with training is tough and their workouts were always going to be secondary to their family responsibilities.

Everyone else was a crap shoot. As a general rule, younger people do better than older people. Single men up until age 40 do better than their their female cohorts. Single women who do not like working out, married men in general, and older people all fair equally poorly.

I’m not certain why this is, but I have a few guesses. First off, working out to improve any goal is tough. If someone likes working out, they’ll deal with this toughness and do what is asked of them. But learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. If that practice hasn’t been put in when the person is younger, it may already be too late as the toughness can simply be too much to overcome. They may go to the gym or work out, but they don’t do everything they need to make gains – they don’t work hard enough, they don’t eat appropriate amounts of food, and they don’t replace bad habits with good ones.

Next, there is a lot biological programming that is geared towards keeping things as they are. Body fat is store energy, traditionally used during a famine. This is an evolutionary proven method formed during a time when food scarcity was a reality that it isn’t today. Becoming lean makes no survival sense according to our genetic code; fine so long as there is a constant and stable supply of food and when it is interrupted, a life threatening problem. Eating high calorie foods is also intrinsically rewarding. Most human being release dopamine in response to fat and sugar combinations specifically and fat or sugar in general, so we are motivated to seek out and consume foods containing these macro-nutrients. Green leafy vegetables offer very little in terms of intrinsic reward. While it is true that we can teach ourselves to find these food rewarding, that is a skill and must be practice in order to cultivate it. Generally speaking this won’t happen, and if it does, it is more likely to occur in the younger population.

The final reason why I would say it’s very tough for people who are older than 30-35 years of age to get into better shape is that there is no evolutionary reason to do it. Becoming a parent gets tougher as we age and while those who are older may be in a better financial position to be raise children and have a better temperament as parents, the statistics on positive reproductive outcomes reduce as both sexes age. These negative outcomes may actually provide a disincentive in terms of improving body composition.

Consider the fact that, generally speaking, women allow men to determine who the best mates are – given that men work it out themselves who is at the top of any dominance hierarchy, the best potential mates for women have in actuality been select by other men. At the top of these dominance hierarchies tend to be strong men with good posture, two characteristics that are linked to higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone. Without an exogenous supply of these hormones, men who are in the late teens to late 20s will have the highest levels. The statistics reveal that reproductive success and outcome is greatest for men in this age range.

Men select reproductive partners because of factors embodied by the women themselves. These tend to be waist to hip ratios, body fat levels and posture. Social norms not withstanding, this excludes younger women, and women over the age of 30. An examination of the hormonal averages for women indicate a bell curve distribution with a peak for women in their early 20. Reproductive success and outcomes are also bell curve shaped and map almost identically onto the hormonal averages.

For women and men, the story is the same. When the hormone levels are lowest, reproductive success is lowest. When hormonal levels are highest, reproductive success levels are highest. When hormonal levels are highest, desirability to the opposite sex is also highest. Women and men tend to desire reproductive partners who represent the greatest likelihood of reproductive success. This means high testosterone and GH for men, and higher estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and GH for women. It is not surprising that when people who belong within these groups workout, they change body composition very quickly. The opposite fact is also not surprising, when those who fall outside of these groups workout, the changes in body composition take a lot longer, and may not happen at all in-spite of the fact that fitness levels improve as do a number of other health markers.

There is no evolutionary reason for people to get into better shape, particularly when they have moved past the peak of their hormonal profile. Reproductive outcomes are worse – pregnancy success rates are lower, birth defects and developmental challenges are higher. Given these facts, a narrative justification can be given to the difficulties in changing body composition as people age – for the betterment / fitness of the species, the things that make an individual attractive to the opposite sex evaporate and are harder to achieve when the risks of pregnancy begin to increase.

So what?

Learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to find it more pleasurable or easier to like than the bulk of the population, activity is still required to trigger the expression of this increased potential.

It is easier for younger people to teach themselves to enjoy exercise than it is for other people for a few critical reasons. First off, they haven’t spent nearly as long learning what other non-movement activities can be rewarding therefore they are more inclined to put the time and effort into lifting something heavy in an earnest attempt to trigger a dopamine release. Second, they have a more favourable hormone profile that improves the rate of result acquisition; this reinforces the actions they are taking and, while “liking” exercise is not the same thing as being rewarded, it’s a distinction without much of a practical difference. Finally, younger people usually have way more opportunity to exercises, which will make them better at it. Proficiency, particularly when compared to others, does tend to result in a greater sense of satisfaction.

Gene expression and any learning will have much larger impact the earlier in life they occur. A child who learns to associated movement with the sensation of feeling good or who conditions their brain to release reward chemicals in response to movement will, on average, be more active throughout the entirety of their life and will enjoy the benefits associated with an active lifestyle. Similarly, a child who takes advantage of the time and the opportunity to discover many of the different foods that trigger the release of reward chemicals will, on average, consume more of these specific foods over the course of their life. They will, as a consequence, experience sub optimal health outcomes and may increase their risk of disease when compared to those who do not eat a lot of these foods or those who consume them in moderation while engaging in a more active lifestyle. We can therefore conclude that gene expression and learning have compounding effects over time, good or bad.

Unless you like working out because you are genetically predisposed to or you find it to be rewarding because you put the effort into teaching your brain to release reward chemicals when you do, you are NEVER going to feel like getting into great shape, and even less so as you get older. Our genes exist as they do because they gave our ancestors a survival and reproductive advantage. They were shaped by mutations and in response to the various environments over millions of years, but at no point during this time was there ever a long lasting abundance of food. Those species that survived were able to handle intermittent periods of food scarcity because they would over eat when they could in order to store energy as body fat, move as little as necessary, and down regulate their metabolic rate when calorie consumption would drop. Genetically speaking then, we are programmed to be fat, lazy, and to seek out and gorge on high calorie low nutrient foods. These three tendencies are never a part of any weight loss, health or body composition improvement plan.

Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.

Practice What You Perform Because Performing Is Practice PLUS Competition

“You aren’t going to step up when it’s game time, you’re just going to do what you’ve done in training.”

Put another way, if you want something you have never had, you have to do something you have never done.

Either one works and both are true.

This is why practice is so important. Doing something new is never easy but it is possible when the pressure is low. It takes a lot of mental energy to create the impossible in working memory and then to take the action to make it real. When the pressure is high, so much energy is directed towards dealing with that pressure that there are just not enough resources available to do the required mental work to perform an unrehearsed movement in a controlled way so as to predictably lead to a desired outcome.

The human brain is an amazing thing. It has the ability to create temporary neural networks to allow coordinated brain activity that can cause brand new and novel things to happen. If not for this capability, human progress would be very slow and individual development would seem like a crawl.

If we assume that most of what we do that allows our species to exist is genetically programmed, and that’s a fair assumption given how almost every member of our species operates the same way – digestion, walking, the experience of hunger, communication, etc…. – this doesn’t account for all of the new skills technological progress has made possible and created a need for. Typing as a skill didn’t exist for most of human history because and yet every human being can learn how to type. Scratching a record on a turntable is a skill that anyone can learn, yet it’s about 60 years old. Most of the games we play on smart phone didn’t exist 5 years ago, but we can learn them and become very proficient at them.

It does not seem to matter what the task is, human beings can learn it and some will get very good at it. Statistically speaking, there will be a normal distribution curve for everything that can be done with most people being average and a few people being remarkably good and remarkably bad at it.

I find this thought reassuring. Even if some new comes out tomorrow and I find myself to be an outlier in the very low capability realm, there will be something new in a couple of days that I can become good at. And a few days after that something will be invented that I will be exactly average at. The world remains interesting and there is always going to be a place in it for me.

The key to remaining relevant is being open to acquiring these new skills and to be willing to do what is required to learn them. The formula is simple. Practice, consistently, over time, while paying as much attention to what you are doing as you possibly can. It needs to be practice and not performance because performance is not just practice in front of people. Performance is a completely different skill. If you are not well versed in performing, practising in front of other people will just mean you are doing two things poorly. This is not the most effective way to get good at something.

They Are Not Stupid, They Are YOU

There is a single objective reality on which each one of us construct our own individual experience of being alive. We are all given access to the same collection of molecules and their movements and are tasked with making sense out of them in such a way as to allow us remain alive using as little energy as possible.

Let me tell you two stories before I get to the point of this post.

There is a large group of people in the United States, although not a majority of the population, that cannot understand why Donald Trump’s approval rating is going up during the last full week of March 2020. They believe that he has screwed-up the response to covid-19 and are becoming increasingly alarmed at the increase in people who have tested positive for the virus along with the jump in deaths. To them, HE is the key reason why things have gone so badly off the rails. The administration was very slow to respond to the virus in a tangible way and in the main ways the scientists and epidemiologist have and had been suggesting. The key exception to this is the travel restrictions that were implements on January 31, 2020; although it is not clear that there is much agreement on what exactly this achieved and if it was in fact a travel ban.

At the same time, there is a large group of people in the United States, although not a majority of the population, that cannot understand why his approval rating is not much higher and has only recently begun to climb at a pace faster than snails. They believe that he has responded decisively, quickly, and powerfully, as a leader should in times of crisis, and that he is the one who will carry the entire country though this and back to the land of milk and honey. And they KNOW that if other leaders would start listening to him, the entire planet would be victorious over the virus and quickly be returned to the time of plenty. Until people get out of his way, things are going to continue to degrade meaning that what should only be a minor hiccup will become a major problem. One that HE is going to have fix when he gets reelected in November.

Now on to the post.

Like it or not, there is only one story here (or above). There is a single objective reality on which each one of us construct our own individual experience of being alive. We are all given access to the same collection of molecules and their movements and are tasked with making sense out of them in such a way as to allow us remain alive using as little energy as possible.

As such, there is no way that any one gets it right, and a very low probability that any two individuals share exactly the same version of things. Identical twins, for example, are as close to being the same as anything can be and their versions of the world are not exactly the same. The critical component therefore is how an individual interacts with these molecules and then in how these interactions impact the matter from which the person is constituted. With this in mind, it is clear that different people can have different experiences, or near identical ones, that will cause very similar interactions with their molecules. This will result in outcomes that are very close to the same.

Phrased another way, experience shapes outcomes MORE than biology shapes outcome. Both play a role, but given that biology doesn’t change much over time, experience does most of the heavy lifting.

This does not really map neatly on to any of the prevailing narratives being shaped by people in either of the two groups mentioned above.

Both sides say the same thing about the other side, the same things that people have been saying about the other side for as long as there have been two people who do not agree about something. What is most interesting is the most of the things they say are based on biology and NOT experience.

For example, some on the more liberal side of things will say “anyone who votes for Trump is an idiot” while some on the conservative side will say “anyone who doesn’t support Trump is an idiot.” Notice that neither side suggests anything like “people who vote for (or against) Trump have been shaped by their upbringing in such a way that they privilege certain things over others.” In fact, when you look back over the last 8 years or so for patterns in the exchanges between members from each group or from the broadcasts by members of each group, there is a lack of any agreement to respectfully disagree or to even see the other side as being a member of the same species. THEY are crazy, stupid, sheep, etc… and that is as far as it goes.

Note that I am not suggesting that no one is capable for performing this type of analysis or that there are not people who do it. I am saying that there is a tendency for people who have strong set-in-stone opinions to be much more vocal about them than those whose opinions are more loosely held and which are informed by evidence.

There is a level of unworkability in all of this, given how interconnected and mutually dependent everything is on everything else, and it is based off of the false assumption that people are different. Yes, on one very real level each person is different from every other person; the molecules from which “I” am composed are not the same molecules from which “you” are composed. You are not me and I am not you, and neither of us is anyone else. BUT we are more than just our matter. We are our matter PLUS the impact that our actions have on the physical world AND the impact that the physical world has our matter. So while it will always be true that we are not the same thing, when we view the world in terms of matter and consequences, we are no longer able to say that we are completely different. This may seem like a silly distinction but the material consequences of ones actions can become a part of another persons experience of being alive, or of that experience by many people, just as the actions of other people can materially impact us.

If we take identical twins as an example, because they are as close to being identical as human beings can be, we can easily see the divergent outcomes that are generated by having different interactions with the physical world.

Look at the following image of identical twins:

Image from https://www.historyofvaccines.org/

Both of them were exposed to the same pathogen – the smallpox virus – and the outcomes were very different. The twin on the right had been exposed to the smallpox vaccine while the brother on the left was not. The results are very different.

My point is that being genetically identical is not sufficient enough to ensure the same outcome. What is also needed is to have the same experiences, at a very similar time, in the same order, consistently for years. With reference to the image above, it is easy to imagine the similarity between two people who both received the smallpox vaccine and the difference in appearance between the two vaccinated people and the unvaccinated one.

When you are susceptible to and get exposed to smallpox, there will be a particular outcome. However, when you have had the experience of being exposed to a similar but much less severe virus before getting exposed to the smallpox virus, the outcome is completely different.

In the event it seems like I am comparing liberalism or conservationism to a virus be aware that I am doing EXACTLY that. Both of those political approaches, along with every other approach, is a collection of ideas that come together to form a view. There are merits to all of them just as their are shortcoming. When you take the time to consider each of them it can become very difficult to make a determination about which one is best, which one is the worst, and if any of them were designed to allow evil to flourish over good. The truth is that the world is much more complicated than what a simple binary “good” “evil” dichotomy is able to capture.

Context is critical, and without context we lose our ability to know what is going on and why things are occurring. Cell death, for example, is viewed as a bad thing – you really do not want your healthy cells to get killed or to die – and we take extra care to avoid things that will kill tissue. However, chemo therapy works because it KILLS cells; ideally it kills a small number of healthy cell but when battling cancer the death of healthy tissue can be viewed as collateral damage. IF the tumor is destroyed and the death of the person is prevented, it is viewed as a win regardless of the destruction to the surrounding tissue.

This is the point. The context in which one is exposed to an idea will contribute considerably to the impact that the idea will have on them. It is therefore very easy to imagine how the same idea can cause a very different outcome.

It would be a mistake to believe that any outcome is certain, even if we were to assume that we were able to control the nature, ordering and timing of every experience. Equally erroneous would be the belief that ALL liberally minded people believe exactly the same things just as it would be wrong to believe the same of conservative leaning people. In fact, MOST of what people believe is the same and while we tend to get fixated on the differences, most of the principles of political theory are shared between all of the different approaches. There are leaders, citizens, wealth, revenue, commerce, industry, and labour, as examples.

The most valuable thing we can take out of all of this is that we really do not know why people are the way they are other than being certain that biology and experience play a role to some extent. Given this, it is impossible to know that you would not hold the same views as someone on the other side of an issue had you not been exposed to different things than you were while you were growing up. The evidence for this is the fact that my great grand parents never learned how to used a smart phone while I did. Their lack of ability in this realm was not a consequence of their intelligence level, it was the outcome of their lack of experience with smart phones – given that the technology did not exist during their life time. We have every reason to believe that they would have learned how to use them had they been invented before or during their life time.

So what?

Consider leading with compassion and kindness before transitioning to the examination of experience. Being a human being is not easy. Life can serve-up one insult after another for you and for everyone. Just because we live through the ones life inflicts upon us does not mean that we will ever have any appreciate of the ones dealt to others. Take a breath and respond to others with less venom and force than seems appropriate.

Consider the possibility that the only thing that prevented you from holding the same views as those you disagree with is the luck of your birth. Had you been born into their body and them into yours, there is no reason to believe that you would believe the same things that you currently do.

Accept that every person has nearly exactly the same biology and the same brain as everyone else. There are very few actual outliers on the planet. Difference in talent and intellectual horsepower can make a big difference but when compared to any other species, human beings have effectively the same talent and brain power.

Finally, when considering making a value judgment about someone who does not hold the same opinion as you, stop yourself from making it. THEY are YOU and YOU are them; at least you would be if you had had the same experiences. We’re in this together and the longer we spend in a state of alignment with others, the great the contribution we will make to the quality of life for ourselves and for those who come after us.

Virtually No Limit To What The Human Brain Can Learn To Process

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.

So what?

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.

More information on the gold pin incident of STS-93.