Vertigo And How It Reveals The Priorities Of Sensory Input

A few years ago I found myself suffering from vertigo for a few weeks. It past, and since then it has returned a couple of times for a day or two. That first bout was intense and it complicated my life considerably. Fortunately it was just benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) which can be helped with some very specific head movements that help to reposition the otolith (crystal-like substances) to their normal position in the utricle (a part of the inner ear). Basically, to help with balance, spacial awareness and proper body orientation, the vestibular system in the ear contains crystals that move freely in the fluid. Given that the crystals have a higher density than the fluid, they sink causing them to stimulate hair cells. When the head moves, the crystals move, being pulled downward by gravity, resulting in them stimulating different hair cells. This way the brain always knows what way is down and it always knows what way the head is orientated relative to the pull of gravity.

With BPPV, the crystals become dislodged and move into one of the semicircular canals. As a consequence to this, the brain has extreme difficultly interpreting the information that is coming from the vestibular system because it is scrambled / ambiguous – whereas the crystals would normally stimulate a lot of hair cells in one area that corresponds to down, the absence of the crystal means there is less stimulation in a specific direction, and more stimulation in general. The brain assumes it is orientated in many directions at once, which isn’t possible, and this causes the symptoms of vertigo. While not exactly the same thing, about one third of people who experience weightlessness will suffer from a type of motion sickness that is believed to be caused by the elimination of down. The crystals float which isn’t necessarily a problem. However, when the person changes direction, the crystals impact the hair cells in a different way than normal – the force vectors are direct (straight) and not impacted by the pull of gravity (forward or back with a downward angle). The brain adapts to the change very quickly and the motion sickness disappears after a day or so.

Fortunately for me, the resetting movements seem to help. The nausea, which had been very strong the first week faded and just went away. What remained was an intense dizziness when I move my head suddenly, or when I would lie down or stand-up. I went to the doctor and he said that it would normally pass after a few weeks. If there was a virus going around that was causing it, my body would take care of it, and if it was BPPV the movements would take care of it. He didn’t know, but since there was no obvious pathology in terms of my ears being injured or infected, there wasn’t much anyone could do. Welcome to middle age was about all his smile said.

His answer was par for the course and about what I had expected. So as unsatisfying as I found it, I didn’t have any choice but to accept it, get back to life and wait for natural healing to occur. And of course this meant that I would be hyper aware of whatever was going on and whatever changes occurred until I was back to normal.

This was for me the most interesting part of it. Step one was to learn about what was causing the vertigo (the explanation outlined above). Step two was to learn about other ways the system might break down even when it was working fine (the zero G motion sickness stuff). The final step was to be curious how my brain would adapt to deal with what was going on. If the brain of an astronaut took a few days to adjust to the changes in sensory input coming from their vestibular system when “down” was eliminated, what was my brain going to do in response to the scrambled input it was getting? No matter how bad I felt or whatever interpretation I was giving to my experience, my brain was going to try and make sense of the input it was getting, simply because that is what brains do.

Since I wasn’t feeling nauseous any more, life was just more difficult. It would have been nice and of course I would have liked to not be dizzy anymore, but that wasn’t going to happen simply by wishing it away. There was a tiny chance that I would never return to normal, a thought that I didn’t like but had to entertain if I was going to be pragmatic about things. IF this was going to be the rest of my life, WHAT did I need to do to reduce the dizziness? Doing something about it was important for reasons other than the feeling it created, the bouts of dizziness were mentally draining. It takes a lot of effort to remain standing when it feels like you are tumbling through the air. The sensation doesn’t match reality and the amount of work that is required to reconcile the conflict and make the accurate determination that I was standing upright was exhausting. The exhaustion was a symptom of the work being done, and when all is said and done, it’s exactly what I needed my brain to do. It was now on me to help it out as much as I could.

A long time ago I watched a BBC program about the functional plasticity of the brain. It covered the Innsbruck Goggle Experiments of Theodor Erismann (1883–1961) and Ivo Kohler (1915–1985). In their studies, they gave the subjects glasses that flipped all of the visual information and made it upside down. The subjects were then asked to wear the glasses during all of their waking hours for the next few weeks as they went about their lives. As you would expect, that first few days were very challenging for the subjects. They had a lot of difficulty interacting with the world. While they were able to pick things up, they had a lot of problems moving their hands into the right position to grab the objects. Moving objects were nearly impossible to track at the beginning and were impossible for them to touch. Walking was extremely difficult and no one was allowed to drive.

But very quickly the subjects began to get the hang of it. After a few days writing became easier, they figured out how to locate and manipulate objects, and moving around stopped being a trial and error type experience. After 10 days, one of the participants was able to ride a bike without falling and without fear of running someone over or riding somewhere they didn’t want to go. It was remarkable to watch their progress and notice the daily improvement in acquiring functionality and then automating it after some period of time.

When the study was over and they were allowed to remove the goggles, they did not immediately return to normal. They found it difficult to interact with the world again, not nearly as tough as they had found it when they put on the goggles, but it wasn’t automatic and unconscious. But after about half an hour, things just seemed to pop into place and their pre-experiment proficiency was restored and everything seemed to return to normal.

In my own life I have experienced a similar type of thing, just a lot less intense or overwhelming. Any time I buy a new bike, my brain is forced to adjust to the new geometry and riding position. For the first few rides I am a little shaky and need to take it easy to make sure I don’t fall, but after a week or so it doesn’t feel odd and I have no difficulty maneuvering the bike on rough terrain and over logs. When I get back onto my old bike, it feels strange for a few minutes but I adjust to it very quickly.

There was no reason to believe that I would not be able to adjust to the miss signals that my ears were sending to my brain. All I would need to do was interact with the world for a period of time and my brain would do the rest. But I was in a hurry because I needed to get back to working at full speed and the vertigo had reduced my output significantly. I felt certain that there were a few ways to speed the process up and have a suspicion that my brain had already figured some of them out and was changing my behavior to take advantage of them.

The dizziness wasn’t there all of the time, and it was much less intense at night when I was in bed than during the day. Frankly, I don’t have any idea what dizziness is other than a physical sensation, but the fact that darkness seemed to reduce it is significant. Also significant is the fact that I have never felt dizzy when I have been dreaming. Even the weirdest floating and spinning dreams I have ever had did not have any impact on my sense of orientation. Dizziness then is caused when information from two separate sensory systems doesn’t reveal the same thing. When it’s dark, there is no visual information to conflict with the vestibular information and when I am dreaming, there is no vestibular information to conflict with the visual information. Putting it all together, I started closing my eyes when I felt dizzy and then began to close them before I moved my head too much. This took care of a lot of it. While it felt like I was moving a lot more than I was, I was able to make enough sense out of things to know where I was and where down most likely was.

The next piece of it came automatically, and it was unrelated to my present situation. I do the dishes at home and for some reason, when I’m moving about the sink, I keep one foot on the ground and kind of hook the other foot on the underside of the cupboard. I do this mainly when I need to reach away from the sink and don’t want to take a step. No idea why I do it but it’s a thing that I do, and carried over into other areas of my life. In the case of my vertigo, I found myself doing it even when I wasn’t reaching away. It seemed that I was it doing to to ground myself or to provide more sensory information to my brain to give it something else to work with since it could no longer rely on what was coming from the ear. Once I noticed that the foot information seemed to help, I started to use my hands and elbow to provide more clues. Normally I wouldn’t touch the work table when making panels, but I found that when I placed a free hand on it I instantly felt more certain about the position of my body. If I started to get dizzy when I was walking down a hallway, I would just need to reach out and touch the wall to stabilize things.

There was a certain level of deliberateness to all of these adjustmenta I was making, but it didn’t take very long before I automated doing them. I don’t like being dizzy or the sensation of tumbling when I’m not, so making these feelings evaporate very quickly acts as a strong incentive to reward the actions that eliminate the feeling. In a way, I was powerless to NOT do these things once I discovered that they did something that was positive or eliminated something that was negative.

These work-arounds are very effective, and they made the process of healing from whatever caused the vertigo a lot less challenging or dramatic. Close my eyes or touch something became my reactions to the feeling that I was about to get dizzy.

In a larger way, this whole thing tells a very interesting and important story about how we make sense of the world, deal with ambiguity, and go about adjusting to changes in how we received sensory information or adjust to changes in the quality / accuracy of that information.

First off, it’s just electrical impulses triggered by the stimulation of a sensory cell. The location of that cell, along with the part of the brain that initially receives the signal will determine a lot about the nature of the stimulation, but the brain is not dependent upon the specific signal coming from a specific location in order to make sense of the world. Particularly when it comes to body position. Sure, the first place it will get info from is the vestibular system in the ears. If these sense organs are there and functioning correctly, the information streaming in is very useful and rich. It tells us where down is, and therefore any direction. It tells us that we are moving, accelerating or decelerating, and it gives us an idea of where our head is in relation to any other part of our body that is sending in tactile information. It does this regardless of light condition.

But a lot of this information is available through different modalities. Just because the brain is used to getting it from the ear does not mean that it cannot process visual data to extract the same information. This won’t work in the dark, but when it is bright enough to see something that we are able to place spatially, the brain can take some time to reprocess the information to figure out where we are, what position we are in, and if we are moving. It isn’t perfect – recall any time you were on a stationary train and the train beside you begins to move, or a time when you were on a spinning ride, and everything else is spinning at different speeds – but it works very well under most circumstances. In fact, the brain relies on a combination of the two in order to get a more exact idea of where the body is and what it is doing.

The same applies to the tactile information that the brain is working with. While it isn’t nearly as effective at determining movement or direction, a guess can be made that we are moving when the skin that is facing the same direction begins to send in a signal that corresponds to there being a slight breeze. Orientation can be guessed by two simultaneous touches of something that is stationary because the brain knows where the tactile information is coming from and can compare it to an internal map of where those locations are. Orientation can also be predicted because gravity pulls the skin down, along with all of the tissue and fluids, so the brain is aware of a change in shape and will be able to predict down based on this.

Under normal circumstances, the brain takes it all in and ignores whatever it doesn’t need. Under challenging circumstances, it will do the best with what it has. When one modality is down, it will rely on the information provided by other modalities. And we are free to give it more information any time we like. So long as it is congruent with the interpretation the brain is making, it will be largely ignored. But when there isn’t sufficient information naturally, we can provide more by looking, touching, or hearing.

The opposite it also true. When there is an in-congruence or ambiguity with the sensory information that is flowing in from the senses, we can eliminate it by stopping the data flow from one of the sources. When my ear was telling my brain that I was spinning but my eyes were saying that I was stationary, closing my eyes eliminated the conflict. It went with spinning, which wasn’t a problem because the sensation wasn’t very long lived. There were no crystals to be pulled down and trigger a massive stimulation of the hair cells, so the movement of the fluid that was the result of me turning my head stimulated all of them a little bit. The thickness of the fluid meant that the movement does not continue for very long. As soon as it stopped, my opening eyes would reveal information that was aligned with what the vestibular system was sending.

The worst of the vertigo faded away and hasn’t returned with the exception of a few moments when I haven’t been getting enough sleep or get a little run down. There moments are tough when compared to the day before when I didn’t have vertigo, but they are nothing in comparison to my first experiences with it. In fairness though, I’m not certain that I have ever returned to a vertigo free state. It seems likely that I have, but it is entirely possible that my brain just figured out how to process the sensory information my body generates in a way that allows it to make enough sense of the world to get by. Regardless, I’m grateful for having had the experience because of what adjusting to it forced to learn and figure-out. The human brain is fantastic at adjusting to whatever the world throws at it and adapts automatically and quickly in order to get the needed information from what source can provide it.

Emotional Selling / Buying

For reasons of survival, human beings cannot think logically when they are experiencing an emotional response; the prefrontal cortex is mostly deactivated and we are moved to action vs. thought. This is fantastic when immediate action is required but it creates a vulnerability when thought would serve you better. And let’s face it, there are not a lot of times in modern life that require immediate mindless action.

But that doesn’t mean that we can over-write or undo millions of years of evolution. When we perceive a threat – consciously or unconsciously – we are initially going to be motivated to run or fight.

And this is how we end up buying a lot of stuff that we don’t actually want. It’s rather remarkable actually. We go looking for something, a car for example, and the sales person shows up, friendly, happy and effectively building rapport. We’re guarded at first, we’ve bought a car before and we know the racket, but parts of our brain that function without our awareness are taking in and processing all the information. After some period of time we open-up simply because there is no actual threat. No one is going to harm us and our life is definitely not in jeopardy.

The sales person will find out what kind of car you are looking for, what your specific needs are and how much money you have to spend; they may not be so bold about finding out this information but you’ll give it to them because normal conversation flows in such a way that we tell people stuff. Effective sales people are going to uncover what they need to know in order to begin to trigger emotional reactions within us. And we give them the tools they need because the sales process is set-up like that.

I am one skeptical human being. Some would consider me to be paranoid and I agree, I am very aware of just how easily an emotional reaction can be triggered. I am not the mark I used to be, but I have had to work like hell to not become a part in this click wirr process. When I bought a car a few years ago the entire process was extremely unpleasant for me. I ended-up with a brutal headache and feeling very sick towards the end of it. I bought the exact car I went in to buy and actually paid a little less for it than I had planned. To an outsider it would have looked like a pleasant experience, a win:win for me and the sales person, and he was an extremely nice and good natured person. But I never let my guard down because I didn’t want to get taken.

When the gas water heater people make their rounds I try to get out of the conversation quickly. I don’t really want to waste their time because there is no way they are going to come into my house and I’ve found that when I do talk to them, the conversation degrades very quickly as I call them on the manipulative things they say. They try to use fear that the water heater that is in our house isn’t up to code; they can’t possibly know because they’ve never seen it. They try to tell me it will save money; modern water heaters are extremely efficient. They say that we are entitled to government grands; they don’t even know if we have a gas heater so they cannot know if we are entitled to anything. They say that they are with the gas company and are just in the neighborhood and would like to give our heater a free check-up; no successful company sends out its technicians unannounced and without a reason.

I can say this, they have been well trained to push the buttons that trigger emotional reactions, which will then lower resistance to what they are selling. Listening to them, it is easy to understand how people get sucked into long term contracts with the gas resellers they represent. This makes me angry because I don’t think it’s fair that people knock on your door and try to make you feel things just so you can buy stuff you don’t want. I suppose I could simply just close the door, but even though I have no respect for what they are doing, they are still human beings and deserve some respect.

And I think that’s the problem with emotional selling, it takes so much energy to combat that it ends up changing how we interact with other human beings and this makes the world a little worse of a place for everyone. These automatic reactions are the result of intensity, recency and an averaging of experiences.

Each one of us has a mental storage capacity that is enormous. We are capable of remembering hundreds of thousands of experiences, possibly millions, and when given enough time, we will be able to access most of them. A few of them will come to mind instantly, these will be the most recent and the ones that are the most intense for some reason, but almost all of the remainder will require a certain amount of deliberate mental. A system being set-up like this is very practical. When we need to make a decision very quickly, it limits the amount of information that comes to mind allowing us to filter through with ease and make a decision. We don’t get bogged down reviewing volumes of information, parsing out context, checking for relevance and reprocessing this for patterns and a relationship to other things that might be useful. The brain is capable of performing these tasks, it just doesn’t do it initially and it doesn’t do it very quickly. But when faced with a life or death situation, or when we need to determine IF something is a life or death situation, bringing to mind the most useful and revealing information that is relevant is the fastest and most effective way to do it.

Initially, three things will come to mind, one right after the other:

The first thing that comes to mind will be the contextually similar things that were accompanied by an extreme emotional reaction. There is a favoring of negative emotions over positive emotions here – things that scared us or made us angry – and the corresponding emotion will be triggered to some extent. Our consciousness will be filled with the memory and our body will be hit with some of the emotion. We will be, in a way, transported back that moment in time and this will ready us to respond to that specific stimuli in the event the present situation is a reasonable copy.

The second thing will be the most recent thing that was contextually similar – the context being determined by the last time we crossed the threshold into the physical / geographical space or a location – entering a room, getting into our car – or that is defined by a metaphoric meaning – going to work, talking to a spouse or sales person. Things that happened longer ago have less salience than the things that happened more recently, and the things that happened moments ago will take on a much greater portion of our awareness.

The final thing that comes to mind will be a sort of average of all of the situations that were close enough to the present situation in terms of context, language, emotional state, and a match on any other information that the brain deems as relevant. These will be thrown into a pot, mixed together and formed into a prototypical or representative case that called into mind in response to the sensory data that the present situation provides.

These three things impact the brain in slightly different ways and have different response curves. The emotional one will be first and if there is no negative component it will fade away very quickly. If there is a negative component, it will linger for longer, and if fear is the primary component, it will begin to shut down higher level cognitive processes as a fight or flight response takes over. There is a small window here in which the other two responses can mitigate the response and allow the emotional hijack to fade away. If recent experiences have shown the situation to be safe or if the average experience has been deemed to be safe, the hijack will be reduced.

This is why cognitive behavioral therapy or systematic desensitization is so effective at helping people gain a higher degree of control over their thoughts and reactions. Through repeated exposures that have a positive or neutral outcome, the brain begins to factor them into the average which will begin to lessen the severity of the response.

Assuming that there is no emotional hijack, the recency wave will peak next and fade away, quickly followed by a slow peaking average wave, which will remain for a lot longer before trailing off slowly. What ends up being perceived as reality will most often be a combination of the average and the sensory information. So long as a response is taken quickly, the process for this moment ends and there will be very little deeper searching of long term memories.

The average wave is interesting because it will be comprised of the things that happened more often and things that happened once or twice may not be included. If these single or infrequent happenings are critical for decision making, the person will need to hold off action for a while to give their brain the opportunity to activate these memories and bring them to mind.

This is the process that my brain goes through when there is a knock at the door and I see someone who is trying to sell me something when I open the door. They are not threatening, but I am on a heightened state of awareness because of what has happened before and fairly recently – someone just like them, in a context identical to this, tried to make me feel scared that there was something in my house that was no longer at up to code and could kill me. So without so much as a moments conscious thought, I’m already a little bit angry. When the average of all of the experiences like this fills my mind, I’m only slightly less annoyed and ready to tell them “no thank you” and “good bye.”

In general, these interactions are never as bad as the worst one was, they are fairly transactional once they say their bit and I reply to them based on how they are treating me. The only ones that are in anyway bad are the hot water tank people or the energy resellers, the telecom people are selling a service that they cannot match our present provider on, the political candidates and real estate brokers know that they won’t ever get my vote or my business if they are pushy or rude. And the religious people get thanked for their time and efforts as I politely say “I don’t feel like talking about it.”

At this point, the only door to door sales people that are able to trigger me into an emotional buy are the kids who are selling cookies or raising money for something, or who knock on the door asking to wash my car or shovel the snow from the driveway. They will get money almost every time and I have even paid them to not touch my car as an attempt to reinforce their entrepreneurial efforts.

What is most interesting to me is how Heather doesn’t have any problem listening to people try to sell her things or with their attempts to trigger an emotional response in order to get her commitment to buy. She actually enjoys it because she’s very aware of her internal state and feels it immediately when someone is trying to manipulate her. I’ve heard her complement sales people on their tactics, point out what they did and tell them “no thanks, I’m not buying anything from you.” All without any rage or obvious level of agitation, and even with some enthusiasm for having learned something new.

Heather and I are very different emotional operators. Historically I have been a much more empathetic person, with a tendency to feel emotions to a larger extent and for a much longer duration. She has as wide an emotional spectrum as me but is much more compassionate in terms of how she feels in response to the actions of other people and her perception of their immediate experience. I have only seen her angry once and I have never seen her behave in a way that would be viewed as inappropriate or out of place. The episode of anger was directed towards someone who was completely out of line and in desperate need of some social correction. The consequence of our differing ways of processing emotions is that, while I am more inclined to have a larger first response in terms of emotionality based on my previous experience before it fades to a more objective assessment of the immediate situation, her first response is very low or non existent in terms of emotion because her interpretations are well calibrated with reality. Someone trying to manipulate your emotion is only a threat IF they are successful and trigger a response. They have no power over you when you maintain control of your emotional state. Someone who is actually dangerous will not rely on slow methods to gain control, they will use force right from the very beginning.

The key to emotional selling or to combating emotional buying is logical thought because rationality helps people rank the importance of whatever is occurring. Sellers using these tactics are trying to gain the upper hand by creating a state that favors impulsive or rash decision making. An emotional hijack is the most effective way to do this, and it helps to complete a sale when the person is selling the solution to the proxy cause of the emotional response. Note, the cause of the response is the words / communication of the sales person and the proxy cause is the thing that they are talking about.

For example, the water heater guy is trying to get me to buy a new water heater by making me afraid that my present heater is no longer up to code and is therefore dangerous. He’s presenting the problem and the cure to something that is not a problem in need of a cure. The code change he was making reference to was an update to how gas pipes are labelled. There is nothing unsafe about anything. The ministry just made the determination that better labeling of gas lines would be more helpful. Of course I didn’t know this when he knocked on the door, but since our utility supplier hadn’t told us anything, I was confident there was no actual safety concern. When the sales guy told me my life was in danger I just replied with “good, if something happens you get to be right and I won’t ever have to talk to you again. Now get off my property and stop trying to scare people into buying crap from you.” This isn’t as good a response as what Heather would have had, but she asks me to answer the door because she gets a kick out of hearing what I say when someone’s efforts to make me afraid instead trigger anger.

The best approach is to take your time to allow your brain to surface as much information as it can and to allow whatever emotional response might be triggered to run its course and for your body and brain to return to baseline. This might mean not buying something at that moment in time and missing out on any first visit incentives. It might mean having to buy the product / service elsewhere. But doing it is going to mean that you will buy only the things that you want to buy and that these things will be YOUR choice. Your past will be used to shape your decision making – all of your past, not just the recent past or the experiences that were highly emotional – which will lead to better choices based on reality and actual need.

Visit to the Juravinski Cancer Centre – For Glioblastoma Multiforme (Brain Cancer) – Post Revisited

In December 2011 my family took a trip to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. The trip was taken just to cross-off a possibility from the short list of possible actions that is given to you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. The list was my dad’s, which means the cancer was his. GBM, the most common type of brain cancer. It was a primary tumor, it grew very quickly, and it was located in a part of the brain that made it difficult to operate on and there would be very serious damage to the surrounding tissue. Surgery could be performed but since there was no chance that they would be able to remove all of the tumor it would grow back, likely at the same speed it grew in the first place.

My dad was 67, which placed him on the do nothing side of the surgery decision matrix. He was remarkably healthy for a man of that age, still very lean, strong, and in possession of all of the markers of good health. Apart from the cancer he was in great shape. During the conversation with the oncologist he said that they would be willing to perform the surgery because it was low risk in so far as my dad would live through it. The decision was my dad’s to make, but only after sitting down with the treatment team of doctors who would look his case over and give their honest assessment of what should happen next.

What struck me at the time and what I still remember very clearly is the flatness of each one of the doctors. They were nice, seemed kind and were honest. At no point did I or my family get a sense that they were being anything other than truthful. There was stuff they could do. The surgeon said that there was no way to get rid of the entire tumor without leaving the brain as a complete mess, but he could de-bulk it and doing this would give my dad a little more time. The radiation doctors knew they could destroy a lot of the remaining tumor, and this would buy some more time. The oncologist wasn’t confident that there was anything more that could be done because the blood brain barrier prevents most chemo therapy drugs from entering the brain. While there were some experimental medications that showed promise, getting into a drug trial was unlikely given my dad’s age. We were free to source and buy the drugs elsewhere but he wouldn’t be able to offer any support or advice. The feeling we all got was that they would go to bat as hard as they could, in the event my dad decided that he was going to treat it.

My brother asked what it would look like if my dad decided to take whatever treatment options were available and each doctor spoke dispassionately as they gave their best guess. The radiation doctors said 5 treatments a week for 6 to 10 weeks. Possibly a few courses of them over the remaining time. The first week wouldn’t be too bad, but from there it would get tougher as the tumor cells died, along with any other tissues that were impacted. It would start like a cold, then move into the realm of a flu and effectively become the worst sickness he had ever had. A week or so after the final treatment the body would begin to show signs of recovery, and my dad would start to feel better. After a few weeks he would be back to feeling cold and flu free. They avoided saying back to normal because that was never going to happen because radiation was only going to be used if surgery was performed. Whatever version of my dads brain existed before he went under the knife would be gone forever, so the radiation was going to be destroying the tumor along with a portion of whatever brain tissue remained.

The surgeon went next. His version was more intense because his intervention involved gaining direct access to the tumor. The radiation was a beam generated by a machine that penetrated the flesh and bone; which is kind of like shining a flash light on something. Surgery involved cutting the skin, peeling back the scalp, sawing through the skull, cutting a path through the top layers of the brain to get access to the tumor and then cutting and burning away as much of the tumor as he could while trying to avoid cutting away viable tissue and damaging the thousands / millions of tiny pathways connecting different parts of the brain to one another. Once the debulking was complete, they’d close-up, join the piece of the skull that was removed to the rest of the skull using metal plates and screws, flip the scalp back and stitch it back together. There would be antibiotics to prevent infection, pain killers to help deal with the pain associated with cutting through the skull and scalp – there wouldn’t be any pain from the brain because it doesn’t have pain receptors – and a few days of recover in the hospital.

There was an enthusiasm in how he described what he would do, and I was confident that he would do it really well. But whatever sense of optimism his enthusiasm created crashed when he talked about the recovery.

“We have no idea what we will have to do once we get inside. We’ll do more imaging before we go in, but there is no way to know exactly what the tumor looks like, what other tissues it involves and how it will have grown between the scan and the day we do surgery.” He paused to let this sink in before continuing. “Given all of that, the tumor is still be there and it will grow again. And it is brain surgery. We’re cutting into your brain and we will be removing pieces of it. No matter how careful we are, and I am very good at this and our team is excellent, your brain is never going to be as it is right now.” Another pause and then, “even as the tumor continues to grow now, you are still you. You won’t be after surgery. Removing pieces of the brain changes who you are and we have no idea what that will actually mean until after surgery and about a month and a half of recovery. There is a chance that surgery and radiation will buy you another 9 months, maybe 11.” Looking at the oncologist, who nods, then back to my dad, “great, you’re healthy, maybe 15. But it isn’t you who will have them, it will be the post surgery version of you and there is no way to predict who that will be, what they will be like and what they will still be able to do.”

The next few moments were longer than any before or since. The silence hung in the air, most uncomfortably.

He was very good at his job though, and took a brave next step. “If I had a relative who was just like you, and this was their brain scan,” holding up the printed image of my dads tumor, “I’d help them get their affairs in order and then go and spend a month or so somewhere hot and sunny with them.”

The oncologist spoke next, not giving much time to let what the surgeon had just said sink in. “There were a couple of things they could do in terms of medication, but the powerful chemo therapy drugs that have a strong track record of destroying cancer sell couldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so there wasn’t anything that he knew would work. We’re looking at surgery, radiation and whatever medication makes your remaining time easier.” And that was more or less that.

My dad decided against surgery and that was the end of it. There wasn’t going to be a cure so why bother with all the hassle of having to recover from brain surgery, maybe having to relearn how to walk or talk or think only to die in a few months anyway? Didn’t seem to him to be worth the inconvenience. He was still himself and would be until he died, so he got after enjoying whatever remained.

I haven’t been back to the Juravinski Cancer Centre and haven’t spent any time thinking about that day until about an hour ago when I reread the original post. What hit me was the paragraph about how we filled the half hour or so between the initial conversation with the oncologist and the group chat with the treatment team:

Some food at the cafeteria / lounge that had a piano but no singer. The family chats back and forth about stuff. I’m looking around and starting to feel strange because as I look at each group of people I’m trying to guess which one of them has cancer. If you haven’t played this game, you don’t really win when you guess correctly. There’s a table of 3 people, one is dying, the two that aren’t are going to be grieving their asses off soon. You can’t guess who is who without looking at their faces and when you do, you see a 21 year old son with his mom and grandmother, mom’s in a wheelchair because she has cancer. I felt rage deep inside that made me want to wreck something for what’s about to happen to this poor kid. I suddenly wonder what type of cancer killed the cafeteria singer and as I do, my eyes meet Des’ and he’s just seen the kids future too. I glace away towards my dad unwittingly winning another round of the stupid game my brain is playing.

I do not remember writing that nor do I remember thinking it. In fact, I have no recollection about that moment whatsoever. I can relate to it, it sounds very much like something that my brain would do and the words are almost identical to the ones I would use to describe such an experience.

I remember a conversation with my dad about art. I was sounding off about a painting being really expensive for just being a picture of something and he said “son, you have no idea what that picture actually represents, or what it represented at the time. Sure, it’s a picture of a scene, and to you and me it is a really good picture. It looks like what it is a picture of. But imagine that this was the first time someone did that, would that make it more important?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about and he knew it so he continued, “before that picture was painted, people didn’t paint pictures like that, they painted pictures like how they painted pictures. That artist saw that paintings didn’t look like real life and that real life didn’t look like the paintings and he changed that. He saw something that was always there but no one else had ever seen, and if they had, they had never painted it.” He could see that I was still kind of lost so he added, “art is a strange thing son, the artist who created that was the first to paint that way and he was probably laughed at for how bizarre it looked compared to everything else. But it was art because it captured something about reality that no one had ever captured before and after he did it, it could not be unseen.”

That is how I consider the paragraph I quoted above. I wasn’t the first person to have that experience, and I am probably not the first person to put it into words. But I feel good knowing that I captured a moment of humanity that is uncommon but likely experienced by everyone who sits in a cancer center, life on pause, waiting to hear from a team of doctors who are there to offer up their advice about what they can do in response to the cancer that has taken hold. It’s peaceful, still, and extremely short lived. Life starts up again as soon as we gather in the room, and this moment fades into the stew of memories that shape who we become, even if time causes us to forget that it happened.

Empathy vs. Compassion

The 1990 movie “Jacobs Ladder” is about an American soldier who has returned from Vietnam under some sketchy circumstances. As he tries to get his life in order and move forward he starts to experience a growing number of odd and unsettling things. These leave him shaken, and since some of them seem to be related to his time in the war, he grows more curious about what happened. As the movie progresses he starts to realize that his memory has some huge gaps in it and the continuity problems began on a specific day while his platoon was stationed somewhere in the Vietnam jungle. SKIP AHEAD three paragraphs if you have not seen the movie and want to avoid finding out why his life became so bizarre.

The climax of the film centers around what happened on that day. In an attempt to turn human beings into the ultimate fighting machines the Army scientist manufacture an LSD-like drug they call the ladder – the main effect of it is to trigger primal fear within the user. The rational is that fear is the source of all anger and if a soldier is angry, they will fight with more aggression – think about how a cornered wild animal seems to throw a switch that redirects their flight energy into fight energy that causes them to do a 180 and to violently attack whatever has cornered it. Something is going to die in the next few seconds and the cornered animal is going to do everything it can to make sure it isn’t it.

During the day in question, the soldier are hanging out, talking, eating, smoking, playing cards, etc…. You hear some helicopters flying over that one of the soldiers comments are not expected. Over the next few minutes everyone begins to start acting differently. A few of them run off screaming, one of them begins to look terrified, the rest of them just seem to go to pieces. There’s a fast forward and the main character is seen in the jungle holding his gun clearly looking for the enemy. Suddenly there is some action and he is stabbed. At the end of the film it is revealed that he was mortally wounded by another member of his platoon because the ladder worked so well that the soldiers were unable to perceive anything other than threat and viewed any other person as the enemy. There is no such thing as logic when you are completely overcome by a fight or flight response, so there was no way they were going to be able to discern their platoon mates from their actual enemy and everyone began to attack the first person they saw.

This is the problem with empathy and it is why our species is much better served by compassion.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” while compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” In a metaphoric way, empathy allows us to become another person by taking on their feelings, or our interpretation of what their feelings are. This is very different from compassion which has us remain as ourselves and experience our version of concern for someone else. There is no blurring of the boundaries between us and them, allowing us to remain in control and more rational about what we are experiencing or our interpretation of it. The risk of an amygdala or emotional hijack is much lower when compared to the risk level when an act of empathy triggers fear or anger.

The maintenance of boundaries is critical when dealing with challenges because detachment or separation from a situation is very important for objective problem solving. There is a tendency for the number of solution choices to drop dramatically the closer one gets to the events. A normally very pragmatic person can be left incapable of anything other than a “hulk smash” reaction to something when they are part of it while those on the outside will see many alternatives that do not involve the destruction or elimination of a “threat.” The passage of time will also have the same effect. The massive reaction today will probably seem over the top in a few hours or a day later when the person can see that they could have just said “thank you, I’m not interested” and closed the door.

Having too much empathy causes us to relate too much with one of the two parties in a conflict. This comes at the cost of being able to maintain the idea that the other party is an equal and therefore entitled to the same respect and rights that we are bestowing upon the person we are connecting with. This makes sense, we are actually feeling what we believe the person is feeling, which will trigger us to respond to the other person as though they are actually acting towards us. But there are two sides to everything so our hyper vigilant quest of complete understanding for one party causes their experience to take on a disproportionately large role in our understanding of the situation or conflict as a whole.

Of course, we are wrong with whatever it is we are feeling in terms of empathy because we are NOT the other person and we have very little understanding of the context that led to things being what they are. While it might be true that IF we found ourselves in that situation we WOULD feel a specific way, this should beg the question, would we ever find ourselves in the situation? There is a very good chance that somewhere along the way, before things got were they are now, we would have done something different that would have change the course and eliminated what is presently occurring from the list of future possibilities. The context piece of it is very important because it is rarely visible and therefore very hard to bring to mind, particularly when the amygdala has hijacked our brain.

Not all people who are suffering are victims; or at least not all people who are suffering are being victimized. This is a very important fact to consider, one that empathy doesn’t really allow for. Emotions are a strange thing in that it is a lot easier to be angry at someone else than it is to be angry at ourselves and the anger towards others will last a lot longer. The context provides important information about how each person arrived at this moment and it will clearly show the level of responsibility each person has for what is going on. Very often, the person who is suffering has made a series of bad decisions, one after the other, leaving them with the choice of this bad thing or that bad thing. When they had the opportunity to create a future that didn’t have this situation as one of the possible outcomes, they made a bad choice.

This can be a tough pill to swallow because it does land like victim blaming and dogmatically adhering to it does kind of remove compassion from the equation. It also seems like a very “right wing” view of the world, and it might be. And none of these things, even if they are all true, make this perspective incorrect. I’d argue that the moment someone sees themselves as the cause of their situation marks the beginning of their situation improving. There is no power in being a victim. Life is DONE to victims and their only choice is to put-up with it while feeling worse and worse. But the growing negative feelings only serve to hijack their logical thinking to an even greater degree, leading to fewer solutions and more “victimization.”

There are some real victims, people who have found themselves in bad situations with no good options through no fault of their own. People who would have done something else if they knew what as actually going on. These people need assistance, which is best fueled by compassion. Feeling pity or concern will allow you to remain helpful because you will not become overwhelmed with whatever feelings being empathetic causes to come to the surface.

This is the same approach that should be employed with dealing with people who are suffering as a result of their own poor or lazy decision making. In fact, empathy will only be counter productive with these people because it will cause you to miss critical clues about context that are needed to restore their sense of control and autonomy. Consider the case when someones computer crashes causing them to lose a lot of work. There are two ways to look at this situation. The first is to see the person as a victim of bad luck, and to empathize with them. You’ll feel disappointment and anger, and this will lead to a strong sense of bitterness. The second way is to see the person as having played a role in the situation through one or more of their actions. You can be compassionate towards them, it really sucks to see the screen go blue and know that the last few hours of your work has just disappeared. But you don’t need to live their negative feelings and cultivate a sense of bitterness that you’ll bring with you into the rest of the day. This isn’t helpful and will only do harm.

When you allow yourself to be compassionate, you will very quickly start to solve the problem and empower them with the responsibility of implementing the solution. In this case, a computer crash shouldn’t mean the loss of hours of work because everyone KNOWS that computers crash and should be taking the steps to preempt the consequences of this happening. Those who have not backed up or saved their work are completely responsible for whatever work is not available to them once the computer reboots. It isn’t Microsoft or Apples fault, nor is it the fault of the company that makes your computer. Operating systems are complex, powerful, and fallible. An individual transistor is simple, a collection of a billion of them isn’t. Complex things throw errors and you need to know this when working with something that is complex. There is a non zero chance that any complex thing will stop working in the next second so given enough seconds it IS going to break down. Save your work often, back-up you work often and back-up your back-ups often. If you choose not to do this, when the complex thing breaks down and you lose the last few hours of your work, it is gone because YOU made the choice to make the most of your bad luck.

This doesn’t mean that you laugh at the person who didn’t look after their work, but you shouldn’t ever empathize with them UNLESS you are willing to really feel what it is they should be feeling. Saying “stupid piece of crab” or “useless bloody operating systems” as you cultivate an anger that is directed towards a computer is entirely the wrong thing to feel when someone loses their work as a result of a computer crash. While that might be a pure expression of empathy, it isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. In this case, empathy should be having the rage sent inwards for NOT saving their work and backing things up. The expression of emotion onto something that is external is an effective way of not feeling the consequences of the truth, but it is a lousy way of making the future any better than the present.

And this is one of the main problems with empathy, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation and is based only superficially on the context and the history leading-up to the moment in question. It cannot be said that your feelings are wrong because they are what you are feeling, but it is fair to say that they are not appropriate when they are not based on all of the events that contribute to the situation. When someone doesn’t take responsibility for backing-up their work and the computer crashes, being compassionate towards them, by acknowledging their disappointment and maybe offering to help them look for any auto recovery versions of the work because you have a more clear head about things, is the only course of action that makes sense, and the only one that might possibly help them find the lost work.

The other area in which empathy is exceptionally problematic is in the realm of conflict. Specifically when it comes to taking sides, because it is impossible to take both sides of an argument at once. Human beings cannot be objective processors the moment they start to feel what they believe one of the sides in the conflict is feeling. In fact, the longer they stay in an empathetic state, the more subjective their interpretation and perceptions will be. If they spend long enough there, they will be able to manufacture hatred, rage, and complete contempt for those on the other side of the conflict; all while having very little access to the context and the history of the events that lead up to the escalation.

This does not mean that every conflict is justified, nor does it mean that no conflicts are justified. The second world war was absolutely needed to happen to stop the actions of those who started it. Hitler was awful, his ideas were wrong, and his solution to things wasn’t grounded in a version of reality that was shared by anyone. However, and I’m not making excuses here, when you take a look at what happened after the first world war, the second world war seems almost inevitable. How Germany was treated throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s was both the result of too much empathy for those who were effected by WW1 and a complete lack of compassion for the German people who didn’t have anything to do with starting the war. They were simply people who were trying to carve out lives for themselves in exactly the same way as the people from any other country that found itself involved in the war. When the ruling class starts a conflict and the entire country is made to pay for it afterwards, there is almost no way to avoid future conflicts because the population is eventually going to grow tired of the punitive measures they are forced to endure for something they had no hand in starting. This is why the end of most of the wars since WW1 have had the winning side provide finance and participate in the recovery efforts.

On a much smaller scale, empathizing too much with either side of a conflict is going to dramatically reduce your ability to actually be of service in terms of offering solutions or helping to broker peace. The other side will be bad, evil or untrustworthy, and this will fuel suspicion and animosity, which will trigger a greater emotional reaction and keep the cycle going.

As unappealing as it seems to the other side, having compassion for both groups is critical for cooling things off and putting an end to strife. It is a lot easier for outside parties to approach the issue with compassion vs. empathy BUT not impossible for those who are involved in it. When it happens, a strong characteristic of compassion alters the dynamic in a powerful way. Compassion, like empathy, humanizes the person we are relating to. But unlike empathy, compassion for the other is possible (thus ensuring the ongoing objectivity) and once it is triggered, it is nearly impossible to not approach the situation from a more objective and balanced point of view. When this occurs, the vilification of others becomes much more difficult and the notions of right and wrong evaporate to be replaced by differences in opinion based on different perspectives or access to different information. This will allow both sides to track into the specific challenges and the key players in the conflict. Hitler was accurately determined to be evil, along with a number of his supporting players, but the German people were not lumped into this bucket because of the objective assessment compassion allows.

The ladder in Jacobs Ladder was a fear creating drug. It eliminated the possibility for compassion or an objective assessment of what is going on because when fear is involved there is only “me,” “them,” and the rest. The rest is everyone and everything that presents no threat and is ignored into non existence. The only thing that comes to mind is the threat – them – and the only thing to do is to take massive action to run away or to destroy the threat.

Under normal circumstances we have the ability to expand this binary reaction dynamic by avoiding an empathic reaction and preventing ourselves from getting lost in the experience of feeling our perception of other peoples feelings. This will give us the clarity to see things for what they are and to consider the role each person played in creating the present situation. We will be able to care and relate to the people involved, but we’ll not get lost in blaming other people for things that they didn’t have very much to do with. This is much more helpful to the person who is suffering because we give them understanding but do not give them permission to remain locked in a less than ideal situation. In the end, showing compassion for others is an act of caring that can help to move them through something they do not like by reestablishing the link between their actions and the outcomes they are experiencing. It reveals to them that they have the power to change their circumstances simply because it prevents you from getting wrapped up in the emotions that crush objectivity and reduce clarity and options.

There is no drug called the ladder, but too much empathy might be a fairly good behavioral proxy. We all have the power to choose between compassion and empathy when faced with someone who is suffering, and if we really want to help them, we’ll take whatever steps we need to in order to show that we care for them. They’ll know that they are not alone while being certain that we are committed to helping them move past whatever the miserable experiences is they have found themselves in because we will be standing beside them and not, metaphorically, INSIDE of them.

My Thoughts On Facebook – Post Revisited

In early August 2007 I wrote a post called My Thoughts On Facebook in which I outlined why I had deleted my account.

I reactivated my account a few months later and engaged in the social media world to a certain degree for about 8 years. I stopped posting to Facebook a couple of years ago when I became aware of how the platform made me feel – mostly crappy – after taking an inventory of how my day to day actions were contributing to my sense of well-being. For the record, I do not blame Facebook for my actions nor do I hold them accountable for how I interacted with the site. I was always free to act otherwise and they did not evolve the brain chemistry that makes the quest for “likes” so addictive.

When it got right down to it, I had to answer the questions “why am I doing what I am doing?” and “should I continue to do what I have been doing?”

Many of the people I know use Facebook for the reasons it was created – to stay in contact with other people in a way that gives them control of when and how deeply they get involved. They are busy and finding the time to meet up with friends is tough and usually unnecessary. Most of the connections serve to download whatever updates are needed just to make sure nothing important slips through the cracks, and this is what Facebook is really good for. It’s a semi interactive medium that allows all of our friends to read whatever they feel like that we are inclined to share. “Here’s pictures of a wedding, a vacation, a child’s concert performance, a cat video I found funny, etc….”

This is something that I still use it for, except I don’t post anything about my own life any more. My wife tags me in pictures and that is about it. I’m happy to stay up to date with the on goings of people I know, and I’m honestly happy that their lives are progressing as lives do. Those people have the opportunity to see where I have been with Heather, which is about all I do that I think is worth sharing – here I am with my favorite person doing something we decided to do, planned out, and made happen.

My problem with Facebook, and I literally mean my problem with it in terms of me judging myself, is that it plays on the most insecure parts of my personality. I had found myself posting for “likes” and then feeling good or bad depending upon the responses of other people.

After my dad died, I was a little lost and set about posting a lot in an attempt to generate some sense of belonging or connection. At the time I knew what I was doing and was fine with giving a few months to it because I felt so aimless. It’s hard to say if it served that purpose given that human beings move through grief and maybe I would have felt better anyway but I’m willing to be charitable and say that in the months following his passing that Facebook did afford me the opportunity to reach out and engage the world in a way that contributed to the rebuilding of my happiness. And if it had ended there I think I would still be active on the platform.

It was my quest for “likes” that I identified as problematic; specifically, the transactional rules I had manufactured that governed my engagement. On the face of it there shouldn’t be any complexity here. Posting a quote that I found that was interesting or a thought that I had that I believed was inspirational are not a cause for sadness or social turmoil, and for a lot of people these things are one and done. Socially well-adjusted people will either post the things and deal with whatever comes of them, having no emotional response one way or the other along with no need for a particular response, or else they will just not post them because none of it matters all that much. I was not one of those people. I noticed myself considering “likes” as a growing part of my life. It wasn’t enough for me to get a kick out of reading something or having an interesting thought, I needed OTHER people to get the same kick or acknowledge a kick of sorts. In the very lamest sense, the quote or the idea was not the source of joy that it once had been, the reward came from other people liking or commenting. And the moment I noticed myself deleting posts that didn’t do either of these two things I realized that I had crossed some boundary into the realm of behavior that wasn’t working for me in terms of happiness.

I don’t recall the date, but I recall the moment when it dawned on me that my behavior was not what I wanted or needed it to be. When you hear yourself think “okay, that didn’t work, I have to delete it so people don’t know that it was there” and watch your hand click “delete post” a switch has flipped. Again, I don’t blame anyone but myself nor do I believe that most people develop the same maladaptive behavior. It was me and that is all I am talking about here.

There is NO reason why my happiness should depend upon the decision other people make to check a “like” button about my musings UNLESS I had conditioned my brain to respond that way. Given that relying on other people for anything, let alone actions that will lead to my happiness, is a pointless exercise that leads to unhappiness and resentment, along with it being the effective non consensual enrollment of other people in a contract they don’t even know exists, the question had to be asked, “what the hell was I doing?”

That is much more interesting, and something that I would not have taken the time to figure out had I remained engage in the pursuit of approval on social media. In fact, my life changed directions the moment I asked that question.

Why do people do the things that they do? The superficial answer to that question is usually going to be a post hoc rationale for an action. This is fine when that is the actual reason for doing something. But how often is that?

Not very often. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actually have to do most of the things that we do – there is no compelling or life preserving reason to participate in nearly every social interaction we engage in. Most of our communication is pointless in terms of it doing anything useful. It is made up of talking about things that don’t matter, about people, about how things that are as opposed to how we engineer them to be, back stabbing, or conversations about subjects that we don’t know anything about and cannot contribute to. With the exception of work and child rearing, how many of your thoughts, internal or said out loud, make a difference? Do any of them change anything? If so, which ones and why? And of all that remain, why did you think and then say them out loud?

I’m more than willing to create a bucket called “thinking out loud” to throw these pointless utterances into because thinking is a complex thing and sometimes the physical matter we add to a thought by saying it out loud gives it an energy that makes it actually real / useful when trying to uncover the truth of something. A lot of what I say is actually an attempt to think; in much the same way that my writing is a way of thinking. Writing is better than speaking for this because the words have a much longer half-life and the ability to reread them causes them to be more “real” – both have an impact on the objective world in so far as each takes brain activity and converts it into something with more mass – air and sound waves with talking and physical movement that creates a visual representation of the thought – which give us an opportunity externalize the stimuli and receive it as though it is coming from outside of us.

So with the exception of communication from these three categories – child rearing, work, and thinking – what is the point of the rest? I’ll maintain that there really isn’t one, at least not one that can universally be viewed as helpful. Most of what remains will be in the realm of useless speak or back biting, that serves as validation that we are alive, worthwhile, and connected to other people or to make us feel more secure in our connection with other people by denigrating those who are not there to defend themselves.

My Facebook quest for likes satisfied this. I wanted to feel connected to others and worthwhile and relied on the influx of “likes” as proof of these things. When the likes didn’t come, didn’t come quickly enough, or were not in the numbers I wanted, my quest was not satisfied. The experience is not a flat emotional experience. Getting the likes was rewarding – I had trained my brain to release reward chemicals in response to them. Initially a like was all that was needed, but over time it needed to be more than one and by the time I found that I wasn’t feeling good about being on Facebook the likes needed to arrive very close to the time of posting and needed to cross a threshold number within a certain time frame. Let’s say they needed to start within 10 minutes and needed to hit 10% of my friends list within 4 hours. A post that was liked by 2% didn’t give me what I was looking for, and instead of feeling like nothing, it felt like the absence of something good.

This should sound very similar to addiction, particularly what you might have read about cocaine addiction. Everyone who takes the drug reports that they feel at least good but probably fantastic the first few times they take it. And of course they do, it stimulates the release of dopamine, among other things, which is one of the primary reward chemicals the brain releases. Under non drug situations, the release of dopamine is associated with a change in the internal environment that is perceived as the occurrence of a conditioned stimulus. In learning theory, classical conditioning is the learning that occurs when a reward is closely paired in time with a stimuli that is benign (not innately rewarding). The result of this pairing is that the reward will be released when the stimuli is experienced. Pavlov uncovered this type of learning when he noticed that dogs began to salivate when they heard the sounds that preceded their daily feeding. Since the salivation occurred before the food was given, he realized that the reward was not required to trigger the behavior. The language around the entire thing can be slightly confusing but the conditioning process is real and the discovery shined a big light on what was going on in the brain. What was actually going on became less important than what the animal believed was going on – the raw sensory data mattered less than how the brain interpreted the raw sensory data.

My addiction to likes is a version of this that only differs in terms of the complexity of the perceptions – the unconscious meaning that I was putting on likes. Almost all of the learning happened unconsciously and without my awareness. I think I liked the feeling of social validation and approval although there was nothing intrinsically rewarding with seeing a thumbs up icon appear, or a larger and larger number appearing to the right of it. This was simply visual information. The heavy lifting was being done by unconscious thought processes that extracted / manufactured the meaning. The release of reward chemicals was also done unconsciously and based on the output of a process that interpreted the likes as social validation. None of this was anything that I was aware of as it was happening and it only became obvious months or years later when NOT getting the likes as quickly as I wanted them created a negative experience.

Again, NOT getting likes isn’t a thing that actually exists. However the brain is able to interpret the absence of something as a negative when it has learned to expect something positive. The lack of likes did not trigger the release of dopamine. Since my brain expected this reward, not getting it was experienced as a negative.

The big upside to “likes” addiction when compared to drug addiction is that you only experience the negative withdrawal symptoms when an anticipated reward is received. When I stopped posting, nothing changed other than the elimination of some rewards and some negative experiences when my posts were not received the way I was anticipating. I did not notice the times when I did not get rewarded and did not NOT get rewarded. This is very different from cocaine which is reported as one of the toughest drugs to withdraw from.

Understanding this process is important for a few reasons. When we introduce an exogenous chemical that triggers the release of reward chemicals, our body starts to down regulate the production of the impacted reward chemical because it tries to maintain homeostasis. With Cocaine and dopamine, each person has a natural level of dopamine inside the reward centers of their brain. When they take cocaine, the concentration of dopamine increases. Initially, this will feel great, but since the increase pushes levels above the upper threshold of what is natural, the body adapts by decreasing dopamine production to restore homeostasis. If, which isn’t usually the case, the person does not increase their cocaine consumption, their brain will find a level of dopamine production that reflects the normal level. They won’t feel high anymore, just normal. This is called tolerance and it is the manifestation of the brains attempt to keep things within a very specific level of operation. If the cocaine is stopped, the brains decreased dopamine production will result in a lower than normal level of dopamine which will be experienced as a negative by the person.

Dopamine and other naturally occurring reward chemicals are considered action creating or action promoting because they will motivate the person to take whatever action they have paired as the conditioned stimulus. In my case it was the quest for “likes” but in the case of a cocaine user it will be drug seeking and taking behavior. The reason why my quitting Facebook cold turkey did not cause me any withdrawal was because I hadn’t done anything to down regulate my natural dopamine production. My brain was operating as it naturally did. It manufactured the normal amount of dopamine and released it in response to the things it had been conditioned to release it to. The only tolerance that had occurred was the learned tolerance to the number, frequency and speed of “likes.” My brain was doing what it always was doing and that is to grow accustomed to rewards in so far as to grow the magnitude of the stimuli that was required to trigger the release of the dopamine.

This is different from chemical tolerance because my brain was still capable of manufacturing and releasing a normal quantity of dopamine. It just doesn’t do it in response to the same amount of stimuli as before. It is a type of behavioral tolerance or stimuli tolerance – it is completely perceptual and based off of brain activity. Chemical tolerance is the brain changing how it functions to reduce the amount of the dopamine that is manufactured. It has nothing to do with perception (mental activity) and is a completely biological response to changes in the physical internal environment.

The other reason why it is important to get a good understanding of the Pavlovian conditioning of reward activation to perception is that it reveals a lot about how human beings find themselves locked into acting in ways that do not objectively reflect their best interests. I am grateful that I set about trying to get likes only to find that there was a growing need for them in order to experience whatever positive outcome I was getting. Had I not journeyed down this path it might have taken me a lot longer to notice what was going on and, therefore, what had always been going on. It was just very easy to notice the changes in my response given the immediacy of things that happen on the Internet.

It is fair to say that my brain operates in more or less the same way as everyone else’s brain, which is more or less the same way that every brain has operated for millions of years. Not that pre-modern man thought about getting “likes,” just that they had a brain that would release reward chemicals in response to things that it wanted to repeat; in the same way a dog’s brain gets it to do the things that preceded a reward before. This is both exceptionally simple and remarkably powerful.

Much of its power comes from the fact that it is both unconscious and automatic and this renders us almost completely incapable of stopping it. The opposite is not true, we CAN consciously impact it – we have the ability to teach our brains that any benign or neutral stimuli is rewarding simply by rewarding / triggering a reward within close temporal proximity to the stimuli. In fact, given our power of perception and our ability to have conscious thought, there is almost NO limit to what we can condition our brains to believe is rewarding because the idea of future reward serves as a sufficient proxy for actual reward. We can learn to delay gratification almost indefinitely so long as our brain has sufficient experience with finally receiving a reward for something that it delayed.

There is a lot of talk about the marshmallow experiment that deals with delaying reward. The initial reports from the study seemed to reveal that children who were able to delay gratification at an early age were able to carry this ability with them into adulthood and, as a consequence, had better behavioral outcomes. Children at a particular age were given the choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 5 minutes. Some of the children would just eat the marshmallow immediately while others would hold off for the larger reward later. Children in the second group were said to have the ability to delay gratification and were viewed to have better impulse control and they appeared to have fewer behavioral issues later in life. The narrative here makes sense, but subsequent studies reveal a more detailed picture that isn’t as cut and dry.

Children who were able to delay gratification could very easily be flipped into non-delayers if during the initial trial their waiting was not rewarded with the promised larger reward. This is an important finding because it complicates things dramatically. The researchers did not have control or complete knowledge of everything that happened before the study. While it might seem that some children were incapable of delaying gratification, it is possible that they had just learned that there is no such thing as delaying gratification based on their previous experience. If a reward is available now and a greater potential reward might be available later if they wait, experience has shown them that there never is a greater future reward, there is only a reward now or no reward at all.

The brain will reach a particular age that context will begin to factor into things meaning that a child of a particular age won’t be flipped into an immediate gratification seeker by a dishonest actor and will simply identify the dishonest actor as being someone who cannot be trusted. This means that there is an age / maturity threshold at which point the brain will be able to parse the context for specific information that will allow them to make a tight rule about who cannot be trusted vs. a general rule that no one can be trusted. It would not surprise me that, before this age, the dishonesty of a primary care giver would have a catastrophic effect on the long term trust strategies developed by a child.

All of this is said to explain that rewards are not a simple topic or that the rules that apply to dogs necessarily apply to humans. The larger the brain, the more complicated and robust the rules can be. And as an individual gains more experience and forms more long term memories, these rules can be shaped by things that are not real, have never happened, and are not even in the realm of possibility.

This is where Facebook and my quest for “likes” was given room to grow. Social acceptance is a thing that human beings are coded to identify and something that we likely find rewarding. The initial rewards may not be dopamine fueled, but it would stand to reason that they would be sooner or later. Once that happens, dopamine will be released in response to any form of perceived social validation coming from any perceived source. And after my brain got used to getting it, it would begin to need more and more of it in order to trigger the reward. This is why I started to dislike my time on Facebook and why I found getting off of it to be a positive. There was no withdrawal, just the creation of freedom as I no longer felt the drive to think up something profound to post in an attempt to harvest “likes.”

From what I gather, I am not alone in finding the potentially rewarding nature of Facebook likes to be more than a little disruptive to the day to day experience of being alive. Most of the social media sites have altered their business model to become attention capturing and holding over something else. People who are a lot smarter than me are working on the problem of how to keep people engaged with the sites / platform by stoking whatever emotional triggers serve to hold their attention most tightly. They don’t care about doing good or about helping people make the most of their time on the planet. They care about keeping users attention while generating as many clicks as possible. Social validation, outrage, humor, in-group / out-group thinking, etc….. it doesn’t matter. The attention of potential users is what is critical because this is what they will use to generate money.

I don’t blame Facebook or other social media platforms. It isn’t their fault they have figured out that third party companies will pay them a lot of money if users remain connected to the platform. And it isn’t their fault that they have figured out the way that peoples brains work and are using it to generate a lot of money. I’m kind of grateful actually. As much as it might seem like it was a big waste of time, I wouldn’t have taken the time to figure out what I was doing or why I was feeling the way I was had I not had the opportunity to do those things and feel that way. Facebook actually helped me wake-up to what was going on in my brain by forcing me to ask some very important questions.

Why do I do what I do? Well I don’t know, but at least some of the time I know it is for the dopamine. The rest of it, maybe because it makes me angry or outraged, maybe because it once got me something I thought I liked, and maybe because I’m not all that different from the rest of the living beings on the planet and do what I have done before and just normalized.

I have no idea what role Facebook and other social media platforms will play in my future but I’m pretty certain that I’m going to have a better idea of how they are trying to get me to do it. And I think that is actually a lot more fun and interesting than anything else. Knowing and accepting that I am the product and the fuel in their business model gives me a lot more control of how mindfully I engage it, and in setting the limits of what I’m willing to do and for how long.

The Battle For Winterfell – Cost Vs. Losses

Watching episode 3 of the final season of Game Of Thrones was a mixed experience. The battle has seemed inevitable for the last few season and the series has built the tension up dramatically over the last six or so episodes. I’m not going to spoil it other than to say that the battle happened at night and during a snow storm of sorts. Who won? It doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article.

The show in general is a visual masterpiece. It is filmed in a number of different locations and doesn’t rely too heavily on CGI to generate spectacular scenes. Green screen is used a lot and there are some CGI / post production components but the producers make use of reality as much as possible in terms of make-up, costumes, and real buildings. When I think back on some of the episodes and what they brought to the screen it really is breathtaking. Top marks needed to be given for the quality of what appeared on the TV screen week after week.

That was not the case on Sunday and I noticed my mind drifting off onto the experience of watching as opposed to being lost in what I was seeing. This was annoying to me, given the build-up of the battle that was being depicted on screen. The show took a full year off to film, edit, produce, and do whatever was required to make sure it was exceptional. This was evident in the first two episodes of the season and for portions of this one, but once the call to arms was sounded, the waiting to ensure the high quality seemed to have been pointless.

From a story-line perspective, it was decent, and held-up. The action was fantastic, the tension arc was outstanding and even though it is a show that has dragons and the ability for dead people to be reanimated like zombies, there wasn’t anything about the story that was too over the top that broke the spell or forced the viewer to suspend reality past the boundaries of what I was willing to do.

The problem I had with it was just how difficult it was to see. It was really dark. It was as though it was a battle that was occurring at night – which it was – during a snow storm – which it was – before they had invented electrical light – which it was – and the only source of illumination was fire – which it was. It was very authentic, and that is what is what made it really hard to watch.

When I say hard to watch, I don’t mean hard in an emotional way – like it was making me sad or angry. I mean hard in an energetic way. It was draining to watch because the normally super crisp details and HD clarity wasn’t there. While it was clear that people were fighting, it wasn’t clear who those people were or what the outcome was. The exceptions to this were when key characters got killed or did some killing. As I write that, I suppose that I should have used that as a tell that something important was about to happen. Oh well, maybe I’ll rely on that the next time I watch something that is only marginally brighter than dark.

The experience was not uninteresting. Even though the show was missing a lot of what makes it great and very easy to watch, the difficulty I was having in seeing what was happening on the screen served as a strong contrast to the normal viewing experience. I found that I began to care less about what was going on and started to become critical of the premise of the show. It wasn’t that I wanted any or all of the key characters to die, it was closer to not caring about the outcome one way or the other. One side is going to have to win and the sooner they did the sooner this visual black hole would end. The premise that I have always been willing to accept as just a part of the show started to receive the brunt of my critical internal dialogue. Dragons do not exist so their abilities are not constrained to any historical or factual set of rules or guidelines. But my skepticism was building about them and their imaginary powers. They breathe fire when they exhale but somehow they are able to exhale for a long time, even when they had been flying all over the places and should be breathing really hard? Their fire wasn’t just flame, it was like spraying napalm that continued to burn for a long time afterwards. How can they have an unlimited supply of that?

I didn’t get critical all at once, it was a slow build. Initially I just wished that thing were brighter, then I wanted to see things better, and then the frustration arrived and grew. On the screen was the unfolding of an epic battle that had been festering for 7 seasons and in my head was an annoyance that was growing with each passing minute of almost invisible action.

At around 30 minutes in, the amount of energy I was spending trying to see and figure out what was going on hit the “too much to bother” level and I disengaged.

What’s interesting about it, is the finding that people have better recall of text that is harder to read than they do text that is visually highly contrasted and very crisp on the page. Ease is a problem when it comes to short term memory and the tougher things get, the better our recall tends to be. I would imagine that there is a level of difficulty that represents the upper threshold of what people are willing to tolerate when it comes to working their way through difficult text, and that this level is related to the incentive the person has for putting in the work. I have no doubt that if I was going to be tested on what happened during the episode and that there was something on the line, if knowing would actually matter, that I would have been able to keep at it for longer. But there wasn’t any incentive for me to keep doing the work. In fact, the effort that was required actually served as a disincentive to keep manufacturing whatever meaning I had created that allowed me to remain interested. It is entirely possible that watching it was so draining that there was no energy left over to do the mental work that is needed for the suspension of disbelief.

This is a common enough occurrence. People who are highly engaged are willing and able to continue to work hard towards an impossible goal but only as long as they are able to maintain their belief that it is possible. The moment reality breaks through, they view their efforts for what they are and they check out. The process is very much like the experience I had. The amount of effort that is required to sustain the belief increases in a relative sense – either because it requires more units or because fewer units are available to do it because they are being siphoned off and directed onto something else. Once the relative effort hits a certain level the foundation begins to fall apart and the weight of the belief causes it to collapse leaving reality to stand uncontested.

Human beings are programmed to understand what they are experiencing, and are more than willing to take some very big steps to construct a coherent narrative interpretation of what is going on. Entertainment relies on this quality. Without it watching a play or reading anything other than nonfiction would be a waste of time because we would only be capable of perceiving what was going on as being fake. The context in which we are viewing the make-believe stuff serves to prime our brain with the information that makes watching or reading possible. There is a piece of us that is completely aware that it is a play or a work of fiction, but the volume of that part is dialed down allowing us to get lost in what we are experiencing. It isn’t that we do not know that it is fantasy, it is that the part of us that cares is being actively suppressed.

Being aware of reality is a natural operation while ignoring it is not; this is almost a paradoxical situation in that it costs more energy to suppress reality than it does to accept it. The consequence to this fact is that we will only suppress reality when there is an incentive to do so. In this case, the incentive is reward chemicals that are released in response to the thoughts or the type of thinking that only flow when reality is suspended. It only works when we get something out of it and when what we get out of it is much greater than the cost of what we have to put into it.

Imagine that it takes 20 mental units of energy to suspend reality. However, the chemical reward that this can lead to is worth the equivalent of 50 units of energy. This is a positive experience and is therefore something that the brain will be more inclined to perform in the future. After enough of these experiences, the brain will have learned that suspending reality is always worth the initial cost because of the magnitude of the reward. This is why consuming fantasy literature or entertainment is a learned experience; it is available to everyone who has a brain that releases reward chemicals in response to the changes in thinking that suspension of reality facilitates AND who have enough experiences of the pairing of the stimulus and the response. If anything is missing the person will remain fixated on reality and will never have a reason to transcend into the realm of fantasy entertainment.

However, for those who have learned to find the experience rewarding, it is not without its limits. There is a cost associated with generating the reward, and the cost must be paid before the reward is released. Human beings have a propensity to be more loss adverse than they are reward seeking, and this creates an interesting phenomena in terms of sensation and perception. The ratio of loss to gain is one : two meaning that a loss of one unit is equal to a gain of two units. This is the general break-even point marking the boundary between when someone will do something that takes effort because the gain is worth it and when they will not take an action because the gain is not worth it. For example, we’ll put in 50 units of effort to get 110 units of reward, but we will not put in 50 units of effort to get 90 units of reward. The math is fairly straightforward although the timing of the rewards does not necessarily need to be immediate once the learning has taken place. If we were to get 50 reward units now and get another 100 units later, so long as we believed that the 100 units later were the result of spending 50 units now, we would have no difficulty perceiving this situation as a win and making the effort. This delaying of gratification is also a learned skill so the notion of investing effort for future reward is something that tends to come into play a little later in life.

The 2:1 ration is a perceptual thing in that it is the threshold that separates costs from losses. It is of big narrative significance because it alters the meaning we give to work / effort / actions. As long as the reward at least 2 times greater than the amount of energy we have to put in, we view the effort as a cost. Since things of value have a cost, we are accustomed to paying a price for things. The lower that price is relative to the value we get out of them the better; and it is not uncommon for something that is priced too low to be viewed as less valuable than it is. This means that we do not necessarily want the things that are handed to us and that we are actually more inclined to want something more when its price is slightly inflated. There is a sweet spot or range within which we are willing to work at varying degrees to get the value of something. Above it we perceive it as worthless and below it we view the effort we need to put in as a loss.

The lower threshold is about 1:2 in terms of effort to reward. There is some variability at the exact point, but narratively it can be defined as the point at which the cost of something is experienced as a loss. It’s an entirely relative thing but that does not change the dynamics at all. All things being equal, if the reward increases the cost can increase by a factor of 0.5. If the reward decreases, the cost will need to drop by a factor of 2. If the cost increases, the reward will need to increase by a factor of 2 and if it decreases, the reward can drop by a factor of 0.5. When one of these things does not occur AND when the ratio of cost to reward drops below 1:2, the costs become losses and the transaction will no longer be viewed as favorable. There is a small margin in terms of the time it will take before the brain makes the decision to abandon the transaction but the window is very small and dependent upon the size of the ratio – 1.1:2 will be tolerated for longer than 1.2:2 and a 3:1 ration might result in an immediate end to their participation in the behavioral transaction.

Past experience will pay a role in someone’s interpretation of reward and in their willingness to delay gratification. Those who have a longer track record of positive transactional ratios or who have a number of experiences that support the notion of delayed gratification will remain engaged for longer than someone who has little or no experience with either one of these elements; both generally, but more specifically with reference to the context of the current situation. However, most people will reach a breaking point eventually and once it has been crossed, the transaction ends and will only be reactivated when the ratio improves again to move the outcome from loss to cost.

This is what was at play for me while I watched this episode of Game Of Thrones. I have been more than willing to put the energy into suspending reality given how I have learned that doing so can lead to immediate and future rewards – consuming fiction has been rewarding and I have gotten a lot out of watching this series. Up until about 9:20 pm the ratio had been favorable and I had not minded putting in whatever effort was needed to keep me watching because the reward had been predictable and large enough to consider this effort a cost. However, the ratio dropped below the critical threshold which threw the costs / losses switch in my head. I very quickly burned through whatever good will that had been built-up and my brain was no longer willing to waste the effort that was needed to suspend reality or figure out what was happening on the screen. And that was it, the spell was broken and I instantly became aware that I was watching a TV show about make believe stuff that cannot and will not ever happen. The laws of physics flowed in and altered my perception of what I was able to see on the screen so I stopped. It suddenly became kind of silly, far-fetched, and unimportant.

The episodes director, Fabian Wagner, doesn’t believe that there was a problem. He suggested that the lighting was by design and used as a way to aid in the story telling. Everything that was important was visible, even if it was a little tougher to see than normal. He made some other comments about it that aren’t helpful. Suffice it to say, what was broadcast WAS what we were supposed to see. A collection of people took a look at the final product and approved it for distribution. I’m not a film maker and am only a fly by night fan of the show and not likely the person they were targeting with this episode. I am a lot less engaged than a diehard fan and may lack the specific commitment to put in the effort that was required to manufacture the information low picture quality failed to supply. True fans probably did the work and remain lost in the battle of until it was won.

How I Have Been Wrong – Post Revisited

About five years ago I wrote the post How I Have Been Wrong to cover some of the mistakes that I had made up until that point during my time in the fitness industry.

The 5 mistakes I admitted to were:

  • Believing that nutrition is more important than food.
  • Believing that the program is more important than consistency.
  • Believing that by creating an emotional response a transformation has occurred.
  • Believing that EVERYONE should workout and become more healthy.
  • Believing that what gurus said was more useful than what I knew.

I can confidently say that I did not make those mistakes again, which is a good thing, so I have decided to take another run at the same topic to cover some of the other mistakes that I have made. This list has less to do with the fitness industry specifically, although some of the lessons could be applied to it, and you may notice that some of the items were actually the fuel for realizations outlined in the first list. I’m also going to alter the way I present the mistake by stating the lesson first and then unpacking the error. The list is by no means complete and will be added to in future posts.

Most of our thinking is unconscious. The brain is always active even when we are not doing much. Whether it be the passive assessment of sensory information for signs of threat, the reprocessing and consolidation of memories / experience, the interrogation of memories in order to reveal patterns or connections, the triggering of mental processes that help the brain make sense of the world along with the reprocessing of the output of these processes, the control of thousands of physiological processes, or the moment to moment adjustment of biological functioning required to maintain homeostasis in order to maintain vitality and life, the brain is always busy doing something. We have very little awareness of these things and are generally only aware that they exist as a consequence of their output or when they don’t work the way they are supposed to. At best we can only influence the input that the brain receives in terms of content and volume by directing our attention in varying degrees to specific things in the physical or mental environment, and be aware of the output of whatever processes yield information that can be moved into consciousness. For example, when asked what two plus two is we become aware of the answer but we have no awareness of what is involved with generating that answer.

We should always keep in mind that consciousness is another one of these automatic and unconscious process for which we only have access to its output. This is a big one because it doesn’t seem to make much sense given that we are conscious. But take a moment to consider the experience of being awake and alert and try to determine why you are not aware of something that you know but are not thinking about. What comes to mind is not everything that you have ever experienced. It is in fact only a tiny portion of what you know and not necessarily the most useful part of it. In order to bring to mind more information, we need to spend more time thinking about a subject. And on two different days, our initial thoughts about a subject might surface two completely different things. Sure, both things will pop up if we spend 20 seconds thinking about it but for some reason what appears in consciousness is not consistent. Something big is going on under the hood that is determine what comes to mind and we have almost no access to the inner workings of these processes.

Human beings are meaning making machines. We need coherency and order and are more than willing to make things up just to ensure that we have these things. Facts are less important than narrative consistency and we will ignore them when they are in conflict with our existing world view to ensure that we remain “right.” The reason we do this is to conserve the mental energy associated with maintaining open loops. This is a survival practice that allows us to close off experiences and move forward having more complete access to our cognitive capacity. It is safer to be wrong and energized than it is to be unsure and drained. Uncertainty is exhausting, so a false certainty, while not accurate, was actually a safer bet in terms of survival in our ancestral past. It isn’t an ideal trait for living in the modern world but it’s deeply coded into our operating system and requires deliberate effort to suppress.

Human beings automatically answer every question they hear. What is remarkable is our ability to come-up with answers to questions we cannot possibly know the solution to. This happens because our default course of action is to solve problems quickly so we can go back to burning as little energy as possible. Most of our answers will be centered on addressing “why” something occurred in an effort to gain the illusion of control in the future. Cause and effect relationships between stimulus and response are understood to be an essential part of the universe, so we gravitate towards uncovering / making-up these types of things. When we do not have any specific information, we will make-up whatever is required or generalize based on binary pairings that are of the “us” vs “them” flavor.

The longer we believe something or the longer a belief goes unquestioned, the more confident we become in its truth or factual nature. The reason for this have to do with the organic nature of the brain. Memories and mental processes are stored in neural networks – rich interconnected collections of brain cells. It is tissue that is made-up from the food we eat and has been laid down in response to the sensory and mental stimulation the brain has been subjected to. The structure of these networks is completely dependent upon the stimulation meaning that it will only be impacted by what happens. Given that most of the mental functioning exists below the level of conscious awareness, we have no idea about the true amount of stimulation that occurs, all we can know is what we were aware of.

However, what we pay attention to will shape what happens afterwards and the more we pay attention, the greater the impact on the cellular structure. By focusing very intensely on something, we dramatically increase the impact on the brain because it saturates the sensory input buffers with data / information of a particular type, which will result in a greater stimulation and force a higher level of adaptation.

This is not an innately dialectical process. What goes in is what gets processed and assimilated. The brain doesn’t spontaneously set about trying to figure out if it is correct or not. In fact, correctness, truth, and rightness are not even things that the brain is in a good position to understand let alone seek out. It deals with “what is” and more specifically, taking its experienced “what is” and making an internal representation of it so it can be better equipped to make predictions in the future. It has no relationship or coding for something that isn’t experienced – the neural networks that make error identification possible will only exist if the brain has had sufficient experience with the subject matter. It cannot interrogate perceptions against information it doesn’t have, and since the information is not there, the brain just moves forward with what is has.

This is the reason why errors MUST be identified as quickly as possible to ensure that the error is not rehearsed into long term memory. Once the tissue has been laid down to code for the error, it’s going to be much more difficult to correct it. And the longer the organic tissue resides in the brain, the more sticky the information it codes for becomes.

Consciousness is the last thing to deal with what has just happened. Reality is objective in so far as the physical material of the universe exists and is moving in a particular direction. Subjective reality does not exist in the same sense physically. In fact, what each one of us is aware of is just the output of a reality simulation that is running in our brains. This simulation is based on a stew of sensory data, long term memories, perception, and thousands of other unconscious mental processes that come together to serve up consciousness from moment to moment. For example, the thing we look at and experience as a tree is something that is out there, but the “treeness” of it is only something that exists in the brain of the person who is looking at or touching it. This is to say that we do not experience the tree directly, we experience mental activity that is interpreted consciously as tree. This conscious awareness is just the final step in the entire process and there is a lag of between 100ms and 500ms between the sensory data that trigger the sensory cells and our experience of that triggering.

Most people are completely enamored with their perception of their own brilliance. Obviously, given that we manufacture a meaning that is coherent and void of any innate error correction. What goes in and is stored is not viewed through a lens of probability of being correct, it is just brought in, processed, and stored as an internal representation of the external world. Since we cannot process what isn’t there, there isn’t ever a reason for us to actually believe that we are not completely correct, at least not an automatic or spontaneous reason to believe it. This leads us to have a growing level of certainty about almost everything that we have any experience with. Since there is no process for review, we move forward knowing we are correct and much better than other people at most things.

The reality is a lot more average than that. We might have some skills or talents in a particular area, so maybe a brilliance of a particular flavor in one or two things. We might be good at a few others that we have worked at. At everything else, we are at best average at but given the nature of statistics, we are probably below average at most things. Even being average at something isn’t actually all that good. Based on the distribution of skills, someone who is at the mean level of capability might only have between two and ten percent of the abilities of the most capable person. It’s understandable why we believe we are brilliant but we aren’t and should probably stop pretending so we can actually get better at things.

Learning new things is simple, but it is very hard work. Since all learning is the physical adaption to stimulation – the laying down of tissue – it takes time and effort. Organic material can only be generated at a finite pace, so regardless of our desire to learn quickly, it can only occur as quickly as biology will allow. About the only thing we can do to speed it up is to maximize the input of sensory data by working hard and paying very close attention to what we are determined to learn. This process will reduce the length of time needed to learn something but it will require a lot of mental energy and it will have a negative impact on our ability to do other things.

Direct physical experience is more important than anything else when it comes to surfacing talent and developing skills. Aside from maximizing the speed of brain growth in order to hard-wire a new skill, direct physical experience is required to trigger gene expression, which is ultimately the reason why some people have talent in a specific area while most others do not. Without direct physical experience, the genes will remain dormant and our potential will never be actualized. The biggest opportunity for human beings here is based on the fact that we seem to have way more genetic code than we are currently using. The stuff isn’t all useless as has previously been suggested. Much of it codes for traits that were previously helpful and are no longer needed to serve a survival function in modern life. But the traits are still in there because they were hard earned and helpful in determining evolutionary fitness.

Human beings have no idea why they are thinking what they are thinking in spite of their certainty that they know why. All of our explanation are post hoc and are based on what has happened as opposed to what is happening. It may not make a lot of sense to look at the world in these terms, but by not doing so we remain convinced that we know our motivations for doing things and that our conscious experience of reality is a reflection of what is actually going on. Neither of these things is true, and there is a growing body of evidence that indicate this fact. Functional MRI studies show that the decision making parts of the brain peak in activity level before the subject is conscious of the decision they have made – they will actually believe that they are making the decision after the brain has already made the decision because this is what it feels like. Given the need for a coherent meaning and understanding of the world, it is not surprising that people resist accepting the reality of what is actually going on and will instead choose to believe that their consciousness is in the driver’s seat.

Almost everything we say and think is unimportant, not helpful and serves only to distract us from the fundamental truth about life. Working backwards, the fundamental truth that people are resisting is that life is hard and it is finite. We’re all going to die and before we do, we will struggle through almost every day having to do a bunch of different things to help sustain life. No matter how satisfied we are in the moment, it will pass and we will become unsatisfied again forcing us to do more work. No one likes this fact, and most of us resist even considering it by remaining distracted by anything that will hold our attention. The end result is that we talk more than we should, about things that don’t matter, are not helpful, or cause others pain and suffering. But it feels like it matters and it feels better than the experience of reality in our own minds when we are forced to not be distracted and to actually allow life to be what it is.

If you are not sure about this, take some time to consider, on the fly as it is happening, what you are talking about in terms of it being important and helpful. You’ll very quickly notice the trend towards back biting and engaging in useless speak. Now perform the same inventory on your internal dialogue and notice how so much of it is the very boring play by play announcements or the musings of a psychopath who doesn’t have your best interests are heart and seems hell bent of ignoring reality almost completely by focusing on the very limited perspective made possibly by having a seat in the theater of your mind.

So there are a few things that I have been wrong about. There is a lot more, but I’m going to need some time to process what I have just written down and to notice the output of that processing. Maybe I should be a little less hard on myself and phased it as things I wasn’t getting right or didn’t realize but this seems like trying to put a nice spin on things. It doesn’t really matter when all is said and done. History is what it is and since my brain works hard to create a meaning that is coherent I have no doubt that I’ve already stopped feeling bad about not knowing that I didn’t know something and begun to lay down the tissue that will help me make better decisions in the future.

Finding Your Passion As A Fitness Professional

This article is a continuation of the post What Role Do You Play As A Fitness Professional so I recommend you read that one first and then follow it up with this one.

How will you know what type of training role you are passionate about?

This is a good question for which there are a number of different and great answers. Knowing the answer, or at least knowing AN answer, is arguably one of the most important pieces of insight a human being can have in guiding them to have a more enjoyable and fulfilling life. The reality is that most people do not ever think about the question, let alone taking the time to uncover an answer to it because they simply just follow their nose and go along with whatever comes to mind from one moment to the next. Plus, it can be hard work to take a personal inventory and dig into your life in a way that is prying and revealing. This means that for many, luck is the only way in which they uncover their passion because their life is just a big experiment of trial and error. The quality of your life is too important to leave to chance, so it is very important that you spend some time to come-up with an answer to the question “what are you passionate about?”

This article was supposed to deal with personal training but the advice about how you uncover your passion is general, so anyone can use it. “Passion” is not job or career specific, it is a technology that one uses for engaging the world that will predictably create a consistent state of mind that has some very distinct properties. Experience is necessary for knowing what you are passionate about, so if you are brand new to the field of personal training you may want to book mark this page and revisit it after a few months of full time work. No harm will come of introspection without experience and if nothing else, it will make you more self-aware that life can and should be meaningful from moment to moment and not just on pay day.

All you will need to complete this exercise is a pen or pencil, some paper and about 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. It cannot be done on a smart phone or a computer because they offer the opportunity for distraction and, more importantly, they place a layer of distance between the words that flow out of you and how they appear. It doesn’t matter if it is messy and slow, the goal is to draw out from your brain the experiences and memories that land as significant, important, and represent the answers to the questions that appear below.

There are no right or wrong providing you are doing your best to surface the information that is being call on and as long as you don’t think about “looking good.” The truth about the world and about life is that the people who look the best are the ones who are living their own life doing the things that make them feel the way they want to feel and not tearing down the journey of other people. Anyone who cares about the rightness or wrongness of your passions and choices in life does so out of self-interest and NOT because they have any compassionate feelings towards you. If you are trying to look good, you won’t to those who know and like you, so just take the time to answer the questions honestly so you can get re-calibrated and know which way is forward.

And even if you find out that being a personal trainer isn’t something you can be passion about, having a clear picture of the value you need to deliver in order to have the life you desire is only going to make your life simpler and more straightforward. Before you know what it is, the answer could be anything and is therefore massively complex. As soon as you know, the answer becomes one thing and that is very simple to deal with – achieving it will require hard work, but at least you’ll know what the work is.

Ask and write down the answers to the following questions, the rational for the questions and other comments will appear below the questions:

1) What do you like doing” or “what do you get enjoyment from” as it applies to training.

2) What are you good at doing” or “what have your clients told you that you are good at doing” or “what have your clients told you that you do differently from other trainers that is good?”

3) Have there been moments that you have experienced while training a client that you are able to bring to mind that you were lost in time and space?” Phrased another way, list all of the training experiences that you have had were your mind was completely focused on the client, their movements and creating the solution to the problem they have asked you for help to solve.

4) What training experiences have you had that have left you feeling energized or elated and what experiences have you had that have left you feeling completely drained and empty of energy?”

5) How much money do you need to make per week / months / year to have your needs met, some of your wants met, to be in good standing with the CRA or IRS, and be saving money for retirement?”

6) When you look inside, are there jobs or tasks that you think SHOULD be done and that you are put on the planet to do?”

Question 1 – Doing things that you enjoy. There is a relationship between enjoyment and passion because it is very difficult to be passionate about something when we are in a negative state of mind. Enjoyment should not be mistaken with feeling good – pleasure is a separate experience and while the two things may go together, they do not necessarily have to.

Question 2 – Doing things you are good at. Getting good at something does not happen by accident. There is a formula – paying attention completely while practicing consistently for a long period of time. It’s very simple, but it is hard work. The fact that you are good at something is an indication that you have put in a lot of the work for some reason. This reason is NOT chance or a random thing. More likely you did it because it didn’t seem like work while you were doing it. This characteristic is important because no matter what you do or how much you like doing it, following your passion in terms of work will not mean that you do not work. The opposite is true, you will likely spend more time working, and most of this work will be at a very high intensity. While it is not impossible that your passion will land on something that you have not yet done, it is best to consider the things we have already done when checking for clues. There is a lot of useful information that we’ll benefit from processing before we go off into the realm of the unknown in the event we need to go looking further.

Question 3 – Being completely present. This is the opposite of clock watching, being aware that other people in the gym are watching you, or wondering what else might be going on. Some might describe this as a flow state or a hyper awareness of the present moment. I’d describe it as interfacing with reality in such a way that your brain and body react to whatever is going on without a moment of thought or consideration.

Question 4 – Level of energy tasks leave you with. I find this question to be one of the more interesting and revealing questions that someone can answer simply because most people do not think about the world in terms of energizing experiences; although most are familiar with draining ones. This is weird given that humans spend so much of their life working. A third of your week days and a quarter of your time is spent in an activity that is aimed at generating enough money to make life possible. Consider that for a second. While is seems like maybe it’s fine if you hate your job, or just don’t like it, but if you were given the task of designing a life for someone else, would you set it up in such a way as to ensure that a quarter of their time was spent doing something that was draining, unpleasant, or the chore that “work” seems to be for so many people?

Look at it this way: Let’s say that you have a life expectancy of 80 years. Consider that while eating a chicken wing at your 60th birthday party you start to choke and no one comes to help you out. You die and it’s all over. Now imagine that no one in the world thinks there is anything bad about this. They just see it as normal and the way life goes. Lots of people die at their 60th birthday party. In fact, it’s kind what 60th birthday parties are for. Everyone just accepts that the final 25% of your life is just taken away because that’s just how it goes.

It’s a stupid thing to think about because we are raised to believe that life is precious. There is a disproportionate amount of money spent on the healthcare for those who are in the last years of their life meaning we want to prolong it for as long as possible. There’s no way anyone would agree to just cut it short by 20 years and eliminate 25% of it. Except this is very close to what most people do with 25% of their life. And it isn’t the final years when mobility and vitality are reducing, we are burning 25% of the time between 25 and 60 – 35 years of living and hating a quarter of it.

This is why passion is so important and why working at something that leaves us feeling energized should not just be a luxury, it should be a necessity. Energy is critical for engaging the world, being alert, and enthusiastically identifying and solving problems.

Question 5 – The amount of money you need. This question has very little to do with passion per say, but knowing the answer to it will close off a lot of open loops that the brain has evolved to be concerned about that siphon off a lot of useful mental energy. A simple fact about the brain is that it cannot focus on the present when it has doubts about the future. When it is not certain that there will be enough money to cover rent and food next month, it will get caught in a loop trying to solve the problem of getting enough money to cover rent and food. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but thinking about a solution to a problem that you haven’t really realized is a problem is not the same thing as taking the actions that are necessary to solve the problem. In fact, the brain spontaneously seeks out problems to solve even when no problem actually exists, so knowing how much income you need to cover your needs, some of your wants, and your retirement will effectively shut down 85% of the automatic problem finding and solving that the brain gets after.

Question 6 – Your unique purpose for being on the planet. This question has nothing specifically to do with training, fitness, or exercise; although the reason why you do these things might reveal a lot about the answer. Doing a job that fulfills your purpose will contribute more to the quality of your life than almost everything else.

The concept of purpose is relatively new, and is a consequence of technological improvements and the specialization of labour that have allowed us to get our needs met with incredible ease. Since we no longer need to spend all of our time hunting, farming, building shelter and protecting ourselves and our families from threats, we have the ability to expand our understanding of who and what we are past the boundaries of mere survival. This is both bad and good. It’s bad because it adds a level of complexity to life that cannot exist when one is in a constant battle for survival – when scarcity and danger lurk everywhere, remaining alive IS our only purpose and taking care of things didn’t leave much room for anything else.

This is no longer the case, there is a lot of space to fill with novel activities or things that are done for no clear reason other than for their own sake. We are now free to do almost anything, and that means that we need to figure out what that is. This isn’t as easy as it seems given the hollow and empty nature of many things. Narrative meanings are complicated and not self-evident. The level of knowledge / wisdom / understanding that is required to accurately articulate a congruent meaning is remarkably high. It can be argued that without society the notion of living a life of meaning would simply never have been considered let alone talked about.

It’s very deep. Meaning requires a system of morals / ethics along with a clear understanding of the scale of experiences ranging from bad to good and then to better. While human beings may be innately curious and are spontaneously moral in so far as we know the difference between good and bad, or good and evil, the plotting of experiences as bad, good, or better is not universally shared. Some people who love working out will consider an exhaustive near maximal piece of work to be a better experience than a warm-up that isn’t painful, hard or even remotely tiring. These same individuals would consider the same piece of work, if done to unsuccessfully make a connecting flight at the airport, to be a bad experience. When this is compared to moral rankings, reducing suffering or improving someone’s well-being are ALWAYS morally positive actions, regardless of the level of ease at which the goal is achieved and regardless of the person.

Having said all of this, we live NOW when there is both the free-time to fill with activities and the baseline level of knowledge to allow for the cultivation of a narrative meaning for our purpose to life. We are of course able to ignore this opportunity and just run through life on autopilot, enjoying and suffering whatever happens to occur. Congruence and consistency are not critical for life to continue; they don’t actually matter when we get right down to it. Life however, becomes much clearer and a lot easier when we are able to answer the questions “why am I here on the planet” and “what is the purpose of my life?”  Knowing these things gives us direction and power / energy to START and KEEP moving in that direction, which makes decisions easier and creates a strong rational for the logical trade of effort in the quest for a specific outcome.

Once you have answered the questions, reread the answers over and over again and allow your brain to track in on the patterns or realizations about the connection between all of these things. There will be something there that you will have been living by but have been completely unaware of the role it was playing on your decision making process. This step is not easy to explain given the nature of how human beings think and the impact our personal history has on shaping the specific nature of our individual thinking. But a lack of ease should not stop you from taking the time to uncover the invisible patterns in your life, particularly given the huge upside to doing it.

As thoughts start to flow into your mind, start writing them down. Spelling, grammar, and sentence structure do not matter, what is critical is capturing the thought. Most of them will not be accurate and may not have anything to do with anything important. But each one of them that you capture will be like a stepping stone that moves you across the stream. This practice can be helpful in other areas given how it serves to interrupt your automatic thinking and force you to critically review the words that you write down. Under normal thinking conditions, a thought enters our mind, it is instantly accepted as true and then we reprocess it. This is only the experience of it, the reality of it is that we have already started to reprocess the thought BEFORE we became consciously aware of it. By writing it down, we get to go back to the beginning to re-evaluate the statement for accuracy while buying our brain a little bit more time to generate other thoughts or possibilities.  

The more your write, the better your thoughts will become in general. Some of them may seem silly, some of them will be silly, and some of them will be transformative leaps forward. Just keep writing them down. The purpose of this exercise is not to end-up with a single uniform answer that reframes your entire life as a straight line between related events. That might happen, it has for some, but that isn’t the goal. The truth is that life is so complicated, that YOU are so complicated, that a uniform theory of everything isn’t really in the cards. Instead, you are trying to generate clarity about the interconnections of your choices. There is a thread that joins them all, and that is what you are trying to find and start to pull on.

At some point you will either have a flash of profound insight, run out of thoughts, or possibly be flooded with a sense of gratitude. All are fine. Exhausting your thought stream is a powerful accomplishment, one that will pay off over the days and weeks that follow. Thinking is both fast and slow. The results can be instant or they can take time to grow. When nothing more is coming out, you can be confident that you have pushed a lot of information into the brain that the slow thinking will be working on over the next few hours and days. Be aware that these insights will be revealed shortly and be ready to capture them when they bubble to the surface.

The profound insight and sense of gratitude should also be captured on paper. Both will be staggering to your thought processes and to your consciousness. Both will steal your attention and effectively hold it hostage for a period of time. Good, that’s what you want. Emotional experiences that are this powerful tell us that something very important has occurred and the emotion is the brains way of telling us to pay attention, learn, and use the information in the future to shape our decisions.

Once you reach the end – either by running out of thoughts, feeling grateful, or having a profound insight – make sure you captured everything in writing and then do something else if you can. Clear the mind and give the brain a chance to process everything that it has experienced during the exercise.

The eventual outcome will be a sentence or two that describes why you are on the planet. It will be so much more than that though. The sentence or two will contain what you would do with your time if you didn’t have anything else to do. If you won billions of dollars, after you got back from a long vacation and grew bored with eating the best foods and had grown tired of amusing yourself almost to death, you would do things that were the manifestations of the purpose statement / sentences. While you may not have the luxury of not having to work, you do have the opportunity to seek out work that allows you to live your purpose.

This is where question 5 comes in. Most of us do not need nearly as much money as we think we do. We come to need it because we don’t enjoy our jobs and the money allows us to distract ourselves from the hellish experience we are living through. When we are pursuing meaningful work that allows us to actualize our purpose, we do not need to be distracted from our life. In fact, our work will give us energy while we are doing it and it will allow us to sleep very soundly at night KNOWING that what we are doing matters, is helpful, and is a good use of time. We’ll get paid enough to live comfortably, so we won’t think about money and will be free to put our full attention into our work, which will help us do the best work we can. Our clients will notice and respond to this. They will work harder, recommend your services, and feel completely connect to you as both a service provider and as a human being. You will grow your business and your level of wealth will climb.

Most importantly though is that you’ll be content, valuable, and completely present when you are working. Your conscientiousness will be at its peak as the right answers will just come to mind and flow out of you. There will be no need for motivational self-talk and you will have abundant energy for work and for life. And this is what living on purpose is all about, having passion for every waking moment and every action that you get to take!

Good Enough Is Good Enough, Just Don’t Say That Out Loud

Since I am a human being, I have a long track record of saying and doing some very stupid things. The trend line, however, slopes upwards so if I maintain this trajectory, I’m on course to have a few very good years in a couple of decades. Most of the dangerous and very dumb things are behind me, because I learned from doing them.

Probably the mistake that it has taken me the longest to learn from has to do with the truth and when to tell it vs. keeping it to myself. As a rule, I think knowing and telling the truth are some of the most important things for people to do. Each of us has a good brain that is capable of making sense of the world, and will do this much sooner when dealing with reality as opposed to some sort of nonsense. When we believe that something is true when it isn’t our life becomes more complicated and we make the life of other people more complicated when we choose to tell them a lie or misrepresent something as being true when we believe it might not be. I want life to be as easy as possible for everyone and there is no place for dishonesty in this.

Except when there might be.

It isn’t that there is a time and a place for not telling the truth but there is a time and a place for not saying anything. And this is where life experience comes into play. When making the decision on whether or not to say something, speak only when the statement is true AND helpful. Most things that are true are irrelevant and therefore not helpful.

Take a moment to consider your area of expertise and bring to mind a fact that relates to it. Now imagine stating this fact during every conversation you have with any one. Going in to get replacement registration for your car, ordering dinner, shopping for clothes or groceries, volunteering at the animal shelter, etc…. Okay, that’s all kind of silly, but so is talking about almost everything when it isn’t helpful. The Buddhists have a term for these types of things called “useless speak” and when you get right down to it, almost everything a person says out loud is useless speak. Almost everything we say to ourselves is useless speak and almost every spontaneous thought we have would fall under the catchall of useless speak.

For the last 10 years or so I have been a believer that I’m a little to a lot messed up. I’m not dangerous or stupid. Nor am I antisocial in a psychological way. I’m fine. I have some good qualities, some bad qualities and many that don’t really make much difference. What I am is more or less the same thing as everyone else. A human being who is doing their best to make life easier and a little better each day. Sometimes I’m successful at doing this, but most of the time my actions don’t make any demonstrable difference. It’s good that I got out of bed that morning and took whatever actions I did, but none of them will be written to the big book of life as things that mattered. And this is basically how it is for everyone and everything. Important but irrelevant. Well intentioned, a little screwy and lacking universal appeal.

So when I met Heather in 2012 and found myself completely enamored by her, I just did what I always did – thinking it, feel it, say it. But she wasn’t expecting my slightly over-the-top way of engaging the world; which might be better described as a pathological impulsive honesty. I told her what I was seeing, what it made me think and how that made me feel. It lacked any of the coy aloofness that is very common during the beginning of a relationship. It isn’t what she was used to and it can be a little hard to take.

The main reason I think I did this has to do with knowing what my brain does when it pays attention to something. I had learned from experience that whatever it was I thought about would expand in terms of what my brain did with it – if someone cut me off in traffic and I continued to pay attention to the car, I would begin to notice all of their driving errors, if someone let me merge without drama or tension, I would begin to notice more random acts of kindness or courtesy, it didn’t matter what it was, as soon as I saw it, I would see more of it. I was deliberately paying attention to the things I liked meaning that I was not noticing anything else. And since I talked about what I was thinking, all that was coming out was a growing list of the things that I thought were great. This approach makes it a lot easier for me to remain grateful and happy.

After a few weeks of dating she said to me “I don’t know who you think you are dating, but no one is as good as the person you are talking about.”

It took a moment for me to register what she was saying and when it landed I replied with “I know everyone sucks a little, that goes with out saying, but maybe I should have said it. You are going to do things that annoy me, that disappoint me, that remind me that you can be selfish and mean. I know this and I still adore you because you are….” and I returned to my observational honesty. This was what she needed to hear because it eliminated any pressure that had been building. She knew herself well enough to know she is a collection of traits and qualities and that some of them are not necessarily admirable. Sooner or later there would be a fall from grace and God only knows what would happen if this blind-sided me.

A few days ago one of my friends sent me a video titled Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person by Alain de Botton and I was reminded of the early part of my relationship with Heather. It’s a great video, both funny and a little thought provoking. He seems to have drawn the same conclusion that I have – that people are all kind of screwed-up but are, in general, fine. There are a few lines that seem a little harsh until they sink in and which point they resonate like wisdom.

He is making the point that Heather thought I had missed – that we’re good and bad, but mostly a lot of neither. There probably isn’t anyone who is perfect for us and if there is, we’ll probably never find them because we don’t know enough about ourselves to actually know that our paths have crossed. You are free to look for them if you like, but then you’ll end-up dying alone. The best we can hope for, at least statistically speaking, is that we find someone who is good enough and that we have the good sense to accept that good enough is good enough.

That is what Heather knew she had when we met. I was charming enough to spend time with, intelligent enough to be interesting, self-aware enough to know that I was a work in progress and that bigger and better things were in my future, and conscientious enough to put the work in to make them a reality. Could she have held out for more? Maybe, but there was a very good chance that all she would have been waiting for was different.

The two of us are clear that there is a huge complement in our traits and qualities, that I’m some of the things she isn’t and she’s some of the things that I’m not and that we are human beings and as such are prone to moments of being insufferable and kind of unlikable. And we’re fine with this. These moments suck, but they are worse for the person who is being the jerk than for the one observing it.

Heather was simply trying to figure out if I had the good sense to not say anything about the shortcomings or the bad sense to believe that I had found perfection in a person.

And maybe that’s the key to relationships. Realizing that you’ll partner up with someone who isn’t perfect, each partner accepting that good enough is good enough. Establishing a connection with someone who can put up with us, overlooking the ways in which we fall short and adoring the ways in which we excel. Knowing the truth and when to voice it, and maybe, most importantly, knowing what to not say out loud.

“This Is Water” – A Little Bit Better Each Day

David Foster Wallace was an American author who also taught English and creative writing at university. He won many awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Like many people, he suffered from mental illness – depression – and took his own life on September 12, 2008.

Three years before his death, Wallace accepted an invitation to give the commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech was a very good one, regarded as the best commencement speech ever given by Time Magazine. It was recorded, transcribed and was used as the foundation for a book titled “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.”

When you listen to the speech, his tone is flat and the delivery is very “matter of fact.” This is a bonus because it forces the listener to pay attention. When you spend any amount of time viewing and listening to these types of speeches you quickly develop a sort of immunity to the flowery platitude rich messages, presented in such well rehearsed oratory fashion that it’s easy to forget the venue and who the actual audience is. This Is Water isn’t like that, and that’s why it is so easy to hear what he is saying.

Life is hard, boring, and every day is almost exactly the same. There are so many people that we cannot help but constantly be in each others way. While we all have the same basic needs, each one of us has a unique struggle to meet them. We need food, so that means we need money, so there are jobs. These jobs are, for the most part, pointless experiences of repetitive nonsense performed for its own sake. Few of us do something that has any higher meaning or that contributes anything to the future history of humanity. The experience of life is awful for most people. Endured for too many decades and ending with no fanfare. It peaks too soon, and from around the mid twenties, we physically decline. Vitality is replaced with aches and pains as our lust for life fades, substituted with a growing sense that maybe the entire thing has no point.

Whatever sense of meaning we had at the beginning of the journey is revealed to be a mistake or a lie, as the only thing that ends up being real is the growing amount of work we have to do.

And this is true. Life is not easy. Staying alive requires constant effort to find food, shelter, security, connection and purpose. And it is this final one that we innately get wrong. Maybe we were raised to believe that we would change the world, that our birth would mark a new end and beginning point in human history. And while that is true, it isn’t very true. We matter, just not very much. There are too many people for any one person to matter. Our species has effectively reproduced itself into the position of devaluing any and every single individual. Your value is one seven and half billionth of the collective worth of the human race.

No, purpose is not something we are born with, it is not an innate trait. When we mistakenly assume that by meeting our needs for food, shelter, security and connection that we will be living a purpose filled life we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, at best, or a life of struggle, torment and confusion as the more likely.

That is what I take out of “This Is Water” and I believe that is the essence of Wallace’s message. Life is meaningless. Being alive is not, in and of itself, sufficient enough to make living worthwhile. But we need meaning and purpose as much as we need food, and shelter, and safety, and connection. It is too easy, almost automatic, to become nihilistic a few years after we leave school and have begun our careers. Being an adult is a daily reminder of the utterly pointless nature of being alive.

Except that is only the truth when we choose to not put the work in to see it any other way. Meaning is a completely abstract thing while also being very real at the same time. Like water to a fish, it is necessary for survival, but rarely do human beings take the time to see meaning and purpose as so essential to our survival that we spontaneously and unconsciously manufacture them out of absolutely nothing just to make sure it is there.

Being alive is not a purpose, getting your survival needs met is not a purpose. These things are essential for living a life of purpose, but are insufficient at creating and sustaining the will to continue to work hard, day in and day out, to make life a little bit better each day. When we lean completely on them to give our life meaning, we park our progress in the bad part of town only to wonder months or years later why everything of value has been stripped away and sold as scrap.

Living a life of meaning will only happen on purpose. It requires conscious effort that is focused and sustained over time. It is mindful and deliberate. It is the consequence of looking at the world, your life and LIFE in general and then making the decision to see that you have the choice on what body of water you are going to live in, and then doing EVERYTHING you are capable of doing in order to get there. Even if you never make it, your life will have had meaning simply because you did the things that give it meaning.

Meaning cannot and will not happen by accident as the only automatic is the unhappiness associated with ONLY meeting your survival needs. You will get by, and that is all you will get.

Living a life of purpose and meaning is not easy. It requires clarity and constant effort. It is work. But so too is living a meaningless life. The only difference might be the moment to moment experience. A life thoughtlessly lived on autopilot is the soul crushing existence described in Wallace’s speech. A life lived with care and deliberateness is, if nothing else, a life filled with distraction from the day to day tedium.

Life is going to be hard. It will be work regardless of what you do. Find out what you want, and direct that effort towards the things that make it a little bit better each day.