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newstasis :: a blog about improving wellness » Conscious Experience Described

Archive for the 'Conscious Experience Described' Category

Sunk Cost - Another Way The Past Influences Your Future

Sunk cost is regarded as the amount of money / resources that have already been spend / invested into something that cannot be recouped. These costs have already been incurred regardless of the outcome.

For example, spending $5000 digging a hole in the back yard for a swimming pool. Regardless of how you proceed after the hole has been dug, you cannot get the $5000 back; filling in the hole will not return the money. Another example is working on a relationship - you can spend 6 months going to therapy in an effort to mend things with no guarantee that you’ll both grow old together.

The issue with sunk costs is that they can bias perspective and effect decision making because we can tend to place a higher value on past actions vs. future actions. A number of studies have shown that people become more certain about their decisions after they make them - those who bet on a sporting event will immediately become more confident that their desired outcome will be the eventual outcome once they place their wager.

The reality is very different. While the betting odds can change as a result of more people betting on an outcome, and while those people will become more certain about the outcome, NOTHING about the outcome has changed. The team that was going to win is still going to win. The actions of those outside of the system will have no impact on the actions inside the system.

To put is another way, what is the eventual outcome is going to be the outcome regardless of any sunk cost. Sinking cost into a bad decision will not make it a good decision REGARDLESS of any perceptual tendency to think that it does.

Given the human tendency to further invest in poor choice because of sunk cost, it’s easy to see how this can have a detrimental impact on ones life. Alternative options will not be considered or will be viewed less favorably and resources will continue to be invested into a poor decision. What is viewed as unworkable from an external and objective point of view can be viewed as worthy of continued effort by those who are involved and subjectively engaged in the process.

How do you know when you are being impacted by sunk costs?

  • You’ll hear yourself saying or thinking “well, I’ve put this much into it already” while you have a feeling that walking away will be a waste of that effort. In this instance, you have already realized the eventual outcome but rationalizing a delay by looking at the sunk cost. Immediate action is both appropriate and needed here.
  • You have a tendency to view things in terms of win:lose and not from a perspective of what was the lesson from an experience. You don’t want to lose so you continue in a failing attempt to win. In reality both are abstract and meaningless distinctions. If you choose personal growth from an experience you will be able to move forward very quickly because you’ll view the sunk cost as the price for a powerful lesson.
  • You are fearful to consider different alternatives because of a sense of wasted time / money / resources. This is an indication that you are not being objective and open minded, a clear indication that something illogical is at play.
  • You have a scarcity view of the world and believe that you may not ever have the sunk resources again. Being loss avoidant isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you hold a view that what has been spend cannot ever be regained, you are not looking at the future accurately. The consequence is that you end-up pouring MORE resources into something that is a lost cause; this will increase the scarcity of resources making real the very thing you are trying to avoid.

There are times to stay and persevere and there are times to learn a lesson and change your course. The right thing to do is the thing that is objectively and statistically the most probable way to achieve your goal. The wrong thing to do is to avoid unpacking your reasons for staying because you believe everything would be a waste if you were to stop.

Sunk costs impair rational thinking so if you are in a situation and have spend a lot of resources on it, be mindful that your natural tendency will be to view continuing as the best course of action. It may be, but take the time to see the potential costs of continuing and to evaluate the situation for what it actually is right now vs. what it was when you made the decision to invest in it.

Cognitive Overhead - How I Think About Thinking

NOTE: I started writing this about 3 years ago. It came out of a conversation with Des over lunch. It doesn’t represent 3 years of direct work. It reflects the results of 3 years of passively fostering a feeling that there is a truth in an idea into a more complete understanding as to why it is a truth. This past weekend it all came together for me, not just how I think about the way the brain functions, but how I think about nervous energy being the power of EVERY process that exists within the body.

Sometimes when I’m having trouble thinking about consciousness I try to simplify it by comparing it to a computer.

Consciousness is a process that is running in the background and is one of many processes that are running. Each process requires a certain amount of resources to function correctly. If it does not get what it needs, it will begin to malfunction and eventually shut down. Some processes run in the background working as much as the available resources allow e.g. the process of scouring the memories searching for patterns and relationships - these would be like the indexing for faster search type process with an operating system. Most of the other processes are called when needed and the amount of cognitive effort they take up is usually a product of how long they are being used. E.g. you are singing a song so you need to use you voice, creative and memory processes, much like a computer playing an audio file using the sound card and media player,

If you are in a flow or meditative state or if you are sleeping, your consciousness is going to require the least amount of cognitive resources. The freed up resources go towards some other brain activity. I call this the base line because the brain is effectively running with no input from your active conscious mind.

If you end up getting stuck in a loop you begin to drain the reserves.

Provided the you do not get stuck in a loop you will return the energies to the underlying processes and return to the base line once you stop thinking.

We are usually unaware of the other underlying processes that require cognitive energies but we can see the consequences when we try to use them under adverse conditions such as driving in snow, giving a presentation when you are really nervous or trying to find the perfect line while skiing when your still thinking about the work you need to do.

There are countless unconscious thought processes that get impaired when we engage in conscious thought or get stuck in a cognitive loop. It can be an obvious process like the one that renders words to speak at the presentation or it can be one you’ll never be aware of like the one that compares the visual input to memories searching for patterns. The consequence is the same in both cases, if they do not get their share of the cognitive energy impairment will begin and they will eventually shut down.

The cumulative effect of excessive calling of cognitive processes is stress and the outcome is degraded or incomplete processing,

Cancer - It Takes Over Your Mind Too

I have never had cancer so I have no notion of the first had experience of the disease. This post isn’t about the first hand living and dying of cancer, it’s about the second hand experience of cancer - being alive with someone you love who has it.

The thing with cancer is that it never goes away, even when it is gone, it isn’t ever not there - it just isn’t there right now. A piece of your peace dies with the knowledge of this diagnosis. It is a flash-bulb moment marking the end of that life and the beginning of this new one.

It is the start of a new mental process that runs unstopped until your loved one dies. It’s a process that is mostly in the background, out of the consciousness, yet very taxing on the finite mental resources that exist within each of us. It’s a process that has it’s biggest impact exactly when you forget that it’s there - it reminds you that someone you love is sick and that the blissful moments you knew before are gone forever.

It’s like having a monkey on your back - sometimes the monkey is sleeping allowing your to live a cancer-free existence, like everything is fine and life is good. The rest of the time that monkey is drunk, playing a trumpet and spilling drinks all over your happiness.

And all the while, life goes on. There are bills to pay, dreams to have and life to live. It was coming all along, maybe not the cancer, but the death. The clock of life has been ticking down. Just because some doctor tells you with more clarity that it’ll be arriving sometime soon doesn’t change the fact that it has always been rolling towards us.

This is the piece that I have the least enjoyment with. You put on your game face and try to pay complete attention to the one you love, marked for death, yet not at all different from how they were a few weeks ago. And it is always close by, the though that says “they have cancer and they are going to be dead soon,” spoken with your own voice. Words you couldn’t have imaginable last year when you were all eating at Christmas and they said “hey, who invited this turkey to dinner?”

Knowing It’s Time To Move Forward

People leave unsatisfying situations. They’ll work hard to stay in situations that they find satisfying and will make a lot of other sacrifices to keep things going. But when they leave, it’s because they have seen that situation for what it is - unfulfilling / unsatisfying - and they realize that there is not enough to be gained, or a lot to be lost, from remaining.

Regardless of the area of life - relationship, job, school, where someone calls home, hobby, etc… - the process is always the same for me.

Mindless enjoyment or contentment fades as the awareness that something is missing or out of place grows. Resentment or contempt arrive bringing along a fantasy of a different existence. Bitterness and hostility will soon appear if things do not change. If the situation remains the same, all of the negative emotions bubble-up suffocating and killing the once mindless bliss of “happy”.

I have become very aware of this process because I have gone through it a lot. I can feel or hear the seeds of resentment percolating in my consciousness very early on and have learned to pay attention to the potential harvest that may come to be. I don’t do anything other than notice the sensations the first few times I become aware of them as I may be having a tough day, be tired, hungry, whatever, just that something is off so what I attribute the negative moment to may have nothing to do with it. But I notice it, check inside, and get back to life with as clear a head as possible.

Most of the stuff never comes up again, lending validity to my notion that an empty belly, lack of sleep, or general BLAH can color the lens of perception. That’s good to know because, well, it’s just good to be reminded that I search for a reason AFTER I feel something and not necessarily the other way round.

But when the stuff does comes-up again and becomes impossible to let go of, I realize that the shift has occurred - like everything that is moving, a small change in the direction of life, when ignored, will deliver a big change in destination over the long run - so I make a dramatic change.

In most cases this means that I get out of the situation - leave a job, relationship, situation - and start something new or put more focus onto the other things I’m involved in. Occasionally I’ll spend some time to unpack my feelings / thoughts in order to track the actual cause of the misalignment. When this approach is successful, it creates a decision point where I can either change the situation or change my expectation of the existing situation.

Personal development grows from learning a new skill to help manage an existing situation, so figuring-out my thoughts / feelings / internal narrative is a critical practice. The key is to learn the new skill and implement it ONLY when it benefits all parties who are involved in the situation. There are times to make things work and there are times to move forward into something else.

Regardless of the outcome, when I start to notice that things are not as they need to be, I know that the process of change has begun and that it may be time to move forward.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Brain

The human brain is a remarkable and powerful thing. Under ideal conditions it is capable of processing billions of pieces of information each second and can synthesize complex solutions / understandings based on years of stored information in moments. It has taken a long time for a computer to come anywhere close to the capacity of the brain and it still isn’t there.

However, unlike an electronic computer, the human brain has a need to survive. To this end, built within it are mechanisms that will protect it; or more accurately, protect the body that holds it. The key mechanism is the ability to alter function, to turn off certain areas of the brain allowing other areas to exert more influence.

Rewind to a time when life was more simple, when our ancestors lived off the land, in caves or primitive huts. This was a time when logical thinking would get you killed given that it is not reactive and takes time. In crisis situations the brain needed to do one of two things, run or fight. A compelling reason is of no assistance when a predator has you in its sights and is bearing down you, you need to physically beat on the creature or you need to run.

Out of this environment springs forth brains that are programmed to suppress logical thought in times of crisis, and let the parts of the brain that promote fight or flight reactions control the show.

Various brain scan technologies reveal that the prefrontal cortex shuts down during highly emotional experiences, taking off-line the capacity for executive functioning - logical thought, the relevance of time, the concept of consequences, etc…. Without a future the individual is completely in the moment and is not capable of the things that they would normally be. In this emotionally charged state you attack to kill or run. Survival is the only outcome and everything becomes about that.

How does this help you get more out of your brain?

Well, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for so much of what makes human being unique and exceptional. Anything that reduces the level of functioning of this part of the brain is detrimental to our being exceptional (with the obvious exception to times when we need to be destructively reactive such that we fight or run).

Here is a list of the things that cause the prefrontal cortex to shut-down:

  • Intense emotional responses. Emotions can serve a survival function so they cannot coexist with logical thought. Reducing stress and anxiety will allow the prefrontal cortex to become more active which will improve the entire thought process.
  • Low blood sugar. The brain uses sugar so if you are hungry or your blood sugar level is low, the prefrontal cortex is the first part of the brain to shut-down. Controlling blood sugar by eating good quality whole foods will keep levels normal and keep brain functioning high.
  • Low amounts of glucose in the prefrontal cortex. Even if your blood sugar level is high, too much thinking will use-up a lot of the glucose that is available in the brain. For this reason, it is best to avoid thinking about things that are heavy or require a lot of logical thought after periods of intense thinking of any nature.
  • Being tired. When we are tired, the prefrontal cortex powers down. It’s best to avoid though thinking at the end of the day when we are burned out and running on empty.

“Become a Learning Machine”

How to Overcome Fear by Living Life as a Remarkable Experiment by Marquita Herald is a great article about how to get more enjoyment out of your life.

Fear is something that stops a lot of people in their tracks, it prevents them from doing the things they like or dream about doing and it has them play small. Marquita suggests a hack to help people try-on a different way of being that will open doors to new experiences.

Basically, accept that you are a learning machine, or try on the role of being a learning machine. You keep an open mind and seek out new experiences with the absolute intention of learning something. What you learn doesn’t matter, and it’s better to have no preconceived notion of what will come of an experience. Have fun with it, accept that the outcome will be new and that afterwords you’ll have more information about the world that will help you as you move forward. Maybe it’ll be something that you want to do more of, maybe something you want to avoid, maybe just something that is interesting.

This approach is effective because it removes a lot of the personal risk from your interactions. As a learning machine, you are just playing your role as information collector and processor. Sometimes the information could be viewed as positive, other times the information could be viewed as negative but in the end, it’s just information and a small piece of the puzzle of life. It is safe because who ever you believe you are is shielded from any negative invective or interpretation of a situation.

So, if you are feeling fearful or uptight about getting out there and doing the things you need or want to do, read the article and try out Marquita’s approach. You don’t have anything to loss and it may end-up being a very useful tool in your quest for a more fulfilling life.

Time Apart From Significant Others

A couple of weeks ago, my friend posted on Facebook that people need to spend time away from their significant others, possibly vacationing apart and definitely not working together all of the time. His comment followed an intensive year of him living, working and generally spending all of his time with his partner.

His comment wasn’t new and I have heard others say similar things. What was serendipitous was that Heather had just left for an 18 day vacation.

What I have taken out of the time apart:

I still carry some of my concerns from the past. I’m not certain that this will always be the case though. The concerns manifested themselves in slightly different ways than before and I can see them for what they are. Which is something that doesn’t happen so often when we are together because I’m in a different head space.

From time to time, it can require effort to remember why we are attracted to each other. But this effort is worth putting in because it’s important to remember the reason for your attraction, given the tendency for humans to stop noticing the familiar. Thoughts and emotions are not self sustaining so generating the positivity is critical for keeping it going.

We’ve come a long way and there is a long way to go. Personal growth is similar to relationship growth in that it is always a possibility. Each new thing you learn, alters who you are and who they are. The evolving nature of relationships should be viewed as fun, something with a beginning and a middle, but no end.

Communication is critical to happiness within a relationship. Heather and I are aligned in many areas, but there are some aspects of our personalities that fall outside of the others awareness. Sharing these with an open mind is paramount to cultivating a strong connection. Neither one of us is wrong for what we believe, how we think or the actions we take. Talking about these things removes any road blocks from our future and enhances our understanding and respect of the other.

I have a number of areas of personal development to work on. This pleases me because it would be dreadful to believe that I didn’t. Heather does a lot of learning when she’s away, so when we talk on the phone, there is always a lot of new stuff to cover and hundreds of new ideas. When she gets home, we talk about these things and they alter my understanding of the world, myself and our relationship. Her return is exciting, not just because we get to reconnect, but because we get to recreate.

8 Lessons From 2012 - Part One

In no particular order and with credit given whenever it can be.

“You don’t have a lot of time” - Sean Sullivan. This lesson was given in 2011, almost as soon as I told him that my dad had a brain tumor. Sean lost his father to cancer and he witnessed the rapid decline associated with this disease. I didn’t know exactly what he meant when he said it, but I took his advice and did everything I could to make the best of the time that was remaining. The family ate, talked, and enjoyed each others company and spend little time spend dwelling on what was about to happen. I understand what “you don’t have a lot of time” means now and I understand that it doesn’t just apply to dying relatives, it applies to everything in life.

“Life is meaningless and empty so you’re free to create whatever purpose you like” - LandMark Education - March 25, 2012. I find this very empowering because I spontaneously do right by most people. Given this, setting out to make life be about what I want is a lot easier and gratifying than searching for some universal meaning.

“So, how is life going to be better than before?” - Heather Arthur - May 4, 2012. It was our first date and Heather was doing what Heather does, rattling things to see if they stand-up to the challenge. My answer, after a lot of squirming, was to say that I didn’t have a plan to make them better, but that I wouldn’t be repeating any of the same mistakes so life was going to be different, and that meant the possibility for better. I had never felt so vulnerable and alive.

“Teaching is not like other jobs, teachers have a much bigger impact on the world than almost every other profession” - Des McKinney - December 18, 2012. We had been talking about the rotating teachers strikes in Ontario and I was struggling to understand the teachers position. Once Des laid this one on me I gave-up any notion that they have an unreasonable sense of entitlement. Let’s face it, teachers have shaped every single person I talk to each day and my ability to earn a living is the result of a lot of their intervention. Teachers are kind of important.

Language alters the context which impacts how we view the world - Heather Arthur - May 4, 2012. During our first date, we were talking about the fact that we were both single. I commented that all of my past relationships had failed. Heather gave me the sour face and said “change the context, try saying that you have had great experiences with some amazing people and now you are all growing forward with life.” So I said it and immediately felt my past unfold into something more palatable. I’ve done this with a bunch of other things and have used this technique with some of my clients with similar success.

“Thoughts created feelings which create actions, change the thoughts and notice how the feelings and actions change” - Leigh Moore - February 20, 2012. After my dad died I was having some struggles piecing certain things together. Leigh gave me some therapy and focused on one thing that was going to change my state very quickly. She noticed that some of the things I was saying weren’t based on an objective reality and were based on an internal narrative that wasn’t working for me. Her coaching created the possibility that things were not how I thought they were and as soon as I introduced a different possibility I started to feel differently.

How you think you’ll feel about things in the future is different from how you will feel about them - Life - anytime in 2012. I knew my dad was going to die for 6 weeks before he actually passed. But when it happened, how I felt about it wasn’t anything like how I thought I would feel about it. I was sad, but there were moments of gratitude, joy, and nothing at all. The lesson I’m taking out of it is to just accept that things are going to happen and that I am going to feel something when they do, but not to spend much time thinking about what the feelings will be because I’m going to get it wrong.

“How you feel right after something happens is not the same as how you will feel in 3 months, but how you feel about it in 3 months is usually how you will feel about it in a year” - Des McKinney January 30, 2012. The day after my dad died I asked Des how he felt. Instead of answering the question I asked he decided to change my life and reveal the answer to a more existential question. Right after something happens or as it happens we’ll feel very strongly about it. That probably won’t last.

This is part one. Last year presented me with some amazing growth opportunities that I dived into.

A Call To Action Becomes A Possibility When The Consequences Get Closer

Some political problems, like the impending fiscal cliff, cannot be solved until the very last moment, because the external pressure has to be so high that politicians can actually get forgiven for making the painful choice. If a Republican had acted 3 years ago and voted to increase taxes or a Democrat has voted to dramatically cut spending there would have been backlash from some of their supporters; they would have lost a lot of them and risked not getting reelected. But now, doom is so close that things have reversed - politicians face alienating their electorate by resisting tax increases or spending cuts. The notion of things falling apart in less than a month is a big motivator for creating the possibilities that become actions and solutions.

This tendency for action or different action to be taken as we get closer to the consequences is not isolated to politics because it seems to be a quality of most humans.

For example:

“The doctor told me that I needed to get into better shape.” This is usually interpreted by them as “I am going to die soon” and this is a compelling why.

“One of my friends / family had a heart attack and they are younger than me.” This too is interpreted as “I am going to die soon.”

Most drug addicts need to hit bottom before they stop using - death needs to be the next logical step in their addiction.

Many people who stop smoking do so only when they view the consequences (cancer, emphysema, etc…) as being inevitable if they continue to smoke.

Many students hold off studying until they view there to be no more time to waste.

Take a moment to think about your own behavior and that of those around you - how often are pragmatic actions tabled until they become crisis actions?

So what?

Be it your eighth cigarette or your 50000th, the threat of illness is always the reason why you should not smoke.

Being overweight or under exercised always increases your chance of dying early - this doesn’t become the reality the moment the doctor tells you to move more and eat better, or because someone you know has a heart attack.

Doing drugs always lowers your potential and does some damage to your body.

Consider the possibility that the “why” that seems to come to light as the consequences get closer is ALWAYS the why.

The Stories We Tell Are Not Reality But BECOME Reality

We are story tellers, almost all of us. The stories we tell, the really good ones, we tell not to others, but to ourselves. It is that simple. We learn to not tell them to others because they tend not to receive them very effectively. Others tend to argue with us about them, tell us that they are not a good reflection of reality or that there is another possibility that we have not considered. So, over time, we learn to keep our mouths shut and firm-up our view about what these stories mean.

The impact of these stories can be powerful, often more powerful than reality; which the stories eventually become.

Most of the migration away from objective reality occurs when we are young and these early experiences lay the foundation for one to more easily accept things that are not reflective of how others see the world.

For example, at school, an example is made out of a good student for speaking out of turn. For one reason or another the teacher decides to single them out for talking to one of their friends while other more rowdy students are also talking. This has the impact of getting the class to be quiet, but it can also create a story based on conflicting evidence within the good student that being consistently bad is an effective way to mitigate the wrath of the teacher. While this small tale seems innocuous, if the young person adapts this as a coping strategy they are well on the way to throwing academic potential out the window.

The stories that young people tell as a result of abuse are often much more damaging. When a caregiver fails to protect a child from abuse or when they do not respond quickly or decisively to it, children often create stories that have them as being less worthy of protection or love, that have them as objects for other peoples enjoyment or have them develop personality disorders that make movement into and through adulthood challenging or obnoxious.

Without proper scope or divergent opinions, abuse can be normalized and carried forward through these stories. Parents who chronically beat their children raise kids who continue this pattern - not because the children necessarily believe it is right but because they don’t know that it isn’t appropriate. Without proper guidance and role-modelling, what is common is normalized and the pattern of abuse continues.

These stories get traction in our minds and they are sticky. It can take years of therapy to identify and loosen a story to the point of it relinquishing its virulent grip. Even then, the stories may have become part of the individuals identity such that they ALWAYS pop-up and will require constant effort to hold back.

The key is a reality check when things start to look or feel off with the young people in your life. Ask lots of questions and provide lots of information about your experience of objective reality. Ask about their stories and listen closely to their answers, there will be a wealth of information contained within them that will light-up parts of their minds that may be destined to become their future reality.