This category covers things that relate to the predictable mental errors that human beings make that can impact the accuracy of their thinking and cause them to make poor decisions. Cognitive biases exist because the world is devastatingly complicated and in an attempt to cope with this complexity, the brain creates rules of thumb or heuristics that speed things up but often lead to specific errors that are shared among many people.
Someone once told me that I was the most cynical person they had ever met. I thanked them for the feedback, mentioned that they needed to get out more, and agreed with them that I was skeptical. They either didn’t notice this correction-agreement pairing or didn’t react to it; although I presume it was the former.
Cynicism and skepticism are not the same thing. While both are is “isms”, the locus of control for each is different. With cynicism, the individual is in control of the interpretation. No matter what other people do, the individual will remain in a negatively valianced state that has them default to the worst possible interpretation of things, one that is highly resistant to contradictory evidence. With skepticism, the individual tends towards an initial negative interpretation that is not sticky; it is a wait and see approach that moves in response to evidence pointing one way or the other. Skeptics have a locus of control that is external meaning other people get to determine whether the doubt continues based on their actions.
Back to me being called cynical for displaying skepticism. It was very clear right from the start what the person was trying to communicate and it had nothing to do with me being cynical or not, it had to do with them not liking the prediction I had made about the future based on my experience. It was one of my old bosses, who was speaking about the future actions of one of my peers. They were telling me that my peer was going to take care of something and as soon as they had, I would be able to move forward with a project that my boss was pressuring me to complete. When they mentioned that my peer would have things wrapped-up by the end of that business day, meaning I could get started that night working from home to make sure no deadlines were missed, I replied with “I’ll try to get started this evening, but I’m not going to do any work on it if what they deliver is not accurate.” This was met with a reply of “oh my God, you are so cynical.”
Why was my comment an indication of skepticism vs. cynicism?
Evidence, and very specific evidence. My peer had a track record of not delivering the work that was needed in order for me to pick-up the baton, do my part, and then hand off the complete project to the sales team.
A peer not being up to speed on the requirements or them lacking the ability to perform their tasks is not something that I necessarily have a problem with. Life is tough, most jobs are composed of a multitude of tasks that are novel and only meaningful in a very tight context. It is going to take people a few tries to get it right, and a bunch more to get good enough at it so as to be a contributing member of a team. So long as the person approaches things without any arrogance, I am fine with their below average performance and bug-filled work because I know they are open to feedback and will make the effort to alter their specific actions to improve the quality of their results as they move forward. There will be incremental improvement as they take in more information and adjust their approach in response.
The peer in question, however, was arrogant. They had a track record of handing off error filled work and reacting to my feedback with “interesting, I’ll try that next time” or, “well, if you were to think about for a second, you’d realize my approach is an improvement.” Both of which were followed by them doing nothing more at that moment and doing nothing different in the future. I was left to correct their mistakes and after a couple of these interactions, I knew full well that my job had expanded to include the new task of fixing their inaccurate work.
When they started, I was optimistic that they were the correct hire and that they had the right values in terms of doing the best work possible. That was not based on anything that had happened yet, just the hope that those in a position of making the hiring decision had the ability to identify the correct values and soft skills that would ultimately result in a competent coworker. Whether or not being able to generate hope is a bug or a feature of the human brain is an interesting side question, but I have found that it is a requirement when working with other people. You cannot approach things with certainty one way or the other because the human brain has tremendous capacity to learn new things, just as it has the capacity to decide that it knows all that is needed and then remain impervious to new information.
More often than not, people rise to the occasion and invest the effort to learn and improve. It takes effort, willingness, and the ability to tolerate being wrong for long enough choose to do something about it. While not everyone will do this, I have had ample opportunity to notice that many people will lean into the uncertainty (or the certainty that they are wrong) and advance their understanding of the situation. And it is only because of these experiences that I have been able to avoid cynicism. I have seen enough people take action to try and improve that I accept that the locus of control for other peoples ignorance resides outside of me. I KNOW that they CAN do it, I just do not know if they will. Most of my other peers did, the one in question did not.
With cynicism, the locus of control for taking the actions to address ones ignorance becomes secondary to the lack of hope or belief that anyone will take the actions that are needed; or the certainty that they will NOT take these actions. It is as though the cynical person adds something to the effect of “and yet they won’t” to the end of any sentence or statement that makes reference to someones ability to take the actions to move forward or advance their understanding. For example, “They have the ability the fix the problem, and yet they won’t.”
Doubling down in this, cynical people also employ a more robust version of the fundamental attribution error (FAE). When an outcome is bad, they attribute it to a characterlogical short-comings or flaw, which is a near text book definition of the FAE. What they add to it is their response to a positive outcome, which is to attribute situational or circumstantial causes to it vs. the unconscious assumption that the other person got it right because of talent, skill, or ability. When the outcome is bad, the other person is to blame, when the outcome is good, the other person was lucky. So no matter what happens, the other person is always going to be painted in the worst possible light.
NOTE: I have not suggested a second alternative, that the cynic has an internal locus of control for taking the actions to correct another persons ignorance, because that point of view is only embodied in people who believe that things can be different, which a cynic does not believe.
There is nothing at all wrong with being skeptical so long as you change your view when you encounter evidence that justifies changing your point of view. Skepticism is basically taking a “wait and see” approach, which is actually a very logical way to view things. People can, but will they?
I invite everyone to engage life with this or a more optimistic approach as it will help you achieve a lot more than taking the cynical view that “they can but won’t” or that “they can’t.” The reasons are twofold. The first is that it will allow you to change your mind and move forward based on reality vs. the application of a preconceived generalization that does not change. The second is that it communicates a very different message to other people. Cynics tend to broadcast their doubt in a way that influences the actions of other people leading to the very outcomes the cynic was predicting. Being skeptical does not broadcast doubt because there isn’t any. It tells the other person that they can, that you believe they can, but that actions need to be taken by them.
There are worse things for humanity than global warming…. Pollution is a bigger problem. Antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem. Bad ideas about differences between groups of people is a bigger problem. A lack of diversity in terms of crops and livestock farming is a bigger problem. Obesity is a bigger problem. The fact that very few people know how to make any of the things that we use is a bigger problem. Our collective ignorance about how exactly we got here is a bigger problem.
Things take time. Other than the big bang, which for some inexplicable reason created an expanding universe out of a near infinite mass of matter contained in a tiny area of space. That was very very quick. Everything else takes time.
We as a species are beginning to stumble from one disaster to another at a quickening pace. For billions of years, not much happened. Then things started to pick-up a bit of speed. It wasn’t much speed, but it was a lot faster than the pace in the previous billion or so years. This continued along for hundreds of millions of years with only slightly more than nothing happening. There was another increase in the speed of change, still slow by big bang standards, but it was faster. This incremental pace of increases continued along for hundreds of millions and probably billions of years.
Not everything went at this snail’s pace. There were moments of dramatic
action followed by slightly longer periods of time when the planet would
experiences the physical consequences to that moment before things slowed right
down again. These moments are more or less completely made-up of the times when
large objects that had been travelling through space crashed into the earth.
Like that time when a massive asteroid / early planet joined the earth with
such force that the resulting debris eventually all coalesced to form the moon.
Or that other time when an asteroid slammed into the water just off the coast
of what is now Mexico and the ensuing chaos killed 98% of the land dwelling
creatures – basically all of the ones that were not able to take shelter a few
inches below the surface. The consequences from this one took a lot less time
to materialize than the moon maker; estimates range from less than 6 hours to a
couple of years.
Then effectively nothing for an unimaginably long time.
Except this time was a little different. The culling of most surface life
created a space for a different type of animal (or classification) to get an
opportunity to live without too many predators. This classification was the
warm blood, live birth giving creates that are collectively known as mammals.
Some of the most famous animals that are not dinosaurs fall into this category
– panda bears, the cute as anything kola bears, sloths, wild dogs, wild cats,
and human beings. It took a while for each one of these species to come to be
but what is important is that it happened. The land was safe enough for early
mammals to live, breed, and naturally select or mutate a high level of
diversity into this class of beings. Sometime between 50 thousand and half a
millions years ago homo-sapiens came into existence. This was the beginning of
something entirely new, a species of life that would eventually develop the
capability to manufacture natural disasters and other slow moving events that
that nature used to have a monopoly on causing.
I’m not going to suggest that human beings are great, because we are kind of flawed in very fundamental ways, but we appear to be the first species to ever exist on the planet that is able to engage in complex interactions with other members of the species, and of considering abstract ideas and stuff that doesn’t exist. There is reason to believe that many other species are capable of at least rudimentary abstraction, but none of them have the capacity to communicate these ideas to others nor do they have the ability to look at what is going on at one moment and figure out what will happen in the next, at least not to any substantial degree. Some can learn through observation and understand concepts like fairness and reciprocity, many more are capable of the abstraction that is object permanence, and all of them are incapable of communicating these things to other members of the species – all learning was the result of direct observation or direct experience.
Welcome to the beginning of the end, thank you for coming!
In fairness to early man, they were practically useless. Sure they had an
advanced brain that ran much of the same programming of the mammal species that
came before it and it functioned in effectively the same way (neurons that
alter their electrical charge slightly to be “on” vs “off” and collections of
them interacting to form neural networks to respond to and make things happen),
but out of the box, there wasn’t much more to this version than the one that
came before it, but there was potential. The newer version had a huge capacity
for storage and the capability to process more information faster, and in a way
that was new. This brain was also coded to grow a larger prefrontal cortex than
any that came before, although it was programmed to do most of this growth
beginning around the time puberty.
This late growth stage is an argument against intelligent design. No one
with a fully developed and functioning prefrontal cortex could miss the
inherent problems with having one part of the brain lag 15 years behind the
rest of it. This will not go as well as having a brain that grows at the same
It’s also an occurrence that supports the theory of evolution that a new
species will arise from what came before. Whatever mutation triggered the brain
to grow an exceptionally large prefrontal cortex also coded for it to grow
later in life. Take what is already there, let it run its course, and when it’s
done, start growing the new stuff.
This of course changes nothing about the eventual outcome of having human
beings evolve into existence. These consequence will take time but the moment
the genetic code mutated to program for a human brain, the count down was
The problem has to do with the human ability to learn quickly and without
having to observe or directly experience something. Consider wild dogs for
comparison and contrast. When they are born, their genetic code contains
instructions that will ensure that the reward centers of their brains will
release reward chemicals in response to particular things. If these things
never happen, the animal will never become conditioned to take particular action.
Their motivation will be fueled only by punishment and thus be exclusively
avoidant. However, if the animal happens to experience one of the things for
which the reward chemicals will get released, their future will immediately
transform to include repeating the experience. Through this mechanism, wild
pack dogs can learn a number of things and act in very specific ways that can
very easily be mistakenly to be group behaviours that were communicated. Wolf
packs can track down prey and perform some highly coordinated attacks including
flanking maneuvers by pack members that are invisible to the rest of the pack.
But all of it is simply the result of gene expression and behaviour shaping
based on reinforcement. It is fantastic, but all of it was determined by the
millions of years of life that led to the emergence of the wolf species.
Human beings are not like that. Well, they are not JUST like that. Gene
expression and behaviour shaping through reward and punishment are at work
within each one of us, but we also have the ability for abstract thought and
remarkably robust communication abilities. The addition of these later two
means that we are capable of out of context learning merely by hearing them.
E.g. we learn many things at school that we later apply to work and the day to
day living of adult life. Factor into this the ability to learn fantastic
amounts of information and to then work with and reprocess this information and
the floodgates to knowledge and wisdom swing wide open.
It might be important to consider the fact that very little advanced
knowledge exists in isolation – advanced ideas build upon less advanced ideas,
which were themselves built upon less advanced ideas. When we figure a fact
out, it gives our species a big hand in accumulating knowledge. As the
collection of knowledge grows to include more advanced concepts, we have the
ability to fill-in the gaps or the missing steps in our knowledge. For example,
if we teach someone fact A and then teach them fact B and then just to fact G,
the human brain will be able to make a guess about steps C, D, E and F and will
be able to manufacture compatible and congruent knowledge based on knowing the
starting point and knowing the ending point.
That wasn’t a big deal for early man, which we accept as being mostly
clueless. But it didn’t take very long before they began to develop technology
that was based on this progressive model of knowledge organization. Shelters,
fires, weapons, tools, tribes, leaders, education, division of labour, hunting,
gathering, farming, domestication of animals, specialization of labour,
government, schools, etc…. While not necessarily in chronological order, each
one of these technological advancements / discoveries had the effect of
improving production and security and of reducing the need to teach young
people EVERY lesson that came before. If you work on a farm, what is important
is that someone knows how to hunt well enough so that you don’t have to know
how to hunt and that you know how to farm well enough so that they don’t have
to know. This will free-up a lot of energy to learn or discover more about
farming or hunting. When the first working animals were domesticated, farmers
no longer needed to know how to plow the fields by hand, they just needed to
know how to connect the animal to the plow and how to walk it in a straight
line while it drags it. Learning how to do this, however, also meant that you
could easily figure-out how to do it by hand by reverse engineering the
The rate of change began to accelerate. Sure, it took a very long time for
the first pieces of homo-sapien discovered technology to surface, but as soon
as they did, they could be shared. This gave the technology staying power and
it allowed other human beings to improve upon it. Things advanced slightly and
slowly, but within a couple of generations, early man was capable of doing
things that pre-man had no concept of. Give it a few hundred generations and
what the people consider to be common knowledge would have seemed like magic to
This is the point at which the fate of the species and possibly the planet was sealed. We began to assimilate ever increasing amounts of the physical environment into the collection of matter that is implicated into the life of humanity. Whereas early man would eat animal and plant life in order to convert it into energy and building material, use other plants to build and heat shelters, and use other various materials to form primitive tools, tens of thousands of years later we had developed the ability to build complex tools and machines out of molecules that were themselves processed into usable form by other complex tools and technologies. Sand was turned into glass, iron ore was processed into the iron, the stored energy of the sun was harnessed through the use of mills on rivers and dams, the movement of electrons that is triggered when a magnetic field moves across a copper wire becomes electricity, etc….
A lot of these things were just novel ways to use or take advantage of what had always existed, many were just an industrial scale increase in the assimilation of existing things, but some of the technology caused the formation of completely new combinations of molecules that had never existed in nature before. These useful yet Frankenstein creations and the increase in availability of the preexisting ones are problematic for a similar reason. Life evolved in the presence and concentration of the preexisting elements and compounds meaning anything that is alive either used the molecules or was unharmed by them. Changing the availability of them, and adding new ones, can interfere with the normal biological functioning.
The industrial revolution lead to the creation of the chemical industry and
from that moment on, there was a no holds bar assault on the environment. The
levels of everything increased, and creatures that had never been exposed to
particular chemicals began to assimilate them into their bodies. These
chemicals then began to change how cells function.
Some of these changes were health promoting – various medicines, vitamins,
and nutritional compounds supply something that predictably alters
physiological functioning in the direction of better. Some of them helpful
because of the very specific way in which they are incompatible with life –
antibiotics, cancer drugs. But many of them have effects on life that are
neither helpful nor compatible with the ongoing flourishment of human kind –
PVC and asbestos cause cancer, while bacteria adapt to become resistant to
This brings us to where we find ourselves today. The slow change over
billions of years has been transformed by human technology into a lightening
pace of change. The carbon that has been locked and stored in various places in
being released at an ever growing rate as we our technologies break apart the
molecules to release the stored energy. The energy is useful, the resulting
molecules is less so. It is a matter of scale here. Seasonal fires used to
trigger the release of large amount of CO2, but the fires would go out and the
land would quickly begin to recapture the carbon as the forest started to
regrow. Over millions of years, a balance had been struck that effectively
negated any of the positive or negative consequences of releasing this stored
carbon. Human beings and the technology they have created since the beginning
of the industrial revolution has eliminate the seasonal aspect of release and
recapture, replacing it with constant release and a decreasing partial
We have entered a no man’s land of chemical diversity and availability.
Plastic is everywhere. Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been in
a very long time and have increased at a rate that is faster than any time in
the past except for the moments of impact with asteroids or volcanic
This is where the mutation that caused the human brain to come into existence is no longer something that is improving our chances of surviving. Specifically, the ability to think in abstract terms, to learn through listening vs. direct experience or the observation of real experience, and to build upon existing knowledge in ever more complex ways, means that we have no experience and little awareness with the consequences of our technology. Unlike the dinosaur killing asteroid which was a near instant released of 1.3 – 58 yottajoules of energy into the environment, the rate of human caused energy release is much slower. This slow burn delays the impact and consequences from less than a few hours to years, decades or even generations, which is the exact recipe for imperceivable and denial. For example, an earth quake, forest fire, or volcano will reveal consequences almost immediately or within days, the effects of moderate radiation or moderate toxic chemical exposures can take twenty years or more for come to pass. This causes humans to make the incorrect assumption that these technologies are only acute harmful in high doses given the quick onset and death in these circumstance. Smoking was harmless until the 1950’s when doctors began to notice a big increase in cancer deaths, particular lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases. Those who were getting sick had been smoking for decades so the temporal relationship between cause and effect was too wide for most people to perceive the existence of a relationship at all. Nonetheless, there is a strong link between smoking and disease, and there is a correlation between the amount of exposure, both in terms of concentration and duration, and negative health outcomes.
There are worse things for humanity than global warming. Not to trivialize the direct impact on millions of people so far, and the billions of people who will be impacted by rising sea levels, but there will be enough well above sea level land that those effected will be able to move. It will suck and it will be expensive, but they will still be alive and healthy. Although by the time it happens, there may not be a lot of people left to be impacted.
Pollution is a bigger problem. Antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem.
Bad ideas about differences between groups of people is a bigger problem. A
lack of diversity in terms of crops and livestock farming is a bigger problem.
Obesity is a bigger problem. The fact that very few people know how to make any
of the things that we use is a bigger problem. Our collective ignorance about
how exactly we got here is a bigger problem.
And yet, very few people are talking about these things because they are
too busy talking about the latest stupid tweet, reality tv show, fashion trend,
or the absolute vileness of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. We are talking
about what doesn’t matter because it feels more real than the things that do
matter. We’ll wear our ignorance like a badge of honour instead of it triggering
shame and motivating us to learn something.
There’s a slow-motion car crash happening but we’re not noticing it. We only see the shiny, new, and the fast moving. None of us have seen an extinction level event first hand and since the last one created the clearing that allowed human beings to evolve into existence, we have nothing to fear, especially given that we are the ones steering the car.
My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is a remarkably useless way to behave.
NOTE: The title of this post was updated on April 2, 2020 to include the word “not” to improve clarity and reduce the cognitive overhead caused by managing the incongruence between the title and the content of the post. The audio remains unchanged.
TikTok, in the event you have never heard of it, is a social media / video app that lets users make and share videos of three to fifteen seconds. It will also allow users to loop a video for up to sixty seconds. I have never used it and the only TikTok videos that I have seen are compilation videos posted on YouTube. As close as I can tell, it is very similar to Vine (which allows users to post videos that are slightly more than 6 seconds long). My reasons for not using TikTok, or Vine, have nothing to do with the app. My life just isn’t that interesting and I am not so connected to other people that I or they feel the need to share or consume small chunks of life. These are common feelings that are reported from many people who are a part of generation X and did not grow-up with the Internet. Maybe we are just not good at it, maybe we never learned to find these things rewarding, or maybe it is something else entirely.
Before my father died in 2012, I recall having a conversation with him about Twitter. Neither one of us had an account, I still don’t. I’m not proud of it, nor does it trigger any shame, I just don’t have a need for one. The key thing I remember from our chat was his feeling that it was kind of pointless because the character limit prevents the sharing of complete thoughts. There was a sense or concern that the compression of complex ideas into a sentence or two effectively ensured that misunderstanding was going to occur in nearly every case. He loved reading and consumed a massive amount of information over the course of his life. Paying attention, listening and hearing what people had to say, and asking clarifying questions was something that he was good at. He had seen a lot and had, over time, come to realize that many aspects of history tend to repeat themselves. The only thing to blame were the people directly involved and the people who did nothing to prevent the predictable outcome. “People are smart. We can be lazy though, and a lack of effort is very often the antidote to progress. Most of the answers are out there because so much of this has happened before, a few times before. We hit the iceberg when we choose to go with the feeling that we know as opposed to finding out if we actually do.”
Having been born in 1944, he had memories of rationing after the end of the Second World War as Europe took the time to rebuild from all the destruction. In fact, his brain was filled with memories of the Korean war, the Vietnam war, countless wars in the middle east, revolutions in south America, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the cold war, the space race, the creation and spread of personal computers, the Civil Rights movement, famines, natural disasters, too many musical trends to count, the cycles of fashion, economic booms, busts, and echoes, and more than 60 years of other things. In all of that he had come to accept that everything changes and almost everything repeats. The cast of characters will be different, but the events and the mistakes they make will be the same. Because of this, he had invited my brother and me to try and remain curious about what was actually going on and to be humble enough to be uncertain about the things we pretended to know with certainty. The challenge he had with Twitter was the lack of depth 140 characters allows. It was good for transmitting simple factual information, like a road closure or an approaching weather event, but it was just too limiting in terms of allowed text to clearly transmit anything more complicated than that. It was also hindered by the anonymous nature of being online. You were probably never going to know with certainty who was tweeting, and that opened the platform up to all of the antisocial behaviour associated with there being no real consequences for your words.
What was sort of funny about it was that he had a lot of respect of Jack
Dorsey and the rest of the Twitter founders, and basically anyone who created
an app, a platform, a social media site, or basically any legal IT thing. Even
when their creations were not things that he would ever use, the fact that
there were human beings using computers in new and interesting ways was
something to admire. It didn’t matter if, in his view, it was pointless, it was
still a very impressive thing to make something out of nothing. The fact that
it was younger people doing it actually made him feel better. “It’s their
world too so they have to make it the way they want it to be. I don’t have to
like it, they do, because they are going to be around well after I move
At the time, I didn’t think much about this approach. I accepted it as probably being true but most importantly I was happy enough to just live my life and not have to involve myself with having to control the actions of other people.
This was a powerful lesson that I wish all people taught their children.
Each generation gets their chance to make the world the way they want, so as
long as no one is killing, hurting or causing suffering in other human beings,
it’s probably best to leave them at it to do their thing however they deem fit.
Being alive is so complicated and the universe is so large that it is
impossible to say that life has a singular purpose that is unchanging and
shared by all living beings.
About 2 weeks before he died, I asked my dad what it was like to know that
he wouldn’t be around soon and he replied with something very similar to what
he said about twitter. “I know I’m supposed to be sad about it, but I’m
having some trouble with that. I was always going to die, and I knew it, so I
tried to have the best life possible. I enjoyed my childhood, I loved my
parents and brothers (he had no sisters). I had fun. I got a job, met and
married your mother, and raised you and your brother. There are no regrets.
Sure I’d like more time, but all I have left is all I’m getting, so that’s not
going to happen. It’s important for old people to get out of the way and let
the younger people have their turn. Life has come-up with the perfect solution
for any of us who are unwilling to move to a back seat and give the reins to
the next generation. Death clears a path and I’m glad it does. It cleared one
for my generation, and it will clear us out of the way for the next
There was something very sinister though. Not in his views but in the
accuracy of what he was saying. He had seen what the 1960’s had been like and
understood very well the damage that will be done when one group of people
vilify another group of people for reasons that do not exist, as opposed to
clearing the way the younger people to make the world they wanted. The older
people had views that were not aligned with common decency or anything factual.
As they dug in to resist change, the rest of the world rolled forward.
The most striking example was that of skin colour. Underlying racism is an automatic mental process that notices things that are similar or different, and which are the same as us superficially and which are different for this reason. The output of this noticing process becomes the input for other processes that are more narrative than binary, and they quickly begin to surface evidence to support the idea that a lack of sameness is an indication of material differences. When left unquestioned, this evidence is consolidated into reality and begins to be a “fact” vs. the output of some mental process.
My dad was exceptionally liberally minded in that he didn’t care to stop
anyone from doing anything that wasn’t harming others or that all parties had
consented to do. It was as though he believed that anyone who was 18 years old
or more had the right to do whatever they wanted with their life, even if that
to waste it. If someone made a mistake and owned it, he was a big fan of second
chances because he knew full well that very little is what it seems and when
people realize how things actually are, they make different decisions.
However, there is a limit to what human beings are able to experience and continue to be able change as they move forward. I’m not sure what this limit is exactly, like if it is an experience, a duration of exposure or reaching a particular age, but most people tend to change less as they get older. For example, the views I held when I was 15 are remarkable different from the views I held at 30. My views at 30 are much more similar to the views I hold today. I have never cared about a person’s race, in my late teens I shifted away from having opinions about sexual orientation. I was a fairly tolerant teenager, a very tolerant 30 year old, and an “uninvolved in other people’s business” 45 year old. If I had to guess about the one thing that will continue to shift as I move into my 60s it would be that I will remain a social liberal and will become more financially conservative in so far as I will become even more certain in my belief that a person needs to take responsibility for the outcome of their choices. Most people are not victims of anything other than not trying, not doing their best, or not taking the actions that are within their control to cause a better results. There is an element of luck in all of it, but too few generate any because their actions are weak, misguided, or non-existent.
I am a fair distance from the liberal thinker I was at 27 because I have endured the consequences that years of not acting strategically have served into my life. As much as I would like to blame other people, no one but me is responsible for these things. The benefit of this shift in thinking is that I now have the chance to improve things on my own, something that I started doing towards the end of my thirties.
This is a process that many people experience as they move their way thought life. When we are young, we have very little power, so we look around for people and things that have it. There are competence, prestige, and dominance hierarchies everywhere, and when we have a low place on all of them, we try to identify the higher-up so that we can get stuff from them. But the human brain is a remarkable thing, so if we work hard enough and for long enough on something, we will gain knowledge and wisdom that will move us higher. We may not see it initially because we spend the first 10-15 years of life being completely helpless and fully reliant on our parents or caregivers. We form an unconscious habit of believing that we are at the bottom of these hierarchies so any movement upwards will need to be perceived before it can impact the narrative story we tell our selves about the world and our place in it. This is a slow process and for many people it never gets much traction because that the powers that be are constantly conspire to keep them down.
All of this comes down to our DNA and the impact that experience plays in
Some simple background in the form of a story. All life has a very complex
program that has been written over millions of years that determine how life
will unfold in terms of physiology – how we create blood cell, who our cells
use oxygen, how we respond to pain, etc…. All of this information is stored
in our DNA, and any grouping of related information that codes for something is
called a gene. We have hundreds of thousands of genes and they determine
everything about us. Some of them are stand alone, some of them are primarily
stand-alone while being conditionally related to others, some of them do
nothing on their own, while many do not appear to do anything at all.
Some of these genes will automatically express themselves while other will only express themselves in response to very specific experiences. NOTE – it is not the experience itself that triggers gene expression, it is triggered by the chemicals that are released by the body in response to specific experiences. This is a blessing for most living beings, and a mixed blessing for humans. While dogs and cats will enjoy the beneficial outcomes that real experience facilitates in terms of gene expression, human beings can cause gene expression through lived experiences OR through imagined experiences.
A great example of this is anxiety which is a universal emotion for all people. It seems that the reason we evolved to experience it is because it improves physical and mental performance when compared to our resting baseline. An elevated respiratory and heart rate improves blood flow to all cells priming the muscles for activity because of the increase of oxygen and energy. It also improves cerebral blood flow, which can enhance brain activity. These things are useful when peak performance will improve outcomes. A cold start tends to result in more injuries and delayed thinking. So the ability to experience a baseline level of anxiety provides a survival advantage.
Problems begin to take shape when an individual’s anxiety response is
triggered too easily. While there are people who have an innate response that
is on the higher end of the scale, this does not necessarily cause a problem.
It is entirely possible that one of these people could live a completely normal
life so long as they do not trigger too many releases OR they do not trigger
the “enhanced anxiety” genes to express. IF these genes express
themselves, even someone with lower end baseline levels can find themselves
suffering from the symptoms excessive anxiety.
There are only three ways this can happen. The first is through repeated
direct experience, the second is through repeated imagined experience, and the
third is through a combination of the two others. Regardless of the source,
once the enhanced anxiety genes become expressed, the individual is prone to
unnecessary or excessive bouts of it.
Imagined experience is much easier for people to have, so with reference to
anxiety, worry or uncertainty about anything are sufficient triggers. Given a
long enough time frame, someone can condition anxiety to be their default state
which will leave them suffering from a heightened state of physiological arousal
that has no immediate catalyst.
Gene expression is permanent. Someone who activated the enhanced anxiety
gene will ALWAYS have the ability to experience more anxiety than they did
before. Relapse after years of remission is very common with anxiety disorders
and often times there is no warning that something is about to happen.
The unique challenge with anxiety stems from how the body physiologically
goes about causing it. When anxiety is triggered, chemicals are dumped into the
blood stream and begin to impact on the cell for which there are receptors.
There are hundreds of millions of these cells located throughout the entire
body, and particularly within the brain. So just as muscle cells will begin to
alter their functioning, brain cells will also alter their functioning. With
small releases, the impact is usually enhance mental functioning. As the
quantities increase, this beneficial effect will drop and very quickly begin to
impair our ability to think. This can impact how the person perceives the
source of the anxiety, allowing them to subjective react to something that is
an objectively non-factor.
This is why being deeply in debt or reaching a state of insolvency lowers
people’s performance on cognitive tests and why everyone who declares bankruptcy
very quickly find their mood lifting and the restoration of their objectivity.
The source of their chronic anxiety evaporates and while much about their
future remains unknown, the darkest pieces of it are simply eliminated.
Take a moment to consider what actually happens when someone declares
bankruptcy. A form is signed, you hand back or cut-up all of your credit cards,
you lose access to any credit you did have, a 9 to 21 month process is started
that sees your declaration sent to the credit rating agencies rendering you a
high credit risk for 7 or more years. That is a lot of things happening, but
when you look at each one in isolation, very little actually happens. In fact,
almost nothing happens to you directly. You needed to sign a form and probably
have a couple of meetings with a trustee, but other than a few clerical items –
keeping and submitting a monthly budget, changing bank – the days leading up to
the date you declare are nearly identical to the days leading away from it. If
you are in a situation that frees you from having to borrow money and allows
you to avoid having a credit review performed, there is only up-side. All of
your debt is wiped off the books and this eliminates the source of your
Think about that for a second. By signing a form, the source of your
problems disappears. This means that the source of your problems was a lack of
a signature on a form. Well, sort of. The source of your problems was an
imagined future that has you unable to pay your bills and NOT the real
experience of trying to pay them but not being able to. The problem was the
version of the story you were experiencing and not the lived reality you were
The take home here is that the experience of living the story is sufficient
to serve as a trigger for gene expression in spite of the fact that what was
really happening was not much of anything. And changing the story was enough to
prevent an anxiety response. This is why the dogs and cats have an easier time
with activating the best genes to help them survive their life than people do
because the only genes that get expressed that wouldn’t have been expressed
automatically are the ones that get expressed in response to REAL changes in
Bringing this back to the topic at hand, remember that once a gene has been expressed it will remain expressed and that any heightened response it may cause will be triggered by real and imagined things. But since most of what happens in modern life has no physical impact on us and therefore only occurs as an imagined event, anything we do that changes the story has the potential to alter a response. My movement towards the more liberal side of the social spectrum was caused by changes in the narrative and not by any hands on specific experiences. I stopped caring about sexual orientation when I realized just how hard life can be and how difficult it is find a source lasting joy. If two people find love in each other that is fantastic, and when they are left alone to enjoy it, the outcomes from all people improve slightly. The opposite is also true, when joy is denied from people, the outcomes for all people get slightly worse. My progressive mindset wasn’t progressive for the sake of being progressive, it was a reframing of things that just happened to have what seems like a progressive outcome. I still find it strange that two men can fall in love because I have never experienced it, but I no longer care about the genders of people who fall in love with each other. I know that people finding, falling and being in love is way better for society and for me specifically than making sure the world runs according to whatever I learned was normal when I was growing-up.
I think that maybe my dad had realized that there is a limit to what human beings are able to reframe and this was why he was so certain that old people needed to move on and make room for the next generation. We never chatted about why people close-off from reframing, and while I wish we had because my dad had some compelling and transformative ideas, it doesn’t change the fact of the matter. Very few people remain young in mind for the entirety of their life. Many close off very early on, and the rest move from being open and certain to closed and certain during the first 3 to 6 decades of their life. This I believe is why he was so willing to view the IT inventions as being remarkable and why we are more than happy to invite someone back to the table when they realized, admitted to, and made their best amends for taking action based on something they no longer believed.
Since life does not have a clearly defined purpose that all human beings
share, the best we can hope for is that over time things will improve and that
the amount of suffering that is experienced by people continues to fall. After
that, who knows. We all live in the real world but we are all living out a
different story. The story we tell and the meanings we put onto things, is
going to be determined by our life experiences and these will, in a very real
way, help to determine our future experiences; either through gene expression
or the reframing of the story. The impossible will become possible the instant
our story changes, and if it never changes the thing will remain impossible.
Older people know this because they have experienced it. Younger people may
believe it, but having never experienced it, they are more likely to weigh
their actual experiences more heavily. Younger people know a lot less than
older people. In many ways this makes their living of life easier because they
have a lot less stuff in their brains to consider, but this lack of information
has the effect of presenting their experiences as being unique and everything
that happens in the world as being completely new.
They are also struggling to move up the prestige and competency hierarchies,
which are already stuffed full of people. It is very competitive and since it
takes a very long time to generate prestige and competency, when being compared
to people who have 20-40 years more experience, it can be very appealing to
reframe the story and usurp a spot by removing some of those who are in the
way. But the realness of these hierarchies is not sufficient enough to actually
locate someone let alone physically remove them, so taking over someone’s spot
is as easy and simple as reframing them as being in a different position or as
not being on the hierarchy at all.
The most effective way to achieve this is to believe that what is going on is completely new and that NO ONE has any information that will make navigating it any easier. To this end, if someone is able to reframe an older person as having no more information than the younger person, they have neutralized them in terms of prestige, and if they then reframe them as being so far removed from the current social zeitgeist as to be unaffected by it, they have effectively kicked them off of the competency hierarchy. This will work out very well for them IF the thing is actually new, moderately well if the older people do not actually know something, and very badly when what is occurring is a part of the repeating nature of things. The reasons are simple, if it is new, a younger faster brain that is not bogged down by lots of experience will find solutions much faster, particularly if it doesn’t have to deal with the irrelevant musings of old people. If the old people do not know anything, the young people stand only to lose out if they spend anytime listening to them. But if what is occurring is actually the same thing that happened 35 years ago, shutting out the old people who have experience with it forces the remainder to solve the problems without the benefit of having access to the knowledge that has already been discovered.
The “okay boomer” phenomena is a clear indication that this is happening again. The 1960’s saying “never trust anyone over 30” has been rebranded and launched into the minds of next generation. It is a pejorative that a younger person will say to an older person in an attempt to dismiss their point of view because it came from someone who doesn’t know anything about how things are now and who is probably responsible for why things are so bad. It’s a power grab of sorts because it tells someone that they are too old and too ignorant to provide anything of value to the discussion while simultaneously placing the person who says it above them in a number of hierarchies.
Saying it is rude. Dismissing something out of hand with no evaluation is
short sighted. Shoe-horning yourself into a higher position is a
And yet saying it is very effective because it hurts to hear. The emotional
reaction to being dismissed is primal and automatic. It lands like pain. It’s
no good and by the time you notice how you feel about it, the reaction is
already well established. Now you have to deal with someone calling you old. It
is a lot to handle and the energy that is building in your body would be
released if you could just attack. You can’t, so how are you going to deal with
The thing is this, NO human being likes to be dismissed. Even when they have nothing to add or contribute, the act of remaining connected to the group or a person is at least slightly rewarding. Having someone else sever this tie on you removes this reward and the sense of alienation and worthlessness that accompany being pushed away hit you like a punishing blow.
Everything I am saying here applies equally to ANYONE who uses any tactic
of dismissal to reduce the force or silence other people. And in a way, I can understand
why some millennial or generation Z members direct “okay boomer”
towards older people. What have they had to listen to being directed towards
A couple of years ago, I was talking to one of my friends about her job,
and she mentioned that there are a lot of clueless people in positions of power
and influence, who cannot seem to make a good decision to save their jobs. This
women is bright. She thinks faster than nearly everyone I have ever met, she
sees connection between things that seem completely unrelated, and she has a
very clear understanding of what is going on inside the heads of the people she
is talking to. She kind of scares the crap out me because she’s fine with being
wrong, making mistakes, admitting to them, and learning the proper way to
handle the situation next time. There is no arrogance and she is kind to
everyone, until they give her a reason to not be.
In this particular conversation, she was relating to me how her boss had
responded to one of her concerns about a process change by saying “oh you
millennials, you’re all so keen to point out what can go wrong. Such a sense of
entitlement, like you expect everything to be perfect” before discarding
her suggestion and chastising her. When I replied with “oh, that’s
rude” followed by “but they pay you to point out what could go
wrong” she took off.
“I’m f’ing glad he said it Pat. He SHOULDN’T need me to identify the stupid things he does, and he clearly doesn’t WANT me to. Throwing me into a bucket based on when I was born and suggesting that all those people have a sense of entitlement actually works better for me. We’re not partners anymore, we’re not aligned. He’s an ageist knob who now gets to drive his career into a brick wall. I’ve been dismissed, he gets no more of my help.”
He was fired less than three months later for screwing-up the very thing she was trying to help him with.
If she had said “okay boomer” to him, I would have understood it and I would only fault her if the reply was a reaction vs. a response. But she said nothing to him in spite of the fact the interaction annoyed the hell out of her. She was less offended that a simpleton had said something stupid than she was that he dismissed her outright because of some story he tells himself about all people her age.
This is where I struggle with “okay boomer.” On one hand I can understand someone wanting and feeling that they need to say it to someone, particularly if that person has a track record of saying “millennials are lazy” or “millennials don’t want to earn their place” or any variation of the same theme. But on the other hand, meeting rudeness with rudeness is a kind of biblical vengeance that makes me question the righteousness of the responding party after having determined that the instigator is unable to address the material concern and is therefore going after the person for things they cannot control and which do not make any difference.
My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is a remarkably useless way to behave.
My friends’ response was perfect. She vented out whatever negative emotion
that was created and journeyed forward honoring the belief system that her boss
possessed and made clear to her – if all millennials are that way, best they
don’t bother you with it anymore. She continued to listen to him until he was
fired because she had a lot to learn about how not to do the job. So even
though he had dismissed her, she had not dismissed him. What he knew was still
valuable because it was knowledge, even if some of his beliefs were out of
line. She had no desire to make the same mistakes he did so continuing to pay
attention to him was only going to make her future easier.
If you were to take only one thing out of this post it would be to always
remember that when we have not lived through history, our decision to ignore
those who have will guarantee that we get to.
…the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.
I can easily imagine that there is a saying that political operatives use behind closed doors that goes something like “don’t worry about the middle until the month before an election, then throw them a bone and they’ll fall into line.”
The reason why I have no trouble putting these words into the months of hypothetical people who work for very real political campaigns and politicians is because the political candidates and parties ACT like this. In Canada, a country that has a very limited campaign time and predetermined election dates, we have to listen to politicians throwing mud at each other and towards the supporters of their political rivals for close to 4 years, only to have them pivot and talk at the middle for 36 to 50 days as the campaign officially runs. The Canadian public vote on the third Monday of the forth October following the previous election and on the very next day everyone goes back to ignoring the middle while focusing their praise and efforts on either the left or the right, and their scorn on the other side.
I’m not sure which is more embarrassing, the behaviour of the political class or the fact that the overwhelming majority of Canadians, those who make-up the middle, allow this abuse to continue. It is like all those in the middle suffer from a collective Stockholm syndrome or from the disease of low expectations caused by the race to the bottom that has us hand-over our power the moment someone exceeds them.
There is another saying, stick with me here, that has a public life, one used by personal trainers, coaches and anyone who is responsible for directing the actions of other people that explains who is at fault.
“If you have a client who is doing something wrong, they are doing it because you coached them to do it or because you are letting them do it.”
So the reason why the politicians treat the majority of Canadians with complete contempt is because we have coached them to do it by letting them do it. It’s sad for them because they might actually want to do good for people, but we let them treat us poorly nearly all of the time and respond like trained animals when, come election time, they promise us something nice and shinny.
This last federal election in Canada, and the last midterm election in the US, have seen a change in the strategy that the political class employ to manipulate people into giving them a job or allowing them to keep the one they manipulated themselves into last time. Whereas they used to only buy our votes, they have added catastrophizing to the play book. This is very effective for two psychological reasons, a re-framing effect that capitalizes on our inability to process information effectively and an emotional hijack that triggers a reduction in, and possible elimination of, logical thinking.
The re-framing effect converts a cost into a loss. Previously, a vote for anyone other than them would cost you whatever it was that they were promising. Everyone accepted this fact and has more or less made their peace with it. In fact, we seem to be able to handle paying big costs so long as we get something of value out of it. For example, lets imagine that a person was carrying a $10 bill in their pocket and when they reach into their pocket they notice that it is gone. They have, for all intents and purposes, lost it. However, if they take some time to consider what has happened and decide that they will only carry money in their wallet which will be placed into a zipped-up pocket, they may be able to perceive the missing $10 as the cost of this lesson. They have paid $10 to ensure that they will never lose $20 or $50. The value of this lesson is at least $10 but may be $40. That is a 1:1 ratio or a 1:4 ratio. It sucks but it wasn’t a complete waste and in the long run, there is a chance that they will be better off for having learned this way vs. some other way.
From a psychological perspective, a loss of $10 is experienced as more painful than a $10 lesson. The reality is that re-framing a loss into a cost actually requires more energy in terms of having to think about “what did I learn?” The brain however does not view it this way and accepts what has happened as a fair or fair enough trade of one thing of value for something of approximate value.
By catastrophizing the outcome of voting for anyone OTHER than them, they are effectively telling people that a vote their opponents is going to destroy everything that is good in your life. So not only do you not get the thing, the cost, but you will NEVER get the thing and your remaining time on the planet is going to be much harder than you can possibly imagine, the loss of practically everything. The story they are telling is that a vote for someone else is both a cost and a loss, and this is enough to boost the psychological pain associated with simply thinking about doing so.
This catastrophizing is also very emotionally triggering. YOU are going to be responsible for destroying the world and eliminating the future of every young person that has the potential to exist. That’s a big cross to bare and arguably the worst thing that you could ever do, and you are going to do it simply by voting for the other guy. That makes you the worst person in the universe, something that you can avoid by voting for someone else.
Being emotionally triggered is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on which emotion has been triggered and the magnitude of the emotional response. Being happy is not the same thing as being sad, and being slightly angry is a very different state than being apoplectic, and each of these states has a different impact on the brain. The general rules of thumb are 1) the greater the magnitude of a response, the larger the impact on mental functioning and 2) emotions that have a negative valence have a greater impact on cognitive functioning than emotions that have a positive valence.
For example, someone who is slightly happy will show brain activity that is very close to their neutral baseline and they show very little impairment in cognitive test. Someone who is very happy will have a greater deviation from baseline both in terms of brain activity and performance. Someone who is slightly angry will show a moderate change in brain activity as well as performance when compared to their neutral baseline and to their slightly happy state. An extremely angry person will display a very large deviation from baseline, with certain areas of brain effectively being off-line; the dramatic alteration and decrease in brain activity will temporarily eliminate certain cognitive processes rendering the person operationally different from who their are at baseline.
Emotions that are of a positive valence tend to impact critical thinking while emotions that are of a negative valence tend to impact logical thinking. The narrative practical implication of these alterations are that happy people are willing to take action, but they are more inclined to make mistakes that a level of skepticism or a second review would catch. In other words, they are less likely to feel “wrong” and will therefore move forward believing that they are right. Angry people are more likely to react in disproportionately large ways and are more inclined to take “final” actions or actions that permanently take care of the situation – they will be more aggressive than normal and will attack with the full force of their fight or flight abilities.
The underlying mechanism at play is not the same and for the purposes of winning elections via the introduction of losses, it is sufficient to understand that large negatively valenced emotions suppress activity in the prefrontal cortex which has the consequence of eliminating the future, removing the ability to regulate reactions, and to reduce logical thought. This is a survival response that is adaptive and has historically been very effective at keeping our species alive because in a life or death situation, the individual needs to take drastic action or else they will die. When time and intensity are of the essence, there is little time for rational thought because any delay might just prove to be fatal. It basically comes down to “do this or die” and since this part of our programming evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago when death was all around, it was both necessary and effective. However, modern life has effectively eliminated most of the actual life and death moments, meaning that nearly all of these reactions are out of place and are very likely to cause more harm than they prevent.
But the code that programs these processes and the hardware on which they run is exactly the same today as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. This means that anyone who is able to trigger an emotional response in another persons brain has the ability to alter their thinking in very predictable ways.
Another important fact to consider is that negative things are more salient in our minds than positive things. In order to counter-act something that has a measurement of -1 in terms of negativity, the person will need to be simultaneously exposed to something that is a +2 in terms of positivist. This is why re-framing a loss as a cost makes the experience less negative. It is also why the “sunny ways” talk that was thrown around during the 2015 Canadian election wasn’t present in 2019 – it wouldn’t have worked because the tone of this most recent election was intensely negative and fear evoking.
So in summary, modern elections are about fear and anger because 1) these emotions reduce logical thinking, boost catastrophizing, and promote action of a specific type (getting people to the polling stations to vote for the candidate that will protect us from the object of fear or anger 2) you only need half as much of these emotions so they are more favourable from an economic stand point 3) the bypassing of critical analysis that positive states fuels is very narrow in terms of time frame and context – when a person is happy, you will be able to slip things past them but since they return to baseline very quickly, the door is only open for a short time and 4) negative emotions persist for a much longer time than positive emotions. All emotions are made up of matter in the form of neurotransmitters and hormones but negative emotions are composed of more physical material because they actually serve to fuel physical action. The entire body is involved with a fight or flight response, therefore these chemicals are released into the blood and circulate everywhere. It takes time for the body to remove them from the blood stream, particularly if no intense physical activity has occurred. The mass of happiness is much smaller, it serves very little survival purpose, and it is more psychological in nature meaning it is more or less only a brain experience. It requires much less clean-up and in fact it can be stopped almost immediately if something bad happens right in the middle of it. This is not the case with intense anger.
It is complicated. It is well understood but it is complicated. It is also very hard to be aware of as it is happening because the very thing that is responsible for noticing it happen is the same thing that it is happening to. So when you are happy, you are not well set-up to analyze what is going on because your critical faculties are dialed down. When you are angry, your brain has been hijacked and is only capable of focusing on survival. Outsiders can see it, and we can see it in ourselves after the fact, but as it is going on we are nearly powerless to do anything against it. This is why we have seen the addition of losses and catastrophizing to the political campaigns – they do predictable things and make us susceptible to manipulation, lies and bullshit.
Well, there’s a lot.
First off, we are being lied to by everyone and we can uncover the nature of the lie based on the emotion they are working to activate.
Those that are trying to make us feel happy are about to insert a thought into our brains that we would normally resist or at least vet for accuracy. For example, taxes will go down or the standard of living is going to improve for everyone. The realities here are that if taxes go down, services will be reduced OR deficits will increase OR the taxes for someone else will increase to make-up any shortfall, the standard of living does have, in the short term, a zero sum flavor and it doesn’t happen for everyone all at once – it starts with the rich and works its way down to the lower classes.
Those trying to make us angry or scared are trying to motivate us to take action to ensure that we survive. Ultimately the action is to vote for them, but it will also include vilifying the group they are talking about and updating our definition of them to include aversion, disgust and anything else that will move us away from them. The goal is to manipulate our world view to have us want to see the other group eliminated and to condition our nervous system to release negative emotion in response to thoughts or the mere mention of them.
Second, the re-framing of costs as losses is an economic manipulation in that creates an imaginary loss that then serves to trigger a negative emotional response. It makes something out of nothing and this something has a big impact on our nervous system and brain. Logically, we know that a vote for one person is the same as not voting for everyone else and that not voting for any particular person will probably cost us whatever it was they were promising. BUT when this is presented as loss and not cost, it increases the significance and is much more likely to trigger negative emotion, which will suppress logical thinking.
Finally, the story telling that uses catastrophizing IS triggering for fear and anger and it DOES suppress logical thinking. The moment we react, we no longer have the ability think about the future, which eliminates our innate capability to ask the question “what do they have to gain from making me feel angry or scared.”
In summary then, for most of the time the politicians ignore the people in the middle while trying to do things to make their base happy. When election time comes around, they begin to focus their attention towards the middle in an attempt to buy votes through promises of goods or services, take votes away for their opponents by presenting costs as losses, and to temporarily suppress cognitive abilities by manipulating blood flow to the prefrontal cortex via the release of emotional neurotransmitters and hormones.
Phrased another way, be concerned when they are talking and be very concerned when they are talking to you.
What is the significance of the middle having figured out how politicians manipulate them when they are not simply ignoring them? Society is very expensive and there is a constant demand for our limited resources. We are already giving a lot of them to the government and regardless of who is in power, not everyone gets the same value from the money they spend. The D’s or L’s will look after their base first and everyone else second while the R’s or C’s will look after their base first and everyone else second. But each side has a punching bag on the other side that they hammer to get money for their base or to generate votes. We flip flop back and forth between these two sides with things getting worse for one group and better for another, then reversing, all the while those in the middle get nothing new while paying disproportionately for the entire thing. When we say something about it, we get chastised, lied to, told that the solutions for our problems come from a different level of government, or, worst of all, get told that is it nuanced in a tone that reeks of condescension and from a person who is so smug that they do most of their talking with their eyes closed. They treat us like we are stupid, which may actually be true given that they do get voted into office over and over again.
Personally, I am glad this part of it is coming to an end, and the sooner the better. Politics is both boring and complicated, and for the very same reason. It’s so complicated that most people who talk about it do not know enough to have a good conversation making their opinions shallow, uninteresting, and therefore as valuable as those opinions spewed out by a partisan talking head.
This being said, it is going to be a lot worse before it begins improve unless something awful happens that serves as the catalyst to united people. World war one and two, the space race, the aftermath of 9/11 before the politicians decided it would be a good time to eat the public’s liberty and freedom, and the occasional sporting event, like the 2019 NBA final, that has one country align together for the metaphoric face off against another country.
The reason for this are very simple, human beings NEED an enemy and they will find it in their friends and family if there is no one else around to blame for life going the way life goes. We find it a lot easier to declare and demonize a new out group, like the liberals, the conservatives, the tree-huggers, the immigrants, the Apple fanboys, the whatevers…. But we are not fussy when it comes to filling the role of dangerous and vile enemy so when a real enemy does not exist we’ll find someone and set about re-framing everything in our life that bothers us as being somewhat causally related to them, even if that person is our neighbour or someone we have broken bread with.
As bad as this seems, the fact that we have started turning on our fellow citizens is actually a sign that things in the world have gotten a lot better in so far as most other people in the world do not spend much time or energy making our lives tough. Life is actually very good, void of serious conflicts, and our biggest threats are actually the known consequences of our own actions. Pollution, global warming, and the abundance of low cost, highly rewarding foods will shorten the lives and reduce its quality for more people than any of our enemies ever can, will or did.
This being said, the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.
But lies are lies, and no matter how convincingly they are told sooner or later they will be discovered. The volume of them has increased so dramatically recently that anyone who consumes the news or talks to anyone is getting exposed to dozens of them a day, hundreds a week and thousands a year. With this amount of exposure and practice, it is nearly impossible to not get good at spotting them. And with the Internet available all of the time, EVERYTHING a politician says will remain on the record and at easy reach. We will identify the pattern, and as soon as we do, most of the automatic and unconscious click-whir power that the liars have will evaporate. They will be seen for what they are, other people who have a conflict of interest that serves to fuel their motivated reasoning and the ideas they push forward in spite of the fact that they are demonstrably false. While they are not all full of shit, none of them are full enough of diverse opinions and experiences to be seen as objective brokers of reality. They are just human beings who need a job and want the power and are so blinded by these desires that they will try to convince you that one idea is better than all others and any of the others will harm you, your children and all the other good people who believe what they do.
I’m not holding my breath for this to happen quickly, mostly because I cannot hold my breath for the next two to seven years. BUT there are promising signs that things are starting to change. Specifically the ugliness of the last US election, the last Canadian election, the awareness that Fox News and CNN are biased sources of whatever it is they are pumping out 24 / 7, along with the fact that violence has started to breakout at protests about some issues. All of these things are bad, but they are bad in a way that is both unsustainable and so outside of the normal human interaction dynamic that they stand as examples that something is not working. The volume just needs to get turned-up a little bit louder before the middle can no longer ignore what is going on, moving them to put their foot down and putting an end to the nonsense the fabulists are spewing in order to get whatever it is they are seeking.
None of this is based on anything that is actually happening in objective reality. It is all a result of a persons subjective internal representations of the real world. This is, in the long term, a source of friction in their life. While it may not matter one way or the other what is being sold by Goop or what the click-author is writing, the brain is learning new habits about what triggers the release of reward chemicals and creates a sensation that is perceived as having a positive valence. And being a brain, it will start to apply these lessons to other things in order to get more of the reward chemicals.
Let’s consider Goop for a second, and notice how the site is used by content creators, along with some manipulation techniques, to trick people into reading and believing things that are not not true, not real or did not happened.
Goop is Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, a web site along with some brink and mortar locations selling things that she may or may not endorse, know about, or like. There is some debate about how deeply versed she is in terms of the products that they sell but what is not up for debate is that SHE is the biggest part of the brand.
On one hand, she is a very beautiful women and a remarkable and successful actor, so I’m sure there is no financial reason for her to create a lifestyle brand that sells things – she has a net worth that is north of 100 million US dollars. While on the other, she is a human being and likely has the same needs as the rest of us to do meaningful work and to contribute to the betterment of society and the world in whatever ways makes sense to her.
I’m willing to believe that Goop is her effort to satisfy this need for contribution vs. some need to generate more wealth. Fine, in principle, maybe less so in practice. The challenge for her is to balance this need to do good for other people with the need for honesty or more fundamentally, to do not harm.
She isn’t a doctor and has no obligation to uphold the Hippocratic Oath. But she also doesn’t need the money, which makes the way forward for her a lot less clear. This is where she sometimes stumbles, which over the long run has transformed Goop into a gold mine for people who are looking for a topic to write about that is certain to generate a lot of page views.
To say that Goop sells some questionable products would be an understatement. They sell a lot of good products as well as a lot of harmless products meaning some of their stuff will help people directly while some of it will trigger a placebo response allowing it to become helpful. Even when no placebo effect is triggered, some of the stuff will make people feel better, which is a nice thing to feel. Regarding the stuff that is benign, while it is not necessarily a problem on its own, making false claims about its merits IS a problem. It is a problem in that making unsubstantiated claims, particularly those in the realm of health, is illegal and grounds for prosecution or the levying of fines.
The remainder of the stuff that they sell, be it products or ideas, are actually harmful. This is a problem for two reasons. The first reason is that you shouldn’t be selling anything that harms other people. That is a shittie thing to do or to be a part of. No one should do it and in the event it happens by accident, corrective steps should be taken immediately to make things as right as they can be. The second reason it is a problem is that it calls into question the validity of EVERYTHING they sell, which makes life tougher for the people who engage the brand with an earnest desire to learn something true or buy something that works. Since it isn’t obvious what is valid, what is dangerous, and what is harmless, you are faced with three choices – assume it is all good, assume it is all bad, or take the time to verify the accuracy and validity of the claims being made about the product or idea.
Goop has now become more than what it was before. In the eyes of many people it has become a punchline or joke. Those who view it in these terms see it as place for new-age alternative health people to go to and buy their useless trinkets just to get a feeling that they are somehow closer to Gwyneth Paltrow. The believers in the brand are nothing more than easy marks who have disposable income to throw around. The view is that these people would be spending their money somewhere so all Goop is doing is giving them a place to spend it. That is the nature of capitalism so it is easy to just assume that the customers are trying to live a better life and have a genuine belief that Goop will bring this experience to their door.
This is the real problem. The fact that Goop and therefore its customers are viewed so harshly means that Goop has become the perfect object to use so someone can signal their virtue by writing a “hit” piece. “Look how dumb these people are?” is a passive aggressive way of saying “I’m smart” and announcing to the world that what else you have to say is important and worth consuming. Most of the time it isn’t because their piece really just amounts to a tribal attack on a group of people who are not in a position to defend themselves and who are NOT the same thing as Goop. In this way, Goop has become a cash cow for people whose worth is generated via page clicks.
I don’t care much for people. I want them to have as easy a life as they feel they deserve and to experience as much joy as is possible under the circumstances of their life, but when it comes down to what I think and feel about people that I will never have any contact with, I don’t want them to suffer and that is basically the end of it.
However, I believe that the source of most suffering is an incomplete or inaccurate internal view of the world. Friction is created when we take an action, which is basically just the manifestation of a prediction our brain makes about an outcome, and it does not generate the desired result. The easiest way to avoid or reduce this friction is to do nothing, which is very effective as it completely eliminates the possibility for errors. But this isn’t a practical approach. So assuming that we need to do stuff, anything that we can do to improve the accuracy of out internal representation of the world will, over time, reduce friction by increasing the quality of our predictions.
Goop makes this very unlikely now that they have gained the reputation for selling products / ideas that are based on pseudoscience, a reputation that coats the entirety of their offering as pseudo-scientific nonsense. The consequence of selling jade eggs is that it paints their articles as being a part of the same thing. It also means that the click sellers can park on the site waiting for the next thing to pick apart and then write their own article about it. They KNOW that their target audience will eat it up because piling-onto the “Goop is nonsense” bandwagon aligns people with others and makes them part of a tribe that believes they know more and that is smarter than Gwyneth Paltrow and her brand believers.
This isn’t really much of a problem if the Goop article or product is useless or is dangerous. The readers may get some useful information about a product / idea that should be avoided, but I’m not convinced they gain this information via any critical consumption and analysis of what is contained in the click sellers article. It is much more likely that they made the decision to read the article in order to have their preconceived view – that Goop markets and sells useless stuff to people who do not know any better – validated. It is a reaction more than a cognitive operation. Seeing “Goop” followed by a product immediately initiates a series of unconscious thought processes that have been conditioned through experience and that cause the release of reward chemicals. On the simplest level, perceiving the word “Goop” is a pattern match, which is rewarding. The feeling that Goop is nonsense for people who don’t know any better creates the us : them dynamic which manufactures a sense social connection or belonging, which triggers the release of reward chemicals. The fact that the click seller article supports the readers preconceived belief serves to validate it, which triggers the release of more reward chemicals. The final significant factor is that the chemicals that create the sensation of outrage just happen to be energetic to the individual who is experiencing the outrage. Taken together, all of these things mean that any article that is written about anything that appears on Goop will trigger the release of reward chemicals in the brain of reader and it will boost their energy level. The articles are reinforcing and they cause a physical sensation that serves as a “hook” to further consolidate the habit of reading the articles.
None of this is based on anything that is actually happening in objective reality. It is all a result of a persons subjective internal representations of the real world. This is, in the long term, a source of friction in their life. While it may not matter one way or the other what is being sold by Goop or what the click-author is writing, the brain is learning new habits about what triggers the release of reward chemicals and creates a sensation that is perceived as having a positive valence. And being a brain, it will start to apply these lessons to other things in order to get more of the reward chemicals. This is how someone can very quickly learn how to automatically and uncritically ingest nonsense believing that it is fact. As they do this more often, their world view gets further pollute rendering predictive accuracy even lower.
Addressing the behaviour of the click-authors, they are no better than the Goop people, and may actually be bad actors. They are writers, journalist, and content creators. They have not agreed to uphold the Hippocratic Oath, so they do not necessarily have a moral responsibility to do no harm, but as human beings, they do have, in my opinion, a social responsibility to leave the world at least no worse than how they found it. Using psychological manipulation to generate clicks and income is not rent seeking behaviour; which is passively making a profit from doing nothing. They are actively doing something that adds no value and which can have a long term negative impact on the lives of their readers.
When the Goop product does work, or when the idea is actually worth considering and learning, their actions ARE a problem. By writing a “Goop is stupid” article about something that is actually helpful, they are moving their readers away from the truth by triggering the learned click-wirr reaction that arise when dealing with non-truths, nonsense or falsehoods. Once these reactions start, whatever meaning they indicate is automatically and unconsciously paired with the content of the article. The outcome is that facts will be not be considered as facts and will instead be encoded as being wrong. This will further erode the quality of their readers internal representation of reality.
Recently, Goop posted an interview with Traci Mann, Ph.D. in an article titled Busting Diet Myths. As is the case with the predatory authors who write click-article, there was some stuff in the Goop article that they could use as the foundation for something they would feed to their readers to trigger the reward chemicals and outrage. The problem is, the stuff wasn’t actually in the article. Traci Mann was very clear on what she was suggesting as a better approach towards weight loss and there wasn’t anything in what she said that is the least be controversial from a scientific point of view. However, the Goop article was not written in a defensive form meaning that it was easy to take some of the stuff out of context. And since there is money to be made by the click-authors, many of them did, creating a non-existent narrative and then put these words into Traci Mann’s month. While this is not slander, it is a pretty dirty move, especially when you read what she actually said and realize that her advice makes sense and is workable for everyone.
Of all the things that Tracie didn’t say that click-authors attribute to her, the most dishonest centred on the words “leanest liveable weight.” I have to admit, I had no idea what that meant when I first read it. It can mean “the lowest possible weight and body fat percentage that you can have without showing any physiological impairments.” It could also mean that lowest possible weight and body fat percentage that you can maintain without having to resort to heroic actions. The first interpretation is about survival, the second is about quality of life. While a person can live without any low weight health concerns at a body fat level of 5-12 percent depending on gender, maintaining such a low body fat level SUCKS. The long term health outcomes from someone who maintains a low body fat percentage vs. someone who maintains one that is 5-12 percent higher is not significantly different. However, the quality of life outcomes tend to be very different simply because staying at 5-10 percent body fat is a full time job that consumes so many mental cycles that there are practically no reasons to ever do it.
If only there was a way to know what Traci was talking about a person would be able to stop guessing between two possible points of view. It sure would have been nice if someone had taken the time to write an article about her thoughts that captured exactly what she meant.
Good news, someone did! Not the click-authors, but Goop. When one takes the time to read the original article, there is a section titled “what does “leanest livable weight” mean and how do you determine this number for yourself?” Her explanation can only help to clear-up any misunderstanding or provide a completely clear one. But you have to read it, consider it, and figure out how it might work in real life.
Okay, I have a back ground in this stuff, so her explanation was easy for me to read, understand and imagine implementing. But I have no reason to believe that a lay person could read “your leanest livable weight is the weight at the low end of your set range. Your set range is a genetically determined range of weight that your body generally keeps you in, despite your efforts to escape it. If your weight is below that range, biological changes due to calorie deprivation happen, and generally push you back into your set range. However, if you stay within your set range—at the lower end of it—you should be able to maintain that weight without your body making those negative changes” and think she was suggesting that you should starve yourself and get to the lowest possible body fat level that will not cause health concerns.
BUT a lay person would need to read that paragraph and possibly take some time to consider it, which is not something the click-authors recommend that their readers do. Not surprising given their lack of respect for the people why are targeting with their articles.
Consider the following exert, which is very similar to the ones that appeared on various “news” web sites”:
Speaking this weekend, Dr Yeo branded the advice “dangerous” and said it encouraged eating disorders.
“This is a dangerous suggestion, as many people will take it to mean they should be as thin as possible,” he said. “It is irresponsible because the idea is so open to misinterpretation, especially for young girls susceptible to eating disorders. The problem with many of Goop’s recommendations is that they are not based on science, but pseudoscience.
The advice is not dangerous, although following though on a misunderstanding of it might be. But I fail to see how anyone could misunderstand it if they were to read the Goop article, something that the piece in stylist.co.uk does almost NOTHING to encourage people to do.
The rest of the quote contains conjecture, an inaccurate syllogism, and that lumping thing that click-authors are so keen to do when they pile-on to a topic that they believe their readers will consume.
Worse than just being misinformation is the wasted opportunity that Dr. Yeo had to clarify any confusion by unpacking what he knew Traci was saying or reasonably should have known she was saying. His qualifications as a doctor heighten the level of responsibility that he has for making sure things ARE understood, although his role as a presenter on BBC’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor may be interfering with this.
Goop is part of the reason that people have become afraid of eating. We need to love our food, just eat less of it.”
And there you go, while that statement may be true – in that anything is a part of the reason for anything else – it isn’t very true. It suggests two things that are a problem. The first is that it implies that Goop has a lot more power and influence than it does. Second, it suggests that people are both ignorant in terms of knowing what to eat and foolish in that they will take anything that Goop says as absolute truth. It is true that we should probably eat less food, particularly if our body fat levels are on the rise or we want to lower them BUT the quoted statement is a fractured syllogism because the the second premise is not true which renders the first premise meaningless. People are not afraid to eat therefore Goop has no responsibility for people being afraid to eat.
KNOW that people are going to lie and that they tend to lie in the same way and about the same type of things over and over again. These lies will be told for the same reason and many of the people who have a similar goal will tell the same lies and in the same ways as other people. There are patterns and you can train yourself to notice them.
Accept that learning things can hard at times but that any work it entails will be worth it in the long run. Creating an accurate internal representation of the real world is a massive undertaking because life is very complicated. It’s hard enough when we are being exposed to nothing but the truth, so it gets way more challenging when there is an unidentified source of lies around corrupting the information that we are storing. The only way we will know who and what these sources are is by listening to what they say and then taking the time to verify it. By figuring out what they are communicating and then determining if it is actually true, we will ensure that we only learn and remember things that are potentially helpful in the future.
Before reading or listening to anything, take a moment to consider the source. The most important thing here is to get clear on the persons motives and to uncover any conflict of interest they may have that could be skewing the message towards falsehood. Simply by asking the questions “how does the person benefit when I consume what they wrote” or “how does the person benefit if I believe what they are saying” you will activate a level of skepticism that is a requirement for the consumption of contemporary media.
Finally, be aware that there is a physical sensation associated with the click-wirr reaction, a confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, in group / out group thinking, and outrage. Train yourself to identify these sensations and take the time to notice when they are being triggered by the actions of another person. Any time you notice this happening, dig in a little deeper and make the call on whether or not it should be happening. Stories about suffering that is caused by greed should be alarming, stories about how person X said this a stupid thing that does not effect you should not. We evolved to react to any perceived lack of fairness, we LEARN to react to irrelevant things. Slow things down when you have to and take as long as needed to make sure you know the truth and the relevance. Once you do this, pay particular attention to who is lying, what they are lying about, and how they go about it. Knowing these three things will go a long way in helping you decide who is in it for the clicks and who is earnestly trying to broadcast the truth.
This is not the start of a joke like “so Don Cherry walks into a bar…”.
Don Cherry has said worse things than he did on Saturday November 9, 2019. Much worse things. Things about Europeans, Russians, Native people, liberally minded people, women, those who speak about social injustice and the privileging of some groups over others, former NHL enforcers who air their concern about the damage caused by getting punched in the face and head over and over again, advocates for responsible treatment of the planet and people who speak about the approaching challenges of a warming climate.
Don Cherry has said much better things that he did on Saturday November 9, 2019. He is a fierce nationalist who LOVES Canada, he is a strong advocate for Veteran rights, and he supports the troops by raising money and going out of his way and into war zones to show his appreciation for them. Unrelated to last Saturday night, he is a big fan of younger and developing hockey players and recognizing their achievements, he advances the pursuit of hockey IQ, he understands the game well and seems to break it down in a way that has me conclude that he still has some coaching chops, even if he now spends most of this time on something else.
I was sad when his dog died because he seemed terribly heartbroken and it’s nearly impossible to not have empathy when someone loses the object of their unconditional love.
And I don’t know much else about the man other than the superficial qualities that are easy to figure out by looking at him on TV during Coaches Corner. So he is old, he is 85, he’s male, he’s white, and he has some contacts in the fabric and garment business who are able to source some of the strangest material ever imagined-up.
The things that kind of sucks is the fact that the way he acts seems to be the behavioural caricature manifestation of his superficial characteristics or qualities. No one was surprised when he said that he would have voted for Trump. No one was surprised when he said that anyone who believes that humans are causing climate change are cuckaloos. No one was surprised when he said that he was “being ripped to shreds by the left-wing pinko newspapers” during Rob Fords inaugural meeting as mayor of Toronto. No one was surprised when he said that the best hockey players in the world are from Canada, or when he suggested that hockey players from Europe shouldn’t be allowed to play in the CHL or that the way they celebrate scoring a goal is going to get them put onto someones hit list.
That is the thing about Don Cherry, no one is surprised by anything he says or does. Good or bad, it is unsurprising. He has some very good qualities and works to improve the lives of some people, and he has some bad qualities and says stuff that makes you wonder if he has any good qualities. None of this is the point really. He’s been doing what he does for so long that we all kind of just accept it as Don being Don and we move off of it quickly. It’s like the frog in a boiling water that doesn’t notice things are heating-up. The pace has been such a slow creep that we didn’t really notice much of anything over the last 40 years.
This is a part of the problem. While everyone else was changing, he was either staying the same or become more like Don Cherry. There is no way that someone who vocalizes the problematic things he says would get a spot of TV today – at least on CBC; although he hasn’t worked for them for since 2014.
I am not sure what triggered him on Saturday, probably living in Mississauga and noticing that the people no longer look the way they used to and not enough of them were wearing poppies to pay tribute to Veterans. While he didn’t come right out and say the first part, he did directly state the second part before indirectly stating the first. If he had simply made two observations, that Canada is becoming more multicultural and that these days he sees fewer people wearing poppies, people would have agreed with him on both counts and maybe been compelled to go out and buy some of their fellow Canadians a poppy. Even if the audience was motivated to do nothing, Don would still have his job.
The thing with what he said on Saturday night is that it eliminated the possibility that moderate thinkers would be able to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was inarticulately making a valid point.
I don’t wear a poppy. This doesn’t mean that I hate Veterans or that I adore war and violence. It isn’t something I do because I’m not a big fan of virtue signalling. I buy them, I stuff money into the donation box, take a poppy, and feel like a heal because I have done next to nothing to improve the lives of the people who served in the armed forces or lost someone who did. I think it would actually be a few steps worse than nothing if I was to wear the poppy because I feel like I am trying to take credit for doing something that amounts to effectively nothing.
But I am aware of the first world war and the efforts made by Canadian soldiers. Many of them died, many more were gassed, and they got after taking care of the threat that Germany represented to the entire world. I am aware of most of the wars that Canada has found itself in and am grateful that many Canadians made the decision to join the armed forces and risk their lives fighting the numerous enemies over the last century.
I am less clear on what aging Veterans want from Canada or from their fellow Canadians, or if they view those who wear poppies as being with them and those who do not as being against them. If I had to guess I’d put my money on them not thinking much about who wears the poppies and their thoughts being on the people they served with, and particularly those who did not make it home. This is said having no direct experience with any of the nastiness of war. Maybe they did what they did to make sure people were as free to wear the poppy as they are to not wear it, but my feeling is that poppies were the last thing on their minds when they at war and that they don’t think much about them for 11 months of the year.
I’m willing to give Don Cherry the benefit of the doubt in so far as suggesting that he was trying to say something very positive about Veterans and that he wanted Canadians to re-up their appreciation for the actions taken by our armed forces personnel. And I kind of wish that he had just said it like that because it would have generated a lot of good will and probably a boost in donations for the poppy drive. What he said is, if nothing else, a distraction from Remembrance Day and the legitimate need for Canadian citizens and permanent residence to make sure ALL of our Veterans are treated fairly and well taken care of. Give money and time to Veteran organizations.
Of course, all of this could have been avoid if Don had said something else OR if we had heard what he was saying years ago. How much stuff did we just shrug off? And whats does that cause to happen? Well, things escalate. When the time comes that you do have to draw the line, it is going to be over something worse than any of the things that have been overlooked. The end result is that when the line is finally crossed it is about something that you would never have predicted as having dealing with. It will be so far past what is acceptable that for it to be the first offence will seem like a massive jump.
This is the problem with giving people too many passes. Because they are not punished for their misbehaviour, they develop a sense of invincibility and start to believe that the collective silence from everyone is an indication of our collective agreement with what they are saying. And when they get the next pass, it serves to reinforce this belief. After years of this pattern, there ends up being a moment when they cross the line, keep going and have a Saturday night like Don did when there is a big flip in the minds of many people and they say “enough is enough.”
Enough is enough, and it was enough a long time ago. He should have been corrected years ago and if he was still unwilling to change his behaviour, he should have had his future freed-up and been given the opportunity to do something else. This would have saved his legacy a lot of damage and it would have saved Remembrance Day 2019 from having to share the spotlight with news about Don Cherry’s termination from Coaches Corner.
I am not a fan of silencing people. I believe that unless someone is inciting violence or committing a crime with their words, they should be free to say more or less whatever they want. The same applies to Cherry, and as far as I can tell, he is still free to say whatever it is he feels like saying. He lost his job which is a measure of the same free speech he had and continues to have. The managers of the company he works for have every right to employ the people they want and, so long as they do not violate any labour laws when they terminate someones employment, they are well within their rights to do so. They actually have a responsibility to shareholders to release the problem talent and replace it with something more profitable.
I do not fault Rogers Communications Inc. for letting him go. They didn’t have a choice because he no longer speaks for all Canadians or most Canadians. He speaks for some Canadians and these people will be more than happy to give him a place to land when this whole things blows over.
I fault us for Don Cherry. We tuned-in and watched, we gave him an audience to talk at. Our attention was the reason why various media companies over the years hired him. He made them a lot of money because we gave him an ear. We didn’t say stop, smarten-up, change your ways or your going to be out of work, we simply said “oh, that’s just Don Cherry” as if that is a valid reason for anything. We kept him going because at some level of functioning, we are willing to overlook the tired actions of an old man who hasn’t been able to keep up with the pace of change.
The consequence to this inaction is going to be the further divide between those who think Don Cherry is great and those who are tired of having to tolerate someone who just doesn’t seem to be trying to get it right.
Don Cherry does not have a problem, he’s fine with what he said and seems willing to move on. We have a Don Cherry problem, and have had one for a long time. He may be a good man who says some stupid things. He may be an okay man who is stuck in the past. Or he might be an 85 year old white guy who cannot fathom how anyone could have a problem with his voicing his support and loyalty for Veterans while simultaneously declaring how “real” Canadians should act for the benefit of the people who just come to Canada for milk and honey.
This should serve as a warning that we cannot and should not give someone a pass for saying things that are wrong, pointlessly unhelpful or harming, or are divisive to the country as a whole. Give them a warning and the opportunity to change their course, and if they take it, welcome them back. If they chose not to, thank a Veteran for fighting for the persons liberty to remain as they want to be then honour the persons decision and your word by acting quickly to clean-up the mess. Doing nothing just moves the problem into the future while ensuring that it grows larger with each unpunished misstep.
Headlines matter because they act to prime the reader for what they are about to consume. Their psychological purpose is to activate particular circuits and power-up mental processes that will influence the experience of the reader. An outrageous headline activates a lot of unconscious brain activity that readies the reader to engage in in-group / out-group thinking, virtue signalling behaviour, toxic empathy, and a version of the selection bias that has them ignore or disregard anything that would serve to mitigate the outrage. It suppresses objectivity and rational though by hijacking the brain of the reader.
Today I read the Toronto Sun article by Dr. Ken Walker (who writes using the name Dr. Gifford Jones) titled Did you hear about the North American wimp epidemic? It appeared in my Google news feed and after consciously trying to ignore it a few times I found myself clicking on the link.
I was expect one of two things. The first was an article about how “men” in North America have become emotionally more expressive as they tap into the well feminine energy in an attempt to become more progressive. The second was an article that outlined the hormonal changes that are associated with consuming too much soy protein as our culture moves away from eating animal protein. It was neither of these, which says a lot about me.
The article was about pain medication and how people in North America consume a lot of it. Based on a study that was referenced but not cited – Opioid Prescribing After Surgery in the United States, Canada, and Sweden – the author talks about the finding that people in Sweden are less likely to fulfill their prescription for opioid medication after keyhole surgery when compared to people in the US and Canada.
The results were shocking. It showed that 79% of Canadians and 76% of Americans used opioid prescription drugs following these procedures. But only 11% of patients in Sweden needed an opioid drug! You do not need to be a statistician to surmise that something has gone awry in North America.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones
As the article continues, he coins the term “pillitis” as a symptom of our mania for pills. For this, he places the blame on three groups:
The first is big pharma who have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to make as much money as possible. They manufacture and market chemical solutions to the problems that people have, and, as such, they have a conflict of interest when it comes to the truth. If they can sell the problem and the solution, they’ll beat earnings projections which translates into greater divided-ends and larger bonuses for the C level personnel.
The second group is the doctors who prescribe the medicine to their patients. Their motivation is to reduce suffering while doing no harm to the people they are helping. Being the only people in the equation who have the legal authority to say who can buy and consume most medication, they are the gatekeepers who basically introduce the end user to the drug dealers. This introduction comes in the form of a prescription, a dosing recommendation, and their blessing.
The final group are the people who consume more medication than their counterparts in Sweden. These are the “wimps” that Dr. Gifford-Jones is talking about. We are the ones suffering from pillitis, unwilling or incapable of enduring any sort of pain and only too happy to shell out cash to buy whatever magic coloured pill that has been invented to alleviate the symptoms of whatever medical condition happens to be making our life a little bit less than ideal.
While I happen to agree with a lot of what the author is saying – that many of the medical problems that people suffer from are not problems per-say, and are actually symptoms of a series of poor life choices – I have difficulty with how he goes about saying it and what he does to get the message out.
According to the JAMA article that he references, around 8 of 10 people in North America who get surgery will fulfill the prescription for pain medication that their doctors gave them. In Sweden, this number is around 1 in ten. Using logic and hyperbole, the conclusion is drawn that people in North America are wimps and the folks in Sweden are tough.
This is a little rich, particularly for a medical professional. It’s the kind of thing that I would expect from a blogger, copy writer, or pundit who has a vested interest in pushing a particular point of view. It is the very thing that kind of has me try to ignore sensationalist headlines and avoid consuming the articles they are trying to promote. It is more understandable when a writer, marketer or talking head does it as they may not see themselves having any other choice. It is a different story when a doctor does it.
This I say while agreeing with most of what the author is stating. Too many people rely on pills or medication to treat the symptoms of a problem that the person could solve if they just took some different actions – eating more whole food and more fresh vegetables, and consuming lower amounts of food will go a long way in eliminating the “need” to take heart burn medication. The body is doing its best to process the crappy food-like stuff that is being pushed into the stomach, which means making and releasing more than a reasonable amount of digestive acid. More acid dumped into a full stomach means that some of this acid is going to find it way to the top and begin to leak out. There is a very good chance that your daily heartburn would disappear if you ate less in general and consumed more things that are easy to breakdown.
As evidence that North Americans are wimps, our constant indigestion does not meet the mark. It is more likely evidence of a different condition that is not medical – it indicates that we make chronically bad choices and find the consumption of various food-like products to be so rewarding that we cannot stop ourselves from eating them.
That same thing might apply to the filling of the post-surgery opioid drug prescriptions that the doctors write. This one is a little tougher though given that very few people are doctors and that most people are compliant or obedient when it comes to the recommendations of authority figures. When the doctor hands over a prescription it is natural for a patient to be motivated to get it filled and to follow the doctors’ orders. This is the case for almost all medications and for most people, and it is behaviour that is instilled in us when we are young and any time we hear someone say something about antibiotic resistant bacteria. Super bugs are primarily created through the over use of antibiotics in animal farming and, to a much lower extent, by people not completing the entire course of antibiotics. However, since most people are not farmers, our civic duty is to take ALL of the medication the doctor prescribes and to consume it exactly how they outline.
If you do not want to be a bad person and end up ruining the future for your children you WILL do what the doctor says. Factor this into a health care system that doesn’t afford the doctor a whole lot of time to get into the ins and outs of opioid pain killers and you have the perfect recipe for the creation of a continent of wimps. The doctor told me to take the medication every 6 hours so I took the medication every six hours. And by the way, the doctor cut a couple of holes into me, pumped the area full of CO2, and scrapped or cut out stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there. Sure, when compared to the old school method of slicing a 14 inch cut just below the rib cage and having the doctor and three surgery assistants put their hand inside feeling around in your guts, laparoscopic surgery isn’t much of anything. But it is still “surgery,” albeit a much less invasive form of cutting someone open.
I don’t think this makes people wimps – at least it does not necessarily make us wimps. People in North America are much more likely to get their opioid prescriptions filled, and according to the JAMA article, are going to be prescribed a greater quantity of medication when compared to Sweden. Does this mean that doctors, as the middle people between the drug seller and the drug user, are the ones who are writing the prescriptions and are therefore in near complete control over who gets access and the quantity that they get access to? It does, but it is the wimps who are following the doctors’ orders. Does it also mean that people in Sweden are much less likely to listen to what their doctors say and to ignore the medical advice that they dispense? It does, but that is because they are not wimps like we are in North America.
Here’s the rub, and it bothers me a lot. First off, I agree with what the doctor is saying about over prescribing medication, particularly opioid pain killers. These drugs are a potential problem because they have the quality of eliminating psychological pain as well as most physical pain. Life can be tough, it can even be painful. Maybe you come home from work and your back hurts from lifting something. Maybe you come home and your spirit hurts from the realization that you are the lackey who must dance when your boss grinds out a tune on the organ. Both of these things are a version of pain, both will disappear if you take some oxy, and maybe both should be experienced because they are a symptom of something not working for your body. The ability to experience pain evolved for a reason, we eliminate it at our own peril. Not wanting to experience pain does not make someone a wimp, it indicates that the system is working correctly and that the person is psychologically well adjusted. Pain is there to motivate us to avoid something. The truth is, post-surgery pain is an indication that the surgery should be avoided and that you should avoid surgeons. That is true in so far as their interventions DID cause the pain but it is not true because when we take a long view, their actions actually reduce long term suffering.
My annoyance comes from the title of his article and on who he blames for the abundant filling of post-surgery pain prescriptions. As a doctor, he isn’t going to come out and say “surgeons in North America are prescribing more pain medication than is necessary and this is helping to line the pockets of drug companies” because it would be professionally risky and while it might be technically true, doing so isn’t on their radar. The intention of a surgeon is to reduce suffering and allow people to live with less pain and without the need for pain medication once healing has taken place. All of that being said, the JAMA article was not about people who went out and bought pain medication on the black market, it is about people for which a medical doctor prescribed the medication and that the patients bought through a well-established and legal system.
The author has a point of view and has an obligation to the publisher of the Toronto Sun to create content that will generate page views. While his article was a less than perfect marriage of these two things, it was moderately successful at the first and very successful at the second. He seems to believe that people should be more tolerate of pain and have a willingness to alter their behaviour to eliminate some of the discomfort associated with making poor choices. He also seems to believe that doctors should not be prescribing opioid medications as frequently or in the amounts that they are. But in order to get people to consume these messages, he creates an outrageous title that implies that wimpiness is the newest epidemic to hit North America.
This makes me wonder, would he have gotten as many page views if he had selected the title “Thousands Ignore Medical Advice In Epidemic Of Swedish Masochism?” I have to concede that I would have clicked on that link INSTANTLY and would have laughed at the tactic to trigger my interest and capture my attention.
Headlines matter because they act to prime the reader for what they are about to consume. Their psychological purpose is to activate particular circuits and power-up mental processes that will influence the experience of the reader. An outrageous headline activates a lot of unconscious brain activity that readies the reader to engage in in-group / out-group thinking, virtue signalling behaviour, toxic empathy, and a version of the selection bias that has them ignore or disregard anything that would serve to mitigate the outrage. It suppresses objectivity and rational though by hijacking the brain of the reader. A feel good headline on the other hand offers so much less to the brain of the reader. No problem is presented and since no one is being victimized, the moral high-ground is not so clearly found. The absence of an obvious “right” and “wrong” offers little incentive to the brain of a potential reader. Unconsciously, we KNOW that there is nothing in it for us and while we may feel good after reading it, we will not feel activated and alive in nearly the same way as we do when we read about Trumps latest tweet – regardless of the side of the fence you find yourself on, Trump’s tweets satisfy everyone because they are either outrageous or how people respond to them will be.
I do not fault the doctor for any of this. He is both a doctor and a writer, and the identity of each requires a different set of skills and behaviours. The lines are blurred a little bit with his “wimp” article because he’s using a tactic of a writer to get people to consume his medical opinion. Getting people to read anything is a tough task, so maybe he had little choice when it came down to it. However, after reading his article and the original JAMA study, I’m left wondering if it was worth the time and effort.
And that is the point of this post. Headlines are used to capture people’s attention and trick them into reading something that they would normally ignore because they trigger seeking behaviour that is, in many ways, very similar to the moves drug addicts make as the effects of their last hit begin to fade. But just like the cravings of a drug addict, we do not need to give-in to the desires that are launched by an extreme headline. These decisions to not indulge will, overtime, reduce and eventually eliminate the intrusive thoughts that lead to the impulsive behaviour of clicking to read things that we actually do not care about or that we were tricked into believing mattered to us.
It works something like this: each one of us has an identity. This is kind of like a narrative story we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do and the values we possess. This is, for the most part, an unconscious and automatic thing – we do not often find ourselves asking the questions “is this the right thing to do” or “do I believe in what I am doing?” The entire thing is so powerful that we almost always act in a way that is congruent or aligned with our identity, all without much or any conscious thought or analysis.
On March 23, 2012, I attended the Landmark Forum in Toronto. A few of my friends at the time had suggested that I go because they had both enjoyed and grown from the experience. It was something that I also found useful and it has had an impact on a lot of my life. In August 31, 2012, I posted Some Information About Landmark Education that covered my feelings about the process, at least as they existed at that moment in time. I suppose my feelings have evolved over the last seven years, so I have decided to write a follow-up post.
A few things before I begin:
I was only a participant, I have never worked or volunteered
for them, and I have no reason to believe that I ever will. There is a near
zero percent chance that I will ever take another one of their courses. This
isn’t because I think they are useless, the people I know who took a few of
them got a lot out of their experiences, so anecdotally they are valuable. I
don’t think I’ll take any more of them because I don’t want to. Since I began
my meditation practice, the source of most of my demons has become crystal
clear and most of them have disappeared.
Education alone does not set people free, consistent action over time probably can. It is hard work, thankless and void of any immediate gratification, so most people never really change in a fundamental way. We throw a new coat of paint on our life and go back to doing what we have always been doing. Knowing that we are full of crap and getting very clear on how exactly we are filled with it makes us enlighten-to-our-bull-shitting, it does not make us honest brokers of truth. I suppose that’s fine, I’m still hopeful that one day I will grow-up and become the person I was destined to become. But maybe I already have….
There was nothing unique or revolutionary about the information they provided EXCEPT for the way it was packaged. This isn’t a fault or even a problem. It’s actually more of a universal truth about facts and wisdom. These things exist even when they have not been discovered, and even when they have been uncovered, not everyone who listens will hear them. The exact reason why a message will find its way into our brain and then into our consciousness is not always clear, so Landmarks repackaging of the information is helpful and I dare to say needed because it is good information, it is true, and it allows for a solid de-cluttering of the mind of anyone the ideas happen to infect INDEPENDENT of the source.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, some things
are just crap. They are no worse when the outcome is awful, and they are no
better when the outcome is a transformation into the realm of greatness. As
happy as I am with my experience at the forum, the information that I acquired
and how it all continues to echo on in my life, I remain convinced that the
seminar afterwards was not nearly as benign. This, I say, knowing full well
that there is a very good chance that I would not have met my wife Heather had
I not attended it. The ends however do not justify the means. When compared to
the Forum, the seminar is an entirely different animal.
The Forum is introductory and transactional, the
seminar is a long haul experience aimed at capturing people for at least the
next seminar but hopefully for a long time to come. Everything about the Forum
was single serving – short concise impeccably scripted lessons, a short one on
one interaction between you and the person who was sitting beside you, and then
a quick pivot onto the next lesson. It was highly choreographed to the point
that I am nearly certain that each time the leader reached for and ate a mint,
that it was part of the script. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because it
very easily could have been, meaning that I paid for and got a world class
The seminar was not so good, and for this I
cannot fault the leader. I don’t think I liked her very much, but I’m not sure.
She had a job to do and she did it well. My main beef was the amount of time
consumed with the attempts to sell the next seminar; which I don’t think is
necessary for something that is very high quality. That makes me laugh because
maybe it wasn’t high quality and they knew. Maybe it was only my experience
with it that was high quality and the results were the outcome of my subsequent
actions to generate a different future. Again, the information that was presented
weekly was useful. It was neither new nor revolutionary, but it was packaged
and presented in a Landmarky way, building upon the lessons from the Forum, and
using the Forum languaging to help consolidate the experience. This makes for
easy predatory listening and a click-whirr type of interaction that have people
fire off fixed responses when the speaker says one of the trigger words.
I suppose I should be as honest as I possibly can
be here because I am kind of reviewing a service that a business offers and who
I am will have a big impact on what I think and feel about the service. In
fairness, I can be a real dick from time to time. It happens less frequently
now than before, but it can be very easy for someone to form a piss poor first
impression of me that only reflects who I am about 5 to 10 percent of the time.
This 5 to 10 percent just happened to coincide with the seminar group meetings.
They were awful and I didn’t do a single thing to make the experience any
better for most of the group members.
At the first seminar, we formed groups of six
people who we would have phone meetings with once a week to talk about the
material, our experiences trying the material on, and to talk about any of the
challenges we had. As a rule, I don’t like this type of thing because it is the
phone and it is strangers. My group members were fine. They were just people
who, like me, imagined that there was an easier or better life available and
were willing to try things out to see what could be done to make it happen. I
wasn’t the same type of person as most of the members. I straight-up know that
I can be an obnoxious asshole and I exercise my right to choose to be that
asshole whenever I feel like it. My life was crap or great because of my
actions and NOT because other people didn’t do what I wanted them to do.
Superficially that contributed but when I get right down to it, other people’s
action have nothing to do with my response and assuming that I use my personal
power to think, feel and do what I need to, screw everyone else. This isn’t a
bad thing, it’s freeing actually. I make the life I want to have and I leave
other people alone to do the same. But this live and let live approach was a
little out of place with most of my group.
This is a problem with self-help groups, religions, cults, and any collection of people who identify around a particular thing, a problem that only shows up when resources are scarce and competition for them is high, or in times of turmoil, stress, or uncertainty. Basically, it is the combination of the cognitive biases of the fundamental attribution error (the tendency for us to view our own actions in situational terms while viewing the actions of others as indicators of intent or character), the self-serving bias (the tendency to view ourselves in more favorable and self-esteem enhancing ways) and the in-group–out-group bias (the tendency for us to show more favorable views towards members of the group to which we are affiliated while viewing more harshly those who do not belong to the group). These things come together to render much of our thinking about other people as subjective and a reflection of inaccurate heuristics. Available cognitive capacity and then the willingness to use it is the antidote to this problem, but when it came to the seminar group discussions there wasn’t much of either to go around.
It works something like this: each one of us has
an identity. This is kind of like a narrative story we tell ourselves about who
we are, what we do and the values we possess. This is, for the most part, an
unconscious and automatic thing – we do not often find ourselves asking the
questions “is this the right thing to do” or “do I believe in
what I am doing?” The entire thing is so powerful that we almost always
act in a way that is congruent or aligned with our identity, all without much
or any conscious thought or analysis.
Being a participant in the Landmark Forum can
surface this identity and the information can influence it. Those who resist
the lessons or are unwilling to see themselves in the story of another
participant are displaying their identity in so far as they are claiming,
“I am NOT like that.” That is neither here nor there because it is a self-improvement
workshop, so your role as participant is to try on EVERYTHING to see what comes
out of it. And it also doesn’t really matter much with the Forum weekend
because it is over and done with very quickly. This means that none of the
other participants will ever have the opportunity to notice you assimilating
the new information into your identity and observe some of the messiness
associated with this process. To automate anything, it requires consistent
mindful practice over time, which is energy consuming and can be very
destabilizing as a once held value disintegrates to make room for the
integration of an updated one.
Being a participant in the seminar, you remain
connected with people over a 10 to 12 week period, so you begin to see the
efforts people are taking to move into a different future as they get better
and better at working with the information they are being exposed to. This is
particularly obvious during the weekly group calls, at least with some of the
members. But it is messy and since no one is starting at the same point or at
the same time, the progress is frustratingly random. This was something that I
was used to, given the amount of time I had spent as a personal trainer. Some
people get things instantly, others improve at a consistent slow pace, while
others will get worse only to suddenly improve dramatically. It’s an individual
journey in the gym, just as it is an individual journey everywhere else in
life. The problem is the “group-think” that the three cognitive
biases mentioned above triggers. Well, the problem is when you are NOT a part
of the group that has been infected with the “group-think,” which was
me, unsurprisingly, given my tendency towards assholism.
In my defense for how I act, I try hard to not
automatically assume that my feelings are correct. I have been suspicious of my
brain and my emotional system for a long time, well before I knew when it
cannot be trusted and why that happens. Feelings are not thoughts, and while
both tend to influence each other in a way that makes them seem inseparable,
they are not the same and they can be pulled apart if you are willing to put
the work into it. It’s hard though, and like any skill, it’s nearly impossible
at the beginning, messy in the middle and effortless at the end. While I had
not yet gotten very good at doing this back in 2012, I had been working on it
for a while and had made some headway. This is why I was like poison to the
majority of my group.
Having no desire to be a leader, and no interest
in blindly following what the instructor was saying, I was seeking evidence or
the truth. A good idea is a good idea, and the better an idea is, the larger
the evidence pool will be for its truth. This meant that I asked a lot of
“why” questions and was guilty of asking “what reasons do you
have for saying or believing that?” which is really annoying for people
who are in the process of trying to recreate their identity. They are fine
questions, the answers are important, but having to put the work into finding
out and then explaining the answers to someone like me seems more like a
disruption than an exercise in good intellectual hygiene. It became very clear
to everyone that I was not automatically on-board with what the instructor was
saying. If I had drank the Kool-Aid, my liver had metabolized the poison very
quickly allowing me to be curious about everything that was going on.
This is the problem with in-group-out-group biases. Because my behavior was not the same as the behavior of everyone else, I was clearly in the out-group. Under normal circumstances, this doesn’t matter, people have the available mental energy to consider two different points of view. But personal development courses are NOT normal circumstances. Most of the people are in flux, moving from one identity to the next, which casts a massive cognitive shadow on the available resources. The lack of available mental energy, when coupled with my lack of conformity to the group norm, cast me as an out-group member which triggered all of the associated nonsense and erroneous thinking that are associated with cognitive biases. Things degraded very quickly and it was not all that pleasant.
The upside is that I did learn a lot about what it makes sense to stand-up for and what it makes sense to just leave alone. My own personal development and that of my clients is worth taking a stand for, but I’m less convinced that I should attempt to play a role in the journey of others simply because it isn’t helpful for them and I have better things to do with my time. It probably makes things worse. As soon as their brain flips the switch and transports me into the out-group, the lens of preconception has been dawned and my actions will obviously indicate my true intention.
But more interesting is the fact that struggling
to explain why something is the way it is or why a feeling you are having is an
indication of truth are symptoms of something problematic. What the actual
problem is can be any number of things; at the simplest would be an
unwillingness to say out loud what ones intentions or wants actually are, but
on the other side would be an over reliance on gut feelings, a lack of self-awareness,
a need to belong to group or the desire to experience the rewards associated
with social validation.
The way I see it, if you do not know why you feel
the way you feel, you cannot actually claim to be feeling anything at all. You
are having an emotional response, which may manifest as anger, sadness,
concern, etc… but it is not anything more than that. I’m of the school of
thought that in order for it to be anything other than an emotional response,
it needs some weight behind it and in this case, that force is supplied by
thoughts, thinking, logic and rationality. Without any of these, it is just
something that is being triggered by some number of unconscious thought
processes which are valid but since we do not know what they are, we have no
idea what the feeling is all about. This is not to suggest that the emotional
response is not real, it is a thing that can be measured so it is therefore
real. But it is a subjective experience that has no transferable meaning to
anyone else. The narrative reason for a feeling CAN be shared and transferred
to others, so it can also be interrogated for accuracy, validity, and
An example here would be for the Landmark
Advanced course – this is the second course in their curriculum and it is
assumed that everyone who takes the Forum and who enrolls in the seminar
afterwards WILL take the Advanced course. My friends who suggest the Forum to
me did recommend that I take it, but they were also not so set on me doing it
right away. Their advice was to take it at some point, but ONLY if I put into
action any of the lessons that were taught in the Forum. If I wasn’t willing,
able, or open to doing that, there wasn’t any value in attending anything else.
As it would happen, the next Advanced course was scheduled to run on the
weekend of the third or fourth week of the seminar, so on weeks two and three,
there was a big sales push to encourage people to sign-up. I was unsure about
going, so I made the call to wait and see what value I was able to extract from
what I had already done. On the last group call before the course, 3 of the 5
had signed-up and they were encouraging the other 2 to join them.
The next call was unreal in its strangeness. The
only other non-attendee was not on the call, so there was a full court press to
get me to sign-up for the next Advanced course offering. Now I will not lie, I
was slightly more interested at that point in time given how they were all
gushing about how transformational and life changing it was. Whatever they had
experienced had made an impression upon them, at least in terms of what a
weekend experience has to offer. But, me being me, I asked them why I should
go? What they each got out of it? How they believe their futures will be
different and better because of it? The usual types of questions I ask when
someone recommends an outlier experience to me. A $1300 weekend course is very
different from a $12 movie or a $50 dinner, so I was seeking the specifics. The
thing was that no one had any. They had had an experience and since it seemed
powerful, they took that to mean that it was significant and therefore a
worthwhile thing. A bar fight or a hangover is a significant experience, but
that does not make either one worthwhile. I was hoping to find out why the
Advanced course was like a hangover in terms of significance but unlike a
hangover in terms of the worthwhileness.
Looking back on it now, I realize that it was a
kind of dickish thing to do because it was based off of a less than genuine set
of assumptions. I KNEW that they had no idea about the answers to those
questions because the experience had not landed yet given that it had just
wrapped-up a couple of days before. I also knew with near certainty that 2 of
the 3 people would not be capable of answering the question accurately based on
the limited information they did have access to. My memory does not serve me
well here, but I have a sense that the remaining person was less vocal about
the recommendation and was passively going along with the other two. When I
started with the questions, she was able to answer with something along the
lines of “it got me into a different head space and allowed me to consider
things from a different perspective that I would not have done on my own or
without going to the course.” That is an answer that I can believe and
that doesn’t really apply to me. I have no trouble considering things from a
different head space and my life is simple enough that I just take the time when
I feel like doing it. She needed a commitment device and a sequestering and had
no trouble justifying the spend to get these. She didn’t ever bring it up with
me or the group again and for that I was grateful.
But it didn’t really make any difference because the
other two were relentless about how I MUST go. And yet, they never were able to
give me a reason why or any indication that they had figured out why they felt
so strongly about it. Which brings us back to the legitimacy of feelings if
there are no thoughts to back them up. They were having an emotional response
to something but they did not have access to the reasons why they were having
it. That isn’t anything that I will spend much time considering because when
you get right down to it, thinking up a reason why an experience is
transformative shouldn’t even be necessary if the experience was in fact
transformative, you would just know why. They have a great weekend, they were
taken on a roller coaster ride and when things wrapped-up on Sunday evening
their memory buffer was filled with the peak parts of the experience and how
they felt on Sunday when it ended. This is how experiential memory works so it
wasn’t a shock that they thought that everyone should take it. That is fine,
but it isn’t thinking and it isn’t a logical rationale for spending time doing
something. Factor in the ease at which people are capable of thinking up
justifications for anything and their lack of insight or even an answer becomes
even more revealing.
Their experience was so transformational that not only can they not give a specific example of something that will be different, but they are not even able to come-up with a justification on an ad hoc basis. This did not sit well with me. For example, I can be a dick and call someone out publically for some nonsense perspective they have. When asked later I am able to say why I did it – in terms of my reason at the time – and I’m then able to think up a variety of other possible reason that were not part of the decision making matrix at the time. That’s what a brain does when it is trained to do it. The third person had trained their brain to do it and answered accordingly. The first and second people had never asked their brain to perform this function so when I made the ask, their brain threw an error and they just said “you gotta do it, it’s transformational and it will move you towards your future possibilities.”
“I don’t, it might be, and the jury is out
on whether or not that happened for you so I’m going to table my decision for a
while so I can collect some more evidence.” The fact of the matter is
simple, what you get out of life is linked to what you put into it. A weekend
course is just a weekend course if, upon its completion, you close the work book
and never think about it again. But a weekend course, or a ten second
conversation with someone for that matter, can be transformational if, upon
completion, you never close the book or never allow the conversation to go
silent. The initial experience is just the introduction so your actions
afterwards are what will determine if it was a beginning or if it was the
beginning, the middle and the end, all wrapped-up nicely in a tight 48 hour
The first and second did more to shape my decision than I ever let on. Frankly, I wasn’t going to tell them that they didn’t have any useful insight or that they had turn me off by recommending something to me that they couldn’t actually recommend or which was recommended simple to bolster their view that it was fantastic because there was another checkmark in terms of social validation. My opinion isn’t worth that much and how I choose to spend my weekends should have no impact on the lived experience of strangers or my cohorts in a personal development class.
That was then and it was a while ago. I am very comfortable with my having taken seven years to reach this point and will say that the Forum remains a highlight in my journey through life. It wasn’t the best thing that I ever did but it has a positive emotional valiance. There are some crappy things about the weekend, the seminar and the company – primarily the push for continued enrollment and the slightly dogmatic way a few of the people end-up acting. Both of these reveal a lot more about me than anything else.
Why do I hate being sold to? Why do I care if someone else has been sold to so effectively that they instantly change their identity into someone who LIVES Landmark? These questions are neither difficult to answer nor are the answers interesting. I hate being sold to when I am not expecting it because it obliterates my flow in terms of thinking. The solid stream of information about the subject matter hits my brain and makes it do dynamic and fantastically rewarding things. I LOVE thinking and the reward systems of my brain respond to the spontaneous generation thoughts that are triggered by the material. A quick sales plug lands like punishment when I’m floating along on a dopamine bliss. As for why I care when other people drink the Kool-Aid and get after their new passion like it is their first crush, well the answer is kind of boring, this is no longer something that I do. I have given-up hoping that I can know or control the content of other people’s minds and have found the experience of letting go to be exceptionally liberating. Some people like cars, some people like the sports, others like furniture, while others are passionate about being outraged. And none of it impacts me. I’ll talk about cars, the sports, listen to people talk about furniture, and really connect about things that trigger outrage, but it’s all transient and pointless for the most part.
This final fact is really what the Landmark Forum is all about. Almost everything is completely pointless and there are a tiny number of the actions that we take that actually matter. Maybe there is more on the line for those who have children, but I’m not qualified to answer and I do not know. And even then, if there isn’t and people act like there is, or there is and people act like there isn’t, it still won’t matter all that much. The world is a big place, and it is statistically nothing when compared to the mass of the universe. I’m just a bag of molecules, seven dollars worth of carbon, and if the earth is nothing in comparison to the universe, and I am nothing in comparison to the earth, what am I in comparison to the universe? I’m going to give that question exactly the amount of consideration it deserves.
Both parties are having a very similar experience although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me to click on the link. I am glad it did, because I got a lot out of reading the article as it reminded me about how far I have come in terms of getting clear on what the present moment is and what the experience of being in it is like. While I did have a challenge with the title, because it begs the question and therefore usurps a number of my brain cycles, I got a lot out of the mental journey caused by reading and reflecting on what the author wrote.
While I have a number of disagreements with what they say, I
think it is a good article. It is well written, it comes from the heart and
from the author’s experiences, and there is very little in it (possibly
nothing) that is distracting in terms of style, language, grammar, or sentence
structure. This final point is very critical because it allows the article to
stand on its own and to be a thing independent of the medium. The ideas that
the author puts forward are evaluated as objectively as they can be and it
seems like a lot of care was taken to remove most of the details that might
cause a subjective interpretation or trigger a cognitive bias. For example, I
had no idea the gender of the author until after I read the article and
revisited the page to do some follow-up review. Their gender is probably
important to them, but it is not relevant to those who consume the article.
This is something that I think I need to highlight more.
Ideas are good, bad, neutral, provocative, progressive, regressive,
transformational, ignorant, biased, inclusive, future-altering, creative, etc.
and, in an ideal world, they are consumed and interrogated based on their merits.
A good idea that you do not like remains a good idea, so ones opinion of the
idea should never factor into the critical evaluation of it. The best example
here, and one that may remain relevant in perpetuity, is Donald Trump. In this
case I am not actually making reference to the person. I am making reference to
the idea that is “Donald Trump.”
He does not conform to the stereotypical role of US
president or traditional western world leader. His presentation is something
closer to a mid-twentieth century union leader than a diplomat of a superpower.
There is a straight shooter quality to him that on first glance seems authentic
and trustworthy, but does not stand-up to any level of scrutiny. It is
authentic in so far as it is true that he is thinking the thing that he is
saying in and around the time that he says it, but there is no evidence or
proof that the thoughts existed before the moment or have much of a life
afterwards. There doesn’t seem to be any stacking of ideas that is building to
a grand theory or understanding of things. It is just a stream of ideas, one
after the other, and mostly non-sequiturs.
Which is why it is inappropriate to dismiss everything he
says out of hand or to accept everything he says instantly. There are a few
very good ideas in the totality of everything he communicates, just as there
are some absolutely awful things. Uncovering these things will only occur when
you take the time to divorce the message from the man and allow the idea to
stand alone. The problem here is that this takes a lot of effort and it is not
something that comes naturally or is even remotely palatable to do. It’s easier
to say “he’s a genius, MAGA!” or “he’s a dope who is ruining the country” and
then take this view into the evaluation of the next thing he communicates.
Like most things, the middle way is ideal, but it lacks all
of the power and energy that tribal reactions affords us. This is what I try to
do in-spite of the fact that it is draining and a lonely pursuit. Fewer people
operate this way now than at any time in our history and I have a feeling that
this approach will be effectively eliminated within a couple of decades. But
until then, I’m going to try to detach an idea from its creator and consume it
as though it came from someone who has a strong track record of putting forward
reasonable perspectives that are not dogmatically charged or partisan.
So given all of this, here are my thoughts on the article
title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” and the ideas that it puts forward.
The way the title reads is that “mindfulness” is a lot like
a dryer that hides a single sock, if you are in a great mood, diarrhea, if you
are feeling nothing much at all, or something between homelessness and cancer depending on just how down you are
Of course, when the page opens and the reader is greeted
with the article, the title is there, superimposed over a picture of someone’s
face, both of which are being joined by a subtitle that would, if not for the
first one, cause the brain to throw an error.
“Mindfulness promotes itself as value-neutral but it is
loaded with (troubling) assumptions about the self and the cosmos,” which
indicates that its creator is making much more troubling assumption than the
noun or verb “mindfulness” has, is, or will. Let’s also throw “can” into that
mix as well.
Before moving forward, I need to declare my conflict of
interest here. I am a fan of mindfulness meditation and a big believer in the
positive effects of disenchantment and its close relative disillusionment.
Phrased more crassly, the sooner someone takes their head out of their ass and
begins to see reality in more objective terms, the sooner they can start to do
more impressive things in the world and with their life. For example, a lot of
people have challenges realizing or learning that there is a boundary between
themselves and other people, meaning that everyone else has an experience of
reality that is theirs alone and rarely (never) is their perspective from your point
of view. This makes sense logically. So much sense that you may even think
“what a stupid and unnecessary statement to make,” which is exactly the point I
am making. From YOUR perspective it is unnecessary, so therefore it is
unnecessary. That doesn’t change the reality that until we learn to act
otherwise, our first impulse is always going to be to see things from our own
point of view followed by a castigation of anyone who is not aligned with it.
It doesn’t need to be this way, you can train your brain to
table harsh judgment of dissention for later in favor of considering how the
world would have to be in order for someone to believe something OTHER than
what you believe. Here’s the rub, the world is actually much closer to that way
than the way you believe it is.
And it is this way for EVERYONE. We evolved to get it wrong
and we do, until we realize that we are wrong and take the steps to correct our
For me, mindfulness meditation represents the main step we
can take in order to correct our path. So it follows that “mindfulness” as a
noun and verb is making reference to some aspect of what we experience when we
practice mindfulness meditation. It allows us to notice what is actually going
on from moment to moment and in doing so, creates a juxtaposition between
reality and what we think is going on. This may or may not make sense to you on
any level, but once you spend any amount of time sitting still, with your eyes
and mouth closed, noticing the sensations of your breath on the area of skin above
your upper lip and in and around your nostrils, things will become more clear.
You are probably still not going to understand what I’m talking about, but
you’ll begin to grow more certain that I am actually talking about something
that is real, and not spewing a new age or metaphysical creation designed to
improve my position on some enlightenment hierarchy. And the more you practice,
the more in-focus these two things will become – reality and the experience of
reality that each one of us manufacture from moment to moment.
With that out of the way, let us move forward and deal with
the two main goals of what I’m writing here. They are to address the authors
concern and to then address my concern with how they went about addressing
The author has a long back ground with, at least in terms of
observational exposure to, meditation. And they admit that they were bored when
they went to the temple. They practiced a few techniques during university and
later served as a control group member in a large scale University of Cambridge
study about the effects of mindfulness. Read the original article, both to
validate my summary and to gain more insight into how the author is approaching
the subject. And I’ll add that it is a good piece of writing.
They found the practice of mindfulness, like many people do,
to be rather destabilizing. For one thing, it reveals a lot about the world
that we have never paid attention to, either because we learned to ignore it or
because we never took the time to notice it. Those in the first group find
mindfulness a lot easier to integrate and it tends not to rock their world
nearly as much. They can be curious and fascinated with all that is reveals
while never feeling like they are losing their grip. The second group, those
who never noticed the things in the first place, tend not to fare so well in
the short term. Initially their mind will be blown by all that they become
aware of and the automatic nature of perception and how the brain manufactures
ones experience of being alive. But this will usually give way to feelings of
loss, confusion, and detachment. Feeling this way sucks. It won’t make any
difference if the core lessons of impermanence are taking hold, the feelings
are real and experiencing them has a negative valence until they go away. Over
time though, things will stabilize as the brain updates the software and begins
to gain confidence in its predictive accuracy. At some point in the future,
everything will be assimilated and you will move forward with a new mental
process called “mindfulness” that can be called upon as needed, and which will
run in the background making sure that your perceptions are closer to reality
than they were before.
About this fact, consider what happens when someone in a
long term committed monogamous relationship cheats on their spouse / partner.
Initially nothing happens to their partner, the world is the way it was the day
before. It will continue to be this way until they find out about their
partners infidelity. Then all hell breaks loose. Personally, I don’t think
people should cheat when they are in committed relationships. It’s a shittie
thing to do and is an act of immense disrespect to yourself. BUT, if it happens
and you make the decision to tell your significant other about it, do it as
soon as possible. Do not wait any longer than is necessary because the longer
the gap, the greater the damage you will be causing to the other person.
Cheating on a partner is bad, but continuing along as though
nothing happened for years only to come clean about it later is pathologically
selfish and has the tendency of shattering the other person’s world view. The
reason is very simple, and it is exactly the same thing that happens with the
second group mentioned above – those who did not choose to ignore how the world
actually is because they never realized how the world actually is – it causes
them to question the past and to doubt their own judgment and their
experiences. If someone comes clean five years later, they are forcing their
partner to reprocess the last five years of their life before they can move
forward. Sure, they are not going to be completely stuck at ground zero, but a
very large portion of their mental energy will be redirected away from the day
to day tasks of living and onto assimilating the new information and updating
their long term memory as it applies to their relationship, their partner, and
their shared experiences.
Over time, they will probably get through it. The brain is
remarkably resilient and can process many different types of traumas. But the
energy expenditure required to adjust to the information that your partner
cheated is proportionate to the length of time between the act and when it came
Something very similar happens when someone takes up mindfulness
and starts to realize that how they have been experiencing the world is not
aligned with reality. It will be resisted and denied until it can no longer be
disregarded. Then will come the difficult tasks of reframing and reorganizing
everything you know about the world to accommodate the fact that there is, for
example, no self. A lot of stuff will need to get torn down and rebuilt, and
this will take time and mental effort, and probably a good diet and sufficient
rest / recovery. But it can happen so long as the person stays the course and
relinquishes their attachment to their old world view. Anyone who jumps ship
will find their swim back to their old reality to be less challenging than
continuing forward, but they will be returning to a different place than from
where they left and will likely be embittered about the subject as a whole.
My own experience with onboarding meditation was similar to
what the author experienced. But I was older when I started and was certain
that my world view was inaccurate which was leading to a drop in predictive
accuracy. My journey had me leaving behind something pretty crappy and while I
was not certain about the “goodness” of what I was choosing to move towards, life
had taught me that different is good when the normal has become difficult,
challenging, or painful. It needs to be said that I had already learned to
doubt the validity of what I knew, so as destabilizing as I found the
transition, it was no more so than the year leading up to the start of the
The author does a good job at shining a light on the lack of thoroughness in the on-boarding that many people have with mindfulness practices. There is no doubt that had she engaged the practice more when she was young and being dragged to the temple, she would have been guided with a lot more vigor and care than what many people experience presently in western societies. But that is the nature of things. More care is taken with younger people as well as in places where what is being taught is viewed as important or is a big part of the traditional culture. North America is new to mindfulness, and when coming from a tradition of capitalism with a side serving of violence, it is not surprising that the care is being taken to collect the money as opposed to guiding the people.
This is not the fault of mindfulness, as either a noun or a verb, and is should not surprise anyone that the “money over everything” view is muddying the waters. The thing is this, mindfulness is like any skill, it takes time to generate, it is going to be messy in the middle, and it cannot be done for us. It is the quintessential selfish undertaking that one could argue is impaired by other people and enhanced by temporary isolation. It is like committing law to long term memory or learning how to solve advanced calculus equations, a teacher or instructor can help along the process, but the individual needs to do the practice to stimulate the brain growth to support the new memories or the new way of thinking. To this end, it is a less than optimal capitalist venture since capitalism places experience or perceived value at the top of the service offering. You cannot do mindfulness for your customers, they have to do it themselves, so the only way to make money doing it is to offer something that is scalable. Which in this case means something that is incomplete, is useless crap, or is actually counter-productive and harmful.
The medium is the message here. Those who seek enlightenment
and the cultivation of the skill of mindfulness through a smart phone get smart
phone levels of enlightenment and mindfulness. Smart phones are tools to
trigger the release of dopamine through the activation of outrage, exposure to
novelty, and social validation / approval. Mindfulness is a tool to make you
aware of what is happening from moment to moment. While these things are not
the exact opposite of each other, they are reasonable close to being completely
dissimilar. Meditation, the primary way to cultivate the skill of mindfulness,
is as close to doing nothing as someone can do without being asleep. The mind
is very active, you are alert, but you are focusing so intensely simply because
you do not want to become distracted, outraged, etc. Cultivating mindfulness is
an act that inhibits the release of reward chemicals, so it offers no hook that
business people can use to capture you as a customer.
The author talks a lot about the concept of “no self” in a
way that makes it difficult to reconcile the truth of it with the experience of
being or having a self. I am not aligned with them here. Two things that seem
to be in contradiction can coexist simply because neither one of them actually
does. It is kind of like Schrödinger’s cat or the wave–particle duality in that
sometimes something is one thing while other times it is something else (meditation
and mindfulness have NOTHING to do with quantum mechanics and my use of QM
terms is only to describe the fact that sometimes we will need to look at
things differently in order to understand them more completely).
You are a physical being, a meat sack if you will. You are
made-up of matter, and that matter obeys laws of physics and chemistry, and
other subjects. Materialism applies to people just as it applies to rocks or
dogs. The difference is, as far as we know, rocks and dogs do not have a well-formed
narrative identity of themselves. To make reference to a rock having “no self”
seems redundant. It seems similarly so, although not necessarily completely so,
to say the same of a dog. But what is the different between these two things,
and then, from these two things and us? It seems to me that human beings have
reflective consciousness that gives them the ability to think about the world
and about things that are not there or are not presently happening. Rocks do
not have this ability and while a dog may be conscious and does have the
ability to learn, we get no sense that there is any depth to their
understanding of what they are or their uniqueness in terms of being a distinct
piece of life.
What this means is that as something is happening, it is
just a meaningless thing that is occurring – it is a collection of molecules
moving in a particular direction. So in order for it to mean something, the
observer will need to take a moment to reflect upon what is occurring, allowing
their brain to interpret the collection of molecules and their corresponding vectors
as being something. But this process is not an act of mindfulness in the purest
sense of the term. It is a result of reflection and by virtue of the fact that
any meaning is generated, the person is no longer living in the moment and is
instead living in a latency period between stimulus and response.
So when we are simply experiencing reality as it unfolds
from moment to moment, there is no self. When we are perceiving and
understanding what is unfolding from moment to moment, there is a self. It is
slightly confusing but not at all if there is a willingness to understand what
it is all about.
It just seems really out of place in modern life because
without reflection, modern life could not have come to be. But no self makes a
lot of sense and is more easily observed and appreciated when someone is
sitting in a forest meditating away from everything that has been manufacture.
Simplicity allows for the sustained existence of no self because it affords the
opportunity to do nothing other than take in whatever is occurring from moment
to moment, so basically what is steaming into the brain from the senses. Other
people and manufactured material objects make this task nearly impossible
because they create the need for rules. This causes complexity and moves the person
away from the role of observer and into role of reflector in order to generate
an understanding of what is going on.
Neuroscience has revealed a lot about the nature thinking, and one part that applies to no self / self duality is captured by the two self’s phenomena. Specifically, your brain operates with information in two ways. The first way, the no-self way, is about experience. This is what happens from moment to moment and it is what is lumped into the experience of “now.” The second way is about the remembering self, which is what your consciousness recalls about an experience. While it would be partially correct to refer to this as long term memory, given that long term memories do contribute to what we remember, it is not the entire story. The truth is that most of us do not actually remember most things very well and what comes to mind when we are thinking about the past is a combination of long term memories and things we make-up on the fly to fill-in the details or manufacture a more rich or complete narrative. The point here is not to suggest that neuroscience has uncovered evidence to support the truth about what the Buddhist teachers have been saying for centuries but to lend weight to the notion that sensation / experience is a different thing than perception / reflection / remembering. So given this, it makes sense that we should hold different views about two different things.
There is a Buddhist / Zen saying that goes something like
“before enlightenment work, after enlightenment work” that addresses the next
concern the author has about “mindfulness.”
They raise a very good point, but do not track in on the
source of the issue with any vigor or accuracy, when they state: “In claiming
to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness
oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.”
The first part of the sentence is more or less accurate, as
it would be if it was said about anything that is put forward as a panacea or
cure to everything that ails a person, culture, or society. The second part of
the sentence is less accurate. In fairness, they were writing an article and
not a text book, so there was probably a word count limit in place for them.
However, that does not negate the responsibility an author has for guarding
their words and to speak as clearly, accurately, and concisely as possible.
Their article is not a work of fiction so it is reasonable to assume that what
is written down is factual and represents the truth as the author knew it at
the time. Putting aside their right to have and voice an opinion, that sentence
journeys well into the realm of a statement of disinformation or a statement
that is demonstrably false.
The first thing is that mindfulness is a skill, so a noun or
verb, and makes no claim about its abilities to do anything – in exactly the same
way as reading is a skill and completely incapable of promoting its virtues.
Mindfulness needs boosters because mindfulness is not alive. The problem then
is not with anything that mindfulness itself is doing but with the claims that
are being made about it. In the event that this seems so obvious and therefore
unnecessary to mention, it is worth pointing out that racism is both a problem
and a part of our internal operating system. Many skills or behaviours that
human beings are capable of, that seem to lack any value in modern life, are
there because they served a valuable survival purpose at one point in time.
Racism is not good, but the ability to identify those who are not like us and
to treat those we are similar to had a place in our evolutionary past. It is an
antiquated thing, particularly given that every unique race has suffered MORE
at the hands of those who look like them than those who look different, but so
too is the appendix and a considerable amount of our DNA given that it doesn’t
seem to code for anything at all. Well the appendix used to do something and
those unnecessary genes used to code for something that promoted survival.
So the problem with mindfulness is that people who promote
it are making extraordinary claims about what it can do and how it will impact
the lives of anyone who uses it as an approach to life. The problem the author
is making reference to is the overstating or direct lying about the utility of mindfulness
made by the people who promote it. This is something that I agree with, but it
was not stated as directly as that in the article.
The second part of the sentence “mindfulness oversimplifies
the difficult business of understanding oneself” doesn’t hold up nearly as
well, even when translated or updated to reflect what is actually going on. I
believe that the author is intending to say “the skill of mindfulness is
presented as a simple way to understand yourself.” This is true and it is not a
problem. The fact is that human beings are biological machines whose brain
manufactures meaning out of electrical impulses that are triggered by
collisions between the body and molecules that are not a part of the body. The
tree we see is a collection of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. that is in tree
form. What we see is the light that bounces off of some of these molecules and
hits our retina. When we touch it, the molecules of our skin are repelled by
the molecules that make-up the tree, so this ends up stimulating receptors on
the skin that trigger electrical impulses to flow into the brain that cause the
sensation of touch. If we were to eat the tree, tree molecules would stimulate
taste receptors, if we were to smell it, tree molecules would stimulate olfactory
receptors, and when we hear the tree, receptors in our inner ear are simply
responding to air that is coming off of the tree and going into our ears.
I am not intending to be irreverent when I say that it is
“simply” anything, but our experience of a tree is so much less than any
narrative story we manufacture to capture the entirety of our knowledge about
trees. It is our brain that do all of the heavy lifting that allow us to
perceive things and to understand the world in reflective terms.
The fact of the matter is that most of what we know about
things is just a story we are telling ourselves and sharing with other people.
It is accurate in so far as it works in allowing us to navigate our way through
life with a lot of ease, but nearly all of it is just manufactured rules about
collections of molecules that human beings mostly agree on just so they do not
have to think about it anymore than they have to.
Considering and then assimilating this fact is alarming, at
least initially, but our brain will reconcile things very quickly and it will
allow us to go back to living life as though we didn’t gain the insight. From
an experiential point of view, the facts and the truth are of much less
consequence than the position and movement of the molecules that we bump into.
So no matter what we learn, life will return to normal quickly because it must
be lived by each one of us.
The skill of mindfulness is a way that anyone can gain
clarity into the nature of the world and, more importantly, the nature of our
social interactions and social conventions. It will allow someone to uncover what they are in terms of molecules
and what they are in terms of a narrative understanding, while giving them
great power to figure out what is important, what is real, and what is worth
pursuing. It isn’t going to fix anything EXCEPT the delusions someone may have
created about what is going on from moment to moment. It is not a cure for
clinical depression, it will not help someone grow taller or regrow their hair,
and it will not open up the doors to effortless success. But it can allow
someone to experience what is actually going on in the world, to gain a better
understanding of the difference between sadness and depression, it can help
someone accept the reality of their height or hair situation, and it can give
someone the clarity to figure out what actions they need to take in order to
find greatness and to then make the decision on whether or not they actually
Mindfulness, when practiced consistently, gives someone the
ability to separate the sensations from the perceptions and to then make the
decision to act in a way that makes the most sense to them in terms of these
sensations and perceptions. But that is all it is going to do. The reason some
people feel calmer when they practice it is because it dissolves the narrative,
for a short period of time, which will allow for whatever triggered emotions to
run their course before returning the person back to their baseline. There are
two ways to describe it, the first is the feeling you have right as you wake-up
in the morning without an alarm clock and when you have nowhere to go – your
mind is at ease and filled with next to nothing. It doesn’t last very long, but
while it does, it is still and peaceful and nothing is pulling it one way or
the other. The second is the feeling you have right after a very intense
workout as your heart rate and breathing return to normal. Physically you feel
fantastic and mentally you are overcome with a sense of wellness and indifference
to the world. Your mind has been parked into unflappable so you feel, for a
spell, like you are on vacation and weeks away from having to deal with the
real world again.
Now consider what you have just read and apply it to the
author’s statement: “to look for richer explanations about why you think and
feel the way you do, you need to see yourself as a distinct individual,
operating within a certain context. You need to have some account of the self,
as this demarcates what is a response to your context, and what flows from
Who we are is not a static thing, and a lot of what we may
choose to believe we are is subject to the present emotional state at the time
of perception. Before my long intense bike ride, I may be an angry co-worker
who doesn’t take the time to consider the ideas of other people before pushing
my own solution forward. At the end of the bike ride I’m more than capable of
working through their solution to actually see the merits of what they are
suggesting and realize that not only is it better than my idea, but it is the
only way forward. I would suggest that this insight occurs because the “self”
has disappeared affording me an objective perspective that is based on the
consideration of a more complete view of the available information. There is no
ego so there is no desire to be the problem solver, only a desire to have the
problem solved as effectively and as permanently as possible.
The tendency for people to see the world only from their own
perspective and to view this perspective as being more important or valuable is
a characteristic of something called disordered attachment. With the exception
of a few people, everyone has a bias towards their own point of view simply
because there is nothing so real in the universe as it. Every moment of our
waking life is experienced from inside ourselves and a good case can be made
that most of our dreams are also from our own unique point of view. “We” exist
somewhere right behind the eyes, nose and mouth, between the ears, and slightly
above our tongue and throat. All of our physical sensations have a “I” quality
insofar as they tend to originate on our skin, or at the boundary between “us”
and the rest of the world. It is reasonable that we would create and carry such
an inflated perspective given that there are only two things in the world and
that “we” are one of them; the other one is the rest of the world / universe.
But this isn’t the entire picture because EVERYONE has the
same sort of perspective and experience of being alive. When you are in a room
with nine other people, there are ten unique perspectives, each one as the sole
center of all experience. This means that no specific reality is more real than
any of the rest. As many people as there are on the planet, there are that many
versions of the real world running. So we are real, but we are not really real.
Disordered attachment is a type of psychological attachment
or dependence to something, someone or some activity. It is consider disordered
because it is out of proportion to reality or to the nature of things. The
solution I was forcing through, for example, is only held by me as the better
solution when I am attached to it and am therefore willing to dismiss the
merits of my co-workers solution. However, at the end of my intense bike ride
or at some point after around 5 minutes of meditation, my attachment has
evaporated because my emotional state has returned to baseline and I am more
able to see the world in objective terms. This can only be a good thing given
that a good idea is a good idea regardless of where it comes from. By
eliminating the disordered attachment, objective reality can come more clearly
into focus and the world can get better for all those who are relying on the
best possible results.
There are a slew of cognitive biases that have at their core
this type of disordered thinking / rationalization. The ego centric bias, the
Ikea bias, the fundamental attribution error, and conflicts of interest are
just a few of them that apply directly to the work situation I outlined. The
ego centric bias has someone rely too much on their own perspective and
experience, the Ikea bias has someone inflate the value of something that they
created well above the fair market value of similar items, the fundamental
attribution error has someone view their own decisions or actions as being
related to situational factors while viewing the decisions and actions of others
as being the result of character traits, and a conflict of interest is the
tendency for people to unconsciously act in ways that promote an outcome that
will benefit them all the while believing and feeling like they are acting
objectively. There are many more, but this list should be sufficient to provide
evidence that things are not as simple as they seem or even as we perceive them
However, intense exercise, a good night’s sleep, or a
mindfulness meditation session can go a long way in mitigating the impact of
being the center of ALL of your experiences simply because they put some
distance between the stimulus and the response. This time delay will allow any
emotional response to fade and it will reduce the perception of the magnitude
of any gain or loss.
This piece of it is rather peculiar. The “self” is something
to which things happen and this allows for the “self” to react to those things
in a way that seems like it is automatic and beyond any conscious control.
However, this is not the case for most things. With the exception of being
physically hit by something or getting physically ill, most of the stuff that
occurs doesn’t actually happen to anyone, or at least it does not actually
happen to us. We see or hear it, but our bodies are in no way implicated by
what happened. This means that the perception we have of events plays a much
bigger role in how we go about living our life than anything that actually
happens to us or our bodies. This leads to the situation that when something
occurs in the world but that only impacts us in terms of our perception or
narrative interpretation of it, we have a chemical response that causes us to
“feel” something BUT that reaction is not to anything that is real. If we think
about two co-workers putting forward different solutions to a specific problem,
not much is happening in a physical sense – some brain activity creates a
thought that is the solution, and other brain activity causes muscles to
contract in very specific ways that allow air to flow out of the lungs, passing
over the vocal chords to make a very specific sound that is the air vibration
equivalent to the thought. Both parties are having a very similar experience
although each one of them has a very different interpretation of the ideas that
are being aired. Each one will believe their idea is better because they will
have felt just how right it was when they thought it. What they hear, the other
person’s idea, will not have the same quality. They won’t feel it in the same
way – both in terms of intensity and rightness – and it will be as though it
exists as something that is different from them. Both parties will feel and
belief that their solution is the best and each will likely go to bat for it.
But this is only happening because each one is acting as
though they are something independent from the other and that the other is part
of everything else. While this may be narratively or perceptually correct, it
is not correct in terms of what is actually going on in the world. A detached
third party would simply listen to both ideas and give their opinion on which
one is the best because they are neither of the two self’s who have been tasked
with solving the problem. They get to be objective because both solutions are
coming from outside of them. Their ego does not factor into it as they get to
say “the best idea is this one” and get back to doing whatever it is they do.
They will probably feel that one of the answers is better, but they will not be
inclined to feel that their OWN idea is better simply because it came from
inside of them.
It is worth suggesting that this level of insight – to
notice that cognitive biases have a sensation and that I am as prone as
everyone else to be subjected to them – really only came to life for me when I
spent a lot of time meditating, noticing my thoughts and feelings arise and
pass away, and getting very clear that the next thing that I think about or the
next sensation that I have is most often a complete mystery to me. The most I
can do is to try and shape them by paying attention to very specific things,
but generally speaking, there is a very random nature to almost all of it.
Which brings us to the final concern the author raises.
“After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to
take responsibility for and analyse your feelings.”
I believe that the opposite is true, that we can only take
responsibility for and gain insight into our feelings through the practice of
mindfulness. Right where the author claims mindfulness impairs our ability to own
and understand our feelings is the point I believe that mindfulness facilitates
these things. I also believe that we are talking about the same phenome and may
actually believe more or less the same thing.
It seems that their conclusion here is based off of some of the other concerns they mention; which means that all that comes after may not be rooted in reality or fact. For example, if someone does not allow for the duality of self and no-self, they are powerless to draw any other conclusion that “mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings” because if there is no self, there can be no ownership of the feelings that are being experienced and nothing there to analyse them. But it there is only a self, the observation that thoughts and feelings just seem to flow out of our spontaneous brain activity becomes a lot tougher to notice or it must exist in a world to which it is incompatible. Both concepts are needed because there are times when we are a self and times when we are no self. The author has laid out their concerns with this part of it which has had the effect of limiting the moves they are able to make without appearing to contradict themselves or outline a paradox / problem.
I suppose I am more willing to allow for the coexistence of
mutually exclusive ideas because I am very confident that the experience we
have of being alive from moment to moment is not well enough understood to
limit any aspect or to allow us to say that “there is no self” or “there is
only a self.” There are times when it seems to be a self and other times when
there appears to be no self, so I’m going to hedge my bets by assuming that
they are both accurate while conceding that there is probably a more complete
theory or understanding that covers them both perfectly. Apart from this being
a safe move, given just how complex consciousness is, it has the added benefit of
allowing me to pick and choose the best or most effective stuff from whichever
side I happen to be considering. My goal here is to point out and highlight
what works and why it may be of value, as opposed to pointing out what doesn’t
work or the underlying historical problems with a technology such as
Cultivating the skill of mindfulness will go a very long way
in helping someone understand what feelings are and what they are not. It will
also give a person the ability to critically assess what is going on in terms
of their emotional reactions / responses. On the very surface level, knowing
that you are experiencing the sensations of anger moments before you have the
emotional experience of anger can be very helpful in determining the
appropriate course of action. Anger may be the right response, but it may be an
overreaction, and one with a big downside. On a deeper level, having a more
full experience and understanding of an emotional response will allow the
emotion to be all that it is and ONLY what it is. You can be sad because your
sports team lost, but you do not end-up devastated or left feeling aimless.
Most importantly is the fact that by gaining the ability to
see and feel emotions more accurately, you will begin to gain the insight into
what the whole thing is all about and how your brain will react to the things
that it believes are happening and the things that actually do. I would be
inclined to suggest that you cannot possibly have a cursory understanding of
your feelings or your motivations / action unless you are able to notice them
as sensations, experiences, and linguistic narrative expressions. Having access
to one or two of these things is not complete enough to be useful as each one
supplies a portion of the information. But when all three are available and
processed, we are able to create a more complete understanding of any situation
and move forward having made any decision from a place of being fully informed.
In summary then, the skill of mindfulness is an essential piece
of the equation that allows someone to figure out what is actually going on and
what actions need to be taken to ensure continued survival. Without it, we are moving
forward on autopilot, oblivious to the lack of depth in our understanding and
completely unaware of the impact our manufactured fiction is having on the
decisions we make. It allows you to figure out what is going on, what you did, and
why you did it along with illustrating the subjective and self-serving nature
of most of your perception.
Again, while I did not agree with much of what the author said, we simply have a different opinions. I see and understand the world differently than them and that is fine. They do point out some of the legitimate problems with the subject of mindfulness and how it is being introduced to the western masses. While most of these challenges are the consequence of the people who are involved and have nothing at all to do with the mental skill of mindfulness, generating awareness of these problems is a very good thing to do because it can go a long way in helping people avoid the pitfalls.
I liked the article in-spite of the fact that I did not not agree with much of it. Obviously, I believe that I can provide some of the missing insight and to help clear-up the authors concerns, but I have no problem if the author never changes their opinion. That is because their article was worth reading and forced me to dig in a little on some of the ideas or beliefs that I have about mindfulness in order to figure out what it was that I was not aligned with. At the end of the day that may have been the author’s goal – I know that it is one of mine when I write – and since the piece was well written, it allowed me to think about the subject very quickly and without having to decipher a hidden message.
So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going.
This is an odd post because it quickly jumped the tracks and took off in a very different direction; not surprising, given that brains do that sort of thing when they are allowed to. The consequence is that this shorter post will be followed in a few days with the longer one that reflects the direction my brain took with it. The link to that post will appear in the comments once it becomes live.
At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me clicking on the link. The error it threw was analogous to a hissy fit that a 3 year old might throw when faced with a parent who is telling them to go to sleep or to eat their vegetables – they were being made to do something that they didn’t agree or want to do. It was the best attempt of a near half-century old brain to hone in on the fact that something about the real world was not aligned with the internal representation it held and that maybe the real world isn’t as real as everyone would like to belief. The declaration of “up with this I will not put” was made via an automatic hand and finger movement to cursor onto and left click the link.
The title of the article is powerful, which is the reason why it landed on me the way it did. It hooks the brain and triggers it to do things WITHOUT ever asking for permission. It is a form of manipulation, and while the ask the author is making is not a big one, on some level it is less than moral. My rational for making this declaration is that it is my brain and I therefore should have final say on what goes into it and what processes fire-up to deal with the world. I have a problem with anyone capturing any part of it without my permission or consent.
The title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” implies that there is a problem with mindfulness and unless you agree with the statement, the brain is going to handle the statement as though it is a question. This transforms the title into “what are the problems with mindfulness?” It is version of the logical fallacy known as begging the question – which occurs when an argument’s premise assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. This is sort of like what happens when the question “when did you stop beating your wife?” is asked – it implies that you used to beat your wife, before it is established that you are even married. It is leading because the human brain automatically assumes to be true all of the things that are requirements for the statement to be true. Once these assumptions are made, they become “facts” unless they are immediately engaged and proven to be false.
I do not think there is any malice in what the author has done because when I read the article it is clear that they believe that “mindfulness” is being used in ways that are problematic. However, this does nothing to disabuse me of the notion that the title is having an effect on the reader’s brains that is automatic and unconscious. It is, in a way, the antithesis of mindfulness, hence the reason for my visceral reaction. Having spent thousands of hours meditating, it has become very clear to me that life is lived on autopilot for most people most of the time. I am not making a claim that the same is not true for me. My practice has only given me slightly more than zero control over what my brain is doing from moment to moment, and this affords to me only the occasional glimpse into the transient experience of being alive.
Begging the question, along with all of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases, are things that we can get a better handle on through logical means vs. experiential ones. BUT once we learn what they are and put the time in to learning how to notice them, the way they feel will eventually begin to surface. Each one of them and each one of us, will have a unique experience so I cannot say what begging the question will feel like for you. For me, it feels like manipulation or like someone is trying to sell me something, so it makes me feel queasy. But it has a tint of anger that I can best attribute to my modal-intensity being directed towards proving something that I know is not provable. Again, this is what it is like for me, how other people react to it will be different. The truth is though, most people will only react by assuming the unsupported premise is true and moving forward with whatever that belief causes them to think or do.
In fairness to all those who approach the world with good intention, two key things need to be stated. The first is that lying, dishonestly, and manipulation are very new things to our evolutionary path. Our species has had very little experience with them, so the hardware and default software we are running is the product of a world in which truth and honesty were the primary ways of operating. Advanced language that communicates abstract ideas is a necessary requirement for lying and subtle mind control to be possible. Then, in order to actually act this way, the incentive to do so would need to be much larger than the disincentive to. These factors date this type of behavior to the last 10000 years which is not nearly long enough for the brain to have adjusted to combat it.
The second thing is that the best article in the world, or the best idea that has ever come to a human beings mind, is effectively worthless if no one reads it or it is never shared with anyone. A strong title is a simple way to get people to read the article or consume the idea. If the article is helpful and moves someone forward in their life, a case can be made for skipping the informed consent or free choice part of the equation and tricking someone into reading. I do not agree that the ends justify the means but some people might.
I have been told that my articles would get better traction is they were more controversial or if they were more inclined to cause outrage in some people. I agree, and I don’t care to journey down that road. It isn’t my goal to trigger either one of those things. My purpose is much closer to the opposite of them and could be summarized as trying to eliminate suffering by helping people create order in their lives. Whether or not this is a noble or worthwhile goal doesn’t factor into it. Nor does the desire to get hits or page views. While I would love all of these things to happen – to achieve a wide reach in terms of readership and impact, and to be considered a righteous person who played a role in the betterment of the lives of many people – if my ideas do not appeal to the many or do not stand on their own, that’s just how it goes. At the end of the day I have to live with myself and I have always found it difficult to sleep well when I have tricked someone into doing something that, while it may be in their best interest, was not something they would have willingly agreed to do.
So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going. Those who lack the mindfulness to notice it happening, may not have the ability to then liberate their attention and redirect it back onto whatever matters the most or is most important to them.