Optimism is a skill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts:

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

All explanations are post hoc

If we really want to uncover a persons motivations or if we want to help them understand what is going on in their brain (or shape their decision making) we will ask the question before the action is taken. While the answer here is about as accurate as the answer after, it has one thing going for it that post hoc explanations will not, it is speculation about a future. The person is talking about their motivation for a thing that has not yet happened and is therefore free from any of the need to eliminate cognitive dissonance.

A fun fact that has been revealed by functional MRI machine research: any narrative explanation a person gives about their motivation for doing something ALWAYS occurs after the decision to do the thing. Your explanation for why your ate the chocolate bar will almost always follow your decision to eat the chocolate bar. Put another way, we can say we ate the chocolate bar because we were hungry, or because there was nothing else to eat, or because we felt like it, but this justification will always come after the decision to eat the chocolate bar.

This makes even less sense with decisions that the individual should have made differently. Choosing to eat a doughnut, when salad is available, makes less sense for someone who says they want to drop a few pounds immediately before eating the doughnut. Their explanation will, however, be logical and consistent. This doesn’t make sense if we are actually in charge of our bodies and our decisions; although the apparent contradiction rarely becomes evident to the person who is wanting to be leaner while continuing to eat the food they know they should not be eating.

If we were in charge, we would simply do what we have set out to do. Saying we want to eat better would be sufficient for us to eat better. Saying we want to stop smoking would be all that is required to stop smoking. That isn’t how it works. Almost everyone knows they should eat better yet most people don’t do it. Almost everyone who smokes wants to stop, yet they continue. When they are asked why they choose the food they do or why they keep smoking, they are able to explain why in a way that doesn’t seem at odds with their desire for things to be different. The logical incongruence does not seem to exist, or at least it isn’t experienced as incongruent, when explanations are given after the fact.

All explanations that are given after the fact are post hoc and therefore worthy of suspicion. Any dissonant characteristics are explained away and any logical inconsistencies are accounted for and rationalized so that what happened seemed like it was always going to be what happened.

This is why I don’t trust the reasons people give when they answer questions. I do not believe that they are deliberately being dishonest, and I have no reason to believe that their memory of historic events is wrong, I just know that the human brain does not handle dissonance effectively and will sooner make up a story that it immediately believes is true than it will acknowledge and examine the inconsistencies.

And again, I don’t blame people for this. The brain is unbelievably complex and so much is going on below the level of conscious awareness that to assume that anyone understands their motivation beyond simply staying alive is to give them undue credit. Eating the doughnut does help them stay alive, going without the doughnut denies the body high energy calories which could be interpreted as a life risking decision. Having a cigarette supplies nicotine that eliminates the negative physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, allowing these physical symptoms to continue and grow could be interpreted as a serious sign of unwellness.

If we really want to uncover a persons motivations or if we want to help them understand what is going on in their brain (or shape their decision making) we will ask the question before the action is taken. While the answer here is about as accurate as the answer after, it has one thing going for it that post hoc explanations will not, it is speculation about a future. The person is talking about their motivation for a thing that has not yet happened and is therefore free from any of the need to eliminate cognitive dissonance. The question “under what circumstances would you choose to eat a doughnut given that you have committed to eating better?” is rather different than “why did you eat the doughnut given that you have committed to eating better?”

One thing we know with certainty, the brain will supply a coherent narrative to rationalize and justify any decision that it has made, which is why we cannot consider our post hoc explanations to be the reasons we think they are.

Suffering Is The Excessive Focus On Oneself

Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.

Pain is not the same thing as suffering. Pain is not reflective, it is a real thing and it exists in the moment. It is a representation of now and is useful at getting an organism to stop doing something that is potentially harmful. Imagine grabbing a hot utensil or hot pan. The pain receptors in the hand fire, sending signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. There will be a reflexive response to these signals, the goal being to stop doing the thing that immediately proceeded the pain. You will let go of the hot utensil or pan and this will stop the immediate sensation of pain.

If the pain stops, reflection on the nerve impulses that made it into the brain can begin and perception takes place. Generally speaking, not a lot of cognitive cycles will be dedicated to reflecting on what has just happened because there is little need to learn from it. Existing automatic responses were sufficient to avoid injury. There is no point in wasting time and energy solidifying the avoidance strategy. The one that exists works fine.

Depending on the nature of what just happened the pain may continue. If you have actually done tissue damage, the pain receptors will continue to send signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. This does not mean that there is an immediate threat, it means that there has been a real threat and the reflexive response was not sufficient to avoid damage. It is also an indication that the nature of the pain is important, that what was automatic was not adequate to avoid injury. It is in the best future interests of the individual to process this information further and create a more robust avoidance strategy to employ moving forward. Tissue damage is not good, so let’s not experience it again if possible. The best way to eliminate the same in the future is to spend time processing it to increase the amount of mental stimulation and increase the amount learning that comes from it. The brain will adapt physically to this stimulation, laying down organic material to be used as memories in the future. This is the way we learn to avoid grabbing things from the oven.

Suffering has a survival purpose too. It is to help the individual to ruminate on something that happened that is potential harmful and should be avoided in the future. However, it doesn’t need to last for very long in order for the lesson to be learned and for an avoidance stratagy to be created. Imagine when you were 6 and blurt out an answer at school. The teacher scolds you for not raising your hand and some of your classmates laugh. While this isn’t as simple as the hot utensil example, it is very much the same thing.

It has been know for a long time that the brain releases chemicals in response to the sensation of pain. Something that has been uncovered recently is that many of these same chemicals are released in response to perceiving certain things in the environment. A lose of autonomy, a lack of certainty, a lack of fairness, a lose of relatedness and a lose of status all cause a similar chemical cascade as hitting your hand with a hammer. What is different is that the pain receptors in the body do not fire because there is not actual cause of pain. The pain receptors that do fire are the ones that fire as a result of the reflection on pain – the ones that fire when in response to tissue damage. Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.

The outcome of this is potentially very profound. If we take the example above of shouting out an answer. There is a loss of autonomy, as the teacher is exerting control over us. There is a loss of certainty because we suddenly do not know what will happen if we shout out the answer in the future. It will not seem fair because we are getting scolded for doing something that we and other people have done in the passed. In scolding us, our certainty about our relationship with the teacher will be called into question. A 6 year old brain does not have the necessary life experience nor the capability to know that there will be a moment after this. Most importantly, the status of the child has been thrown on its side when the other children laugh. As hard as it is to deal with the teacher exerting control, they are still the teacher and are at the top of the dominance, competence, and prestige hierarchies, at least within the boundary of the class room. The other students are supposed to be on the same level. When they laugh my social status takes a clear hit – my peers are laughing at me and therefore I am not as good as them. In this example, the brain of the 6 year old fires up and releases large amounts of reflective pain chemicals in an effort to prevent future damage.

Keep in mind that the response to the threat is very real and that the brain processes perceptions of these violations as it would process actual pain. It does not matter that to an outsider that the attempted behaviour correction by the teacher and the other students response does not actually make-up a real threat. The perception by the individual is sufficient enough to cause a reflective pain response geared towards creating a strategy to avoid the situation / action that immediately preceded the pain.

More importantly, we’re dealing with a 6 year old here. First off, they don’t have a very formed brain – their prefrontal cortex has not developed so they are incapable of processing what has happened effectively. They have few executive functions, little or no concept of the future, and practically no abstract thinking capabilities. Their incomplete and less than capable brain is being forced to create a pain avoidance strategy with limited experience and insufficient long term memory. All they are able to do is generalize to a specific behaviour and outcome pairing that is void of the necessary context to make the proper decision. They are going to get it wrong unless there is a clear explanation and reconciliation of the violations that occurred.

The teacher can, for instance, explain about raising hands and proper turn taking, about the consequences of shouting out, then can mention that it is the behaviour that they do not like or that is unacceptable and therefore the child’s choice that is unwelcome NOT their opinion. And the teacher can take efforts to ensure that the other children understand that if they had chosen to do the same thing, their peers would be laughing at them. The goal is to correct / explain the perception of any of these violations to provide the child and all the children the appropriate context to make sense of what actually happened. Teaching children is not easy and doing so well requires enormous amounts of patients and understanding.

But we’re not 6 anymore yet we continue to process the world as though we are – the pattern has been established and it works. Maybe we learned to not say anything. To keep our mouth shut in class and to suppress any aspect of our personality we incorrectly attributed to being the cause of the reflective pain response that occurred when we were 6. This is not good. It is understandable because keeping quiet DID prevent the same outcome, so silence is an effective strategy. It has just been generalized to everything as opposed to the specific action of speaking out of turn in the classroom setting.

This is how pain becomes suffering. Pain is reactive at first. There is no “me” or “self” in pain, there is no subject. We do something, it hurts, we stop, the pain stops, we continue along. If tissue damage occurs, the pain becomes reflective. This is adaptive and it helps to inhibit a specific action in the future. The terms of reflection are that “action A” caused “outcome B” to the subject “me”. Don’t do A in the future. The subject is not present in the pain response, the is no “me”. There is in fact very little action and outcome because reactions are automatic and tend have very little to do with consciousness. Reactions are over before we knew something needs to happen.

Suffering has the subject, and your suffering has “you” at the centre of it. Other peoples suffering is abstract, yours is real. It is narrative, but it is a real thing in so far as it impact future the future. And anything that happens to you happens to you, and it causes a chemical response similar to pain. Which makes you notice it more, and causes you to feel worse about it. It becomes a cycle and dysfunction is the inevitable outcome.

What do you do about suffering? Well, simply put, you make the decision to notice it as soon as you can and to detach from it the moment you notice you are suffering. If it is pain, you have reacted to it; you don’t actually need to worry about pain. You cannot in fact not address pain, it requires training to ignore pain and most people haven’t put the time in. Suffering on the other hand can be ignored. It doesn’t even need to be experienced. The moment you notice a hint of negativity and “yourself” in your thoughts label it for what it is by saying “there’s suffering.” By interrupting the pattern you buy some time to start to notice that nothing is actually wrong and that almost nothing in the physical world is actually happening. You are thinking, there is some brain activity, but there is no cause of pain and therefore no pain. Any pain response you are experiencing is the result of a perception of a thought that has you at its centre.

This is an effective approach that anyone can train themselves to have. It’s hard, but very simple and after you put the time in, the process becomes automatic and you gain the freedom to choose if and when you will suffer, maybe even liberating yourself from it entirely.

There Is A Difference Between Feeling Good And Being Happy

Who am I to say that feeling good is a bad goal? No one, but that is not what I am claiming. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. There is however something wrong with seeking one when you actually want the other and it is very easy to believe that they are the same thing. We are in fact, almost programmed to make this mistake

There is a fallacy called the post hoc fallacy (more accurately post hoc ergo propter hoc) which, when translated into English states “after this, therefore because of this.” It refers to any self referencing experience that generates a causal connection between two things whose only relationship is that they occurred very close together in time. It is an error in logic that many human beings and beings in general will make.

Classical conditioning is an example of the post hoc fallacy in action. Recall that we can get a dog to begin to salivate at the sound of a ringing bell by first ringing the bell immediately before presenting the dog with food. The bell has nothing to do with the food but the dogs brain doesn’t know that. All it knows is that in and around the time the bell rings, food is given. After a few pairings, the sound of the bell and the food are linked so that the sound of the bell is sufficient to get the dog to response as though it had just encountered food. So after the bell therefore because of the bell.

It isn’t just dogs that can be classically conditioned. It works with humans and in many cases, it works much better with humans than other animals in that the conditioning in more sticky and that an actual reward does not even need to be received. Vicarious reinforcement allows human beings to observe someone else getting rewarded for a behaviour and for the conditioning to occur in both people (the observer and the person who receives the rewarded). And there doesn’t even need to be a reward to conditioning to occur. The thought of a reward is sufficient. In fact, human beings learn most things this way vs. hands on.

Given the ease at which classical conditioning happens with humans, the post hoc fallacy is not a surprise. We can learn to associated two completely unrelated things simply because they occur in a similar time frame. There is a good reason for us to make these types of errors. The quicker we can see a connection between two related things, the greater the chances are that we will be able to use that information in the future. For reward things, it doesn’t really make much difference in terms of staying alive. But for punishment or dangerous things, the ability to see pairing does serve a survival benefit. So much so that false connections do matter. It is better to create 100 incorrect pairing than to miss one pairing.

You don’t believe me? Why do you notice and feel something when a loud room suddenly goes quiet? It doesn’t necessarily mean something, but it can. We’ve learned to notice that when attention is directed towards something, things get quiet, so when a room suddenly goes quiet, our brain has been trained / conditioned to stop what it is doing and begin to search for the cause of everyone going quiet.

So what does this have to do with feeling good not being the same thing as being happy? For me and for a lot of my clients, we committed the post hoc fallacy with these two things. A lot can go wrong, or at least not go the way you want, when you pair feeling good with being happy. Most of the things that make us feel good do not lead to sustained happiness or happiness at all.

All the people who are alive today came from generations of people who only ever had an abundance of scarcity. There was never enough food, enough shelter, and enough safety and security. It wasn’t until a few thousand years ago and the invention of agriculture that food insecurity began to disappear. That isn’t long enough for our genetic code to adapt to the abundance. This means that all of us are still running the code that triggers the brain to release dopamine and endorphins when sugar and fat containing food hits our pallet. These molecules are high calorie and the body can easily transport them into the fat cells for consumption at some point in the future. Dopamine is the primary reward chemical while endorphins reduce pain, and when the pain has been suppressed or is not present, to feel pleasure.

Our ancestors would hunt and gather what they could. They would not necessarily eat as soon as they got food, but they would stop looking for it. Whatever motivated them to hunt in the first place would be gone. It’s safe to say that anxiety played a role motivating people to seek out food and once food was present, the anxiety would disappear. What is the opposite of anxiety? I’m not sure it is happiness, but the contrast between anxiety and no anxiety when it is eliminated is something like happiness.

We’re running the same code, so the pairing anything that feels good with happiness, or pairing the feeling that arises with the elimination of anxiety with something that feels good isn’t a Pavlovian stretch. Doing so might even be innate although it doesn’t make any material difference given just how often feeling good and feeling happy over lap or occur simultaneously. But it is a pairing of two separate and distinct sensations / states / feelings.

This mis-pairing is an easy thing to do, I have done it and most of my clients have done it to some degree. In fact, only a very small number of people I have worked with have not done it. Maybe 15 percent of the people have identified that it is the opportunity to do things that feel good that makes them happy and not the feeling good itself. Some of my more driven clients would put off eating junk food or treat meals for weeks in favour of achieving a body composition goal more quickly. They had found happiness in not feeling good because they had identified that by putting off the reward, they would get to the thing they wanted more quickly.

The rest of us, well, saying no didn’t make us happy and it didn’t make us feel good. But neither did saying yes.

It gets even worse when we consider the implications of the opposite – that doing things that feel bad will not lead to happiness. When this mis-pairing occurs, people stop doing anything that doesn’t feel good on the mistaken belief that it cannot lead to happiness. They no longer delay gratification and they begin to get addicted to anything that cause the release of reward chemicals. They become a slave to their devices, to seeking out food, sex, drugs, sloth and anything else that causes a dopamine spike. The outcomes here are abysmal. Lives are wasted and potential is squandered.

But what if happiness is the goal and if feeling good is seen as an independent variable? The realization that they are not the same thing sets in motion a different possibility. Instead of reward behaviours, the individual will get clear on the behaviours that make them happy and they will begin to do more of these. With willpower and diligence, they will quickly become free of the addiction. They will gain control over their life because they will have the freedom to do what they know they want in place of what they believe they want. Life will become easier, things will become more simple, and getting what they want will be inevitable.

Who am I to say that feeling good is a bad goal? No one, but that is not what I am claiming. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. There is however something wrong with seeking one when you actually want the other and it is very easy to believe that they are the same thing. We are in fact, almost programmed to make this mistake.

Culture At Organizations – Ask Questions And Hear Answers But Watch Actions

Here is the funny thing that I have realized in the time between then and now, when the trainers were NOT talking to the membership coordinators they were making the best use of their time so they were, in essence, talking to their friends. We were new, temporary, and so few of us would be around for long enough to ever be elevated into the friend realm.

When I first started working at GoodLife Fitness as a membership coordinator I was filled with a blind or ignorant optimism about my future. It was my first official job working in a gym and in the fitness industry. While I had applied to be a personal trainer, the club was in need of sales people and decided to interview me for one of those roles. It didn’t really matter much to me one way or the other because I was ready for a change of industries having spent the first portion of my working life in IT as a manager. I interviewed well enough to get the job.

At the time I didn’t think much about it because it was not unusual for me to get hired for the jobs I interviewed for. None of them were much higher than entry level so taking a chance on me was a strategic decision – I have a degree and a fairly good attitude when it comes to the first few months of doing something new.

I didn’t begin to consider anything about it until a couple of weeks after I had been hired during the weeks following the on-boarding process. During this training, we were introduced to the sales system that the company used along with the scripts, features / benefits talking points about the gym and exercise in general, and some of the other aspects / services of the club. Pouring myself into the process I spent a lot of time doing my homework and practising the scripts and the fixed responses for common objections. I KNEW that I didn’t know what I was doing and opened myself up to doing exactly what I was told and adjusting my approach based on the feedback and coaching my manager provided. It was fun and I honestly enjoyed myself. It was also valuable. The company had either spent a lot of money to buy an effective system or they spent a lot of time developing one. While it was slightly stifling at the beginning, given that the push was to do what is outlined because it worked, but over time, you’d be able to adapt the approach to add more of yourself to make it more authentic.

I was conscientious and obedient, making the calls, booking the appointments, following the scripts, touring the prospective members, asking for the sale, overcoming the objections, asking and closing the sale, asking for the referrals, and then booking the new members into any of the orientation sessions that matched their fitness objectives. While I would never say that it was easy, it was very simple. You just needed to follow instructions, smile and be friendly, and as long as you did the activity that was outlined you would achieve the results that were predicted by the system.

At the conclusion of one of my early successful tours, during the new member hand-off to the customer service rep at the front desk, I happened to meet-up with one of the personal trainers. When I said hello, they replied with a reserved “hi” followed with a “did they just join?” Beaming I answered “yes” and their mood lifted completely. “Oh that’s great” looking at my name tag “Pat.” Jokingly I said “oh, I get to have a name now?” Their reply was stunning. “Yes, I might need to have to know it.”

I had calls to make so I laughed and walked away wondering what the heck I had just experienced. When I got to the sales office, I asked one of the other sales people if they had ever talked to that trainer. “I tried, but they didn’t seem very friendly. Rick is the only one who doesn’t seem to have a stick up his ass.” We laughed and got to work calling our leads trying to book people in for tours.

Over the next couple of days I started to pay more attention to the way the personal trainers interacted with the sales people and the rest of the staff. Other than Rick, the personal training manager, who was friendly and kind to everyone, the sales team were not treated with the same level of respect as everyone else by his team members. They were distant, landing as disinterested, and were kind of smug in the way a C level executive is at the company picnic. This all made me feel a little bit off. Up until that point I had not been thinking about it and was fine with the belief that everyone who worked at the club was just like me – enthusiastic, happy, and nice to everyone. Noticing their behaviour meant that I needed to change my view. But since I had been mostly clueless and noticed nothing strange before this, I knew that I didn’t have enough information to go on. Sure, maybe the club just hired personal trainers who were at least partial jerks, maybe all personal trainers were just jerks, or maybe something else was going on.

When faced with this dilemma I did what I always try to do, go to the source and ask some brutal questions.

The first trainer I spoke to answered my question “why do the trainers here seem to not have much interest in the sales team?” and it cleared everything up. “Because you won’t be here for very long. There is a turn over rate of 100% and frankly I’m fed-up getting to know people who just disappear after a few months. You get fired and never come back.”

He was right about the turnover. The other sales person who was hired with me lasted just a little more than two months (fired) and I moved on after five months (got a promotion to manage another location in a city a few hours away).

It seems important to mention that the club manager worked as hard as she could to make sure that we KNEW and followed the sales system and scripts as closely to the letter as possible. She was one of the best leaders that I have ever had and didn’t hold back when it came to coaching and being honest. She was very aware that she would need to replace the sales team three or four times a year as the low performers would get fired and those who remained would likely be given a promotion to a management role at a different club.

What was going on? At the time, everyone who worked for GoodLife Fitness at the club level was an hourly employee with the exception of the group fitness instructors, who all tend to be universally friendly people, and the personal trainers, who were not actually getting paid when they were at the club but not training anyone. It may seem petty and transactional, but any time the trainers spent at the club NOT training a client was their time. There was no financial reason for them to be there so most would just book it once their time was up. Sometimes they would talk to the customer service reps, which makes sense; given that customer service reps would only get fired for being unprofessional, most of them stayed at the job for years. The trainers were talking to their friends, so there was a value and investment factor for these interactions that was not there when it came to cultivating connections with the sales people.

Here is the funny thing that I have realized in the time between then and now, when the trainers were NOT talking to the membership coordinators they were making the best use of their time so they were, in essence, talking to their friends. We were new, temporary, and so few of us would be around for long enough to ever be elevated into the friend realm.

What does this have to do with corporate or organizational culture?

Recall the post People Act Like The Truth in which I discussed Heather’s habit of not believing the things that people say until she has seen them act in a way that validates that their brain also believes the things they are saying. Basically, we know that a person is speaking the truth as they know it when their actions and words are congruent. When they are not, you need to pay more attention to what they are saying because something is does not align. They are not talking about reality as they know it to be. They may be trying to get you to believe something that isn’t true, they may be trying to manipulate you into feeling a particular emotion, or they may be describing the world as they want it to be. You may not ever find out, and unless you notice the lack of congruence between words and actions and take the time to ask questions to dig in, you absolutely won’t.

Given that actions speak louder than words, we may need to adjust the value we place on the various input modalities until we become well enough calibrated to know that a persons words and actions are spawned from the same version of reality. We then need to ask them questions and listen and hear what they have to say about the organizations culture. We will also need to do this with a few people to make sure that their view of culture is aligned with what you have learned from others. The goal here is to track in on and surface the things on which everyone is aligned AND, if any exist, to surface the things for which they are personally aligned (words and actions) while being somewhat misaligned with the other people.

Take a moment to read the following definition / description of organizational culture while considering the question “what is the best way for someone to figure out the characteristics, qualities, and properties that combine to form the unique culture of a company?”

Organizational culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business. The organizational culture influences the way people interact, the context within which knowledge is created, the resistance they will have towards certain changes, and ultimately the way they share (or the way they do not share) knowledge. Organizational culture represents the collective values, beliefs and principles of organizational members. It may also be influenced by factors such as history, type of product, market, technology, strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture. Culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, environment, location, beliefs and habits.


If we assume that “best” in this context is the combination of speed and accuracy that allows us to get the most of each, watching the behaviour of the people who work for the company is better than everything else. Yes, looking vs. listening shifts a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating a narrative onto the watcher and it will slow the reveal of industry specific nuance – given that a baseline level of knowledge is required in order to begin to understanding what is going on – but the human brain works to generate a congruent narrative automatically when one is not provided and the particular method for making widgets is much more heavily impacted by culture than the other way round.

When we get right down to it, organizational culture is about how a group of people interact with each other and the physical world, how all of these people move information between themselves, how information spreads throughout the company and how these movements impact or change this information. All of these, save maybe how the information changes, are observable and can be understood without having to read or hear anything. This means that we could watch the goings-on of any company in any country that does not use our native language and we would gain almost as much insight into the culture as we would by watching and listening to the operation of a company that functions in our native tongue. The reason for this is very straightforward, ALL human beings move and interact with the world in exactly the same way, using the same sensory tools and the same mechanism for determining, planning and coordinating our actions. With few exceptions, the parts of the brain that are active when handing someone a piece of paper are also active when we watch someone handing off or receiving a piece of paper. This characteristic of the human brain allows for a type of mind reading such that potential explanatory context are generated that surface the intention of an action. It is fairly superficial and yet the lack of a specific why has little to no impact on our ability to determine the interaction dynamic between the two people and to shape our understanding of the general rules of the company.

When we take this back to my experience at GoodLife as a new sales person and imagine that I was watching things for the first time, it is easy to imagine that I would have noticed how the personal trainers did not interact with the sales team in the same way as they did with everyone else. Upon noticing, it is entirely plausible that I would have mind-read that they did not like the sales people. And when we think about it, that is mostly true. They don’t KNOW the sales people therefore they have not yet learned to LIKE the sales people. Their actions are congruent with the mind-read intention. So, while the specifics are not clear – they didn’t want to invest in getting to know people who would be gone in a month or so – the cultural aspect of it was mostly clear.

So what?

There are no lies in the actions we take, even when the actions are intended to deceive. Lies need language and exist within the narratives used to describe, explain, or capture the meaning of events. We should therefore rely on our eyes more than our ears when we are attempting to figure out how the world is and only reverse this when someone has demonstrated that they are an honest broker of the truth who works earnestly to deal in facts and acknowledgements of “I don’t knows” when they do not know.

There are normative rules that govern the way things interact with each other. These rules will spontaneously emerge over time and, given long enough, they begin to shape all aspects of the these interactions. People who are new to the theatre in which these interactions are occurring will learn and follow these rules simply by interacting with those who are well versed. They will learn them even if they are never taught directly. Organizational or company culture is made-up of these rules and once a critical mass is reached, the culture becomes self-correcting and self-sustaining.

Once established and learned by its members, the culture will be shamelessly modelled by the members of the group. From here, it will begin to impact everyone who engages the organization – vendors, customers, investors, etc. – evoking a feeling that people will associate with the company.

When understood and influenced effectively, words will no longer be required to shape behaviour and little effort will be needed to keep things going. While this will be helpful during the good and normal times, it is essential for the survival of a company during the difficult times when people are displaced from their normal activities because it ensures that the rules of engagement and interaction are maintained even when there are material changes in how someone performs their job.

Empathy And Compassion Are Not The Same Things

If times are actually tough for them… They will likely need your help in identifying the problem, determining some solutions… If they actually want a better life, the last thing they need is company and particular not company that feels the same way they do.

There are two concepts that often get confused and they are empathy and compassion. They are not the same and they manifest themselves very differently in terms of behavioural outcomes and internal emotional states.

Empathy is the ability for someone to get into the mind state of another person, gaining a rich understanding of what it feels like to be the other people. If someone is sad, an empathetic person will relate strongly to their experience and feel sadness. Boundaries will be dissolved and it will become challenging to know where one person ends and the other person begins.

Compassion is the ability to care about another person while not becoming entangled in the others experience of an emotion. A compassionate person will be able to identify when someone is sad and they will want the other person to stop experiencing sadness, but they will not become sad themselves. There will be a strong boundary between the two people.

The problem with empathy is that it is generally not very helpful. Its value is used-up in a few seconds and then it very quickly becomes a problem. It may be useful to know what someone is experiencing, to get a thin slice of what this moment in time is like for them and to temporarily feel what they are feeling. This can help to establish the connection, to calibrate on what is occurring, and to get clear on what they are trying to get away from or maintain. After those things have been satisfied, it is best to wipe the slate as clean as possible and to focus on what needs to happen next. Doing anything other than flushing away their state to make room for your own will make you as unhelpful to them as they currently are to themselves. This is actually fairly difficult given that emotions are composed of neuro-chemicals that need to be cleaned-up completely before mental functioning returns to baseline.

The problem here is two fold. The first is that an emotional response tends to beget more of the same emotional response. It is very easy and more common than not to have a feedback loop that either sustains an emotional response or escalates the magnitude of the response. This is not helpful, and only compounds the problem when two highly charged people talk to each other. There is little chance that I’m going to be able to talk you off the ledge if I’m on the same ledge thinking about jumping too.

The second, and more importantly if you are interested in helping someone, it takes time for emotions to clear the brain and blood. During this period of time thinking will be impaired in predictable and profound ways. There is an inversely proportionate relationship between the size of an emotional response (the amount of neural chemicals released) and the activation of the prefrontal cortex. Triggering a full fight or flight response renders the prefrontal cortex off-line until the chemicals are cleaned-up. This makes sense given the evolutionary survival benefit of shutting down the part of the brain that inhibits massive immediate action and which generates thoughts and consideration of the future. In a true life or death situation, thinking about an action or the consequences to an action is more likely to lead to a premature death than running or fighting to neutralize the threat. But this kind of response is almost always way too much. Most of the time acting with some consideration for the future is the best course of action.

If you really want to be of service to another person, both of you will benefit when you have only a cursory appreciation of what they are experiencing and a desire to move them towards something they view as better – to know they are having a sucky experience yet to not share in that experience. If times are actually tough for them, they are probably experiencing the predictable cognitive impairment and cannot see their own way out of the situation. They will likely need your help in identifying the problem, determining some solutions, brainstorming the appropriate course of action and your guidance to shepherd them out. If they actually want a better life, the last thing they need is company and particular not company that feels the same way they do.

Compassion is what is needed in these situation and in most situations were help is wanted. To care enough to not becomes part of the same problem is an act of mercy and really the only moral course of action. By allowing your entire brain to work the problem you are proceeding down the only path that can lead to the elimination of their suffering. By choosing to empathize with them you are only multiplying the suffering and ensure that they get no help from you.

The Anticipatory Anxiety Is Worse Than The Needle

It is the anticipation that causes most of the suffering…. The stress of anticipation has a chemical signature and physiological consequence. Every moment we spend anticipating what is about to happen is a moment of unnecessary agony. If it is going to be, get it over with and put it behind you. Even if the only up side is the elimination of this suffering, you are further ahead.

When I was younger I used to give blood. There are three reasons why I did it. First, it’s a good thing to do. It may help someone who needs blood, it could save a life. Second, there are the cookies and peach drink. When they sit you down to recover, they give you this super sweet peach drink and as many cookies as you want. They want your blood sugar to stay up given that they have just taken a pint of blood and in response, your body very likely initiated a stress response that moves blood sugar into the cells to power a fight or flight response. When this happens, it’s important to replenish the blood sugar quickly to prevent it dropping.

The third reason why I liked doing it is because it’s slightly painful but in a manageable way. It’s a safe type of pain, in a very control environment with almost no long term risk for a healthy adult male.

I remember the first time the blood bank came to our school and I excitedly decided to participate. There were a few of us who did it as a sort of dare – peer pressure / trash talk can have a big impact on the actions of people who are susceptible to social pressure. I filled out the paper work and waited for my turn. There was an anxious / excited feeling building which is kind of pleasant. It was a lot like the feeling I would get before teaching a cycling class. It’s a feeling that indicates an unknown in about to happen. I have no idea what would be next, just that in a few minutes a needle would be pushed through my skin into a vein in my arm and a quantity of blood would be removed. What that would feel like was a mystery, one that would be solved in the very near future.

It turns out that the pain associated with the needle is very small in magnitude and duration. It isn’t as intense as a bee sting, it doesn’t linger like a mosquito bite, and the sensation of blood leaving the body is almost imperceptible. At worst there is a slight lightheadedness initially and when you first sit-up but it’s closer to nothing than everything. Even the needle being in the arm doesn’t feel like much. The idea of it is a little more uncomfortable than the physical feeling of it. The thought “there is a needle in my arm” isn’t one that I had had before and given that it isn’t a natural part of life, it’s nothing that we innately put to rest or naturally habituate. In all the times I gaven blood, the thought of the presence of the needle was always the worst part, indicating just how trivial the actual pain is or just how profound the impact can be of thought, particularly when pair with focused attention.

The anticipatory anxiety was worse than the needle. It has always been worse than the needle. Vaccinations, at least since I have been 9 or 10 have always been the same way. In fact, the only time I recall a vaccination as being negative was when I was 5 or 6 and had to get the needle in the glut. In fairness thought, the process was awful.

It was at school and all the kids in a class were vaccinated at one time. In their wisdom, the process they came up with was tailor designed to make it as traumatic as possible. A small group of us were led into a room. There was bed set up, but it was behind a curtain. In front of the curtain was a couple of rows of chairs. The front row contained the “next to be vaccinated” kids and they would, when their turn came, stand-up and walk behind the curtain. Once the front row was empty, the second row kids would move forward and wait their turn. A new batch of kids would be brought in and take their place in the second row.

From an adult perspective, this process makes sense. After all, it’s just a small needle in the buttocks. They know that it is mostly painless because they have experience with it.

From a child’s perspective, it is terrifying. And rightfully so. If you were to be able to occupy the mind of any of the children, what is so horrible about it would become obvious immediately.

First off, we don’t know any of the players. We’ve never seen the doctor or nurse before. In fact, they only show-up at the school to put the kids through this ordeal. All we know is what we have heard from the older student had been thought it before (and they had the same miserable experience we were about to have). We don’t really know our teachers at this point – the brain of a five or six year old doesn’t really have much concept of social roles – and by default we trust every adult because we have to. But it isn’t a real trust that is based off of experiences, it is a trust that is a consequence of having next to no skepticism or critical thinking skills. So the fact that they are walking us into this room does little to put the mind at ease.

Second, the whole situation is kind of scary. Kids wait their turn to go behind a curtain for something to happen to them. Every child who goes behind the curtain ends up screaming and crying, and every child that is about to go behind the curtain witnesses this. They hear the shreeks of fear and then the cries of pain. And they never see the child again. Keep in mind that we were at the most 6 years old. The concept of there being a future does not yet reside in our brains. All we know is what we see / hear / feel and right now that is telling us that everyone who goes behind that curtain screams in pain and disappears.

Third, our time is coming. We know it is coming because a few minutes ago we were in our class room. Then some students are lead away. Then we’re lead away to take our place in a row of chairs behind the first group. Those kids are taken one at a time behind the curtain for God knows what, but it sure as hell hurts, and then we move forward to wait our turn. It makes no difference what anyone says because we don’t have a point of reference or experience to process this. Telling us that it doesn’t hurt for very long, that it isn’t very painful or that we have had vaccinations before is like telling us that we are made-up of billions of atoms. We don’t know what any of it means because we have no memories that we can access to help make sense of the situation. All we know is that, one by one, our friends and classmates go behind a curtain where a couple of strangers hurt them.

When my time came, I was told later, I didn’t handle it very well. I freaked out because I knew, not feared, knew I was going to die. And I was held down by strangers to have a needle stuck into my buttocks by another stranger. I was a hero and I fought valiantly, but I was no match for the nurse and doctor. I was a 10th their size and they had the benefit of being well versed professionals knowing a thing or two about leverage. There is a gap in my memory covering the last few moments before I was led behind the curtain and up until I was in the school yard recovering with the rest of the just traumatized kids.

Sure we wouldn’t get lockjaw, but would we ever feel safe again?

As I got older, the immunization process improved. Our triceps became the target muscle and that alone was enough to overwrite the impact of the buttocks ordeal. The health care practitioners stopped doing needles to us and began to let us consent. I suppose it was quicker to hold the kids down and get it over with, and there’s a very good chance that no a single child would consent to that first needle but I don’t actually care if their job was hard. They were doing something to us that was really negative given that any pain at all cannot be understood in rational terms by 6 year olds.

Needles do not hurt all that much. Breaking a finger or smashing your foot off of the leg of the coffee table in the dark is actual pain. The difference between the needle and the broken bone is that we KNOW the needle is coming. If we knew we were about to break a finger, we’d change course and just not break the finger.

It is the anticipation that causes most of the suffering. In almost every case, this anticipatory anxiety is worse than anything the world is going to bring us. The stress of anticipation has a chemical signature and physiological consequence. Every moment we spend anticipating what is about to happen is a moment of unnecessary agony. If it is going to be, get it over with and put it behind you. Even if the only up side is the elimination of this suffering, you are further ahead, but that is never the case, there is always another upside that makes the experience very worthwhile.

Our thoughts have a lot more power in manufacturing suffering than anything the physical world will reasonably bring our way. The needle is never as bad as the thought of the needle.

No Idea How We Feel Or Think

I’m not bothered by the fact that I have no idea what is going on inside my brain. I no more feel like a servant to the machine than I feel like the pilot. Whatever it is I believe I am, it only exists as electrical impulses that arise and pass away each moment as the universe is recreated over and over again, in my brain.

Let’s get this straight, human beings have no idea why they feel the way they do or why they think the things they think. And to be fair it isn’t their fault because exactly no one understands the complexities of consciousness and how a thought moves from being electrical impulses in certain parts of the brain to being a thought in awareness.

Most people never think about thinking or consciousness. Most people never consider the processes that are involved with influencing thought. Most people assume that they are their consciousness and that they are in control of the machine.

But this isn’t the case. Consciousness, like understanding language, walking, feeling hungry, etc…. is just one of a multitude of mental processes that is occurring in the brain. Consciousness is, in fact, another unconscious thought process. All we are aware of is the outcome of the process not the process itself. This distinction isn’t all that important, it matters only when we consider that almost all of our thinking, almost all of the things we would consider thoughts, happen independent of our awareness of them.

Consciousness is built upon a rich infrastructure of unconscious thought.

David Deutsch

Recent studies in fMRI machines indicate that when given yes / no questions, the subjects brain reveals the answer BEFORE the subject consciously becomes aware of it. There are distinct “yes” and “no” activity patterns that can be measured BEFORE the subject consciously knows the answer to the question. There is a lag of up to half a second between when the brain activity signals an answer and when the person finds themselves saying the answer or becomes consciously aware of the answer. Half a second is a very long time, particularly when dealing with the human brain, an organ of billions of neurons and hundreds of billions of interconnections. The amount of processing that occurs during that period of time makes it appear to be an eternity as opposed to an instant.

When we imagine a simple yes / no question like “are you in an MRI machine?” fully unpacking the question reveals that it isn’t at all simple. Some of the examples of things that need to be sorted out, understood and factored into the decision making matrix are: what is an MRI machine, what is meant by you, what is a machine, what is meant by in, what is three dimensional space, what is a question, what type of question is this and how do I respond to that type of question. But before that can happen, parts of the brain that are responsible for processing the electrical impulses that come from ears need to sense, encode, process and convert to workable units of information that represent the question. This information has to be pattern matched to the long term memory about language. It goes on and on like this depending in how granular you want to go.

The subject in the MRI machine has no awareness of any of this happening. The machine operator may be able to see the activity moving around the brain, with some parts get brighter as they perform their function, but it all happens so quickly that in real time they don’t see much of anything. Slowed down and compared to other scans and detailed picture will begin to emerge. But not as it happens and not without the help of computers that process billions of cycles a second to help render an image that has meaning to the investigators.

All of that brain activity to say “yes” when asked whether they are in an MRI machine. It’s mind blowing to consider what must happen when faced with a tougher question. “What are the four most common things that you buy at the supermarket?” or “in what ways does elementary school resemble a capitalistic economy?” likely trigger 100s of billions of nerve impulses. We cannot even pretend to know what’s going on in our brains. Maybe, if we work at it, we can create enough mindfulness to have a decent idea what we are conscious of from moment to moment. We may even develop the ability to know what we are feeling from moment to moment or to develop the distinction to know when we are taking actions that serve a confirmation bias. But most people never consider that they are having thoughts and that they have the ability to think about thinking let alone choose to think about a though that pops up.

Personally, I find all of this reassuring because it shines a light on what we can do and what we cannot do.

Sure, we cannot know the answer to a question before the brain answers the question as being consciously aware of an answer is the last part of the process. We can, however, direct our attention onto things, maybe not completely, but we do have influence over the machine that is our brain. We can’t stop it from going where it’s going, but we can nudge it towards particular things. We may have some agency in determining what sensory information we seek out. And we do seem to have the ability to insert thoughts onto the white board that is our working memory and manipulate these ideas; in essence, creating that which does not exist, and push this vapour into the inner workings of the brain to generate output that is based on experience, long-term memory and our world view. We can rehearse and improve at things that are not happening, we can test run different scenarios and most impressively do the impossible by creating something that doesn’t exist.

Given all of this, I’m not bothered by the fact that I have no idea what is going on inside my brain. I no more feel like a servant to the machine than I feel like the pilot. Whatever it is I believe I am, it only exists as electrical impulses that arise and pass away each moment as the universe is recreated over and over again, in my brain.

Personal Relativity – That Time I Said Something Wise And Then forgot To Remember It For Twenty Years

The world is very complicated… Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.

I lived in residence when I attended the University of Ottawa during my first year. The school is bilingual, French and English, and it is located in the down town of Canada’s capital city. As such, it offers a unique opportunity that no other school in the country can – proximity to the political establishment and to the government industrial complex. This means access to most aspect of the government along with exposure to a wide selection of people (diplomats and embassy workers) from many other countries. It would be a common occurrence to ride the bus during the evening rush hour and be surrounded by people who do not look or speak the same way I do. As a consequence of this high level of diversity, a lot of international students would attend the University.

This aspect of the city was great, particularly for anyone living in residence, because first year international students were offered a room on campus. I got to meet and spend time with people from places that I had never thought about before. This type of exposure, particularly during this phase of my life had a profound impact on my concept of what a person was or could be. I was just one of billions of people and while we all kind of looked and behaved in the same sort of way, it was clear that the thoughts that people have are wide and varied. There were patterns though, which is a powerful piece of information to have access to as one transitions from high school teenager to university adult.

We were all there to figure things out and most of the people on our floor spent a lot of time talking, particularly later in the evening when our critical faculties were drained from a long day of consuming lectures and text book material. The most fruitful conversations tended to unfold on Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday evenings because these were the days when we were operationally the furthest away from the weekend and the negative effects that alcohol has on the quality of discourse. Our heads were clear, people listened and heard, and the only thing we really needed to do was study, so everyone seemed to put in the extra effort to keep the conversations flowing in order to reassign the work to tomorrow. The entire thing was a formula for insight – time, bright clear minds, and an incentive to continue probing; so we could avoid doing any direct work.

During one of these late night chats, I said something that was accidentally wise. But because it was an accident, I did not have the presence of mind to deliberately have a good conscious think about it every day. It remained in my brain doing stuff, but I didn’t pay attention to it enough to maximize the impact it would have and to allow it to fully shape the direction of my thinking. This is the nature accidental wisdom, without the hard work to reflect on and create an impression of value, we do not treat it as well as we should and after not too long, it more or less leaves us.

The concept I brought up was “personal relativity” and it was in response to the topic of regret. We had been talking about grad weekend, and one of the girls mentioned that she didn’t talk to her date any more. He had wanted to move their relationship to the next level while she was fine with taking things slow and pacing the upward trajectory so as to leave some things undone for a later time. His desire was to have sex after the formal at the hotel room they had rented, while she wanted something much less intimate. They didn’t have sex and their relationship did not make it through the summer. This had left her a little heart broken and wondering if her decision to wait had been worth it or if it had been the wrong thing to do.

She was a second year student, so she was about 18 months past the grad weekend and around 16 months post break-up. The time had given her plenty of opportunity to reframe things in a way that made them easier to deal with, and the fact that he no longer spoke to her served to validate her decision as the right one. As she was unpacking the situation and kind of outlined how things had evolved, I felt the need to tell her that no matter what she had done, there would always be a time when it was viewed as the right thing to have had happen and a time when it would be viewed as having been the wrong thing. The reality didn’t actually matter because there was not a right or wrong thing in it given the shift in her thinking about it. All we have is one opportunity to do what we think is best, and that is based on what we know at the moment in time when we have to make that decision.

Sure, they could have slept together and stayed together forever. Maybe the only reason the relationship ended was because she were not ready and he was; although that doesn’t really make a lot of sense because a life long partnership will not end simply because one partner wants to have sex and the other partner does not. But this doesn’t actually matter given the amount of time between prom night, the eventual break-up, and the evening when we are having the conversation.

Sure, they could have slept together and still broken-up towards the end of the summer, on the same day that they broke-up in reality. While it feels like this version of reality would validate the correctness of her decision to wait, it doesn’t matter in exactly the same way and amount as the “do it and live happily ever after” scenario.

The truth is, and it is always true, that life runs in one direction and there are no chance to redo any of it. Even if we get to repeat an experience, it isn’t the same experience no matter how close to the same it might appear. Materially, the world chances from instant to instant, so the notion that a mulligan is a redo is inherently flawed. What seems like a second chance at something is actually the first chance at something else, something that is very similar to the thing that was done before.

There was a moment when everyone was considering what I had said and it was clear that something was happening inside their heads. It wasn’t so much that a light was going on or that they suddenly had access to an insight that they had been struggling to surface, it was more like they had realized something very sad yet promising about their existential experience of life. The decisions we make are, so long as we take proper care to consider the known and the possible unknown information, always going to be correct. Any post hoc evaluation that considers information that we did not have access to at the time, and could not have reasonably imagined, is an evaluation about a future present (relative to when the decision was made) or a past present (relative to when the evaluation is being made) and does NOTHING to alter quality of the decision that was actually made. Even if future present or past present seem kind of confusing, the fact that there are two or three unique moments in time being combined in order for an evaluation to occur is a nonstarter. Relative to the moment in time when you chose, your decision was logical, sound, and valid. Relative to any time in the future, your decision cannot be viewed through the same lens and any value judgments about it are meaningless and inherently flawed.

This is sad because it sets up a situation in which every decision we can make will be viewed as wrong. It is promising because it gives us permission to leave the past behind and learn from the outcome of the choices we make. It is this promising aspect of it that I wish I had been able to constantly keep in mind. The knowledge that a mistake was made should cause a little pain, but only enough to serve as an incentive to learn from and a disincentive to repeat the mistake. It should never turn into regret or manifest as a generalization about ones tendency to make mistakes. And under no circumstance should it ever be internalized as an identity statement.

The world is very complicated and there is too much to know for any one person to know everything. We are going to be mostly clueless about most things and possible know a lot about one or two subjects. So long as there are at least a few people to know each thing who are capable of sharing or teaching it to others, the massive blind spots each one of us have are not necessarily going to cause much of an issue. Problems arise when we don’t seek out, listen to and hear, or adjust our course based on the things that those who know tell us. Knowing that you do not know is critical, knowing that there are things that you do not know that you do not know about is critical, and taking it easy on yourself is critical when, in the future, you learn one of these things and you realize that you have made a mistake.

So what?

Personal relativity is not a way to banish negative emotions from your life, nor is it an easy justification for being careless. It is simply a way to highlight the complexities of being alive, of managing your way through life knowing that you exist in an information void, and of giving yourself permission to be more charitable when your fallible nature contributes to a stumble. The concept of time is hard enough to wrap your head around, so it makes no sense to assume that your understanding of its experience is accurate.

Regret is built on the belief that you should have done differently, while assuming that you could have done differently. Personal relativity is built on the fact that you did what was correct at a very specific moment in time with all of the information you had access to. Just because the future present reveals something that would have altered your decision does not change anything about the past.

Each one of us has a perspective that is unique – we are the centre of ALL of our experiences and are therefore the centre of the universe. But so is everyone else. Personal relativity captures this aspect of experience while also including time as another dimension. So just as you will never know the experience of being someone else, you will never know the experience of simultaneously being yourself at two different moments in time.

Be mindful of what is going on, of what you know that is relevant, of what might possibly be known by others that is relevant, of what is not yet known by anyone that might be relevant, and of what is possible but has not yet happened that might be relevant. Once you have primed your brain with as much of this information as you can, trust it to make a logical and rational decision knowing full well that something may pop-up one day that seems to reframe your action as a mistake.

Guard Your “I am” Statements – When To Use It As A Verb Or A Noun

So you get clear on what you are doing in the moment and notice the “I am” verb / adverb pairing. Realize that this specific action is taken by a specific type of person, or a person who has a specific identity. Your brain knows this intuitively, so by stating the verb, unconscious thought processes are triggered about the noun that embodies the specific verb.

“I am” statements reveal state or identity. Given that state is a transitory thing, what you are now is likely going to change fairly quickly. Also, by declaring your state it becomes obvious what action needs to be taken to change it. “I am hungry” or “I am cold” are two examples of states which, if unpleasant, have very simple solutions, eat or put on a sweater or jacket.

Identity is not transitory. It changes less often and has a number of properties / characteristics / behaviours that tend to be expressed / displayed and remain fixed. “I am a smoker” is an identity statement and predictably a smoker will smoke. They’ll likely buy cigarettes, have smoking rituals, have friends who smoke and display and experience a level of discomfort when they are unable to smoke when they want to. Their identity will impact their state.

“I am an X smoker” or “I am a non smoker” are also identity statements and they fall on the smoking continuum. An X smoker may still have cravings for nicotine and these cravings may have triggers; usually the behaviours or activities the person displayed or took part in when they used to smoke. Not smoking is deliberate and requires mindful effort. A non smoker doesn’t have these cravings and if they do, they do not pack the same punch. Not smoking is effortless for them because they identify as a non smoker.

What is critical to consider when it comes to identity are the congruent behaviours that accompany an identity, given that it is impossible for someone to behave in a way that goes against an identity. A non smoker cannot smoke so if someone has a cigarette, they are some type of smoker – an occasional or social smoker for example. You can also be a smoker who doesn’t smoke or who currently doesn’t smoke because you choose not to. But if you identify as a smoker who chooses not to smoke, you are simply choosing not to smoke right now.

The power of identity is revealed when we understand and clearly and honestly define our identity as something for which particular negative behaviours are in-congruent; or for which particular positive behaviours are congruent. Given that in-congruent actions cannot be taken and congruent actions can, any shift in identity will be accompanied by a change in behaviour.

If a smoker changes their identity to become an X smoker or non smoker, they will stop smoking. The same applies when an identity shifts to say I am a healthy eater. Healthy eaters consume more of certain foods and eliminate other types; added are vegetables, gone are sugars, trans-fat and high calorie low nutrient liquids.

When considering this deeper, we are wise to look at it from a linguistic perspective, specifically how we use the words in terms of the parts of speech.

The word that follows “I am” can either be a noun / pronoun or a verb / adverb. Depending on which is used, there will be a natural and likely unverbalized assumption made. When the next word is a verb / adverb, the natural assumption will be a noun. When the next word is a noun, a list of verbs will bubble up. This is where the power lies given that most of our thinking is unconscious. Anything we can do to trigger empowering thoughts, either conscious or unconscious, will move our life in the direction we want it to go.

The first thing we need to do is be very clear on what exactly is happening in the present moment. This is always going to be a verb because we are always going to be doing something. Even if you are sitting there doing nothing, you are still sitting, sitting is something, and doing nothing, and nothing is in most cases actually something. So you get clear on what you are doing in the moment and notice the “I am” verb / adverb pairing. Realize that this specific action is taken by a specific type of person, or a person who has a specific identity. Your brain knows this intuitively, so by stating the verb, unconscious thought processes are triggered about the noun that embodies the specific verb. Whether or not you ever become consciously aware of this noun, the identify statement exists and fires a lot of mental activity in your brain about all the things associated with that identity. This cognitive cascade lights-up many areas of your brain and moves data / information around. This stimulation does what all stimulation does, it promotes the formation of actual tissue to support future similar thoughts. By thinking something once, it becomes easier to think it in the future, which makes thinking it in the future even easier, and so on.

The moment we are clear in what exactly is happening in the present moment marks a vital inflection point. If what is happening is what we want / need to be happening, we don’t necessarily need to do anything. We’re going to be fine now and in the future if we leave things on autopilot and let the unconscious thinking proceed naturally. We can however, improve future outcomes by bringing into consciousness the noun that naturally flows from the verb. By paying attention to the noun and noticing the cognitive cascade, we increase the amount of stimulation and promote greater tissue growth. Greater tissue growth increases the likelihood that we’ll be the verb in the future and the empowering pattern continues and grows.

If what is happening is not what we want or need to be happening, our better future depends on us doing something about it because if we do nothing different, we’re going to lay down the tissue that makes doing the same thing more likely in the future, which makes more of the same a great probability.

To change course we have a few options. The simplest is to stop doing the verb that isn’t helping and start doing the verbs that will. Remember that action is the only thing that shapes the clay of life. If you are the kind of rare person who doesn’t need to know why things are the way they are and can just get after doing the things, bringing forth the noun that you want / need to be and cultivating mindfulness will be sufficient to move you towards greatness. There is a particular noun that you are wanting to be, just be the verb that this noun embodies.

If the simplest way of direct action is not who you are, you will need to give a voice to the noun that comes up as a result becoming clear on what is happening in the present moment. Doing this has a down side in that you continue, at least for one more rep, to lay down the tissues that are the consequential effect of these thoughts. This notwithstanding , shinning a light on the noun and consciously forming an “I am” implied identity statement creates a mental white board in working memory to examine your action, the identity you may hold of yourself that facilitates the action and what cognitive distortions may be occurring that would yield such an identity – it allows you to talk back to the thought and interrupt the pattern. More importantly, it creates the space for you to insert a different identity with a conditional / explanatory verb used to help maintain congruence. For example, “I am a healthy eater who didn’t bring a lunch and decided to eat a doughnut.” This reframe if very different from the “I am eating a doughnut” followed by the unconscious automatic implied condition reaction “therefore I am a poor eater” that accompanies mindless action.

More consequentially, you are not giving yourself a pass and simply creating a similar future. You are taking responsibility for eating the doughnut while outlining the solution to prevent the same action in the future – bringing you lunch. And it is this paying attention to a new action that will go a long way in manifesting that specific future. Remember, attention increase stimulation which increases tissue growth.

The key to this is to be aware that the verb becomes the noun. If you like the noun, maintain the verb. If you don’t like the noun, change the verb. If you can’t change the verb, deliberately and consciously choose the right noun that congruently produces the appropriate verb. Check in often and repeat as often as is needed to lay down the neural pathways that make the verb and noun indistinguishable from each-other and who you are.