This category covers things that relate the field of evolutionary psychology. How we think have been shaped through the process of evolution. This means that any trait that exists within us served to improve our ancestors changes of surviving to reproductive age. It does not mean that these traits are good or bad, or that they are relevant to survival today, just that they played a beneficial role at some point in the past. The trait doesn’t even need to have been something that help Homo sapiens survive. It simply served to help one of our ancestors live long enough to reproduce and became a part of our genetic programming.
YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being…. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
A few years ago many aspects of life became very clear to me when I started to notice that I had absolutely no idea why I would spontaneously think a particular thought. Unless I had been thinking about, working on, or paying attention to something very specific, there was a good chance that some of the things that would enter my mind would have next to nothing to do with any of my other recent thoughts. This was very obvious during my daily meditation sessions when I would be concentrating on the sensation of my breath on the area of skin above my upper lip and around the openings to my nostrils or during the body scans. For anyone who has never spend much time meditating, the moments of mental stillness are few and far between and the practice is generally the act of noticing that your attention has wandered and then returning it to whatever it was that you are trying to pay attention to.
I practice vipassana which is just one of a number of different approaches to cultivating mindfulness. It is not the best or worst, it is not good or bad, it is not right or wrong. It is just an action that someone can take that will help their brain develop a new skill that will eventually find its way into all areas of their life. While I do not practice and have never practised transcendental meditation, or formally any other types, all of them share a number of properties and methods that yield similar outcomes. By consistently practising the deliberate focus of our attention, over time we cultivate the skill of being able to control our attention, to know when it has wandered, and to gain awareness into what is currently going on in our mind.
It isn’t easy for me and it can be very boring and it tends to require a lot of mental effort. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not innately run the code that allows them to easily pay attention to one thing. Our DNA was formed over millions of years when our ancestors did had to constantly be on the lookout for some predator that was looking for a meal. As a consequence, those who were able to notice the threats sooner gained an evolutionary fitness advantage. Over time this trait was passed along to the point at which practically all members of the species had it. This does not mean that we are not able to pay deep and unwavering attention to something, it just means that we need to have a big incentive to do so.
It is a matter of death on one side and novel experience on the other, and avoiding death tends to win. The fact that death as a consequence to our not paying attention to a potential threat is not as much of a factor in modern life does nothing to alter the DNA or gene expression that was so critical to our survival. We default to a wandering mind and our attention is very squirrel-like in its ability and tendency to notice the smallest changes from moment to moment. This is a feature and not a bug, even if it is mostly an antiquated feature.
This is where meditation comes in as it serves to teach and help the brain learn the skill of focused and sustained attention. Once developed, it gives us another tool to use that can help shift our mental functioning away from that of a prey creature and towards that of an apex predator. The old behavioural pattern or trait will remain and it will be activated whenever the brain perceives a threat, but our actions will no longer be unconsciously compelled to notice every little change. It doesn’t always work that way and even life long meditators experience moments when their mind bounces around and they feel almost powerless to stop it.
That is evolution for ya. It is particularly effective at cultivating traits that become our baseline or default way of operating which are tremendously sticky.
Anyway, after years of daily practice and a number of residential silent retreats, I could no longer deny that there was a lot of thoughts occurring on beneath the level of consciousness and when there was nothing going on to keep them out, sometimes they would find their way into my awareness. Over time, and with practice, this doesn’t happen as often and I have become better at noticing as thoughts emerge and letting them go before they hook my mind.
The key thing I take from this, and what I’m talking about now, is the fact that when we practice consistently and over a long enough period of time, our brain will create the code that allows us to maintain a very intense focus on something even when there is a lot of other stuff occurring. This new process can and will eventually become automatic, and once it has, the brain will be able to integrate it into its operating system to allow it to run in parallel with many other processes. The outcome will be an ability to pay complete attention to one thing while simultaneously running the threat detector baseline process that will automatically shift our attention onto something that absolutely needs to be addressed. This gives our brain the paradoxical capacity to be aware of what is important while paying full attention to something that isn’t.
The above video contains the audio of the mission control loop from STS 93, which was the 95th launch of a Space Shuttle. During liftoff, a gold pin that had been used to close off one of two liquid oxygen ports in the engine became dislodged. Once free, it hit the inside of the engine bell resulting in damage to three cooling tubes and causing a slight hydrogen leak – the engine nozzles were cooled by the liquid hydrogen fuel flowing through small embedded tubes before being released into the combustion chamber. It was a potentially catastrophic event that alarmed the mission control engineers.
They would need to quickly assess the data and make the call on whether or not to abort the launch. This was something that had never been done before and it was very risky given that the space craft would need to reach an abort height and speed to ensure that it would make it to one of the abort landing sites in Europe or Africa. Unlike traditional rockets that had an abort engine to pull the capsule away from the rest of the craft and allowing for a safe water (for the US) or land (for the Russians) landing, the Space Shuttle had nothing like this. An abort BEFORE the minimum speed and altitude meant the astronauts would have to climb out an escape hatch and parachute to safety.
When you play the video, do not watch it and try to listen to it using head phones. What you will hear is the audio lifted from the flight directors loop. This audio is cleaner than the original and yet it is still very muddy and chaotic. There are moments when three or four people are speaking at once and it can be very hard to decipher much of anything. Keep in mind that the primary mission control engineers, their back-ups, and their support teams are all listening to the same loop and each person is listening to hear any information that is relevant to their specific role. If they missed something, the odds of them making an error increased dramatically.
Errors in space flight, particularly during the take off phase, can mean death. There is a heck of a lot on the line and computer code can only handle the things it is programmed to handle. When things go sideways into the unknown, unanticipated, or the uncoded, human beings are needed to process the relevant information, share the output, and then make quick decisions. This is why the flight director loops are open for all the engineers to hear and for the primary mission control engineers to talk. You never know when what you know is the thing that someone else needs in order to solve a problem, so everyone gets to hear what everyone else is saying.
This approach has a near perfect track record in terms of preventing death and accidents. Neither Space Shuttle accident had anything to do with the immediate actions taken by the mission control team and there was nothing that they could have done in real time to change the outcome. The same is true for the fire on Apollo One. Even the potential issue associated with the thruster malfunction on Gemini eight had already been solved by mission control when CAPCOM told them to disconnect from the agena target vehicle in the event they had any difficulties while out of radio contact.
Before you listen to the clip again, consider the complexity of what is being asked of each of the flight controllers. On the surface level, they need to have a lot of knowledge about their role, all that can go wrong, how to address these problems, and how to identify when something IS a problem that needs to be addressed. But on a deeper level, they need to cultivate the skill of focused attention and then use it to hear the information that they need in order to do their job correctly. They need to listen to everything but only hear the things that are important to them even when it is coming from a team member who isn’t a part of their specific group. At the deepest level, while they are doing their jobs and listening to hear what matters to them, they must also have a level of mindfulness to notice when their brain has tracked in on a hunch or gut instinct. Finally, they have to do all of this while the lives of people they know are on the line, something that tends not to favour logic and rational thinking.
Most of these things are skills that no one is born with. Each person needed to put in the time and practice to provide their brains with the stimulation to force the adaptation that results in the unconscious capabilities in skills that are novel and arbitrary. And yet all of them are able to do it.
The human brain doesn’t care what sensory information it is tasked to handle, it simply goes about figuring out how to deal with it and then begins to grow the tissue to support or control this process. It only needs consistent practice and recovery over time and will do the rest. We have the easy part, we just need to pay attention and put in the work. The tough part of determining which neurons need to connect to which other neurons in order to create competeney and to allow for parallel processing is taken care of by the brain.
YOUR brain is nearly identical to the brain of every other human being, including the mission control flight engineers. YOU can get your brain to write the code to do the same things as other people. As long as you consistently pay attention, practice and take appropriate recovery, over time you are bound to become successful.
If you doubt this, spend some time listening to the flight director loops that are available on YouTube and you will be pleased and delighted to notice just how quickly you get good at hearing what each of three people is saying simultaneously. Better yet, pick a skill that you want to have and then pay very close attention while you practice it every day for 15 minutes over a twelve week period of time. In a couple of months you will be better at it and you will be, in fact, completely powerless to NOT improve.
You are a chemical addict, you were born one because your parents were both addicts, and all of their ancestors were addicts too. In fact, all of your friends are addicts, everyone you have ever loved, cared about, or respected was an addict. Frankly, the strength of your character isn’t enough to keep you on the wagon. Okay, maybe YOUR’s is, but statistically speaking it isn’t.
Occasionally, but more frequently recently, people ask me “what the hell are you talking about?” when I make the claim that human beings are born addicted to chemicals and spend the duration of their life seeking them out. I suppose that I should or could be more careful with the language I choose when discussing my opinions about the subject, because it is next to impossible for a person to hear my statement and not automatically assume that I am talking about them. But since I am, maybe my word choice is exactly what is needed.
You are a chemical addict, you were born one because your parents were both addicts, and all of their ancestors were addicts too. In fact, all of your friends are addicts, everyone you have ever loved, cared about, or respected was an addict. Frankly, the strength of your character isn’t enough to keep you on the wagon. Okay, maybe YOUR’s is, but statistically speaking it isn’t. There have only been a small number of human beings who have ever lived that were able to overcome their addiction, all of which suffered the fatal consequences of ridding their bodies of the chemical of choice.
Look at the video below, with the sound off, then take a few minutes to consider what you have just read, what you see in the video, and what I am getting at.
Funny baby eh?
Well that baby is you. Maybe not right now, although it is possible. Everyone is that baby a number of times throughout their life and when we take the time to realize this fact, we gain a level of insight into the essential nature of what it means to be a human being.
“What the hell am I talking about?”
Well, that baby has no experience with ice cream before this video was recorded. It is accustomed to having one of its caregivers feed it. It has learned that when a caregiver presents food to it in this way, by holding it up in front of its face, that the food will find its way into its mouth if it opens it. Its young brain has collected a lot of information, created and tested a few theories, and arrived with a cause and effect pairing that has a high degree of predictive accuracy. This is a remarkable thing to have happen and yet this less than a year old baby has done it.
But it has never had ice cream before this moment. I am certain about this fact not because of the title of the video but because of how the baby reacts to the ice cream. Watch it again and you will notice that the baby does not reach for the ice cream UNTIL after it has had a moment to process what has just occurred. Then notice that it doesn’t seem to have any aversion to holding onto the it in-spite of the fact that ice cream is very cold.
The adults in the video are laughing because it is superficially very funny. It’s as though the baby goes “oh, they’re about to feed me, I’ll just open my mouth and the food will go in.” Adult moves food to mouth and baby takes a lick because this is what its experience has taught it to be the best action to take in this type of situation. It is not reaching for anything, it is letting the adult move the food; its little arms are kind of hanging there, not completely relaxed but not taking any purposeful action. There is a moment, a very short one, and then things change, slowly then dramatically and the adults begin to laugh.
The first thing that happens after the ice cream and the baby connect is a moment of assessment. It isn’t entirely clear what is going on in the baby’s brain here, at least by trying to read its face, but we know from our own experience with eating new things that there is a cascade of events all of which are aimed at determining what role the food will play in our future. There are three potential outcomes, two of which are very important. Should this be eaten again, should this not be eaten again, or does it not matter one way or the other. The first two are critical assessments because the brain is programmed to do the things that increase the chances of survival and never repeat the things that reduce the chances. This assessment is made automatically, unconsciously and very quickly. In this situation the brain registers a “not a survival risk” then “can be eaten again” followed by “MUST EAT NOW.”
You can see the look of absolute novel delight on its face followed by the automatic and impulsive seeking behaviour as it reaches out, grabs the ice cream and pulls it into its face and mouth.
But there is even more to it. Coldness is a sensation that human beings are programmed to notice and avoid unless they have cause to try and lower their body temperature. The video looks like it is being filmed in a mall, which is going to be kept at a comfortable temperature, so the baby is not seeking out something that will cool it off. However, coldness in general and a dramatic contrast in temperature specifically are sensations that the brain CANNOT NOT notice given the very narrow and relatively high temperature that the body must maintain in order to continue functioning effectively. The baby, or the baby’s brain, is absolutely aware of the temperature of the ice cream, likely from the first moment when it touches its mouth, but definitely when it grabs and holds onto it.
Survival is THE most important thing to living beings, everything else is at best secondary. We have temperature receptors in our skin because they improve survival fitness. While they are important to human beings, they were MORE important to whatever species first developed them, and because they helped those beings survive, the instructions to develop them remained and were passed along to whatever species was next in the evolutionary sequence. The survival advantage they afforded was greater than the energy cost of growing and maintaining them.
Cold temperatures destroy tissue, and anything that is close to or below the freezing point of water is particularly dangerous. The contrast between air temperature in a mall and the temperature of ice-cream is impossible to perceive as anything other than great and given the cause and effect understanding that the baby has already generated, its brain is attributing the cold contrast to whatever it touched its mouth and then to whatever it just grabbed.
The baby does not, however, withdraw from the ice cream nor does it let go of it. It assesses the taste and then reaches for, grabs onto and pulls close to its mouth the very thing that is cold. This is something that a living being will do under two circumstances. The first is that it does so consciously, the second is that it does so because there is a survival advantage in doing so. The first one is a non factor here because the child does not have the level of brain development that is needed for consciousness to emerge. This leaves the second one, there is a survival benefit to enduring the coldness.
So the brain of the baby is aware that there is something about ice cream that will improve its chances of remaining alive and that this improvement is GREATER than the threat represented by the coldness. Being a brain and being in control of the body, it reaches out to the survival substance, grabs onto it, takes control, and begins to eat it. It is programmed to do this whenever it can, so once the assessment has been made that ice cream will improve survival the outcome is automatic.
Ice cream is not good for us though. If we eat too much of it, it will begin to harm us and it is entirely possible that someone could eat themselves through ill health and arrive at death. BUT, and this is very important when considering what evolutionary fitness means in a practical sense and what survival actually means. Survival is everything other than death. Given this binary definition, eating so much ice cream so as to cause illness is achieving the goal of surviving. Also consider the time frame we are dealing with. It takes WAY longer to eat ourselves to death by ice cream than it would take to starve ourselves to death by simply not eating.
Eating crappy food does not present the existential risk that NOT eating food presents. In fact, a case can be made that when we do not have access to a lot of food, eating things that are high in calories is actually a very pragmatic approach. When the choice is between dying or eating crappy food, the brain does not register that there is a choice to be made and will simply cause the body to do whatever it has to do in order to eat.
Recall that I mentioned about temperature receptors that we have in our skin being the result of a change to the genetic code of one of our early ancestors? EVERY gene we have is the result of a change in the genetic code of our ancestors but not every change that occurred was helpful. A new trait was only helpful if it increased the likelihood that the creature would survive and reproduce within the environment that the creature lived in. Therefore our ancestors lived in an environment that favoured beings that ate ice cream while enduring coldness MORE than ones that would avoid coldness even if that meant they did not eat ice cream.
Given that the earliest that ice cream could have been invented is 3000 BCE, which is not long enough in the past to impact evolution in any meaningful way, we have to assume that the ice cream is a place holder for something else. In this case, it is holding the place of high energy food – sugar and fat. Am I suggesting that the human brain is programmed to seek out and consume sugar and fat containing foods, even when there is some level of physical discomfort associated with this consumption? Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting. I’ll go one further and say that human beings have the genes to motivate us to eat high calorie foods because there was a time in our evolutionary past when there wasn’t an abundance of food leading individuals who ate high calorie foods to have a survival advantage over those who ate lower calorie foods.
When was this time? Not every long ago. Food insecurity was a fact of life for the entire planet less than 150 years ago. The discovery / invention of farming about 11000 years ago improved the food scarcity situation for human considerably, but there were still seasonal cycles of abundance and scarcity, and the occasional famine when weather changes, disease, or war interrupted the food supply causing the death of the young, the old, and the weak.
We always need to keep in mind that the genes coded on our DNA are the ones that favoured our ancestors at the time they lived and are not the ones that necessarily serve our survival needs today. They are amazing, but some of them are not what we would select for modern life. Oh well, that isn’t how things work.
What does any of this have to do with YOU being an addict?
Take another look at the first 5 seconds of the video again and notice the look on the baby’s face right before it tries to exert control over its environment by grabbing onto the ice cream, pulling it towards its mouth and getting down to eating it.
That look is very important and arguably the most revealing thing in the video; and possibly the most revealing thing in any video that is hosted on YouTube. Something very important has just happened inside the brain of the baby that causes a number of physiological changes that lead to psychological changes and then to physical actions. The first is a profound level of delight that nearly every human being who sees the video feels to some extent. The second is a focusing of attention onto the ice cream that is so tight that it clears EVERYTHING else out. The next thing is a targeting / aiming followed by the seeking and consumption behaviour that has the baby grab the ice cream and begin to eat it. This desire for more is so powerful that the baby effectively ignores the sensation of coldness that represents a threat to survival. You can see some slightly grimaced looks each time its gums hit the ice cream but whatever the cause of them does not rise-up to the level of changing course. The baby, upon tasting the ice cream, gets after possessing and eating the ice cream in a near maniacal and single-minded way. To the baby there is nothing else BUT the ice cream.
The baby is an addict and the video captures a moment when it got a fix. On the surface it appears that they are addicted to ice cream but this is only partially correct. It isn’t the ice cream, nor is it anything that is contained within the ice cream, at least not directly. The baby, and you and me, are addicted to what the brain does in reaction to the ice cream. And the brain doesn’t just react to ice cream in this way, it reacts to many things in the same way. The younger the person is and the lower their experience with the world, the smaller is the list of things that will trigger this reaction.
What we are seeing on the video is the result of the baby’s brain releasing dopamine into the synaptic cleft between the neurons that make-up the reward centre of its brain. This causes a sensation / level of activity that the brain is coded to seek out. Once it learns how to cause the release, it will begin to engineer life in such a way as to ensure the consumption of or participation in the things that will trigger the release. This process is what is understood to be the mechanism of psychological reward, which functions to reinforce particular actions and to incentivize the repeating of these actions.
For babies, the only actions that will trigger a dopamine release are those actions that at one point improved evolutionary fitness. This means high calorie food, social connection, contact with caregivers, any successful pattern match between immediate sensory data and something contained in long term memory, and the creation of a stimulus : response / cause : effect pairing EVEN ones that are not accurate. This last one can be understood to be learning, even when what is learned is not accurate.
The key to the entire thing is that living beings need to take action in order to survive and the dopamine reward system is what emerged to motivate a being to spend energy taking an action within an environment that was energy scarce. In a world that is both “act or die” and “act and die,” this system is fantastic at causing individuals to both take actions and to take very specific ones.
Take a second to think about some of the stories that you have heard about someone who got addicted to crack cocaine. Crack is considered to be more addictive than powder cocaine although all crack users say they would rather use powder than smoke crack. The key difference between them is the method of delivery – crack is burned and the smoke is inhaled while the powder is snorted. The smoke finds its way into the blood stream faster than the powder which means it hits the brain faster. It is the same underlying mechanism of action, that is to delay the re-uptake of dopamine thus prolonging the effect of dopamine. It isn’t the cocaine itself that causes the effect, it is the impact that the cocaine has on the dopamine that cause the physiological and psychological changes. Crack is more addictive because you feel the effects faster, but for less time.
A common horror story about crack and cocaine addiction is that of a person who replaces every action in their life with drug seeking and consumption behaviour. While this might make sense for a baby or someone who knows nothing about life, it makes very little sense for someone who has the life experience and skills enough to be able to afford to buy drugs given that if they know enough about the world to earn money they probably also know that cocaine is a highly addictive drug. But when we remember that the dopamine reward system exists to motivate beings to take action, the only thing that is actually stopping someone from becoming a cocaine addict is their brains lack of knowledge that cocaine powerfully activates their reward system. That is all. It doesn’t really matter what you know consciously, once the nervous system has the experience of pairing an action with the activation of the reward system, the lesson is learned and the pairing will last forever. It is such a powerful system that it will have a baby grab onto freezing cold ice cream and repeatedly eat bites of it, and when it is dialed up, it is powerful enough to motivate someone to do nothing BUT take the actions that most quickly and intensely trigger it to be activated.
Okay, you are not addicted to cocaine although you have all of the requirements for a life destroying addiction to it. You have a dopamine reward system that will motivate you to take the actions that cause it to become active. This system shows a down regulation or tolerance in response to repeated activation in both a perceptual sense and in a real synaptic level sense – repeated exposure to the same stimuli will, over time, result in a diminished release of dopamine while any increase in activation at the neural junction will, over time, result in a decrease in the number of receptor sites which means a larger amount of dopamine will be required to trigger the same level of activation. These are basically the only requirements that are needed in order for someone to develop an addiction for something; so while we are not born addicted to anything, we are very close to having one and just need to uncover the ways to get the brain to release the chemicals. Once our brain learns what actions cause the release, this is sufficient enough to manifest seeking behaviour which has the goal of triggering a release. After a few of them, the magnitude of the response begins to drop, resulting in an increase of the required behaviour. From this point on, the down regulation of dopamine receptors results in a low level of activation which makes the baseline level of dopamine release to be experienced as less rewarding. Below a certain level, this will result in withdrawal-like symptoms, the primary one being a overwhelming craving for the activities that trigger release. If an individual continues to display the behaviour, their level of tolerance continues to grow resulting in a linear increase in the severity of withdrawal symptoms. However, if the individual stops the behaviour and puts an end to the activation, there will be a return to baseline through the up-regulation in the number of receptor sites allowing the brain to return to its pre-exposure level of activity. How long this takes will be determined by exposure length, duration and quantity, level of down regulation, overall health, diet, amount of rest, and a persons physiological ability to facilitate organic tissue growth.
The brain is coded to release reward chemicals in response to things that increase the chances of remaining alive and that improve evolutionary fitness, with the objective of motivating the individual to repeat these actions.
This system is powerful, but it not a direct system in most cases. While there are a number of things that will trigger its activation directly – such as the consumption of fatty high sugar foods, social connection, matching a pattern between sensory data and long term memory – most of the activation is indirect, either through the ingestion of exogenous molecules or the interpretation / perception of sensory data.
Living beings know innately or learn very early in life that there is a stimulus response relationship or cause and effect connection between things in the external world. This piece of wisdom is the key stone in the effectiveness of the dopamine based reward system because it allows the brain to learn that action A caused the release of rewards. Once this is learned, the brain will begin to repeat action A in order to get more reward.
When we look at the baby in the video, we are able to notice three critical yet completely distinct moments and one that is invisible but clearly present – the action, the release of the reward chemicals, the invisible moment of learning (the pairing of the ice cream to the reward), and the reward seeking behaviour which is the repeating of the action.
The baby is now aware that ice cream causes the release of reward chemicals so it will be motivated to eat ice cream again in the future and it is one very big step closer to developing an addiction to fatty high sugar substances.
If no action is taken, no learning will occur. If an action is taken but no reward chemicals are released, the brain will learn that there is no incentive in repeating the action.
Before wrapping this up, please take another look at the video and then come back to read to the end. Human beings are in a unique place in history. We are running the code that allowed all of our ancestors to survive long enough to reproduce and to have a survival advantage over other individuals who did not have the code. But our larger brain has given us the ability to communicate very effectively with other individuals along with the capacity for creativity. Working together in groups and using these two skills, we have developed the ability to consistently change the external environment in a way that eliminates the majority of the things that the evolved code helped us to survive in spite of. This has rendered the reward system mostly irreverent and potentially problematic in that it motivates us to seek out things that are no longer rare and are only of marginal survival advantage if at all helpful.
We are born addicted to dopamine, given that we will seek out things that trigger its release and given our ability to develop tolerance to this chemical. We are not born addicted to cocaine, other drugs, or to specific fatty high sugar foods. However, it is very simple for the brain to learn the association between actions and rewards, and to then develop an addiction to those actions. The baby at the end of the video is a lot closer to becoming a compulsive eater of fatty high sugar food than it was at the beginning of the video. This would not be the case if it had never had the experience of eating the ice cream.
Be very careful when taking any new action, particularly ones that have you consume external molecules. Pay very close attention to how you feel in the moments immediately surrounding you taking any new action when you notice that you begin to feel fantastic, good, heightened in a positive direction, or any state that is higher than your baseline. Be very mindful when choosing to repeat that action. If the action is NOT necessary or if it pointless, useless, or unhelpful, consider NEVER repeating it again. Your brain has already learned that the action causes the release of reward chemicals so you are only a few repetitions away from creating a compulsive or habitual pattern of behaviour that will, over time, start to make-up a larger portion of the actions that you take.
We are born addicted, over time we learn what it is that we are addicted to.
None of this is based on anything that is actually happening in objective reality. It is all a result of a persons subjective internal representations of the real world. This is, in the long term, a source of friction in their life. While it may not matter one way or the other what is being sold by Goop or what the click-author is writing, the brain is learning new habits about what triggers the release of reward chemicals and creates a sensation that is perceived as having a positive valence. And being a brain, it will start to apply these lessons to other things in order to get more of the reward chemicals.
Let’s consider Goop for a second, and notice how the site is used by content creators, along with some manipulation techniques, to trick people into reading and believing things that are not not true, not real or did not happened.
Goop is Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, a web site along with some brink and mortar locations selling things that she may or may not endorse, know about, or like. There is some debate about how deeply versed she is in terms of the products that they sell but what is not up for debate is that SHE is the biggest part of the brand.
On one hand, she is a very beautiful women and a remarkable and successful actor, so I’m sure there is no financial reason for her to create a lifestyle brand that sells things – she has a net worth that is north of 100 million US dollars. While on the other, she is a human being and likely has the same needs as the rest of us to do meaningful work and to contribute to the betterment of society and the world in whatever ways makes sense to her.
I’m willing to believe that Goop is her effort to satisfy this need for contribution vs. some need to generate more wealth. Fine, in principle, maybe less so in practice. The challenge for her is to balance this need to do good for other people with the need for honesty or more fundamentally, to do not harm.
She isn’t a doctor and has no obligation to uphold the Hippocratic Oath. But she also doesn’t need the money, which makes the way forward for her a lot less clear. This is where she sometimes stumbles, which over the long run has transformed Goop into a gold mine for people who are looking for a topic to write about that is certain to generate a lot of page views.
To say that Goop sells some questionable products would be an understatement. They sell a lot of good products as well as a lot of harmless products meaning some of their stuff will help people directly while some of it will trigger a placebo response allowing it to become helpful. Even when no placebo effect is triggered, some of the stuff will make people feel better, which is a nice thing to feel. Regarding the stuff that is benign, while it is not necessarily a problem on its own, making false claims about its merits IS a problem. It is a problem in that making unsubstantiated claims, particularly those in the realm of health, is illegal and grounds for prosecution or the levying of fines.
The remainder of the stuff that they sell, be it products or ideas, are actually harmful. This is a problem for two reasons. The first reason is that you shouldn’t be selling anything that harms other people. That is a shittie thing to do or to be a part of. No one should do it and in the event it happens by accident, corrective steps should be taken immediately to make things as right as they can be. The second reason it is a problem is that it calls into question the validity of EVERYTHING they sell, which makes life tougher for the people who engage the brand with an earnest desire to learn something true or buy something that works. Since it isn’t obvious what is valid, what is dangerous, and what is harmless, you are faced with three choices – assume it is all good, assume it is all bad, or take the time to verify the accuracy and validity of the claims being made about the product or idea.
Goop has now become more than what it was before. In the eyes of many people it has become a punchline or joke. Those who view it in these terms see it as place for new-age alternative health people to go to and buy their useless trinkets just to get a feeling that they are somehow closer to Gwyneth Paltrow. The believers in the brand are nothing more than easy marks who have disposable income to throw around. The view is that these people would be spending their money somewhere so all Goop is doing is giving them a place to spend it. That is the nature of capitalism so it is easy to just assume that the customers are trying to live a better life and have a genuine belief that Goop will bring this experience to their door.
This is the real problem. The fact that Goop and therefore its customers are viewed so harshly means that Goop has become the perfect object to use so someone can signal their virtue by writing a “hit” piece. “Look how dumb these people are?” is a passive aggressive way of saying “I’m smart” and announcing to the world that what else you have to say is important and worth consuming. Most of the time it isn’t because their piece really just amounts to a tribal attack on a group of people who are not in a position to defend themselves and who are NOT the same thing as Goop. In this way, Goop has become a cash cow for people whose worth is generated via page clicks.
I don’t care much for people. I want them to have as easy a life as they feel they deserve and to experience as much joy as is possible under the circumstances of their life, but when it comes down to what I think and feel about people that I will never have any contact with, I don’t want them to suffer and that is basically the end of it.
However, I believe that the source of most suffering is an incomplete or inaccurate internal view of the world. Friction is created when we take an action, which is basically just the manifestation of a prediction our brain makes about an outcome, and it does not generate the desired result. The easiest way to avoid or reduce this friction is to do nothing, which is very effective as it completely eliminates the possibility for errors. But this isn’t a practical approach. So assuming that we need to do stuff, anything that we can do to improve the accuracy of out internal representation of the world will, over time, reduce friction by increasing the quality of our predictions.
Goop makes this very unlikely now that they have gained the reputation for selling products / ideas that are based on pseudoscience, a reputation that coats the entirety of their offering as pseudo-scientific nonsense. The consequence of selling jade eggs is that it paints their articles as being a part of the same thing. It also means that the click sellers can park on the site waiting for the next thing to pick apart and then write their own article about it. They KNOW that their target audience will eat it up because piling-onto the “Goop is nonsense” bandwagon aligns people with others and makes them part of a tribe that believes they know more and that is smarter than Gwyneth Paltrow and her brand believers.
This isn’t really much of a problem if the Goop article or product is useless or is dangerous. The readers may get some useful information about a product / idea that should be avoided, but I’m not convinced they gain this information via any critical consumption and analysis of what is contained in the click sellers article. It is much more likely that they made the decision to read the article in order to have their preconceived view – that Goop markets and sells useless stuff to people who do not know any better – validated. It is a reaction more than a cognitive operation. Seeing “Goop” followed by a product immediately initiates a series of unconscious thought processes that have been conditioned through experience and that cause the release of reward chemicals. On the simplest level, perceiving the word “Goop” is a pattern match, which is rewarding. The feeling that Goop is nonsense for people who don’t know any better creates the us : them dynamic which manufactures a sense social connection or belonging, which triggers the release of reward chemicals. The fact that the click seller article supports the readers preconceived belief serves to validate it, which triggers the release of more reward chemicals. The final significant factor is that the chemicals that create the sensation of outrage just happen to be energetic to the individual who is experiencing the outrage. Taken together, all of these things mean that any article that is written about anything that appears on Goop will trigger the release of reward chemicals in the brain of reader and it will boost their energy level. The articles are reinforcing and they cause a physical sensation that serves as a “hook” to further consolidate the habit of reading the articles.
None of this is based on anything that is actually happening in objective reality. It is all a result of a persons subjective internal representations of the real world. This is, in the long term, a source of friction in their life. While it may not matter one way or the other what is being sold by Goop or what the click-author is writing, the brain is learning new habits about what triggers the release of reward chemicals and creates a sensation that is perceived as having a positive valence. And being a brain, it will start to apply these lessons to other things in order to get more of the reward chemicals. This is how someone can very quickly learn how to automatically and uncritically ingest nonsense believing that it is fact. As they do this more often, their world view gets further pollute rendering predictive accuracy even lower.
Addressing the behaviour of the click-authors, they are no better than the Goop people, and may actually be bad actors. They are writers, journalist, and content creators. They have not agreed to uphold the Hippocratic Oath, so they do not necessarily have a moral responsibility to do no harm, but as human beings, they do have, in my opinion, a social responsibility to leave the world at least no worse than how they found it. Using psychological manipulation to generate clicks and income is not rent seeking behaviour; which is passively making a profit from doing nothing. They are actively doing something that adds no value and which can have a long term negative impact on the lives of their readers.
When the Goop product does work, or when the idea is actually worth considering and learning, their actions ARE a problem. By writing a “Goop is stupid” article about something that is actually helpful, they are moving their readers away from the truth by triggering the learned click-wirr reaction that arise when dealing with non-truths, nonsense or falsehoods. Once these reactions start, whatever meaning they indicate is automatically and unconsciously paired with the content of the article. The outcome is that facts will be not be considered as facts and will instead be encoded as being wrong. This will further erode the quality of their readers internal representation of reality.
Recently, Goop posted an interview with Traci Mann, Ph.D. in an article titled Busting Diet Myths. As is the case with the predatory authors who write click-article, there was some stuff in the Goop article that they could use as the foundation for something they would feed to their readers to trigger the reward chemicals and outrage. The problem is, the stuff wasn’t actually in the article. Traci Mann was very clear on what she was suggesting as a better approach towards weight loss and there wasn’t anything in what she said that is the least be controversial from a scientific point of view. However, the Goop article was not written in a defensive form meaning that it was easy to take some of the stuff out of context. And since there is money to be made by the click-authors, many of them did, creating a non-existent narrative and then put these words into Traci Mann’s month. While this is not slander, it is a pretty dirty move, especially when you read what she actually said and realize that her advice makes sense and is workable for everyone.
Of all the things that Tracie didn’t say that click-authors attribute to her, the most dishonest centred on the words “leanest liveable weight.” I have to admit, I had no idea what that meant when I first read it. It can mean “the lowest possible weight and body fat percentage that you can have without showing any physiological impairments.” It could also mean that lowest possible weight and body fat percentage that you can maintain without having to resort to heroic actions. The first interpretation is about survival, the second is about quality of life. While a person can live without any low weight health concerns at a body fat level of 5-12 percent depending on gender, maintaining such a low body fat level SUCKS. The long term health outcomes from someone who maintains a low body fat percentage vs. someone who maintains one that is 5-12 percent higher is not significantly different. However, the quality of life outcomes tend to be very different simply because staying at 5-10 percent body fat is a full time job that consumes so many mental cycles that there are practically no reasons to ever do it.
If only there was a way to know what Traci was talking about a person would be able to stop guessing between two possible points of view. It sure would have been nice if someone had taken the time to write an article about her thoughts that captured exactly what she meant.
Good news, someone did! Not the click-authors, but Goop. When one takes the time to read the original article, there is a section titled “what does “leanest livable weight” mean and how do you determine this number for yourself?” Her explanation can only help to clear-up any misunderstanding or provide a completely clear one. But you have to read it, consider it, and figure out how it might work in real life.
Okay, I have a back ground in this stuff, so her explanation was easy for me to read, understand and imagine implementing. But I have no reason to believe that a lay person could read “your leanest livable weight is the weight at the low end of your set range. Your set range is a genetically determined range of weight that your body generally keeps you in, despite your efforts to escape it. If your weight is below that range, biological changes due to calorie deprivation happen, and generally push you back into your set range. However, if you stay within your set range—at the lower end of it—you should be able to maintain that weight without your body making those negative changes” and think she was suggesting that you should starve yourself and get to the lowest possible body fat level that will not cause health concerns.
BUT a lay person would need to read that paragraph and possibly take some time to consider it, which is not something the click-authors recommend that their readers do. Not surprising given their lack of respect for the people why are targeting with their articles.
Consider the following exert, which is very similar to the ones that appeared on various “news” web sites”:
Speaking this weekend, Dr Yeo branded the advice “dangerous” and said it encouraged eating disorders.
“This is a dangerous suggestion, as many people will take it to mean they should be as thin as possible,” he said. “It is irresponsible because the idea is so open to misinterpretation, especially for young girls susceptible to eating disorders. The problem with many of Goop’s recommendations is that they are not based on science, but pseudoscience.
The advice is not dangerous, although following though on a misunderstanding of it might be. But I fail to see how anyone could misunderstand it if they were to read the Goop article, something that the piece in stylist.co.uk does almost NOTHING to encourage people to do.
The rest of the quote contains conjecture, an inaccurate syllogism, and that lumping thing that click-authors are so keen to do when they pile-on to a topic that they believe their readers will consume.
Worse than just being misinformation is the wasted opportunity that Dr. Yeo had to clarify any confusion by unpacking what he knew Traci was saying or reasonably should have known she was saying. His qualifications as a doctor heighten the level of responsibility that he has for making sure things ARE understood, although his role as a presenter on BBC’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor may be interfering with this.
Goop is part of the reason that people have become afraid of eating. We need to love our food, just eat less of it.”
And there you go, while that statement may be true – in that anything is a part of the reason for anything else – it isn’t very true. It suggests two things that are a problem. The first is that it implies that Goop has a lot more power and influence than it does. Second, it suggests that people are both ignorant in terms of knowing what to eat and foolish in that they will take anything that Goop says as absolute truth. It is true that we should probably eat less food, particularly if our body fat levels are on the rise or we want to lower them BUT the quoted statement is a fractured syllogism because the the second premise is not true which renders the first premise meaningless. People are not afraid to eat therefore Goop has no responsibility for people being afraid to eat.
KNOW that people are going to lie and that they tend to lie in the same way and about the same type of things over and over again. These lies will be told for the same reason and many of the people who have a similar goal will tell the same lies and in the same ways as other people. There are patterns and you can train yourself to notice them.
Accept that learning things can hard at times but that any work it entails will be worth it in the long run. Creating an accurate internal representation of the real world is a massive undertaking because life is very complicated. It’s hard enough when we are being exposed to nothing but the truth, so it gets way more challenging when there is an unidentified source of lies around corrupting the information that we are storing. The only way we will know who and what these sources are is by listening to what they say and then taking the time to verify it. By figuring out what they are communicating and then determining if it is actually true, we will ensure that we only learn and remember things that are potentially helpful in the future.
Before reading or listening to anything, take a moment to consider the source. The most important thing here is to get clear on the persons motives and to uncover any conflict of interest they may have that could be skewing the message towards falsehood. Simply by asking the questions “how does the person benefit when I consume what they wrote” or “how does the person benefit if I believe what they are saying” you will activate a level of skepticism that is a requirement for the consumption of contemporary media.
Finally, be aware that there is a physical sensation associated with the click-wirr reaction, a confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, in group / out group thinking, and outrage. Train yourself to identify these sensations and take the time to notice when they are being triggered by the actions of another person. Any time you notice this happening, dig in a little deeper and make the call on whether or not it should be happening. Stories about suffering that is caused by greed should be alarming, stories about how person X said this a stupid thing that does not effect you should not. We evolved to react to any perceived lack of fairness, we LEARN to react to irrelevant things. Slow things down when you have to and take as long as needed to make sure you know the truth and the relevance. Once you do this, pay particular attention to who is lying, what they are lying about, and how they go about it. Knowing these three things will go a long way in helping you decide who is in it for the clicks and who is earnestly trying to broadcast the truth.
It was as though he was saying “yeah, life, it’s the worst” followed by the rhetorical question “but what are you gonna do” having asked and found out that I wasn’t depressed and was willing to keep going for as long as it lasts.
Last year I went to see my doctor for something. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was about specifically but as is the way with him, we chatted a little about life and how I was feeling about things. I answered his questions truthfully because that is what my role was, based on my most recent reading of the “Big Book Of Social Conventions” that doesn’t exist.
I remember now why I went to see him. It was to get a prescription renewed but it also had something to do with the fact that I had started to realize that life is tough and it remains kind of hard even though I am getting better at it. While I am not as physically fit as I used to be, I have no trouble putting in a full days labor if that is what the day calls for. The toughness that I was noticing was not of a physical nature – I think on some level the brain has come to terms with gravity, the mass of things, and the practical implications of the stuff Newton was ranting about after that apple hit him on the head. We have dealt with momentum, inertia, and the tendency for everything to try and drop into the center of the earth for so long that we just sort of accept that. Even if we concede the loss to physics, we still have to play the game and constantly hold things up.
The challenge that I was relating to him was more of the existential struggle that some measure of people will notice, think about, and share with their doctors. It is the struggle that I think those without children will become more aware of because there is nothing in their life that fills them with blind hope and dogmatic optimism about the future of the planet. My saying this as a lot to do with the feeling I get when I watch a parent interact with their child and celebrate the days tiny successes – like the drawing of a stick figure family that includes the correct number of people is a solid indication that the child’s intellectual horsepower will result in them curing some awful disease. They have to be optimistic because who really wants to be responsible for teaching a young person what the world is all about? Plus, they get to see first hand the magical power of the human brain taking in, making sense of, and then interacting with the real world. All of the little benchmarks in their child’s development are actually something truly remarkable. But having no children, my days are filled with interactions with once children who afford other people no reason to be optimistic that tomorrow will be any different than today or that their parents optimism was ever anything but misguided. I deal with grown-ups and if I was forced to describe us all in one word that word would be “average.”
Average is not very good, and it is certainly no reason to be optimistic about anything other than the continuation of mediocre. I am a data point in all of this so no part of me is honestly suggesting that my contribution to “average” is doing anything to lift the score. Life is not easy, talent is rare, and becoming good at something requires consistent and frequent hard work. Being average at something takes just slightly more effort than being utterly useless so it should not be surprising that the world just kind of sucks, mostly completely.
Now I have been aware of this fact for a long time; at least my brain has been aware of it simply because it has been the thing that has had to deal with it in much the same way as it has had to come to terms with gravity. The transformation recently has been that I have become consciously aware of this fact and it has started to grind me down and make me kind of realistic about today and the future. Today is going to be a lot like yesterday and tomorrow is going to be a lot like today. Very little changes other than the coat of paint, even if it seems like so much is changing. It is years of nothing, then a moment of shifting to the left, followed by more years of nothing. Repeat, but with the occasional jog to the right, or backwards, and a new iPhone that requires a different cable so your charging problem is back, rebranded but it’s the same problem you solved three years ago.
When I was talking to him, I didn’t take a moment to consider just how unsympathetic he could have been. He’s seen more than I have, and what he has seen is about as raw and unvarnished as anything can be. So while I was dealing with there being too many people in line or some store worker just hating me because they hate their job and me showing-up serves only to remind them that they are at work, he has been dealing with rot and decay, and the eventual end of each individual person. But he’s a grown-up, knows full well what the world is all about, and still asked me how I was doing.
I said something like life was kind of a drag and that if I had any advice to give it would be to not start it. This caused him to ask about self harm and I honestly replied “no, I’m going to see it through to a natural ending, whenever that is. It’s just that every day is more or less the same – wake-up, eat, go to work, work, eat, leave work, go to the store, shop for food, go home, make dinner, eat, watch some TV, feel like I’m wasting my life, feel stupid for feeling like I have it bad when I have it really good, go to bed, dream, wake-up and do it over again. It’s life, it’s what it is. It continues long after you get good at it and start to lose interest. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but that isn’t really how things go.”
He kind of laughed because he’s a doctor and it was a true statement. Maybe it was a little funny too, I don’t really know, but I know my life is easy compared to almost everyone else who is alive right now, and better than EVERYONE who had lived before 1950.
But the brain doesn’t work that way, which is a bug and not a feature if you were to ask me. It seems nearly powerless to hold in mind just how crappy things used to be and instead chooses to track in on just how crappy things are right now. While we should be smiling because we know NO ONE who died from lockjaw or from blood poisoning when the compound femur fracture they got when their horse threw them ended-up getting infected, we choose anger instead because our selfie from the Kiss concert only got 87 likes or because McDonald’s now serves some breakfast items all day.
Sure, we can force ourselves to think about the good stuff and to generate a sense of gratitude, but that requires effort and tends to earn us the label of Pollyanna.
He didn’t offer me any advice or criticism and just kind of nodded in agreement with what I was saying. It was as though he was saying “yeah, life, it’s the worst” followed by the rhetorical question “but what are you gonna do” having asked and found out that I wasn’t depressed and was willing to keep going for as long as it lasts. Killing myself was never on the table as I’m not even unhappy that I am alive. It was as though he was just checking in to make sure that my sudden realization that the living of life is a very different experience than thinking about “life” had not been so destabilizing as to render me unwilling to keep at it. And once he got that confirmation, the potentially very serious health crisis evaporated and it was just two people in a room talking about the primary disincentive for stasis. Life has to suck most of the time or else we won’t do anything. Even when it doesn’t suck, we have to find things to complain about in order to create the motivation to do something different.
Of course, we didn’t talk about that part of it. He has a job to do and I have a role to play, and neither of these include tracking in on the fundamental reason why being chronically unsatisfied might be the only reason why our species has survived as long as it has. My role is to get my prescription renewed and to answer his questions as honestly as I can, and his job is to know what questions to ask and make an educated guess about how my life will unfold over the next six months based on the content of my answers.
And in fairness to him and to the medical profession in general, there isn’t anything that he can say about the topic. So long as I am fine with continuing my life, any realization that life is hard, thankless, and effectively exactly the same every day once you hit 35, is not grounds for concern. Just because I didn’t realize it before doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been this way forever. Their job is not to help me come to terms with being alive, it is to make sure I stay alive and to offer assistance and help when something starts to go wrong that can be corrected. Me waking up is not something going wrong, or that can or should be corrected.
This is the wisdom of his questions. People tell their doctors all kinds of stuff that they probably wouldn’t tell other people. My dispassionate soliloquy serves two purposes. The first is straight forward enough, it’s to let him get a handle on what is going through my mind at that moment in time to make sure there isn’t something serious bubbling just below the surface. The second is to give me the chance to say out loud what has been going through my mind recently in an attempt to make it more than just some thought. This second part is for me, and it’s a small piece of therapy because those things need to be said out loud in order to be understood and interrogated for accuracy and meaning.
By giving me the opportunity to say “life, I wouldn’t recommend it” the doctor is making sure that I listen to, hear, and process the bulk of these thoughts. So long as there is no pathology, he’s not going to be able to do much about it because he’s not an expert on me or my life. But by giving me a chance to say out loud and to another person my thoughts, he’s kind of forcing these ideas back into my brain to be reprocessed for meaning as they apply to me. While he didn’t ask the question “if what you are saying is true, is there something troubling about it or what do you find troubling about it?” these are the questions someone should consider because people talk about things that matter to them or things that they believe are important. I was reporting what I believed was significant to me at that moment in time, so I as trying to shine a light on the fact that my life had become less enjoyable and less significant than it had been. My pointing out that each day is more or less the same as yesterday or today, is an indication that my brain was no longer getting the stimulation it needed to ignore the fact that life can be really boring when you are not doing anything or are not doing enough things of value to distract you for the mundane nature of being alive. His questions are posed in an effort to get me to voice any dramatic contrasts I have been experiencing and to then try and figure out what has changed.
Related, but not exactly relevant here, is my tendency towards the thought “if I wasn’t alive I wouldn’t need to deal with this anymore.” This thought has come to my mind about five times in my life. At my absolute worst, when I was in the grips of a deep depression, I never thought about not being alive anymore. Death wasn’t a solution, I was just depressed and I made no judgment about the validity of the feelings I was having. Depression sucks, it taints everything a particularly dark color of pessimism that leaves you so certain that everything is going to suck that your motivation is capped at empty. Yet I never considered ending my life to get out of having to live another day of bedridden depression. It was as though I knew there wasn’t much that I could do about it and therefore felt no shame or responsibility for what was going on. Time, rest, a good diet, exercise, and medication would take care of things and I set about correcting the mental trajectory of my emotional system.
The five times I thought “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore” all surrounded decisions that I was making that were causing my life to be something that I wasn’t looking forward to. For example, I had a job managing a gym in a small town about 3 hours away from Milton (my home town). It wasn’t a bad job at all, it was actually a fairly good one. I had the support of my boss, my team knew that I believed in them, and work was about 95% great. In fact, I preferred being at work than living in the apartment that I rented; I was happy to wake-up in the morning because I got to go to work and sad as hell nine or ten hours later when it was time to call it a day. It was during one of these drives home that I heard myself think “if I was dead I wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”
My problem was that I didn’t like the majority of my life. The 40 to 55 hours a week I spend at work were great, as was the 3 hour drive back to Milton and the time I spent there every other weekend. The rest of it was not all that enjoyable and as time moved along, I became more and more aware of just how little I was getting out of being alive. When I heard myself say “if I was dead…” it caused me to take a look at my life and to try and figure out how I could think something like that.
Well, for one thing, it is a factual statement. When you are dead you do not have to repeat yesterday and pretend that it is a new day. Ending life is a very extreme way to solve the problem of having to do something that you don’t want to do. It is very effective but has the side effective of being completely limiting in terms of future options.
This begs the question “was it life that I wanted to stop or was it what I was doing within my life that I wanted to stop?” given my tendency to never want to stop my life. Any time a thought about ending my life pops into my head it is ALWAYS going to be the second part of the question – because I was doing something in my life that I wanted to stop doing. But it will include something even more important, that I am the one who is choosing to do the thing that I want to stop doing. In the case of the job, I knew I needed to move on to a different opportunity and realized that doing so was going to cause some waves and consume a lot of energy. In two or three months everything would have come to pass, but the time between now and then would be tumultuous. The thought was basically an avoidance fantasy like “imagine how amazing it would be to not have to go through any of that stuff.” Whatever that stuff is, the choice I have to make is between going through it now or going through it later, and not whether or not I have to go through it at all. The eventual outcome is clear, I will have moved on, I just need to decide when that will be and announce the beginning of the end.
The other four times I have had this thought were very similar. They were about something that I was choosing to do, that was making me unhappy, and that I was free to stop doing the moment I call it as being over and I put in the effort to deal with the fall out of that decision. It is always better a few months later and never as bad as the worst case prediction before the choice is made.
Another property these experiences share is they are moments of decision between two bad options mainly because of what I chose before. When given the choice between a good option and a bad option I picked the bad option. From there the quality of the options dropped until we arrive at this bad thing and that bad thing. For a lot longer than I’d like to admit, I choose to do nothing, kicking the decision down the road raising the stakes a little higher.
This is like “The Book Of Questions” but instead of the one that is written by a normal person, it is written by a psycho or sociopath. The question “would you rather drown or burn to death?” is asked. Instead of learning something about yourself or gaining some insight about an action that you must take, your brain gets curious and you begin to wonder what life choices would have led you to a situation that has only “burn” or “drown” as the answers. There are a few back stories, and all of them begin with making a bad choice when when presented with a better option. And once it’s on, a series of bad choices lead you having to pick between two things that are, for all practical purposes, the same thing.
Fortunately it isn’t very much like the psychopath’s book of questions. The main similarity is that, at the core of it all, it is ME having been the one who made the choices that lead me to the moment. I am responsible for my place in life so I am therefore responsible for finding a new place or creating my peace with this one. My thought that it would be great to not be alive anymore was 100% caused by my brains unconscious realization that I caused it all to happen. The idea was manufactured by some mental process fantasizing about an existence that freed me of having to take responsibility for what was in order to navigate my way out of it and one that allowed me to continue to keep my head in the sand about what was actually going on. Once I learned what the thought indicated, I came to accept what was going on. The internal conscious reality instantly matched the internal unconscious reality, which had come to match external reality.
There’s a funny thing about life that all people share. The moment we accept things for how they are, much of the difficulty simply evaporates as we stop resisting or wasting effort trying to make them different and channel that effort onto dealing with the reality. When we see clearly, we stop pretending and get round to doing something about what we have seen. My doctor was right to make sure I was going to keep going and then say nothing more about it. He probably could have said something that reflect some of his wisdom, but he left the opening open for me to fill-in. “Yeah, life is tough, and you are going to have to figure it out because it is going to continue.”
He was also correct to laugh at my recommendation that no one should start life. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant, it just isn’t a recommendation that anyone can ever follow. I interpreted what he said as him saying “yes, it is better to not begin, but once begun, it is better to finish.”
I have a lot to gain from having more women working in STEM but not if any of them are being forced into doing it. If the cost of the next cool device or medical cure is some women being forced to become an engineer or researcher against her will, that is too high a price to pay.
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. When I first heard it used in this way, probably more than ten years ago, I didn’t know or even care what it meant. I was too busy doing something to even give it a moment’s consideration. But as is the case with life and the important things, STEM was something that mattered and it started to matter more and more.
My educational background is in psychology and physical education. I did take some science classes in high school but the only STEM university placement courses I took were biology, “algebra and geometry” and kinesiology. I took about 2 weeks of calculus before calling it right in the middle of the first test. The rest of my placement classes were social science and arts (not fine). My marks were sufficient for me to get into university and I more or less stayed in the arts / humanities lane taking one biology course, a biological psychology course, and a few economics courses as electives. This meant that I read more than I did, and my degree doesn’t exactly have deep roots in the pure or empirical sciences. This is something I am fine with.
While I would do it differently if the opportunity was presented, this statement is based solely on the wisdom that the world today is very different from the world of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The truth is that I didn’t really enjoy science as much as I enjoyed other things and at the time, an enjoyment of other things was sufficient to justify going to university and getting a degree in social science or the arts / humanities. STEM was much less important thirty years ago because people still got high paying jobs that they would work for their entire life before retiring with a full pension that allowed them to travel and live a life of leisure.
I am lucky because I have a decent brain and I enjoy learning. For one reason or another, I am curious about how things work and I find the moments of realization to be exceptionally rewarding. The notion that people will have four or five careers in their working life is not a daunting task. In fact, I’m happy about it because it has forced me to reinvent my professional self a few times already. The thing is that I will never have a career that is purely in the STEM field. While I do not rule out a consulting, training or a management role in one of these industries, I am never going to be an engineer, work with complex math or to be a scientist in the lab coat sense of the word. I believe that I will be able to learn enough about any of these things to communicate effectively with my staff and coworkers should I end up in this area, but I am not going back to school to learn to be an engineer or anything like that. Those people have a skill set that I do not have and am content to never acquire.
I am a male, so my decision to take psychology in university was one that moved me into a field that was and remains majority female – the ratio of women to men is about 2:1. This did not bother me and I do not remember thinking, at least in a bad way, that I was outnumbered or that I didn’t belong. I was just getting a degree and since I didn’t have any intention of getting a masters or PhD I wasn’t competition or a threat to anyone. Towards the end of it, I was just happy that it was almost over and was more interested in moving on to the next phase of life. And when I graduated, my brother gave me a job working for an IT company that he had started and that was the beginning of my exposure to anything that was STEM in terms of a career.
I bring this up because all of this was my choice. My parents wanted their children to go to university because our brains were fast enough to make it through and because Canada provides people with opportunities that were not so readily available to my parents when they were that age and living in Ireland. But there wasn’t much pressure on us to do anything specific. My brother has a good brain for science and was considering taking a music degree towards the end of high school. Our folks didn’t care about it all that much so long as he took advantage of the chance to go to university. He’s a good writer and could have excelled at English, he could have excelled in medicine, neuroscience, whatever, and our parents would have been happy. The key was that we honor their sacrifice and go to university to take what we wanted to take. While we didn’t really have a choice about going, we were free to pursue whatever we wanted so long as we went. He earned a science degree and I earned a psychology degree and our parents were happy.
I don’t know what I would have done if my parents had told me that I NEEDED to become an engineer or a doctor. First off, medical school is really competitive and I’m not certain that I have the intellectual horsepower to gain entrance. But assuming that I do, I would have had to take a lot of science courses that did not, at the time, interest me. While engineering is less competitive and my brain is probably fast enough for it, there is still the problem of all of the prerequisite math and science courses. I did very well in year two statistics which was heavy on the math at the time, so math wasn’t necessarily out of my wheelhouse, it just wasn’t a part of my high school academic plan. I’m fairly confident that IF my parents had forced the issue early on, I could have earned an engineering degree, but it would have come at the cost of studying things that didn’t interest me and would have included a heavy serving of contempt for them.
In the last ten to fifteen years there has been a push towards generating more diversity in the STEM fields, and this push had gained a lot of force over the last five or so. On the face of it, this seems like a good idea. There is ample evidence that when the population as a whole is given access to education, the entire society benefits. And the opposite is equally true, when segments of the population are denied the opportunity for education, the standard of living and the average level of life satisfaction plummets. Brains are very useful and when they are filled with information and mental processes, the outcomes they can generate will shift the course of our entire species. This cannot happen when education is made available to only white men or to men in general. The moment all races and women are given access to a high quality education is a turning point for a society. It can take a few years for the benefits to surface, but they are inevitable and once they take hold, there is no turning back.
In fact, countries that do not offer government funded access to high quality education to all of the citizens contain a lot of people who WISH they could attend school because they are very aware of the value it has and the power it affords someone in shaping the direction and quality of their life. Women and girls are willing to risk death to go to school because they know full well how it is going to help them in the future.
So the notion that women and minorities should have access to a high quality education and the opportunity to pursue whatever field their academic interests and abilities make available to them is something that I fully support. I do not, however, believe that there needs to be more women in STEM fields or that the percentages of women and men in these fields should be equal to the population distribution of women and men – 50.4% of the population are women therefore 50.4% of the engineers should be women. Be clear, I am not suggesting that the current employment make-up is appropriate, nor am I suggesting that there is nothing to be done to ensure that women take advantage of the opportunities to pursue STEM. I am simply suggesting that there is not necessarily a “need” for more women in these fields.
This topic is radioactive and it does not need to be. For some reason it is emotionally charged in a way that gets people to put words into other people’s mouths, interpret things in the least charitable way, and to assume that any position that is counter to the “everyone is exactly the same” view as a statement that one group is inferior. It is an exhausting exercise for all parties – one group gets exhausted jumping to conclusions while the other group gets exhausted trying to clean-up a deliberate misunderstanding and walking back things they never said.
At the core of this topic is an untested assumption that there are not enough women in STEM. I happen to believe that the number of women in STEM is not as high as it should be, and I also believe that the number of men in STEM is higher than is should be – here I am talking about real numbers and NOT percentages nor am I assuming that this is a zero sum situation. For example, assume that there are 1000 STEM jobs right now and that 200 of them are held by women. The proper numbers should be 312 women and a total of 1067 jobs; meaning that 45 men left the field. Of course, these numbers are illustrative only, I have no idea what the actual numbers are.
This is actually the point, no one knows the numbers.
Which is the source of the problems when trying to have a conversation about it. People feel very strongly that the numbers are not correct, which would be fine if they just had a feeling about it, except they take action based on this feeling. The first action they take is to create a long list of reasons WHY women avoid STEM and the second action is to set about addressing all of these reasons. The irony about this is not lost on me, and I hope it isn’t lost on you either.
This is NOT how science works. Science works using evidence and facts and the moment something is shown to not be a fact, it is eliminated from both the consideration and the statistical analysis to ensure the data is not corrupted. While assumptions will be made, they are made only so they can be tested. And when they are proven wrong, they are discarded. What comes out the other end is a theory. There is a common and incorrect notion that a theory is a guess and is just something that is waiting to be proven false. It is so much more than that. A theory is an assumption that has not been proven false after countless tests and experiments to prove that it is false. In fact, scientists KNOW that if they are able to prove a well-established theory to be wrong, they are well on their way to academic legend status and possibly a Nobel Prize. Of course, the error in believing that a theory is just a guess or an assumption is based on the non-science understanding of science and is likely the result of someone mistaking hypothesis with theory. A hypothesis gets tested, a theory has been tested hundreds or thousands of time and is supported by mountains of evidence.
The whole thing about STEM starts with a conclusion and works backward to get the evidence that will support the conclusion. It isn’t an operation that pure scientists have undertaken because they would not approach the subject in this way. This is exactly why conversations about women and men in STEM fields turn into dogmatic battles about equality, power and privilege.
The scientific approach would have all of the stake holders get very clear on whether or not there is a problem and if there is, what exactly the problem is. The hypothesis that there are not enough women in STEM is not the same thing as a factual statement that there are not enough women in STEM. The moment this hypothesis is accepted as true, we have made a turn toward the unknown and are resting our foot on the accelerator. We haven’t journeyed into the realm of science fiction YET, because the hypothesis might actually be true, but we are about a moment away from leaving the truth seeking lane.
Before I go any further, it makes sense to talk about what the numbers actually say because they do not support the prevailing narrative that it is an irrefutable fact that there are not enough women in STEM.
First off, girls and boys do not differ in their abilities in STEM areas in primary and high school. The abilities of each group are statistically equal – this means that they are not necessarily identical but there is almost nothing between them. Girls however ARE better at language than boys. The difference isn’t much, but girls and boys are NOT statistically equal in terms of ability in this area. You need to let that sink in and allow the ramifications to start to surface.
The next thing to consider is that in egalitarian societies, more girls choose to NOT pursue STEM when compared to less egalitarian societies. This is something called the “Gender-Equality Paradox” because the person who labeled it was not a scientist – it is only a paradox when the premise is true, that the ratio of women and men in STEM should be the same as the ratio of women and men. If the premise is not true, the finding that a higher percentage of women will choose things OTHER than STEM when given more complete freedom to choose their course is something other than a paradox.
Also, in societies with fewer social welfare programs, more women choose to work in STEM fields. Now there is a correlations between how egalitarian a society is and the level of social welfare programs, so it is difficult to pull these factors apart. But it is worth considering that when people in modern society need security or safety, so money, more women will work in STEM. This could be due to the fact that these jobs pay more than jobs outside of the STEM fields although no one is sure.
Throw all of this together and the picture begins to become cloudy.
If it was true that women and men were the same, there wouldn’t be any difference between them on their abilities in any area. But women are better than men at language therefore women and men are not the same. Neither is better (except of course if you are talking about language abilities at which point women are). Language isn’t just one thing in the way multiplication is one thing, nor is it one thing in the way that mathematics is one thing. Language is in fact a part of EVERYTHING. While addition is a thing that exists independent of anyone knowing how to add numbers together, it is only something that we all know about because of language. The same applies to gravity, acceleration and momentum, so every aspect of physics. And everything else there is to learn. Without language, our ability to know things would be severely limited because we could only learn through direct experience.
The fact that women and men are equal in terms of STEM abilities has everything OR nothing to do with language. Everything because anything that is known and taught is taught with language and nothing because without language each individual person would have to learn everything through experience meaning that neither group would know very much about anything STEM. This is very important because language came before STEM and without language statistically NOTHING STEM would have been discovered.
So given that women are better at language and that language plays a critical role in everything, how might an enhanced language ability alter the decisions that a person makes? There are two things that need to be said about this. The first is a matter of competition and the second is a matter of choice.
Dealing with competition, if a man wants to be the best at something, they will need to do something that women are not better than men at or something that men are better than women at. This means something that isn’t very dependent upon language abilities or does rely on physical strength. If a woman wants to be the best at something they will need to choose something that men are not better than them at – physical strength – AND something that women are better than men at. The first assumption, the one that assumes equality between women and men, creates the situation that the individual MIGHT be better than everyone else (or is at least potentially as good as the other gender). The second assumption is purely about reducing competition. If there are 100 people, fifty women and fifty men, a woman who sets out to be the best are something that women and men are equal at will have to compete against 99 other people. But if they select something that women are better than men at they will only have to compete against 49 other people; this is cutting the competition pool in half, which is always a very good first step when trying to become the best at something.
This begs the questions – why would this matter and why would anyone want to be the best at anything? It matters because resources are scarce and a disproportionate share of the resources go to those who hold the top spots. Even if we do not like them, hierarchies exists and there is a certain amount of wisdom coded into our DNA that has us being operationally aware that the top is better than anywhere else on the scale so it is worth trying to reach the top. Our evolutionary history has written this fact into our genes so human beings will automatically engage in hierarchical determining behavior very early in their life. Our advanced mental functioning has allowed our species to move away from dominance and focus instead on prestige, intelligence, social status and other ways to compare ourselves to other people.
Women want their share of the resources and are willing to go after getting them by utilizing an intelligent strategy that maximizes their possibility of success. It makes complete sense, when you look at the math, that women would choose to do things that are NOT in the STEM field because those areas are hyper competitive and they do not have an innate advantage over men in this area – both are equal in terms of ability. They choose to pursue excellence in areas that offer them the best advantage, which just happen to be areas in which language plays a much larger role.
That’s the game theory piece of it. The experiential part of it is also a factor. Many women report having more satisfaction with the academic pursuit of subjects that are not included in STEM. They are good at both, they just happen to enjoy one more than the other. And remember that, all things being equal, people tend to repeat the actions for which they get rewarded. If everyone went after STEM, the doubling of the population pool would translate into a dilution of the rewards as they would be spread out over more people.
So you need to ask yourself a few questions – is the goal of having more women in STEM fields a noble one? Is making sure the percentage of women pursuing and working in STEM is equal to the percentage of women in the population a problem that we should be trying to solve? Phrased another way, if two female babies are born tomorrow morning and you had to choose between making sure that one of them ends up in STEM while the other ends up outside of STEM OR making sure they were free to choose their own path, which is the more noble goal?
It is not an easy thing to consider – well, it is, but it isn’t an easy thing to say that answer out loud because the answer is so obvious that it feels like something is being missed AND, more importantly, there is a very real sense that simply saying that you support equality of opportunity and are against forcing people into jobs that do not interest them have a quality of being trigger points to a vocal and hyper aggressive segment of the population.
But this is what it has come to for some crazy reason.
For thousands of years, women and men have been working together to manufacture knowledge, discover the nature of the world, and to keep the species going. Each did the role they were best at and while there have always been outliers, individuals who were better or more interested in the things the other side was doing, things did not break down. In fact, life was for the overwhelming majority of people and for almost the entirety of human history, nasty, brutish, and short. It was absolutely awful. Food scarcity, disease, infant mortality, death during childbirth, infection and the fact that our teeth cannot repair themselves meant an existence that was basically one insult after another.
The richest person and anyone else who was talented and hardworking enough to find themselves at the top of any hierarchy would have only a slightly better go of it. Make no mistake about it, life was dreadful by today’s standards for absolutely everyone up until the last 150 years. It got marginally better when William Thomas Green Morton discovered anesthesia in 1846, in 1847 when Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis discovered that hand washing was an effective way to prevent the spread of infection, and transformed in 1928 when Alexander Fleming discovered what would be called penicillin. This gave our species the upper hand in terms of reducing physical suffering and it began to dramatically reduce the overall mortality rates around the world. And thanks to STEM and other fields, things have been improving rapidly since.
But it wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that birth control became completely legal, a moment that marked the beginning of the social period we are currently navigating our way through. Giving women near total control over their family planning transformed the well-established and traditional cycle of life. Starting a family could be predictably delayed until the time was “right” for all of the involved parties. This advancement, when combined with the dramatic improvements in health care and the significant reduction in infant mortality, translated into fewer children who were being born to older mothers. This means that women were taking advantage of improved access to education AND they were remaining in the work force for longer before starting their families, returning to the work force after having their children, and were spending less time being pregnant.
This changed the workforce dynamic in such a profound way that it is hard to overstate the ramification. The workforce did not necessarily double, but it did potentially double, meaning that jobs for all of these new workers were needed or else there was going to be some very severe consequences based on macroeconomic principles. The increase in supply would trigger a decrease in the demand, which tends to lower the wages. Over time, this can be managed, but when it occurs in the matter of a few years, things do not go so smoothly.
Two other factors come into play that tend to diminish the impact the role of women choosing to enter the work force in large numbers plays – civil rights and automation. All of these things are related – the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement had effectively the same goal – and when they are successful in even a small way, they have the same impact on the economy. There is an increase supply in workers in ALL levels of ability and the notion of gender and race specific jobs begins to evaporate. Then it is mostly a matter of time before everything normalizes UNLESS another significant factor begins to manipulate some of the variables. Which is exactly what automation did and continues to do.
This should not have been a surprise to anyone, considering that it is what always happens when more people start to work in an industry. More minds working a problem results in greater productivity, more complete knowledge growth and faster solutions. These translate in to quicker progress, which will lead to more automation. More automation means lay offs, leading to an increase in the supply of workers, which triggers a decrease in wages for less skilled jobs.
Most of this is great – equal rights for all people is perfectly fine. Universal access to a high quality education is an ideal situation. The freedom to choose how one exercises their liberty is very important. BUT there are going to be consequences to all of these things, and this is what is becoming very clear. People choose to do the things that they like, want, believe they need or actually need to do. And that is the beginning and end of it. Each individual only has control or impact over their own actions which means they are not in a position to make an accurate guess of what other people may choose to do. The consequence to this is that while many people have worked hard and sacrificed in order to make sure there is equality of opportunity, there is no reason to believe that anyone will take advantage of it in a way that makes sense or in a way that was predicted by those who made it all possible.
This is where we find ourselves right now and it’s a very challenging place to be. To recap:
Universal K to 12 education is available and mandated for ALL young people in North America and many western societies – for all races and all gender identities. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people who are low skilled or semi-skilled, which will reduce the rate of pay for these jobs.
A dramatic increase in the availability of disposable income stemming from changes in the banking regulations, leading to a big boost in the number of people who attend post-secondary education – this results in a dramatic increase in the number of moderately skilled, which will reduce the rate of pay for these jobs.
A transition towards automation of low skill high labor jobs, causing a big reduction in the number and rate of pay for these jobs.
Strong social programs, such as government health care, social security, government pension, and welfare, ensure that people will be able to maintain a minimum standard of living REGARDLESS of how they choose to spend their time working.
A movement towards a more egalitarian culture / society gives people the opportunity to do what they want to do as opposed to doing what they have to do in order to get by.
These five variables interact and lead us to experience what we are experiencing now – an overall reduction in full time high paying jobs, the elimination of low skill full time high paying jobs, the creation of large numbers of low pay low skill part time jobs, the creation of modest numbers of high skill and emergent technology jobs, a work force that is bloated at the low skill area as all citizens graduate high school with this skill level, a level of equality of opportunity that has never existed before, and the prevailing belief that people should pursue what they are interested in vs. what pays well or will lead to something greater down the road.
Hindsight is always much more accurate than foresight, but in this area, I do not think it would have taken much for the thought leaders at the time to have an honest and frank discussion about what were the most likely outcomes of automation, universal education, a dramatic increase in the amount of money available, and the efforts to make sure all doors are open for all people. As I mentioned before, one of these things could probably have been weathered without any difficulty, but the collection of them is a lot more to handle and what things will look like when we come out the other side is going to be very different from how things looked when it began.
And this is the problem with the push to get more women into STEM fields. There was a time when this was possible, but that time has long since passed. The moment “choice” is given to people, they will exercise it and do what they want to do as opposed to doing what they have to do or are told to do. So while we cannot make any prediction about the gender or ethnic characteristics of any single person in STEM, given that women and men score effectively the same and that all people have about the same chances of having the intellectual horsepower to become a scientist, engineer or doctor, we do know that women and men do not share preferences and that some cultures value STEM more than others, meaning getting more women into STEM may not even be something that is desirable, let alone possible.
When people do not have a choice and need to make as much money as possible, they are more inclined to pursue STEM because these jobs pay more. But when people have the choice and live in a society that has social safety nets, they are going to choose the things they like or are good at. So unless women like STEM more than any of the other fields, they are less likely to choose STEM because it doesn’t interest them as much and because they are slightly better than men at the other things meaning less competition for the top jobs in those areas. If this is the case, the efforts that are being made to move women into STEM will not be successful and may actually hurt the field by causing the displacement of potential people who are not accepted into the field because of their gender.
The goal is misdirected and based on an assumption that the way things have been traditionally was a result of a desire to keep women out of STEM and not a consequence of anything else. This assumption does not stand-up to scrutiny. STEM is relatively new when compared to other fields and most other jobs. Many of the jobs that exist in STEM did not exist until the last 50 years and did not exist in the numbers they do now until recently. The end result here is that while women were not a big part of the work force for most of human history, neither were men. Most of the time has been spend with women and men doing whatever tasks were needed to keep the family fed, safe, and secure. Having a job that allows people to trade time for money to spend later is at best, a few thousand years old. Before then, people did what they had to do to survive, and getting their needs met was the only form of payment they would receive.
Yes, men have been a formal part of the work force for much longer than women, but neither has been a part of it for very long. This is mostly irrelevant to STEM because these jobs require a decent brain and a lot of education. Since universal schooling is a recent addition to society, the number of those who are educated enough for STEM was limited until recently. The statement that in 1950 there should have been more women in STEM is a reflection of the fact that there were not a lot of people in general who worked in STEM as opposed to there being a deliberate push to keep women out of these fields. There probably could and should have been more of them, it is reasonable to believe that had they learned the foundation skills to be an engineer, they would have been able to make some very meaningful contribution to engineering. HOWEVER, this is a far cry from saying that there should be equal number of women in STEM as there are men.
The problem that needs to be solved is one of access vs. participation, because it is inappropriate to force people to work jobs that they do not want. I want to live in a world that grants people the opportunity to pursue what interests them and not one that forces them to do a specific job because someone has made the decision that the gender breakdown is not appropriate. A male should be as free to pursue nursing, teaching or psychology as a female should be free to pursue surgery, coding, coaching, or engineering. And males should be free to pursue surgery, coding, coaching, or engineering while females are free to pursue nursing, teaching and psychology. If you like it and someone is willing to pay you to do it, you should be free to do what you want with you time and with your life.
And this is what I think we are in the middle of right now. We’re leveling-up the education of everyone, and making sure that people have the same opportunities. Once these things have been achieved, the people will make the call on what they are going to do with their time, even if that means choosing to do something other than what the progressives think they should do or choosing to do what they have traditionally done. Time will tell what is going on and until then, we’re all just making some guesses about it.
This brings us to the end of this post. Hopefully I can leave you with a rhetorical question to always keep in mind when you are living your life and happen across a group of people who have good intentions but little evidence to suggest that their interventions are 1) going to do anything and 2) there is actually a need to do something. When there is no clear problem to be solved or the problem that they are working to fix exists solely as proof or evidence that there is a systemic problem, there may not be anything to do at all; meaning all of their actions are a complete waste of time.
I have a lot to gain from having more women working in STEM but not if any of them are being forced into doing it. If the cost of the next cool device or medical cure is some woman being forced to become an engineer or researcher against her will, that is too high a price to pay. Frankly, I’m sick of forced labor and all of the ways that human beings have been taking advantage of other human beings since someone invented exploitation. While it has been responsible for a lot of the amazing things that our species has created or built, it’s just a dreadful way to behave and it needs to stop. So while I am not implying that trying to get more women into STEM is the same thing as the labor that built the pyramids, FORCING them into these fields is. Which would make it a bigger problem than the one that they are trying to solve. So while women can do almost all of the same things that men can do, this does not mean that they will want to do these things. Time and the opportunity to do them will shine a light on what is the appropriate gender breakdown in terms of STEM field employment. Until we have proof that there is a problem to be solved, any solution actions that are taken are most likely going to achieve nothing of value and will never deliver us to a world that is in anyway more ideal than the one we inhabit today.
The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.
Seven years ago I wrote the post Almost 6 Months Later which contained some thoughts about the things that had happened in the six months following my fathers death. I believed that at that point I had moved most of the way through the grief process. 90 months later, I am certain that the process doesn’t ever have an end point. Instead, we get better at dealing with it as life moves on and our brain adjusts to create a new normal.
I am not sad and I do not believe that this is a pessimistic view. The fact is that we never stop developing and adapting to the stimulation we bring into our brains, so there is no reason to believe that adjusting to the death of a loved one ever stops. Our brains grow from the beginning of life and probably continue to grow for a few minutes after we take our last breath. They are complex organic computers that spawn and prune connections between billions of neurons to form long term memories and create processes that allow it to handle the world more effectively the next time the world brings it the same type of stimulation. They are never still and the only time they ever go dark is when we die.
In the original post, I spoke about someone who I met whose father had been given the diagnosis of a very slowly developing cancer. She was upset and having a tough time processing the news while her dad was very matter of fact about it. He was well into his eighties and didn’t really care all that much. He was old, had lived a complete life, and since he wasn’t actually running out of runway, he didn’t think it was worth the energy to worry about or to consider the diagnosis. He felt that there was as good a chance that old age would take care of things before the cancer did and since he wasn’t worrying about old age, it didn’t make any sense to deal with the fact that the doctor had told him that he had cancer.
A year later, Heather’s father was diagnosed with a few different types of cancer – no one was sure where the original tumor had been, but it had metastasized to the point that it was in his bones, throat, and possibly his brain. They said possibly because while he did have a brain tumor, it didn’t seem to grow at all between the scans; unlike the other tumors that ate his spine and began to close over his throat. Unlike my dad, who stood to gain very little from treatment, her dad was able to under go radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation worked wonders on his throat, opening it up again and allowing him to eat and drink anything he wanted, which he did. The chemo was less well tolerated, and he stopped it a few weeks in because of the side effects. After the tumors, the skin is the next place to begin to show the side effects of the chemicals – most of the chemotherapy medication that has traditionally been used in treating cancer works by killing tissue. It is reasonably specific in so far as it will primarily target the type of cell that makes-up the tumor, but it is not perfect and is not isolated to JUST the tumor cells. With chemotherapy there will be collateral damage and with him it began to take a toll on the skin of his lips and neck. Given that he was never going to be cured, he made the decision to stop the treatment and put an end to these awful side effects. He was close to seventy and had more or less made his peace with the life he had lived. He died the following July.
While at the time of my dads death, I was unable to find anything good about it; the possible exception being that since his GBM wasn’t painful, he got to enjoy the final 6 weeks of life as much as anyone can enjoy any six week period. The post I wrote six month later, I made mention to feeling useful to my friend because of what I had just experienced. With the sad news about Heather’s dad, I was able to be even more useful. This was a good thing, and it did, in a way, give my dads death a little more meaning or value. It wasn’t that I knew what Heather, her sister, and the rest of the family were going through, I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly know what their experience was like. But I did have experience with the process. So while I lacked the specific knowledge of what they were going through, she had someone to talk to about the feelings she was having and the thoughts that were popping into her mind with someone who was a little further along in the grieving process. I was able to talk to the very odd sensations and feelings that accompany your loved one seeming to improve with whatever treatment they receive and how there are feelings of disbelief that there is actually something wrong.
This is like an emotional time bomb that makes normal living close to impossible. No matter how good you feel, there’s a monkey on your back that at some point in the future something very crappy is going to happen. When you feel bad about what is going on, there is the thought that you need to cheer-up and enjoy your remaining time together. No matter what you are feeling, a thought pops into mind to tell you that you should feel something else. It’s a destabilizing experience, as though you are gas lighting yourself, and over time you begin to not trust how you feel or to simply allow yourself to experience whatever is occurring from moment to moment from any place other than the certain future when your loved one has died.
Her dad, just like mine, did his best to address this thing by encouraging his children and the rest of the family to go about their life’s as well as they could. There wasn’t any point in cycling on the future because it was going to happen when it was time. Until then it was just something to deal with later. On his advice, Heather and I took a trip to Mexico, our first big trip together. I don’t recall any specific moments of overwhelming sadness and the trip was a lot of fun.
Years later, Heather and I both have moments when we think about our dads. Speaking to my moments, I don’t get sad anymore, although there can be times when I wake-up feeling stunned that my dad is gone. These I know are just the emotional chemicals that my brain has released in response to some mental process that my brain has drawn a connection between and thoughts about my dad not being there. There have been a number of times in my past when I had these feelings, and they seemed to link-up to conscious thoughts relating to something that always was but was now no longer. Adjusting to dramatic change is tough and the brain isn’t very good at doing it all at once. It needs a lot of time and stimulation to eventually land in a place that doesn’t feel painful or register as loss, but is just a feeling of “offness.”
Of course, I have done a lot of stuff in the meantime that has had a big impact on how I approach the experience of being alive. There is no doubt in my mind that how I handled my father’s death served as another example of how some of my ways of operating were not helpful or were contributing to the level of difficulty I was having living from day to day. I accept this, and realize that dealing with death is not something that we are taught or that most people have much experience with. Improvements in healthcare, food availability, sanitation, safety regulations, and vaccinations have boosted life expectancy, meaning that the initial experience with the death of a loved one do not occur until much later in life. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is great that people are living longer. Being alive is at least something, so the fact that more than twenty years have been added to the average life span in North America means twenty more years of that something. But on the other hand, it means that, statistically speaking, the first exposure to the death of a loved one is going to occur twenty years later than it would have before.
The significance of this delay is best understood when considering the compounding effect of experience over time. Someone who has been writing for twenty years is going to be much better at it than someone who has been writing for five years. In the case of physically writing, the fifteen extra years will give them much better physical control over their hand and finger movements, allowing them to become an expert in terms of handwriting. In the case of writing words that capture ideas, those extra years of practice will mean that the brain will have adapted more completely to whatever the mental stimulation that brings those ideas to consciousness and then to paper represented. This is much more to the point. The grief process is long, possible permanent, and it does represent one of the more significant things that a human being will have to deal with.
Death is real, it’s a thing that happens, but it is less significant than the experience of grief would have you believe. My view of it has changed over time, as I mature and my brain works its way through the grief processes that have been triggered in my life. When you are in it, it feels awful. You are almost incapable of thinking about it in real terms, and will instead deal with the abstract aspects of it. This is not good or bad, it’s just what happens with most people. But it is not a pure reflection of reality.
Consider it from a materialistic point of view. People are bags of molecules but a “person” is a rich narrative understanding that is a collection of things. My dad married my mom and they had two children. This is a biological thing and it can be measured. But the relationship that I had with him cannot be so easily understood. He did do a lot of stuff to change the physical environment that I lived in – he worked to make money so that we had food, shelter and clothing – he took physical actions in the world to make sure that the family was safe, secure and mostly free of worry, and he talked to me to teach me things and to alter some of my decisions or actions – the ideas that he had were captured by the air flow that left his lungs and passed over his vocal chords allowing these ideas to be generated in my head when that air vibrated my eardrums, creating the electrical activity that my brain converted into the understanding of the words from which the ideas were created. That is no small feat. Make no mistake about it, my dad did a lot for me and he did almost all of it through the same methods that human beings have been using throughout their entire history.
My present understanding has nothing to do with trying to diminish anything about the important role he played and that all parents and caregivers play. But when you detach from the whole thing and break it down into the material or objective reality, it all becomes so much less than the story we are living when we are gripped tightly by the hand of grief.
When my dad died, I lost my father, yes, but he had already completed 98 percent of the “father” things that he had the potential and willingness to do. From this point of view, his death makes almost no difference to my playing the role of “son.” The role I get to play is not the same as it would have been had he not died in 2012, but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Only one thing happens, so there is only an alternative experience or outcome when we take the time to think about it. Any notion about what it would have been like if he had continued to live for another twenty years is immaterial. It can only exist as a thought and even then, it can only exist in the brain of the person who is thinking it. This is vastly different from the 98 percent of the things that he did that contributed to his playing the role of father. Some physical matter was impacted by those actions and that makes these actions real and of material consequence.
Sure, we can make an argument that, by him dying, he was no longer able to take action and that therefore is a material difference. This is true, but we’d be hard pressed to say with complete certainty what those actions were. Okay, I have every reason to believe the family would have continued to enjoy Sunday dinners, so his passing very likely marked the end of them; or at least him eating dinner with us. But the truth is that this is only the most probable outcome. Something else could have happened that put an end to the Sunday dinners. We’ll never know, and that is the point of it. While someone is alive, we can say with certainty the material impact that their actions have on the world – what molecules they put in motion, which ones they stopped moving or prevented from moving, and which ones they impacted to change their direction and velocity. When they are dead, or did not exist, we can only engage in a game of speculation about how they would have impacted the physical universe.
The initial phases of grief are awful, not because the person is dead and they are no longer impacting the physical world in a way that make their loved ones feel good which is perceived as bad. The intensity of the early part of the grief process is magnitudes larger than that. The reason, I believe, why it starts off at such a high level is because their death is interpreted as the loss of EVERY SINGLE possible impact they could have had on the physical world. It has very little or nothing to do with the present moment. The genesis of the feelings is an unconscious and automatic loop that has the brain cycling on all of the future possibilities that are now off the table. This happens fairly quickly, and unless the person has the ability to clear negative emotion faster than the brain creates it, they can find themselves getting overwhelmed.
The feelings the person is having are real. The chemicals that cause the body to experience the emotion can be measured and the increased brain activity in the areas that are responsible for processing negative emotion can be observed with an fMRI machine. BUT since these changes will not occur in the bodies of people who did not know the deceased person, their cause is purely perceptual and the result of specific mental activity in the brain of the bereaved. So while death is real, and the emotional response to a death of a loved one is real, this response does not have a direct physical cause. It is an abstract interpretative reaction that is triggered in the brains of almost all human beings and many animals. It is a part of the genetic code that evolved over millions of years and is a deeply seeded part of our operating system.
Now given that it is a natural and genetically coded process, we are innately equipped to handle it. It is a mechanism that evolved because it improved our fitness in terms of survival and reproductive success. This is the problem we are running into now, because as life expectancy grows, the necessary experiences that trigger and shape gene expression are delayed. This delay is at least twenty years – given that life expectancy has grown by this amount over the last century – but it is almost certainly longer. Regardless of the time frame, every previous generation of human beings lived much shorter lives and had to deal with infant mortality rates that were in the double digits. This means that exposure to the early death of a loved one was a way of life not so long ago, and it was a fact of life for every ancestor (prehuman) in our evolutionary past; even if they were not capable of relating to someone as a “loved one” many of their species died young ensuring that those who survived long enough to reproduce had figured out how to get back on their feet again.
Maybe a more concise way to phrase this would be to suggest that only recently and only within our species, that death has become increasingly more abstract as our direct exposure to it has been delayed for decades. The positive is that we are living longer, the negative is that for many of us, our first exposure to it comes well after our brains have fully developed. While this may seem like a bonus it isn’t because children and adults do not process stimulation and information in the same way. The prefrontal cortex of a child is much less well developed than that of an adult meaning the younger a person is, the lower their capacity for thinking about the future and for generating timelines. As a consequence, children do not have the same grief experience as adults.
So returning to the compounding effect of experience over time comment, it’s very easy to imagine a child 2000 years ago having their first experience with death and grief at age 10. It means something to them, but it cannot mean the same thing as it does to their 30 year old father because they do not have the same hardware. However, the child has the experience and the process runs its course. Meaning that, over time, their brain processes and reprocesses it, and as their brain fully matures, they have been working through the experience for 10 or more years. And they have probably had other death experiences that influence and play their part on the grief process. By the time they are 30, they will have a level of resilience that is the result of wisdom and NOT the result of willpower or wishful thinking. They know it sucks but they know that in time they will feel better because they will have gone through it a few times and have become aware and desensitized to it.
Even when their brain is fully formed and capable of peak levels of abstract thought, their life experience will have populated their long term memory with sensory information that reflects the truth about death. When compared to their contemporary counterparts, their reactions will not be the same in terms of magnitude and may actually differ completely in terms of content.
My first exposure with the death of a loved one was when I was 21. There is no comparing this to the second experience I had almost 20 years later. Yes, there was sadness and a sense of despair, but there was also a wisdom of knowing that I didn’t need to think about it all of the time and that I was actually free to NOT think about it if I didn’t want to. The first month was tough the second time round, but things were only as bad as they could be for a couple of weeks, and even then this was only when I thought about it; or when I was not able to NOT think about it.
And that is really the value of what I went through. I knew what it was all about in terms of the human experience of grief and its innate emotional experience. It’s intense and rough at the beginning as the brain works its way through the list of EVERYTHING that is lost, but then it calms down and starts to get a grip. Over the weeks and months it narrows its assessment to what might have been lost and focuses on what was actually lost. What begins as thousands becomes 4 or 5 things that you can honestly say are gone because you know you would have done them. For example, I miss talking to my dad about things. He was curious and kind, and he had a lot of life experience that helped to provide perspective about what those things actually meant or what they meant 20 years ago when they happened, and 40 years ago when they happened. I miss his laugh, not because it was a particularly good one, although it was, but because when you hear someone laughing like that, you know with absolute certainty that they are in the moment and it is a great moment to be in. And I kind of would have like for him to meet Heather because she’s awesome and he was awesome and I think they would have become good friends. But none of that stuff is worth crying about and even if it does make me sad from time to time, it does not make me death date +2 days sad.
Which is the point of all of it. Had I known what I would miss and be sad about and focused only on that stuff, I would have had a much easier time with it and would have been a lot more use to my mother, brother and sister in-law, and whoever else was negatively impacted by his passing. But technological progress has liberated us from having to have the experiences that make human beings effective grievers. We have the genes to make us good at it, we just don’t have the experiences to bring about their expression.
At this point in my life I do not think much about the future deaths of the people that I love. It is something that I am capable of doing but choose not to because it makes me feel lousy. I know I will be subjected to grief again unless I’m the first one to go, so I’ll deal with it when it comes along. What I do know is that most of what the older people say about death and how to navigate through the first couple of months after the loss of a loved one is solid advice. Look after your health as well as you can. Do your best to stay nourished. Take the time to do the things that you know work for you. Put in the effort to reestablish your sleep schedule as soon as you can. And go easy on yourself, no matter how you feel. It is fine to not think about it, just as it is fine to take some time to bawl your eyes out. Over time, you will feel better and adjust. The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.
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.
About seven years ago I published a post title Responding To Criticism. It outlined a more pragmatic way to handle criticism that can shift / reverse the negative emotional valence reaction and allow you to make take the most out of the interaction regardless of the validity of what is said or the intentions of the person who is giving it to you. Basically, you treat the interaction as if it is a part of an improv act and employ the “yes, and” strategy. You simply just assume that the criticism is valid and take some time to figure-out what the consequences are.
At the time I suggested that you remain quiet and approach it as though it is an introspective exercise. There should be some later processing to factor in who the person is that offered the criticism because the motives of other people can be much more revealing than the actual words they are using. The key is to accept whatever it is that the person says as being a possible truth and to allow it to exist without judgment. This is tough to do when we feel that someone has just criticized us given that negative value judgments tend to trigger emotional reactions that hinder objectivity.
I maintain the view that we should accept whatever is said as being the truth and remain as open and non-reactive as we can to ensure that we are able to extract as much value from the statement as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we unconditionally accept it as the truth, just that we accept it as true for the initial run at it. This is how improv operates, there is a single thread that runs from beginning to end as each player takes their turn reacting and responding until time runs out, the audience is laughing, or a natural end point is reached. Unlike improv, once our introspection reaches an end, we return to the beginning and reprocess the subject factoring in context – who the person is, what their motives are, how they would gain from having the criticism accepted and acted on, etc…. This is much closer to dialectical analysis because it allows for the consideration of much more of the picture than simply just the words.
Frankly, in the moment you cannot care much about the person who has shelled out the criticism because having feelings towards them one way or the other will bias your initial interpretation of what they said. As such, you have to try things on from both sides – like you care about them and are more willing to assume that they are telling you the truth OR like you don’t care about them and are more willing to assume that they are lying to you. The best option is to assuming each, one after the other, in order to arrive at a more complete picture of things.
You’re probably going to keep this process to yourself and not ask them to be a part of it. They’ll say their piece and you’ll go through the pros / cons of it being true and then the pros / cons as being the statement made by someone in the present context. However, you may want to get the other persons involvement. Doing so is a little risky in so far as it can be interpreted as being confrontational and if done carelessly it can prevent future feedback from a well meaning person.
In this case, the “yes and” part of it is done out loud. As opposed to doing the introspection and analysis yourself, you push the responsibility of much of this onto the other person. By asking them to explain the consequences of your behavior, you might be able to find out why your action / behavior is problematic, how it makes them feel, and to uncover the distance between your intention and the actual outcome. There is also a chance that they will be able to suggest an alternative that might lead you to the outcome you are seeking. Regardless, how the person addresses you will indicate a lot about their state of mind and might just reveal their actual intention / motives for saying something in the first place. The rule of thumb is that people are either trying to help or trying to hurt and their follow-up answers will be aligned with their intention.
No matter what they say, you will have to take some time to process all of it from both sides of the coin in order to extract the maximum benefit from the interaction. The positive outcome is clear when the person is acting with good intentions – they what the best for us and are providing a portion of the road map towards achieving that. In the case of a person who is being critical because it serves their ends, the introspection that is fueled by the dialectical analysis will bring up a lot of very useful information – who to trust and why or why not, the nature of this persons relationship with the world and with facts, the nature of how they operate in terms of manipulating you into feeling or doing something, and, most importantly, what they view as bad in so far as most people do not criticize others for things they themselves view as positive.
The good, the bad, the ugly and the UGLY. How you engage the other person in response to criticism will go a long way in determining what you get out of them. With those who are making an earnest attempt to help, you will get the good stuff out of them by employing either the good or the bad approach, but will likely alienate them with the ugly, or when the bad approach is used exclusively. Those who wish you harm will offer up more useful information when the bad approach is used and less with the good approach. When the ugly approach is used, they will shutdown or attack. The quickest way to find out someones intentions is to use the ugly approach; but this comes at the cost of the potential alienation of those who care about us and a toxic interaction with those who wish us harm.
The good approach will have you ask probing questions to uncover what the person heard you say and how that made them feel. You are approaching the other person with an open mind and a sincere willingness to understand how your action made them feel, how it was interpreted and what the consequences or likely outcome will be. It is granular, very specific and absent of any judgment. Everything is fine and after this interaction, the future will be better. You are taking the responsibility for guiding the conversation, something that will become more clear when you read the bad and the ugly, but in general they will not feel any resistance and your curiosity will prevent any defensiveness.
The bad approach will have you ask a flat question that is very much the same as “yes, and?” This is more like improv in that it is assumed that each person has an obligation to take a turn and contribute to the conversation / interaction. Whereas you were asking them specific questions with the good approach, which removed any sense of obligation, the bad approach is more forceful. You are agreeing with the person by saying “yes” but are then asking them to explain the consequences of that truth. This is much more abrupt and it instantly forces them to think about the interaction in terms of possible outcomes. Someone who is offering genuine feedback will already have done this to some extent and while they may become slightly defensive by your direct ask, the information you are seeking will be readily available. Those who are throwing bombs, or are have been emotionally triggered into criticizing you, will not have this information available to them because they will not have spent any time thinking about it before they speak.
The ugly approach will have you ask something to the effect of “so what?” This triggers defensiveness in almost everyone who hears it because it is empty of curiosity and is completely void of the collaborative agreement that are innate traits of the good and the bad. It also has hints of a dominance hierarchy in that they are being forced to present a justification for their criticism / feedback for consideration. The dynamic is set up in such a way that you get to be a decider and vet the legitimacy of their rationale. It has a linguistic / conversational structure that is establishes inequality or validates that the interaction is not between two equals; this is the primary characteristic of contempt.
The ugly has a long lasting quality that the good and bad do not have. It creates a negative emotional experience in most people. This serves as a punishment in a psychological sense – it suppresses the actions that preceded it along with creating the pairing of negativity with the person, serving as a disincentive to spending time with the person in the future in any context. An honest player might engage the person once or twice because they are genuinely trying to be helpful but they will quickly learn that it isn’t worth it. A dishonest player won’t care because their objective was to do harm and the ugly response serves as proof that they were successful. Those who rely on this approach will quickly find themselves surrounded by people who do not care about them, do not try to help them and will say and do whatever is required to end the interaction as quickly as possible.
The UGLY approach is any reaction that can be considered to mean “you would say that” or “I don’t care.” It is the outright dismissal of the other person and not just their opinion. Regardless of the intentions of the person who offered feedback / criticism, the reaction will be negative. The relationship with a positive operator will be permanently damaged; they may not say anything to indicate that harm has been done but things will never be the same again. The reaction from someone who is setting out to do harm is very likely to be hostile. This slight will be noticed and will serve to fuel the escalation of their animosity. An UGLY response will eliminate the possibility of harvesting anything good or useful from the interaction because it will stop it dead in its tracks.
It is fair to say that the difference between feedback and criticism is determined by the intention of the person who is offering it. Those who are trying to help are giving feedback while those who are trying to harm are given criticism. However, the intent to do harm does not necessarily mean that you will be harmed or even that you cannot benefit from the other persons efforts. When you assume that everything is feedback and offered-up with the goal of improving your future actions, on the initial pass, you will be able to extract a lot of potentially useful information. You are not on your own here and can engage the other person in this endeavor. Depending on how you set about extracting this information, you have a lot of control on both the amount of information they reveal and the context from which it is coming. Bad actors can be revealed quickly, and their efforts to do harm do not need to be successful.
Of course, when you assume only nefarious motivations you will miss out on the positive intentions of the good and will never have access to the possible benefits of listening and hearing what the unsavory players have to say.
In 2014, SpaceX launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station that included mice. They were placed into the Rodent Research Hardware System with the objective to study how they adapted to micro gravity and life in space. The video below contains some footage.
Although the video has a lot of cuts and is missing practically everything, it does look like some of the mice are having fun.
What is striking is just how quickly they adjust their movements to accommodate the near weightless environment. They groom, eat, play and move around, as mice do on earth. When you look closely, you can see that they use their toes to grip the bars of the cage to remain in place and to stop themselves from floating away. You can also see how their movements become more refined during the time covered in the video – the “swimming” type movements of their rear legs that are visible during the first few days are almost completely gone after 10 days.
This is something that human beings also experience during the initial periods of weightlessness as their brains struggle to get a handle on what is happening and to learn how to move around without the benefit of friction. The movements are useless though as they do not do anything other than waste energy and increase the risk of injury to oneself and others. But after a few days, the brain figures it out and learns how to move effectively using the least amount of energy possible. It is remarkable just how quickly the brain figures this out and adjusts to the micro gravity environment of the ISS.
The amount of room that they mice have is dramatically larger than that which is available to their human counter parts have. While the internal volume of the ISS is massive at just over 32000 square feet contained within 16 modules, none of the modules contain wide open space like the mice get to enjoy. Getting wide open pressurized spaces into orbit is expensive and since there is no justifiable science reason to do it, they haven’t done it.
With the exception of Sky Lab, the first US space station, human beings have never really had much room to move around while in space. This mission was launched in 1973 and the habitable section was contained in a refitted third stage of a Saturn 5 rocket. It was basically a pipe that had a 22 foot diameter. It was 85′ long and was broken up into two rooms. This gave the astronauts 10000 sq feet of space to work, live and float around it.
It’s remarkable watching this second video because it is more or less the same as the mouse video – living beings getting used to micro gravity and then enjoying the experience that the improved ease of movement affords them. I have no doubt that it is what I would do if I was up there and it’s probably what almost everyone else would do.
Our brain, and the mouse brain for that matter, is remarkable in its ability to quickly adapt to whatever it is forced to deal with. In the case of zero G, the experience is completely sensory in so far as the internal narrative will not alter the meaning of the sensory information. There is no gravity and the body is effectively weightless. There is nothing that can be said to re-frame the raw sensory data in terms of it being anything other than what it is. The brain has NO choice but to accept what is occurring and deal with it. This lack of choice jump starts the process because no mental effort is directed towards trying to interpret the situation as anything other than what is going on. The mice of course do not have this narrative re-framing ability so their brain instantly sets about figuring how to go about living life in the new environment.
A lesson that can be taken from these space experiences is about the true cost of resisting reality. When we can and choose to see things differently from how they actually are, we delay our powerful innate adaptative processes that allow us to quickly adjust to changes in the environment. This can temporarily delay putting in the effort that is needed to normalize to the new situation, but the cost of doing so is the ongoing waste of mental energy that is required to maintain the narrative story. This loss of energy is going to continue until the environment returns to the previous normal or the decision is made to accept reality and adapt to it.
The total cost of adaptation is going to be the lowest when we accept reality instantly, bring in very detailed sensory data and let our brain process it. This is what the brain has been doing for millions of years and it is what YOUR brain has been doing for all of your life. When we delay accepting reality we waste time and energy and we also increase the potential that the eventual cost of adapting will be larger as a result of us becoming more invested in something that isn’t real; given the relationship between the strength of a belief to the length of time we have held it and the amount of effort we have spend trying to defend it. The neural networks grow more robust over time and in response to greater stimulation that results in confirmation – even if the confirmation is a misinterpretation of the facts.
Reality is what reality is, and it doesn’t care about your feelings or beliefs. The sooner they align with it, the sooner your brain will be completely free to figure out how to best adjust to the changes to allow you to live with less resistance. Stop making things harder for yourself and let your brain do the work it unconsciously and effortlessly does to create a life of ease.
Human beings tend to keep doing what they have been doing for a number of reasons.
And the main reason why we continue things is because doing them before helped to keep us alive – IF someone is still alive, their behaviors and strategies are effective. But this raises a question, “did the behavior actually contribute to survival?” Put differently, “what role did an individual behavior or action play in ensuring survival?”
After some consideration it usually becomes clear that the survival assumption constitutes false evidence or a false justification as the behavior played no impact on survival. This isn’t to say that there is not a valid reason for doing something it just says that there physical survival was never a factor in the decision to do something or to not do it. It was the thing that we did before and it worked, so we do it again, and again.
The impact of the survival hypothesis is that we don’t spend much time considering why we make a decision because doing so requires energy and time. It is imaginable that at some point in human history taking too long to act would have meant death. These deaths would have removed most of the considerers from the gene pool. Those who remain might act more quickly. They’ll be able to find reasons to justify their actions. They’ll – keeping things exactly as they are. This evidence collection is automatic and requires little conscious effort, so we go along with it believing everything we think. When we get used to doing this, we become increasingly inclined to continue doing it. When this becomes our habit, our immediate reply to a request is to say no simply because doing what we are doing is keeping us safe. The outcome is that we close-off to new experiences for no valid reason. We just got lazy with our thinking.
Imagine there is a moment of time right between when you think no and say no. In this moment you’ll be able to notice the direction and intention of your thinking. Does it know exactly why you want to say no and is that reason compelling enough to say no? It probably isn’t a habit when there is a good reason. But if your mind is searching for reasons to justify saying no it could be that the habit of no is presenting itself. The difference between these two ways of thinking is that the first knows why and says no while the second says no and hunts for why.
Habits hunt for reasons for their existence when your mind is in a non-critical state. Until logic and higher level thinking are applied to a thought stream, the habit will find its justification quickly and consistently. But it doesn’t have to. When you pay attention to your automatic / initial thoughts you’ll notice that you become more aware of them as they unfold. You can then take as much time as you want before you say anything. It is going to take some mental energy to make this happen, but it is energy well spent for the boost your self awareness and control.
Is saying “no” one of your habits? In some cases it is. It’s really easy to say no because it allows you to continue to do what you are currently doing; which by virtue of the fact that you are alive and doing it, is safe. Because what you are presently doing is safe is rarely a good reason to avoid doing other things. Unless there is a real reason to not do something, maybe you should be trying other things out. Remember, there was a time when you could do practically nothing and you’ve come a long way from that point.