This category covers things that relate probably require some reflection and some time to allow your brain to process more completely. It will be the largest category because the aim of this site is to get people to shift their thinking in some way and to create a new “normal” state. It is safe to say that any post that is included in this category will probably present you with a new piece of information, a new way of looking at something, or a different take on what is already considered common sense or common knowledge.
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.
It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.
There is a video that my YouTube app continues to suggest to me called “Don’t Talk To The Police.” I recently cleared my search and watch history so the app has no idea that I have already watched the video. To the best of my recollection, the video is basically a criminal defence lawyer giving a lecture to a university class in which he relates his experience and knowledge about the nature of conversations between law enforcement personnel and members of the public. His view is that NO ONE but a lawyer should talk to the police and in the event that someone is a lawyer, they should keep their mouth closed and let their lawyer do the talking. What is extra funny about the video, at least as I am remembering it now, is the presenters comments to a second speaker who will follow him, a member of law enforcement, in which they both agree that you should not talk to the police.
The lawyers view is that the police have a job to do, one that is potentially very dangerous and challenging. They have been tasked with enforcing the law and identifying people to charge with crimes. For the overwhelming majority of the public, the police satisfy these tasks by playing a crime prevention role and the administration of traffic tickets for moving violations. For the civilians who get pulled over, it can be slightly intimidating and unnerving. This isn’t a big surprise given that getting a traffic ticket can be expensive and can increase the cost of our mandatory insurance. Driving however is a privilege and since the government has a monopoly on violence and a responsibility to keep all citizens safe, we agree to certain things whenever we make the decision to drive. As such, if we are driving a motor vehicle and a police officer pulls us over we must show them our licence, vehicle ownership, and proof of insurance. In the event a driver doesn’t have a licence on them, they MUST reveal their name. Other than these three items, we have no obligation to say anything else. They can ask us any number of questions and we are free to refuse to answer them, just as we are free to say anything we want.
HOWEVER, choosing to remain silent or refusing to answer their questions, while not an indication of anything subversive, can lead to a more complicated interaction and a less desirable outcome. E.g. if they were considering just giving you a warning, refusing to answer their questions may serve only to ensure that they give you a ticket. If, in the very unlikely case you do happen to match a person of interest who they are looking for, not answering their questions does nothing to eliminate you as being the person of interest.
In all cases OTHER than being pulled over while driving, you have the right to say nothing to the police, to tell them that you do not answer questions or to request a lawyer to be present when they are questioning you. You maintain these rights forever and regardless of what the police may suggest. This is the essence of what the YouTube video is all about. Do not, under any circumstances, talk to the police or say more than you are legally required to say. You do not have to identify yourself, you do not have to explain what you are doing, where you are going or coming from, where you live or work, give a reason for being where you are, or identify any of the people you are with. In the event that they need to know these things, they will arrest you, take you to the police station, and allow you to connect with and bring-in your lawyer to do the talking for you. They cannot compel you to talk REGARDLESS of what they may try to do.
This is important. They are just doing their jobs, but since a big part of their job is to identify people to charge for crimes, it is safe to proceed under the assumption that they are trying to figure out what crime they can charge you with. This is such a big part of their job that the US has the Miranda warning that law enforcement personnel need to give to those they take into custody (those individuals who have been deprived of their right to liberty, which is the freedom to walk away at will). There is a script that most of us have heard dozens of times on Law And Order and on any number of crime shows, but a verbatim reading of the script is not actually a requirements. The law enforcement person must make the detained person aware of four things:
1) they have the right to remain silent 2) anything the suspect says can and may be used against them in a court of law 3) they have the right to have an attorney present before and during the questioning 4) if they cannot afford the services of an attorney, they have the right to have one appointed, at public expense and without cost to them, to represent them before and during the questioning
If they do not make a person aware of these things and proceed with questioning them, there is a near certain chance that any of the information they uncover will not be admissible in court. This may not matter if they are able to surface the information independently, but if the only source of the information is the non Mirandaized suspect, it cannot be introduced during a trial.
Related to the Miranda warning is the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment gives a number of rights to citizens of the US as they relate to crime procedures. There are a number of rights, but the relevant one here is that of the right to NOT incriminate oneself. When someone pleads the fifth, they are invoking the right to not answer a question that they believe may lead to self-incrimination. This is similar to the Miranda warning but is used in more formal situations such as criminal trials, depositions, and speaking in front of congress or other legislative bodies. The point of each is the same, there is a separation between the government and the individual citizens and while the government holds practically all of the power, the citizens must have the right to safely resist this power in a way that ensures they are not victimized by the government without having the opportunity to consent to it.
So back to talking, or not talking, to the police. Given that one of their main responsibilities is to identify people to charge with crimes, it makes sense for us to unpack this a little more. Crime is not always or mostly a zero sum type of thing. In some instances, there will be one victim for each perpetrator – think about a mugging or a common assault. But in most other cases there can be more than one perpetrator – a gang attack, criminal syndicate, or most white collar crimes. With the exception of Bernie Madoff, who by all accounts was the sole perpetrator of a ponzi scheme that netted millions of dollars, most white collar crimes involve groups of people who are aware of what is going on and many more who are wilfully ignorant to what is occurring. This means that it is possible for hundreds of people to be guilty of a crime even if there was only one victim and even if there was no victim. People can be guilty of conspiracy and “after the fact” crimes.
This being said, the police have a responsibility to assume that EVERYONE they interact with might have broken the law. This is most likely true given the number of laws that are on the books. The police do not need to be actively investigating a crime in order to arrest someone for it, all that is required is a substantial belief that a crime has been committed by the person to whom they are speaking OR sufficient evidence of guilt that there is a reasonable chance that the person would be convicted at the end of a trial. Note that the person who gets convicted does not necessarily need to be the person who committed the crime, nor does a crime actually need to have been committed. A reasonable belief or sufficient evidence of guilt are enough to garner first the charge and then subsequent finding of “guilty.”
This is the underlying reason why the lawyer was telling the law students to NEVER speak to the police. His motivation is not to be a jerk or to make the job of police more difficult, although it could be for the first point and absolutely does cause the second. The human brain is not a fully logical operator, and it does NOT take in and process ALL of the available information because there is just too much. It then uses this incomplete information to manufacture an on-the-fly meaning and to then make predictions about the future based on this meaning and the experience it has previously had. Further to this, once it makes a prediction, this is used in the process of manufacturing meaning. The consequence to any interpretation and prediction is the re-prioritization of what information is important and what can be ignored.
This entire process makes a lot of sense as it serve the primary goal of all living beings, which is to remain alive. This is a remarkable achievement given just how complicated the physical world is. But the world of law and order exists primarily on the brains of human beings. It is therefore more abstract than tangible, which renders the human brain inadequate for accurately addressing it in an error free way. Ideas are the currency of thinking. Since these are made-up of electrical activity within the brain, they can only exist when someone is thinking them. The brain has a finite capacity and a finite speed, so the complex ideas that contain “law and order” come into existence when they are triggered and will fade away quickly when they are no longer being activated. This is the very reason why we cannot trust our brains completely in the moment and the reason why the clarity of our thinking will always benefit from taking more time to process and assess more of the information AND have a willingness to see the things that are not deemed to be meaningful by our initial interpretation.
The willingness is critical because without it, if someone has a vested interest in seeing things a particular way they will see things that way. Any conflict of interest has the possibility of altering the meaning that a person puts onto something, which will then alter the predictions they make, altering what information they pay attention, further impacting the meaning. Things can and do speed off into the realm of untruth very quickly rendering the predictions inaccurate and changing the way a person thinks, and about what they think, so profoundly that their predictions seem completely accurate.
In the case of the video, the lawyer is speaking to the conflict of interest that the police have when interpreting meaning out of their conversations with people. Since crime is everywhere and since most drivers routinely break the law, there is a near certain chance that any time a police officer speaks to someone that they are speaking to someone who has broken the law. The overwhelming majority of the people and crime pairings are inconsequential in the grand scheme of life – rolling a stop sign, speeding while keeping-up with the flow of traffic, etc… – but they are crimes nonetheless. Ones that, had the cop been looking for someone to be committing them WHILE the person committed them, they would have intervened and issued a citation for the violation. The fact that they did not see it while it was occurring is irrelevant to the fact that the person did violate the law.
We would like to believe that the police have no incentive OTHER than upholding the law when they do their jobs, but this simply is not true. Some officers are tasked with investigating a particular type of crime and are less inclined to care about other types of crimes, but, when all is said and done, crime is crime and there is a belief that someones past is the best predictor of their future actions. While moving or parking violations are not necessarily gateway crimes for drug trafficking, armed robbery, or tax evasion, there is an all or nothing quality to crime that is a slippery slope. It implies that maybe the speeder WILL become a thug because they have already shown a propensity if not a predilection towards violating the law. Since the police have the responsibility of enforcing the law and since most adults who drive violate the law fairly consistently, any conversation an officer has with an adult is also a conversation with a potentially violent criminal.
Three things here:
The first is that I am not suggesting that this makes anything more than narrative sense. I’m guiding you down the path in such a way as to make the conclusion seem inevitable. The fact that it matches reality is why I am doing this.
The second is that I am NOT suggesting that people who work in law enforcement are unethical or are behaving in any way that is different from how most people behave. They are effectively identical to everyone else and are simply doing their jobs as well as they can. If you or I were tasked with doing their job, we would do it in the same way because that is what the job requires. The consequences for a false negative are too high, and there is, after all, a slow and more methodical second evaluation in the form of the court system. This means that false positives can be sorted our later.
The third is about the incentive a police officer might have when doing their job that can be best understood when laid out in a blown syllogism.
If no crime occurs THEN there is no need for a law enforcement agency THEREFORE the police MUST charge people with crime.
There are a few things wrong with this, but it is an overview of the approach that is used almost the world over. Those who work in law enforcement have a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of a certain level of crime because without the crime, there is no need for a law enforcement agency.
Make no mistake about it, I have no problem with the police or with the desire to enforce the law in such a way as to allow people to live as safe a life as possible. I don’t have a problem with a law enforcement officer engaging me with a mindset that I am guilty of something and will talk myself into admitting to it if given a long enough time. Even though I am mindful to the rules of the road and the way in which I operate the cars that I drive, I likely commit at least one moving violation every time I get behind the wheel.
The problem I have is with talking to people who have already made-up their mind about the topic and are simply talking to me in an attempt to surface “proof” that they are correct. The video is used to illustrate the very natural tendency for people to uncover the things that they have an incentive to find, and it is much easier to appreciate this phenomenon when we examine the actions and behaviour of law enforcement personnel.
The fact of the matter is that EVERYONE operates the same way and will use conversation as the means to validate the predictions that they have already made. The only way to combat this biased information seeking behaviour is to limit what we say and to gain a more complete understanding of what we stand to lose when we keep talking.
Take a moment to think back on a real life crime show that included a part that had the interrogation of the prime suspect. When a lawyer is not present, the detectives work hard to get and keep the suspect talking because they know that very few people are capable of relating personal information and experiences without revealing some aspect of questionable behaviour. Once revealed, these details will be used as a wedge to cause their entirety of their story to unravel. We feel great when we believe that the person who is being interrogated is guilty. But we also feel good when the person looks a particular way or is from a particular geographic location. Having bad teeth or being from a country that is not as highly regarded as the US are not indications of guilt or criminal intent, but they are sufficient enough for us to manufacture meaning and make a prediction. So if we feel good when our “not based on anything” opinions are validated, imagine what can go wrong when the police form an opinion and set about getting the suspect to keep talking.
It needs to be said that the human brain functions in a way that leads to errors that are of a predictable type. It is not capable of keeping EVERYTHING in mind all at once, so it filters out almost everything in an attempt to keep only the relevant things active. This filtering process is not full proof and when dealing with complex things, critical information is discarded.
The filtering process itself is highly influenced by the information that is currently active in the brain and also by the information that is NOT filtered out.
Once a prediction is made, evidence that does not support the prediction or which invalidates it is filtered out. At this point, a cognitive error has occurred and the brain has moved into the realm of fiction.
Once the brain has created this fiction it is very good at asking the questions that reveal information that supports it. However, without information, the brain is mostly powerless at keeping the prediction alive. This means that saying nothing is a more effective way of maintaining the truth than trying to convince someone of it when they have made their mind up about it.
The sayings “their silence speaks volumes” and “if they had nothing to hide they would be willing to talk” are complete bullshit and they actually reveal a lot more about the mind set of someone who says them than of anyone who chooses to say nothing.
Uncomfortable silences benefit those who are seeking information MORE than anyone else, and they benefit those who are seeking biased or fictional information most of all.
If you take anything out of this post try to make sure that it is the following: the words we say change the world in ways that make taking them back impossible, so be sure to speak only when it is necessary, helpful, or true. Even then, always keep in mind that people tend to hear what they believe they will hear while filtering out most of the things that they do not believe they will hear or that they have an incentive to not hear.
NOTE: I am not a lawyer and this post is not intended to be nor is it actually legal advice. Any statements that can be interpreted as being legal advice should be interpreted as being statements about the nature of the human brain and of human behaviour. When in doubt, say less or nothing while seeking out the skilled professional in the area of concern. If someone is pressing you to talk or answer questions, they have a conflict of interest that will be served by getting you to say something. Do not give in to their desire until you have had the opportunity to fully assess the situation, uncover what you stand to lose, and involve the needed experts.
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.
If I was to say that I think about him every day, it would be a lie. There are days when I don’t think about him at all and there are days when I think about him a lot. I am sure there is a pattern to when I become aware that I am thinking about him but the only real predictor is that I am doing something new or particularly interesting – I am more likely to think about him when I have travelled somewhere for vacation or am at the cottage trying to fix something that he would take care of quickly and almost without thinking about it.
This makes sense given my dads curious nature and drive to figure-out how things work. He first moved out of his parents house and to a different country when he was 16 – London, England – and moved around a fair bit until we moved to Canada when he was in his mid thirties. Having children meant that he needed to put down roots in a place that would offer them the best opportunity to lead a safe, productive, and happy life. Ontario Canada was a great choice. Other than the occasionally brutal cold periods in the winter, this part of the world has a lot going for it.
Canadians are an eclectic bunch. We have a shared identity that is not well defined as most of the people who live here are either immigrants from another country, or are first or second generation of people who were. We all have an idea of what it means to be a Canadian and most of these ideas are slightly different. There is not a strong nationalist aspect to it which is a huge blessing. We’d all rally together to make sure there was a strongly worded letter sent to anyone who was trying to do our country harm, and most of us would apologize for using a tone that was more harsh than what we are known to take. This works well because we do not represent any existential threat to the United States, the only nation that we have on our border. They don’t really think much about us, which is fine for us because we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves either.
So my parents made the decision to move to Canada to give my brother and me the opportunity to live the American dream. I believe that my mom would find happiness anywhere she lives, that is her nature. She has a peaceful mind, reasonable wants and needs, and is very low in negative emotion. You do the best you can and then you move forward, or you do the best you can while moving forward. Choose and do the one that works the best. Spend as much of your time paying attention to the things that are important to you, take reasonable steps to avoid harming other people, and be kind to animals. Her world view is not one that would trigger a family of four to move to another country let alone another continent, but it’s a world view that would not say “no” to the request, particularly when the reasons for the move were to help two young people achieve more of their potential. The fact that my dad was able to achieve more of his was likely just an unmentioned or unanticipated bonus.
My dad absolutely LOVED Canada. While this was almost a guarantee, based on the human need for consistency, he would have loved it if he had been born here or if his family had moved here when he was young. It is a comfortable place to be, a place that evokes a peace of mind or sense of security and safety for anyone who sets foot inside its borders. Most people are from somewhere else which gives everyone the ability to kind of blend-in as opposed to stick-out. This fact makes Canada a very interesting place to live. It eliminates the sense of there being a right way and a wrong way to live; the right way being what the average person does and the wrong way being anything else. The fact that there is no such thing as an average Canadian, at least in terms of how they choose to live their life, makes practically any life choice that does no harm to other people the “right way to live.” This means that there is no such thing as “Canadian values” there are only “human values.”
After we moved to Canada, my dad didn’t spend much time travelling. There were a few trips back to Ireland to visit, a few family vacations to the US, and a business trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. He enjoyed these, particularly, Washington DC, but he never made any specific mention to them as being quests to find something that was missing. This was nothing like the way he talked about every trip including our emigration from Ireland. Canada was home, it provided all of the opportunities that he needed personally and wanted for his family. Here, he was with his people and it really worked for him. He had been a Canadian his entire life, so he never felt at peace in Northern Ireland, England, or in the Republic of Ireland. His values were mostly aligned with the people who lived in those places, but not entirely, and he knew this on some level. But in Canada there was a complete alignment given that so many of us are from somewhere else.
My dad’s curiosity and desire to make sense of the world did not stop once he realized that he had found where he was and wanted to be from. For the 30 years between our arrival in Canada and his death, he took advantage of every opportunity to learn and figure things out that he had. I believe that he had always gotten a lot out of learning and figuring things out, but began to actually NEED to keep learning and making sense of the world when my brother was born. He is remarkably bright and seems to absorb information effortlessly and almost without having to pay attention to things. He figured out how to walk before most of the children who were his age had mastered crawling, he skipped most of the baby talk going almost directly to speaking in sentences, and he entertained some of the people in the village we lived in by reading them the news paper when he was 3. This worked for my dad because there was someone for him to talk to and teach who was interested in just knowing things, but who learned at a lightening fast pace that forced my dad to keep hitting the books to make sure he kept a few steps ahead. It is kind of funny to think about now because most people know a lot about their jobs and a few other things, but my brother was way too young to bring onto any of the job sites my dad worked at as a carpenter. Most of the lessons took place at home, at the kitchen table or on the sofa in front of the TV. The Internet didn’t exist back then, so my dad would have to go to the library or take courses to learn things to teach. This worked for him because my dad enjoyed learning and got a lot out of teaching the information to others. He took electronics courses, moving over to computer classes when PCs began to find their way into more homes.
When my brother was around 10 or 11 my dad realized that he was fighting a losing battle. There was no denying it any more, the times of him being the smartest person in the room, at least when my brother was also in it, were gone. There was a sort of a reversal of roles when my brother began to teach things to him, but this was never going to last very long. My dad had a strong sense of responsibility to make sure his children had the opportunity to take advantage of whatever gifts or talents they had, his children did not share this sense of responsibility (or much sense for that matter). My brother tried to help him keep up, but it’s a disconcerting dynamic for a child to suddenly find themselves having to contend with. All at once and for no clear reason the teacher had become the student and the student the teacher and the incentives each had while playing these roles were not at all the same. While my dad was teaching out of a sense of responsibility to help his children and a sense to society to make sure someone with a good brain matured to become a contributing member of society and a tax payer, my brother was teaching my dad because my dad was interested in learning. My brother was a student because young people don’t know very much and need to learn in order to escape this state of ignorance. My dad was a student because he was curious about the world and knew that a lot more would be learned when you have to teach someone. However, at some point towards the end of high school, they both figured out that it wasn’t going to continue for much longer. My dad would remain curious and would lean on my brother to teach him things, but it was more of an independent learning approach with my brother in the academic advisor position.
My brother has a lot of intellectual horsepower, which is both amazing and slightly frightening when you notice it in action. If you are not prepared for it, and even when you are, you can be left feeling kind of thick. I’m two years younger than him, so he was always going to be at least couple of years ahead of me in terms of development and knowledge acquisition as we grew-up. It wasn’t until I went to university and began to learn stuff that didn’t interest him that I began to gain an appreciation that we were different, that I wasn’t just a less powerful version of him. My parents always knew this and while they tried to make sure that they didn’t privilege one of us more than the other, they were NOT willing to handicap him. My relationship with my dad was more similar to the father son relationships of my friends and what you might see on TV. My dad was a carpenter, and I took a greater interest in this area of his life than the abstract things my brother found rewarding to consider and spend time on.
I’d like to think that my brother and I were the perfect complement to my dad’s curiosity and sense of parental responsibility to teach your children how to be useful and contributing members of society. Being a carpenter in Ireland is very different than being one in Canada. Their different climates necessitate different building methods and the flip flop in humidity levels plays havoc on wood in a way that the constant moisture in Ireland doesn’t. The early years in Canada put my dad behind the 8 ball in terms of becoming a Canadian carpenter who was able to deliver the high quality results that had become second nature in Ireland. The gap is a large but not insurmountable one, and he had closed it within a few years. I have little doubt that had the gap been larger, things would have turned out a little differently. The truth is that there isn’t enough of a difference between being a carpenter in Ireland and one in Canada to keep it interesting for 30 years and my dad had already grown tired of it a few times BEFORE we moved to Canada. The teaching role that my brother’s brain obligated my dad to play afforded enough of a balance to the carpentry work that he was able to keep at it for a while. The need to learn the rules of being a Canadian carpenter extended this time frame. However, after a while there stopped being enough new stuff for my dad to keep doing it, which was great because it happened to coincide with my brothers need for more information and a deeper understanding of everything. Carpentry was something that my dad loved to leave behind and then learned to love getting back into.
This became the rhythm and cadence to my dads life for the last 25 years. He would move back and forth between dealing with things and dealing with ideas. It didn’t really matter to him which role he was playing, he was capable of both and since there was a lot about the world that he didn’t know, there were opportunities to learn from both sons. I believe that I am more curious about why the world is the way it is and how the world works while my brother is more curious about things that do not yet exist or are on the bleeding edge of what is known. When my dad would find his way back to carpentry, I would spend more time with him and probably spent about a year total working with him on various jobs. When he was sick of carpentry he would begin to pursue something that was in the realm of ideas or vapour and would spend more time learning from my brother.
For example, I have a very clear series of memories in my head of walking in on a conversation between them. The bulk of the conversation had already taken place and they were closing in on the home stretch. It was obvious that my brother had explained a new concept or idea to my dad and my dad was struggling to figure out what to do with it. The look on his face told me that he had understood the essence of it but was not having any luck with answering the “so what” or “what good will that be” questions that tend to accompany new ideas. I’d estimate that this was in 1993 because my brother and I just happened to be home from university at the same time.
“I can’t answer that exactly, insurance, research, education, and communication obviously. No one really knows and that is the cool thing about it, it’s real, it’s here, and it is going to be everywhere soon enough.”
My dad, looking slightly pensive, like a person who is driving a car in heavy fog, “it’s not like I don’t believe you, I’m just not sure I’ll ever understand it.”
Well he did come to understand it and found it to be one of the most useful inventions that he ever had the good fortune to be alive for. And this conversation with my brother came to mark the beginning of the final phase of my dads learning, one that lasted nearly a quarter century.
When my brother left I asked my dad what they were talking about and he did his best to teach me. He took the idea, the vapour, that my brother had shared and converted it into a thing that I might be able to understand better. In doing so, he also began to understand it.
“He called it the Internet. It’s a thing that you can connect your computer to and it will let your computer connect to other computers. But it’s not like a phone line that connects your computer to another computer, it’s more like your computer becomes the telephone company and everyone else’s computer becomes the telephone company, so everyone is able to connect with everyone else, all at once, and share information instantly.” I obviously had no idea what he was talking about because, at the time, the Internet was not much of a thing, let alone the thing that it is today. I do however have to give him a solid B+ for the description. The Internet is a thing that is very much like what he described.
If I had to list off some of the things that I am glad my dad got to live through, I would put the creation and spread of the Internet very close to the top of the list. He really took advantage of it in a way that added tremendous value and satisfaction to his time on the planet. It gave him access to mountains of information and knowledge that he always suspected was out there and knew would be better written to his brain. Whatever curiosity he had could be indulged at will, meaning the joy / reward he got from learning became available to him, endlessly, effortlessly, and constantly.
On this day, the eighth anniversary of his death, I am thinking about him a lot. I am grateful for having had him in my life for as long as I did and while I would like to be able to talk to him still, I don’t think I would change much about any of it. It would be nice to say “thank you” for believing in me, for letting me know that it is fine to not be satisfied and that it is right and noble to imagine a future that is better than today, and for modelling the making of great sacrifices to turn that vision into the reality we know as here and now. As time rolls on, many of the lessons he tried to pass along continue to work their way through my brain and find their way to the surface. As one of my first and most influential teachers, his words remain and continue to help shape my understanding of the world. In this way, he is still alive and continues to be an amazing father.
Someone once told me that I was the most cynical person they had ever met. I thanked them for the feedback, mentioned that they needed to get out more, and agreed with them that I was skeptical. They either didn’t notice this correction-agreement pairing or didn’t react to it; although I presume it was the former.
Cynicism and skepticism are not the same thing. While both are is “isms”, the locus of control for each is different. With cynicism, the individual is in control of the interpretation. No matter what other people do, the individual will remain in a negatively valianced state that has them default to the worst possible interpretation of things, one that is highly resistant to contradictory evidence. With skepticism, the individual tends towards an initial negative interpretation that is not sticky; it is a wait and see approach that moves in response to evidence pointing one way or the other. Skeptics have a locus of control that is external meaning other people get to determine whether the doubt continues based on their actions.
Back to me being called cynical for displaying skepticism. It was very clear right from the start what the person was trying to communicate and it had nothing to do with me being cynical or not, it had to do with them not liking the prediction I had made about the future based on my experience. It was one of my old bosses, who was speaking about the future actions of one of my peers. They were telling me that my peer was going to take care of something and as soon as they had, I would be able to move forward with a project that my boss was pressuring me to complete. When they mentioned that my peer would have things wrapped-up by the end of that business day, meaning I could get started that night working from home to make sure no deadlines were missed, I replied with “I’ll try to get started this evening, but I’m not going to do any work on it if what they deliver is not accurate.” This was met with a reply of “oh my God, you are so cynical.”
Why was my comment an indication of skepticism vs. cynicism?
Evidence, and very specific evidence. My peer had a track record of not delivering the work that was needed in order for me to pick-up the baton, do my part, and then hand off the complete project to the sales team.
A peer not being up to speed on the requirements or them lacking the ability to perform their tasks is not something that I necessarily have a problem with. Life is tough, most jobs are composed of a multitude of tasks that are novel and only meaningful in a very tight context. It is going to take people a few tries to get it right, and a bunch more to get good enough at it so as to be a contributing member of a team. So long as the person approaches things without any arrogance, I am fine with their below average performance and bug-filled work because I know they are open to feedback and will make the effort to alter their specific actions to improve the quality of their results as they move forward. There will be incremental improvement as they take in more information and adjust their approach in response.
The peer in question, however, was arrogant. They had a track record of handing off error filled work and reacting to my feedback with “interesting, I’ll try that next time” or, “well, if you were to think about for a second, you’d realize my approach is an improvement.” Both of which were followed by them doing nothing more at that moment and doing nothing different in the future. I was left to correct their mistakes and after a couple of these interactions, I knew full well that my job had expanded to include the new task of fixing their inaccurate work.
When they started, I was optimistic that they were the correct hire and that they had the right values in terms of doing the best work possible. That was not based on anything that had happened yet, just the hope that those in a position of making the hiring decision had the ability to identify the correct values and soft skills that would ultimately result in a competent coworker. Whether or not being able to generate hope is a bug or a feature of the human brain is an interesting side question, but I have found that it is a requirement when working with other people. You cannot approach things with certainty one way or the other because the human brain has tremendous capacity to learn new things, just as it has the capacity to decide that it knows all that is needed and then remain impervious to new information.
More often than not, people rise to the occasion and invest the effort to learn and improve. It takes effort, willingness, and the ability to tolerate being wrong for long enough choose to do something about it. While not everyone will do this, I have had ample opportunity to notice that many people will lean into the uncertainty (or the certainty that they are wrong) and advance their understanding of the situation. And it is only because of these experiences that I have been able to avoid cynicism. I have seen enough people take action to try and improve that I accept that the locus of control for other peoples ignorance resides outside of me. I KNOW that they CAN do it, I just do not know if they will. Most of my other peers did, the one in question did not.
With cynicism, the locus of control for taking the actions to address ones ignorance becomes secondary to the lack of hope or belief that anyone will take the actions that are needed; or the certainty that they will NOT take these actions. It is as though the cynical person adds something to the effect of “and yet they won’t” to the end of any sentence or statement that makes reference to someones ability to take the actions to move forward or advance their understanding. For example, “They have the ability the fix the problem, and yet they won’t.”
Doubling down in this, cynical people also employ a more robust version of the fundamental attribution error (FAE). When an outcome is bad, they attribute it to a characterlogical short-comings or flaw, which is a near text book definition of the FAE. What they add to it is their response to a positive outcome, which is to attribute situational or circumstantial causes to it vs. the unconscious assumption that the other person got it right because of talent, skill, or ability. When the outcome is bad, the other person is to blame, when the outcome is good, the other person was lucky. So no matter what happens, the other person is always going to be painted in the worst possible light.
NOTE: I have not suggested a second alternative, that the cynic has an internal locus of control for taking the actions to correct another persons ignorance, because that point of view is only embodied in people who believe that things can be different, which a cynic does not believe.
There is nothing at all wrong with being skeptical so long as you change your view when you encounter evidence that justifies changing your point of view. Skepticism is basically taking a “wait and see” approach, which is actually a very logical way to view things. People can, but will they?
I invite everyone to engage life with this or a more optimistic approach as it will help you achieve a lot more than taking the cynical view that “they can but won’t” or that “they can’t.” The reasons are twofold. The first is that it will allow you to change your mind and move forward based on reality vs. the application of a preconceived generalization that does not change. The second is that it communicates a very different message to other people. Cynics tend to broadcast their doubt in a way that influences the actions of other people leading to the very outcomes the cynic was predicting. Being skeptical does not broadcast doubt because there isn’t any. It tells the other person that they can, that you believe they can, but that actions need to be taken by them.
Any and everything that helps to get things done is fine, but then, only as much of it as is necessary. Less is the best, so when in doubt don’t talk or stop talking.
In Buddhism, something that I consider to be a valid approach to life and not a viable religion, they have a concept called useless speak. A lot of topics are lumped into the category of useless speak so a general definition or understanding will go a long way in making the concept clear. Useless speak is any speech, internal or external, or any communication, to the inside or to the outside, that has no purpose.
On the face of it, that doesn’t include a lot, but when you consider a number of the other notions that Buddhism holds, what it includes expands to cover almost everything.
First off, Buddhism believes in the notion of no self. They do not suggest that people do not exist, but they view the self as something rather different than what most westerners believe. You are a body and that is it. You have thoughts that come from you body. whatever narrative identity you hold of yourself, it isn’t something that is real. It’s just an elaborate story you tell yourself that, when interrogated, will not stand-up to the scrutiny. As such, any talk that deals with you, your thoughts, your wishes, etc…. is useless speak.
Next, given that the self does not exist, no other self exists either. So talking about other people is useless speak as is talking about their thoughts, actions, whatever.
Finally, for the purposes here, is the concept of impermanence. No matter what happens, it will pass away. Before you thought or felt something, you didn’t think or feel it, and since it will fade away after a moment or so, it doesn’t really exist. Everything in the universe is impermanent so there is no point in discussing any of it.
So almost everything is useless speak. You are encouraged to talk about the dharma, which is the way – the experience of being alive in the present moment; which is kind of a paradox so maybe it was just the Buddha being funny. I don’t know, but in the event he wasn’t kidding, your free and encouraged to talk about this.
You are also allowed to talk about things that are helpful and things that have a purpose. As a monk, you would likely need to discuss things with other monks in terms of preparing food or coordinating work. As a householder, you have a lot of responsibilities to look after so any speech that is critical and helpful in taking care of these things is acceptable. Banking, house work, job responsibilities, raising children, teaching people useful skills, etc…. Any and everything that helps to get things done is fine, but then, only as much of it as is necessary. Less is the best, so when in doubt don’t talk or stop talking.
Okay, so now we know about useless speak, what it is comprised of and what speech is not included in the category. If we were to stop at this point and implement what we know we would simply talk less and only about useful things. That would lead us to see a big improvement in our life, which is worthwhile. Life will become both simpler and easier. We’d have more energy, an increase in available mental capacity and we would find ourselves with more free time.
With this increase in mental capacity we would begin to notice the impact of our actions, or the impact of our non-actions, on other people. They too would enjoy the same benefits that are given to us, but to a smaller degree that reflected the elimination of OUR share of useless speak into their life. Whatever impact our unnecessary or unhelpful words were having on them would disappear and these liberated resources would become available to them. What they choose to do with them is their decision and in fairness to them, that is a much better way to let people live.
The concept of Karma and how it is involved with useless speak.
Karma is best understood to be the consequences of an action. It is neither good nor bad, it is intangible and it is not banked.
The common idea of generating bad karma for doing something crappy and later receiving your comeuppance as retribution for this act has no place in secular Buddhism; this notion is shared among particular divisions or sects but I find it unhelpful as a way of objective living because it introduces the supernatural into the physical world. Equally unhelpful is the opposite idea of good karma that will contribute to a future reward or positive occurrence in the holders life. The palatability of the idea of a fair and just world that good and bad karma create is just not worth the sacrifices we make for holding them as truths. The world and the universe just are and this is neither good or bad. Things occur, these things cause other things to occur, which cause other things to occur and so on. It’s objective and measurable, and simply stimulus response or cause and effect. None of it matters to the universe regardless of the impact on the living being. Actions have consequences in the physical world and these consequences are called karma. Release yourself from the idea of good and bad and gain the power of understanding things as they are.
Given that every action has consequences it is accurate to say that every action creates karma. It is helpful to imagine a small pond that has a few similarly sized rocks in it that are sticking out above the surface. Let’s think about what happens when we drop a rock of the same size into the pond. The first thing that will happen will be the displacement of the water where the rock first enters the pond. The water will be forced down and away from the rock and it will appear that the water is bending. This is exactly what is happening as the surface tension is holding the water together like a sheet. But the attractive forces of the water molecules are weak and will quickly release allowing the rock through. The water will do a few cool things. The first is the restoration of water level around the rock; the bending of the surface of the water will be eliminated and the flatness will be restored. Next, the level of the water will increase by the volume equal to the volume of the rock that is below the surface. Finally, and most importantly here, there will be the displacement of water at a volume that is determined by the mass of the rock and the speed at which is entered the water. This displaced water will move away from the from the the rock in predictable directions and speed based on newtons laws and it represents the energy transfer from the rock molecules into the water molecules.
This energy wave will be transferred through the water away from the rock as a ripple. After a few moments, it will make its way to the other rocks that are sitting in the pond. The wave will hit the rocks and appear to bounce off. It will continue in away from the second rock in predictable direction, with some of it moving back to the first rock. The wave or ripple is will be smaller because it will have transferred some of its energy into the second rock. After a few moments, the second wave will begin to hit the other rocks and the first rock causing the wave to bounce off them and move in predictable directions away, but with less energy than before. This will continue until all of the energy from the wave is gone and the pond water will settle down as gravity pulls all of the water molecules down and the flat still surface is restored.
It’s easy to think about all of this and imagine it happening. It is a clear example of chemistry and physics at play and we have all seen it in one form or another.
When thinking about karma as the consequences of actions, consider the action to be the rock getting dropped into the pond and the wave to be the consequences. Or, useless speak is the rock and the karma is the wave. When we follow the wave we notice it hitting other rocks and transferring some of its energy. This is the karma having a consequence on other people or things. The wave bounces off the rocks and comes back to the initial rock and has an effect. This is the karma coming back to us.
This metaphor works well because it is very close to what happens. Our actions do have consequences on our physical environment (the things, people and matter around us). The actions that are a consequence of our karma will have consequences on the environment (and potentially us). And all consequences spread out like ripples and have an impact on the things that are near to them. And the size of the ripple is related to the magnitude of the action meaning that bigger actions have bigger consequences.
Given that all actions have consequence it is clear that unnecessary actions will cause consequences that are, by definition, unnecessary, and these in turn will have consequences, etc…. Rephrased, unhelpful actions will have unhelpful consequences, etc….
When we take what we have just considered and take a second look at the notion of people getting what they deserve because of the karma they create, we are able to see that there is some truth in this idea, although it remains a mistake to imagine some bank that holds a detailed account of the good and bad that each of us cause. If we think about a helpful action that creates karma, it is easy to imagine that the helpful waves bounce back and bring us something helpful. The inverse is also easy to imagine, that being a dick creates negative waves that come back at us bringing us dickish consequences. This is something that happens, although there is often a time delay between when the waves hit the other side and when we are impacted by the karma they helped bring about.
This is part of why the karma bank idea is so sticky. Not only does it manufacture a narrative of a fair and just world, but we do see people who do good receiving good and the doers of bad suffering. But a consistent narrative is just a story that feel like the truth and plausibility is not evidence of fact. It is more likely, and demonstrably true, that when we take good and useful actions that we move the physical world in such a way that the outcome is more favourable for us. For example, when we work hard and consistently do the right thing, the karma we create shifts the structure of the brain in the people we impact to form positive long term memories and that in turn shape the way they act towards us, resulting in waves of good things coming our way. Someone who always phones it in and does the bare minimum will earn this reputation and this will impact how other people approach them.
With all of this being said, the nature of the waves we create does not actually mean that they will bounce back and impact us in the same way. Most of the good things we do will result in positive consequences in places we do not consider or intend. When we drive safely and act with courtesy we enjoy a driving life free of tickets and accidents, but there is a very good chance that we will never benefit from the courtesy of other drivers. Most people look after themselves only and are not obligated to pay anything forward. Even with those who do pay things forward, it is statistically unlikely that we’ll get it back when they make the payment.
How does this impact luck?
In an objective material world, every action has and equal and opposite reaction in the opposite direction. Acting in any way creates predictable outcomes. If we take enough actions, we alter the world in such a way as to increase the chances that something will happen. Over time, enough of these things will come to pass and the environment will be set-up in such a way that has positive waves come at you. When this happens, we’ll be “lucky” when compared to those who do not have the things happen. The hard-work we did to shape the environment will largely be ignored by people who see only the nice thing happening to us. Take the person who gets the promotion at work. Those who get passed over may feel that the freshly promoted was lucky. They may never have seen or appreciate the actions that the person took to place themselves at the front of the line when it came to getting the next higher level position. But not seeing something does not mean that it does not exist. The person who got the promotion did a lot of work to put themselves into the position were they could be “lucky”. The reality is that the actions they took created the karma that change the environment in such a way that made giving them a promotion the only reasonable choice.
Back to useless speak now. When we say anything we are creating karma and these consequences have an effect on the world. When what we say is not useful, the impact on other people is not useful. This is at the core of why certain speech is useless. Helpful actions have helpful consequences. Useless actions have useless consequences. When we teach someone how to read, the long term consequences have them reading books, learning new things and altering the course of their life by altering the structure of their brain.
When we gossip about something, we create useless consequences within the listeners – they end up thinking about something stupid or pointless, which is a waste of their time, and they end up having less time to spend on the things that are helpful or important to them. Consequently, they may miss out on an opportunity to act in a helpful way or engage in useful speak, which will mean there is no positive consequences. While the gossip may not necessarily cause anything bad to happen, it does prevent the opportunity for something good to happen by filling the space that the good thing would have occupied. At best, useless speak creates karma that results in time being wasted. The possible consequences get worse from here in terms of things not getting better, opportunities being wasted and potential not being actualized.
The best advice is to keep the pond as wave free as possible and, when making ripples, make only helpful or positive ones. Every action has consequences. Always keep this in mind when you are about to act. If what you are about to do has no purpose or if it has a clear and likely downside, just don’t do it. Use your energy for something else and give people the dignity and freedom to choose what they get to do with their energy. Useless speak is a waste of time, time that can never be salvaged. Use your time to be useful and helpful!
We can all laugh at how quaint and silly people were a hundred years ago, and feel somehow more evolved or superior given that we no longer believe that we should spend time having cow trials. But the fact that we’re not all completely sickened by the emotional and cognitive manipulation tactics used by the politicians is an indication that we still do not get it. The fact that they are allowed to continue to do it is PROOF that we do not get it.
Yes, it is true that if we do not like having other people trespass on our private property we are free to avoid people or to put up a bigger fence to keep them out. But that is actually more proof of the problem and not a solution.
Human beings are social creatures who default to believing what they hear. Our programming also dictates that we cannot ignore all other people. Social isolation used to be a death sentence. This means that we are running code that ensures the release of reward chemicals in response to the perception of anything that falls into the realm of social connection.
We can train ourselves to avoid others, but this takes time and will only occur after the default programming has been expressed. Making ME responsible for preventing others from committing property crimes on my property is victim blaming and doing so prevents us from taking advantage of the behaviour modification qualities that the punishment of social scorn facilitates.
This is a very simple and straight forward issue, one that more people should be talking about and that we should all be trying to put an end to.
When someone makes-up a story or when they present a biased point of view or narrative that will trigger outrage or fear, they are effectively attempting to reach inside the heads of other people and turn the taps that control the release of very powerful chemicals. Once opened, these chemicals hit the blood stream and move throughout the brain and body. The effect can be very profound. With a full sympathetic nervous system response, the prefrontal cortex ceases activity, knocking off-line a number of executive functions that are related to improved decision making. This makes the person temporarily less intelligent, which is a problem on it own, but so much worse when you realize that their body has been primed for intense aggressive movement.
A highly aroused poor decision maker is potentially much more dangerous than a person who is operating at their baseline state. In the same way as we are able to consider the role the brain tumour might have played on Charles Whitmans murder spree, we need to be able to consider the role fear or outrage have on diminishing the cognitive abilities of normally functioning people; those without any underlying pathology.
I am not directly suggesting that a politician who makes up a pizza-gate type story is responsible for firing the gun, but they are responsible for setting in motion the events that lead to an internal state of a person who then chooses to fire the gun. We will never know what would have happened had the pizza-gate story never been told but it is reasonable to conclude that the story did have an impact on the material world in that someone who had a predisposition to shoot a gun into a restaurant found a reason and an emotional state that would allow them to take violent action.
THIS is the sources of the problem. The words we use convey NOT only ideas that are automatically assumed to be true but they also trigger emotional reactions that are based on this automatic believing. When the triggered state is one that suppresses logical thinking and consideration of consequences, there will be blood on the hands of the speaker when the listeners fails to consider the totality of the circumstances and reacts.
For example, about a hundred years ago in the US, they had cow trials to determine the guilt or innocence of bulls that were being used to breed. The details are moderately interesting and remarkably crazy to contemporary thinkers, but at the time it seemed like a good thing to do. There was a court with a judge, a prosecutor and a defendant. Witnesses would give sworn testimony and the judge would make a determination, and sentence the guilty bulls to some sort of punishment. Usually it was a speedy death, but on occasion they were given a 30 day stay of execution to eat as much as they could so when the death sentence was carried out, they would provide more meat for the farmer to sort of make-up for the crime they committed.
I wish this was something that I was making-up.
We can all laugh at how quaint and silly people were a hundred years ago, and feel somehow more evolved or superior given that we no longer believe that we should spend time having cow trials. But the fact that we’re not all completely sickened by the emotional and cognitive manipulation tactics used by the politicians is an indication that we still do not get it. The fact that they are allowed to continue to do it is PROOF that we do not get it.
Would you hold a polar bear responsible for attacking a tourist who makes the bad decision of picking-up one of its cubs? No, you wouldn’t. The bear may get shoot in an attempt to save the persons life, but if the person gets away and the polar bear is not encroaching on any community it will be left alone to do bear things. Bears are bears and you cannot fault a bear for acting like a bear just as you cannot fault it for not acting like a human. All of its coding and all of its hardware are perfectly shaped and formed to be bear-like.
So while a person undergoing an amygdala hijack or full sympathetic nervous system response does not suddenly become a bear, they do become somewhat less of a human than they were before the response. They are also not entirely responsible for this slipping, and even less so when an external operator has deliberately engineered the situation to trigger the response.
The full force of the law should be directed towards the people who trespass against others. Their actions have consequences and they are not harmless nor victimless. They are consuming other people for their purposes and the outcome can have long last effects. Any thought that we have is also an experience, and any experience we have can be reinforced and therefore repeated. Any repeated experience can influence gene expression. Once genes are expressed, they can influence the future in powerful ways.
By choosing to suppress your critical faculties, they are using you in an attempt to shape the future in a way that helps them get what they want. But they are not getting your consent to alter your neurological functioning, it is just something that is done to you. They are effectively violating your body, breaking into your brain and implanting fake ideas that you are powerless to not respond to.
They are no longer concerned with surfacing the best ideas to make the world a better place. In fact, they are no longer concerned with ethics, morals, or virtue. It is all about labelling the other side as vile, disgusting, and dangerous in order to win. They are going to continue to do this until we treat them as the criminal trespassers they are. Until we do, it is only going to continue to get worse.
There are worse things for humanity than global warming…. Pollution is a bigger problem. Antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem. Bad ideas about differences between groups of people is a bigger problem. A lack of diversity in terms of crops and livestock farming is a bigger problem. Obesity is a bigger problem. The fact that very few people know how to make any of the things that we use is a bigger problem. Our collective ignorance about how exactly we got here is a bigger problem.
Things take time. Other than the big bang, which for some inexplicable reason created an expanding universe out of a near infinite mass of matter contained in a tiny area of space. That was very very quick. Everything else takes time.
We as a species are beginning to stumble from one disaster to another at a quickening pace. For billions of years, not much happened. Then things started to pick-up a bit of speed. It wasn’t much speed, but it was a lot faster than the pace in the previous billion or so years. This continued along for hundreds of millions of years with only slightly more than nothing happening. There was another increase in the speed of change, still slow by big bang standards, but it was faster. This incremental pace of increases continued along for hundreds of millions and probably billions of years.
Not everything went at this snail’s pace. There were moments of dramatic
action followed by slightly longer periods of time when the planet would
experiences the physical consequences to that moment before things slowed right
down again. These moments are more or less completely made-up of the times when
large objects that had been travelling through space crashed into the earth.
Like that time when a massive asteroid / early planet joined the earth with
such force that the resulting debris eventually all coalesced to form the moon.
Or that other time when an asteroid slammed into the water just off the coast
of what is now Mexico and the ensuing chaos killed 98% of the land dwelling
creatures – basically all of the ones that were not able to take shelter a few
inches below the surface. The consequences from this one took a lot less time
to materialize than the moon maker; estimates range from less than 6 hours to a
couple of years.
Then effectively nothing for an unimaginably long time.
Except this time was a little different. The culling of most surface life
created a space for a different type of animal (or classification) to get an
opportunity to live without too many predators. This classification was the
warm blood, live birth giving creates that are collectively known as mammals.
Some of the most famous animals that are not dinosaurs fall into this category
– panda bears, the cute as anything kola bears, sloths, wild dogs, wild cats,
and human beings. It took a while for each one of these species to come to be
but what is important is that it happened. The land was safe enough for early
mammals to live, breed, and naturally select or mutate a high level of
diversity into this class of beings. Sometime between 50 thousand and half a
millions years ago homo-sapiens came into existence. This was the beginning of
something entirely new, a species of life that would eventually develop the
capability to manufacture natural disasters and other slow moving events that
that nature used to have a monopoly on causing.
I’m not going to suggest that human beings are great, because we are kind of flawed in very fundamental ways, but we appear to be the first species to ever exist on the planet that is able to engage in complex interactions with other members of the species, and of considering abstract ideas and stuff that doesn’t exist. There is reason to believe that many other species are capable of at least rudimentary abstraction, but none of them have the capacity to communicate these ideas to others nor do they have the ability to look at what is going on at one moment and figure out what will happen in the next, at least not to any substantial degree. Some can learn through observation and understand concepts like fairness and reciprocity, many more are capable of the abstraction that is object permanence, and all of them are incapable of communicating these things to other members of the species – all learning was the result of direct observation or direct experience.
Welcome to the beginning of the end, thank you for coming!
In fairness to early man, they were practically useless. Sure they had an
advanced brain that ran much of the same programming of the mammal species that
came before it and it functioned in effectively the same way (neurons that
alter their electrical charge slightly to be “on” vs “off” and collections of
them interacting to form neural networks to respond to and make things happen),
but out of the box, there wasn’t much more to this version than the one that
came before it, but there was potential. The newer version had a huge capacity
for storage and the capability to process more information faster, and in a way
that was new. This brain was also coded to grow a larger prefrontal cortex than
any that came before, although it was programmed to do most of this growth
beginning around the time puberty.
This late growth stage is an argument against intelligent design. No one
with a fully developed and functioning prefrontal cortex could miss the
inherent problems with having one part of the brain lag 15 years behind the
rest of it. This will not go as well as having a brain that grows at the same
It’s also an occurrence that supports the theory of evolution that a new
species will arise from what came before. Whatever mutation triggered the brain
to grow an exceptionally large prefrontal cortex also coded for it to grow
later in life. Take what is already there, let it run its course, and when it’s
done, start growing the new stuff.
This of course changes nothing about the eventual outcome of having human
beings evolve into existence. These consequence will take time but the moment
the genetic code mutated to program for a human brain, the count down was
The problem has to do with the human ability to learn quickly and without
having to observe or directly experience something. Consider wild dogs for
comparison and contrast. When they are born, their genetic code contains
instructions that will ensure that the reward centers of their brains will
release reward chemicals in response to particular things. If these things
never happen, the animal will never become conditioned to take particular action.
Their motivation will be fueled only by punishment and thus be exclusively
avoidant. However, if the animal happens to experience one of the things for
which the reward chemicals will get released, their future will immediately
transform to include repeating the experience. Through this mechanism, wild
pack dogs can learn a number of things and act in very specific ways that can
very easily be mistakenly to be group behaviours that were communicated. Wolf
packs can track down prey and perform some highly coordinated attacks including
flanking maneuvers by pack members that are invisible to the rest of the pack.
But all of it is simply the result of gene expression and behaviour shaping
based on reinforcement. It is fantastic, but all of it was determined by the
millions of years of life that led to the emergence of the wolf species.
Human beings are not like that. Well, they are not JUST like that. Gene
expression and behaviour shaping through reward and punishment are at work
within each one of us, but we also have the ability for abstract thought and
remarkably robust communication abilities. The addition of these later two
means that we are capable of out of context learning merely by hearing them.
E.g. we learn many things at school that we later apply to work and the day to
day living of adult life. Factor into this the ability to learn fantastic
amounts of information and to then work with and reprocess this information and
the floodgates to knowledge and wisdom swing wide open.
It might be important to consider the fact that very little advanced
knowledge exists in isolation – advanced ideas build upon less advanced ideas,
which were themselves built upon less advanced ideas. When we figure a fact
out, it gives our species a big hand in accumulating knowledge. As the
collection of knowledge grows to include more advanced concepts, we have the
ability to fill-in the gaps or the missing steps in our knowledge. For example,
if we teach someone fact A and then teach them fact B and then just to fact G,
the human brain will be able to make a guess about steps C, D, E and F and will
be able to manufacture compatible and congruent knowledge based on knowing the
starting point and knowing the ending point.
That wasn’t a big deal for early man, which we accept as being mostly
clueless. But it didn’t take very long before they began to develop technology
that was based on this progressive model of knowledge organization. Shelters,
fires, weapons, tools, tribes, leaders, education, division of labour, hunting,
gathering, farming, domestication of animals, specialization of labour,
government, schools, etc…. While not necessarily in chronological order, each
one of these technological advancements / discoveries had the effect of
improving production and security and of reducing the need to teach young
people EVERY lesson that came before. If you work on a farm, what is important
is that someone knows how to hunt well enough so that you don’t have to know
how to hunt and that you know how to farm well enough so that they don’t have
to know. This will free-up a lot of energy to learn or discover more about
farming or hunting. When the first working animals were domesticated, farmers
no longer needed to know how to plow the fields by hand, they just needed to
know how to connect the animal to the plow and how to walk it in a straight
line while it drags it. Learning how to do this, however, also meant that you
could easily figure-out how to do it by hand by reverse engineering the
The rate of change began to accelerate. Sure, it took a very long time for
the first pieces of homo-sapien discovered technology to surface, but as soon
as they did, they could be shared. This gave the technology staying power and
it allowed other human beings to improve upon it. Things advanced slightly and
slowly, but within a couple of generations, early man was capable of doing
things that pre-man had no concept of. Give it a few hundred generations and
what the people consider to be common knowledge would have seemed like magic to
This is the point at which the fate of the species and possibly the planet was sealed. We began to assimilate ever increasing amounts of the physical environment into the collection of matter that is implicated into the life of humanity. Whereas early man would eat animal and plant life in order to convert it into energy and building material, use other plants to build and heat shelters, and use other various materials to form primitive tools, tens of thousands of years later we had developed the ability to build complex tools and machines out of molecules that were themselves processed into usable form by other complex tools and technologies. Sand was turned into glass, iron ore was processed into the iron, the stored energy of the sun was harnessed through the use of mills on rivers and dams, the movement of electrons that is triggered when a magnetic field moves across a copper wire becomes electricity, etc….
A lot of these things were just novel ways to use or take advantage of what had always existed, many were just an industrial scale increase in the assimilation of existing things, but some of the technology caused the formation of completely new combinations of molecules that had never existed in nature before. These useful yet Frankenstein creations and the increase in availability of the preexisting ones are problematic for a similar reason. Life evolved in the presence and concentration of the preexisting elements and compounds meaning anything that is alive either used the molecules or was unharmed by them. Changing the availability of them, and adding new ones, can interfere with the normal biological functioning.
The industrial revolution lead to the creation of the chemical industry and
from that moment on, there was a no holds bar assault on the environment. The
levels of everything increased, and creatures that had never been exposed to
particular chemicals began to assimilate them into their bodies. These
chemicals then began to change how cells function.
Some of these changes were health promoting – various medicines, vitamins,
and nutritional compounds supply something that predictably alters
physiological functioning in the direction of better. Some of them helpful
because of the very specific way in which they are incompatible with life –
antibiotics, cancer drugs. But many of them have effects on life that are
neither helpful nor compatible with the ongoing flourishment of human kind –
PVC and asbestos cause cancer, while bacteria adapt to become resistant to
This brings us to where we find ourselves today. The slow change over
billions of years has been transformed by human technology into a lightening
pace of change. The carbon that has been locked and stored in various places in
being released at an ever growing rate as we our technologies break apart the
molecules to release the stored energy. The energy is useful, the resulting
molecules is less so. It is a matter of scale here. Seasonal fires used to
trigger the release of large amount of CO2, but the fires would go out and the
land would quickly begin to recapture the carbon as the forest started to
regrow. Over millions of years, a balance had been struck that effectively
negated any of the positive or negative consequences of releasing this stored
carbon. Human beings and the technology they have created since the beginning
of the industrial revolution has eliminate the seasonal aspect of release and
recapture, replacing it with constant release and a decreasing partial
We have entered a no man’s land of chemical diversity and availability.
Plastic is everywhere. Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been in
a very long time and have increased at a rate that is faster than any time in
the past except for the moments of impact with asteroids or volcanic
This is where the mutation that caused the human brain to come into existence is no longer something that is improving our chances of surviving. Specifically, the ability to think in abstract terms, to learn through listening vs. direct experience or the observation of real experience, and to build upon existing knowledge in ever more complex ways, means that we have no experience and little awareness with the consequences of our technology. Unlike the dinosaur killing asteroid which was a near instant released of 1.3 – 58 yottajoules of energy into the environment, the rate of human caused energy release is much slower. This slow burn delays the impact and consequences from less than a few hours to years, decades or even generations, which is the exact recipe for imperceivable and denial. For example, an earth quake, forest fire, or volcano will reveal consequences almost immediately or within days, the effects of moderate radiation or moderate toxic chemical exposures can take twenty years or more for come to pass. This causes humans to make the incorrect assumption that these technologies are only acute harmful in high doses given the quick onset and death in these circumstance. Smoking was harmless until the 1950’s when doctors began to notice a big increase in cancer deaths, particular lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases. Those who were getting sick had been smoking for decades so the temporal relationship between cause and effect was too wide for most people to perceive the existence of a relationship at all. Nonetheless, there is a strong link between smoking and disease, and there is a correlation between the amount of exposure, both in terms of concentration and duration, and negative health outcomes.
There are worse things for humanity than global warming. Not to trivialize the direct impact on millions of people so far, and the billions of people who will be impacted by rising sea levels, but there will be enough well above sea level land that those effected will be able to move. It will suck and it will be expensive, but they will still be alive and healthy. Although by the time it happens, there may not be a lot of people left to be impacted.
Pollution is a bigger problem. Antibiotic resistance is a bigger problem.
Bad ideas about differences between groups of people is a bigger problem. A
lack of diversity in terms of crops and livestock farming is a bigger problem.
Obesity is a bigger problem. The fact that very few people know how to make any
of the things that we use is a bigger problem. Our collective ignorance about
how exactly we got here is a bigger problem.
And yet, very few people are talking about these things because they are
too busy talking about the latest stupid tweet, reality tv show, fashion trend,
or the absolute vileness of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. We are talking
about what doesn’t matter because it feels more real than the things that do
matter. We’ll wear our ignorance like a badge of honour instead of it triggering
shame and motivating us to learn something.
There’s a slow-motion car crash happening but we’re not noticing it. We only see the shiny, new, and the fast moving. None of us have seen an extinction level event first hand and since the last one created the clearing that allowed human beings to evolve into existence, we have nothing to fear, especially given that we are the ones steering the car.
My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is a remarkably useless way to behave.
TikTok, in the event you have never heard of it, is a social media / video app that lets users make and share videos of three to fifteen seconds. It will also allow users to loop a video for up to sixty seconds. I have never used it and the only TikTok videos that I have seen are compilation videos posted on YouTube. As close as I can tell, it is very similar to Vine (which allows users to post videos that are slightly more than 6 seconds long). My reasons for not using TikTok, or Vine, have nothing to do with the app. My life just isn’t that interesting and I am not so connected to other people that I or they feel the need to share or consume small chunks of life. These are common feelings that are reported from many people who are a part of generation X and did not grow-up with the Internet. Maybe we are just not good at it, maybe we never learned to find these things rewarding, or maybe it is something else entirely.
Before my father died in 2012, I recall having a conversation with him about Twitter. Neither one of us had an account, I still don’t. I’m not proud of it, nor does it trigger any shame, I just don’t have a need for one. The key thing I remember from our chat was his feeling that it was kind of pointless because the character limit prevents the sharing of complete thoughts. There was a sense or concern that the compression of complex ideas into a sentence or two effectively ensured that misunderstanding was going to occur in nearly every case. He loved reading and consumed a massive amount of information over the course of his life. Paying attention, listening and hearing what people had to say, and asking clarifying questions was something that he was good at. He had seen a lot and had, over time, come to realize that many aspects of history tend to repeat themselves. The only thing to blame were the people directly involved and the people who did nothing to prevent the predictable outcome. “People are smart. We can be lazy though, and a lack of effort is very often the antidote to progress. Most of the answers are out there because so much of this has happened before, a few times before. We hit the iceberg when we choose to go with the feeling that we know as opposed to finding out if we actually do.”
Having been born in 1944, he had memories of rationing after the end of the Second World War as Europe took the time to rebuild from all the destruction. In fact, his brain was filled with memories of the Korean war, the Vietnam war, countless wars in the middle east, revolutions in south America, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the cold war, the space race, the creation and spread of personal computers, the Civil Rights movement, famines, natural disasters, too many musical trends to count, the cycles of fashion, economic booms, busts, and echoes, and more than 60 years of other things. In all of that he had come to accept that everything changes and almost everything repeats. The cast of characters will be different, but the events and the mistakes they make will be the same. Because of this, he had invited my brother and me to try and remain curious about what was actually going on and to be humble enough to be uncertain about the things we pretended to know with certainty. The challenge he had with Twitter was the lack of depth 140 characters allows. It was good for transmitting simple factual information, like a road closure or an approaching weather event, but it was just too limiting in terms of allowed text to clearly transmit anything more complicated than that. It was also hindered by the anonymous nature of being online. You were probably never going to know with certainty who was tweeting, and that opened the platform up to all of the antisocial behaviour associated with there being no real consequences for your words.
What was sort of funny about it was that he had a lot of respect of Jack
Dorsey and the rest of the Twitter founders, and basically anyone who created
an app, a platform, a social media site, or basically any legal IT thing. Even
when their creations were not things that he would ever use, the fact that
there were human beings using computers in new and interesting ways was
something to admire. It didn’t matter if, in his view, it was pointless, it was
still a very impressive thing to make something out of nothing. The fact that
it was younger people doing it actually made him feel better. “It’s their
world too so they have to make it the way they want it to be. I don’t have to
like it, they do, because they are going to be around well after I move
At the time, I didn’t think much about this approach. I accepted it as probably being true but most importantly I was happy enough to just live my life and not have to involve myself with having to control the actions of other people.
This was a powerful lesson that I wish all people taught their children.
Each generation gets their chance to make the world the way they want, so as
long as no one is killing, hurting or causing suffering in other human beings,
it’s probably best to leave them at it to do their thing however they deem fit.
Being alive is so complicated and the universe is so large that it is
impossible to say that life has a singular purpose that is unchanging and
shared by all living beings.
About 2 weeks before he died, I asked my dad what it was like to know that
he wouldn’t be around soon and he replied with something very similar to what
he said about twitter. “I know I’m supposed to be sad about it, but I’m
having some trouble with that. I was always going to die, and I knew it, so I
tried to have the best life possible. I enjoyed my childhood, I loved my
parents and brothers (he had no sisters). I had fun. I got a job, met and
married your mother, and raised you and your brother. There are no regrets.
Sure I’d like more time, but all I have left is all I’m getting, so that’s not
going to happen. It’s important for old people to get out of the way and let
the younger people have their turn. Life has come-up with the perfect solution
for any of us who are unwilling to move to a back seat and give the reins to
the next generation. Death clears a path and I’m glad it does. It cleared one
for my generation, and it will clear us out of the way for the next
There was something very sinister though. Not in his views but in the
accuracy of what he was saying. He had seen what the 1960’s had been like and
understood very well the damage that will be done when one group of people
vilify another group of people for reasons that do not exist, as opposed to
clearing the way the younger people to make the world they wanted. The older
people had views that were not aligned with common decency or anything factual.
As they dug in to resist change, the rest of the world rolled forward.
The most striking example was that of skin colour. Underlying racism is an automatic mental process that notices things that are similar or different, and which are the same as us superficially and which are different for this reason. The output of this noticing process becomes the input for other processes that are more narrative than binary, and they quickly begin to surface evidence to support the idea that a lack of sameness is an indication of material differences. When left unquestioned, this evidence is consolidated into reality and begins to be a “fact” vs. the output of some mental process.
My dad was exceptionally liberally minded in that he didn’t care to stop
anyone from doing anything that wasn’t harming others or that all parties had
consented to do. It was as though he believed that anyone who was 18 years old
or more had the right to do whatever they wanted with their life, even if that
to waste it. If someone made a mistake and owned it, he was a big fan of second
chances because he knew full well that very little is what it seems and when
people realize how things actually are, they make different decisions.
However, there is a limit to what human beings are able to experience and continue to be able change as they move forward. I’m not sure what this limit is exactly, like if it is an experience, a duration of exposure or reaching a particular age, but most people tend to change less as they get older. For example, the views I held when I was 15 are remarkable different from the views I held at 30. My views at 30 are much more similar to the views I hold today. I have never cared about a person’s race, in my late teens I shifted away from having opinions about sexual orientation. I was a fairly tolerant teenager, a very tolerant 30 year old, and an “uninvolved in other people’s business” 45 year old. If I had to guess about the one thing that will continue to shift as I move into my 60s it would be that I will remain a social liberal and will become more financially conservative in so far as I will become even more certain in my belief that a person needs to take responsibility for the outcome of their choices. Most people are not victims of anything other than not trying, not doing their best, or not taking the actions that are within their control to cause a better results. There is an element of luck in all of it, but too few generate any because their actions are weak, misguided, or non-existent.
I am a fair distance from the liberal thinker I was at 27 because I have endured the consequences that years of not acting strategically have served into my life. As much as I would like to blame other people, no one but me is responsible for these things. The benefit of this shift in thinking is that I now have the chance to improve things on my own, something that I started doing towards the end of my thirties.
This is a process that many people experience as they move their way thought life. When we are young, we have very little power, so we look around for people and things that have it. There are competence, prestige, and dominance hierarchies everywhere, and when we have a low place on all of them, we try to identify the higher-up so that we can get stuff from them. But the human brain is a remarkable thing, so if we work hard enough and for long enough on something, we will gain knowledge and wisdom that will move us higher. We may not see it initially because we spend the first 10-15 years of life being completely helpless and fully reliant on our parents or caregivers. We form an unconscious habit of believing that we are at the bottom of these hierarchies so any movement upwards will need to be perceived before it can impact the narrative story we tell our selves about the world and our place in it. This is a slow process and for many people it never gets much traction because that the powers that be are constantly conspire to keep them down.
All of this comes down to our DNA and the impact that experience plays in
Some simple background in the form of a story. All life has a very complex
program that has been written over millions of years that determine how life
will unfold in terms of physiology – how we create blood cell, who our cells
use oxygen, how we respond to pain, etc…. All of this information is stored
in our DNA, and any grouping of related information that codes for something is
called a gene. We have hundreds of thousands of genes and they determine
everything about us. Some of them are stand alone, some of them are primarily
stand-alone while being conditionally related to others, some of them do
nothing on their own, while many do not appear to do anything at all.
Some of these genes will automatically express themselves while other will only express themselves in response to very specific experiences. NOTE – it is not the experience itself that triggers gene expression, it is triggered by the chemicals that are released by the body in response to specific experiences. This is a blessing for most living beings, and a mixed blessing for humans. While dogs and cats will enjoy the beneficial outcomes that real experience facilitates in terms of gene expression, human beings can cause gene expression through lived experiences OR through imagined experiences.
A great example of this is anxiety which is a universal emotion for all people. It seems that the reason we evolved to experience it is because it improves physical and mental performance when compared to our resting baseline. An elevated respiratory and heart rate improves blood flow to all cells priming the muscles for activity because of the increase of oxygen and energy. It also improves cerebral blood flow, which can enhance brain activity. These things are useful when peak performance will improve outcomes. A cold start tends to result in more injuries and delayed thinking. So the ability to experience a baseline level of anxiety provides a survival advantage.
Problems begin to take shape when an individual’s anxiety response is
triggered too easily. While there are people who have an innate response that
is on the higher end of the scale, this does not necessarily cause a problem.
It is entirely possible that one of these people could live a completely normal
life so long as they do not trigger too many releases OR they do not trigger
the “enhanced anxiety” genes to express. IF these genes express
themselves, even someone with lower end baseline levels can find themselves
suffering from the symptoms excessive anxiety.
There are only three ways this can happen. The first is through repeated
direct experience, the second is through repeated imagined experience, and the
third is through a combination of the two others. Regardless of the source,
once the enhanced anxiety genes become expressed, the individual is prone to
unnecessary or excessive bouts of it.
Imagined experience is much easier for people to have, so with reference to
anxiety, worry or uncertainty about anything are sufficient triggers. Given a
long enough time frame, someone can condition anxiety to be their default state
which will leave them suffering from a heightened state of physiological arousal
that has no immediate catalyst.
Gene expression is permanent. Someone who activated the enhanced anxiety
gene will ALWAYS have the ability to experience more anxiety than they did
before. Relapse after years of remission is very common with anxiety disorders
and often times there is no warning that something is about to happen.
The unique challenge with anxiety stems from how the body physiologically
goes about causing it. When anxiety is triggered, chemicals are dumped into the
blood stream and begin to impact on the cell for which there are receptors.
There are hundreds of millions of these cells located throughout the entire
body, and particularly within the brain. So just as muscle cells will begin to
alter their functioning, brain cells will also alter their functioning. With
small releases, the impact is usually enhance mental functioning. As the
quantities increase, this beneficial effect will drop and very quickly begin to
impair our ability to think. This can impact how the person perceives the
source of the anxiety, allowing them to subjective react to something that is
an objectively non-factor.
This is why being deeply in debt or reaching a state of insolvency lowers
people’s performance on cognitive tests and why everyone who declares bankruptcy
very quickly find their mood lifting and the restoration of their objectivity.
The source of their chronic anxiety evaporates and while much about their
future remains unknown, the darkest pieces of it are simply eliminated.
Take a moment to consider what actually happens when someone declares
bankruptcy. A form is signed, you hand back or cut-up all of your credit cards,
you lose access to any credit you did have, a 9 to 21 month process is started
that sees your declaration sent to the credit rating agencies rendering you a
high credit risk for 7 or more years. That is a lot of things happening, but
when you look at each one in isolation, very little actually happens. In fact,
almost nothing happens to you directly. You needed to sign a form and probably
have a couple of meetings with a trustee, but other than a few clerical items –
keeping and submitting a monthly budget, changing bank – the days leading up to
the date you declare are nearly identical to the days leading away from it. If
you are in a situation that frees you from having to borrow money and allows
you to avoid having a credit review performed, there is only up-side. All of
your debt is wiped off the books and this eliminates the source of your
Think about that for a second. By signing a form, the source of your
problems disappears. This means that the source of your problems was a lack of
a signature on a form. Well, sort of. The source of your problems was an
imagined future that has you unable to pay your bills and NOT the real
experience of trying to pay them but not being able to. The problem was the
version of the story you were experiencing and not the lived reality you were
The take home here is that the experience of living the story is sufficient
to serve as a trigger for gene expression in spite of the fact that what was
really happening was not much of anything. And changing the story was enough to
prevent an anxiety response. This is why the dogs and cats have an easier time
with activating the best genes to help them survive their life than people do
because the only genes that get expressed that wouldn’t have been expressed
automatically are the ones that get expressed in response to REAL changes in
Bringing this back to the topic at hand, remember that once a gene has been expressed it will remain expressed and that any heightened response it may cause will be triggered by real and imagined things. But since most of what happens in modern life has no physical impact on us and therefore only occurs as an imagined event, anything we do that changes the story has the potential to alter a response. My movement towards the more liberal side of the social spectrum was caused by changes in the narrative and not by any hands on specific experiences. I stopped caring about sexual orientation when I realized just how hard life can be and how difficult it is find a source lasting joy. If two people find love in each other that is fantastic, and when they are left alone to enjoy it, the outcomes from all people improve slightly. The opposite is also true, when joy is denied from people, the outcomes for all people get slightly worse. My progressive mindset wasn’t progressive for the sake of being progressive, it was a reframing of things that just happened to have what seems like a progressive outcome. I still find it strange that two men can fall in love because I have never experienced it, but I no longer care about the genders of people who fall in love with each other. I know that people finding, falling and being in love is way better for society and for me specifically than making sure the world runs according to whatever I learned was normal when I was growing-up.
I think that maybe my dad had realized that there is a limit to what human beings are able to reframe and this was why he was so certain that old people needed to move on and make room for the next generation. We never chatted about why people close-off from reframing, and while I wish we had because my dad had some compelling and transformative ideas, it doesn’t change the fact of the matter. Very few people remain young in mind for the entirety of their life. Many close off very early on, and the rest move from being open and certain to closed and certain during the first 3 to 6 decades of their life. This I believe is why he was so willing to view the IT inventions as being remarkable and why we are more than happy to invite someone back to the table when they realized, admitted to, and made their best amends for taking action based on something they no longer believed.
Since life does not have a clearly defined purpose that all human beings
share, the best we can hope for is that over time things will improve and that
the amount of suffering that is experienced by people continues to fall. After
that, who knows. We all live in the real world but we are all living out a
different story. The story we tell and the meanings we put onto things, is
going to be determined by our life experiences and these will, in a very real
way, help to determine our future experiences; either through gene expression
or the reframing of the story. The impossible will become possible the instant
our story changes, and if it never changes the thing will remain impossible.
Older people know this because they have experienced it. Younger people may
believe it, but having never experienced it, they are more likely to weigh
their actual experiences more heavily. Younger people know a lot less than
older people. In many ways this makes their living of life easier because they
have a lot less stuff in their brains to consider, but this lack of information
has the effect of presenting their experiences as being unique and everything
that happens in the world as being completely new.
They are also struggling to move up the prestige and competency hierarchies,
which are already stuffed full of people. It is very competitive and since it
takes a very long time to generate prestige and competency, when being compared
to people who have 20-40 years more experience, it can be very appealing to
reframe the story and usurp a spot by removing some of those who are in the
way. But the realness of these hierarchies is not sufficient enough to actually
locate someone let alone physically remove them, so taking over someone’s spot
is as easy and simple as reframing them as being in a different position or as
not being on the hierarchy at all.
The most effective way to achieve this is to believe that what is going on is completely new and that NO ONE has any information that will make navigating it any easier. To this end, if someone is able to reframe an older person as having no more information than the younger person, they have neutralized them in terms of prestige, and if they then reframe them as being so far removed from the current social zeitgeist as to be unaffected by it, they have effectively kicked them off of the competency hierarchy. This will work out very well for them IF the thing is actually new, moderately well if the older people do not actually know something, and very badly when what is occurring is a part of the repeating nature of things. The reasons are simple, if it is new, a younger faster brain that is not bogged down by lots of experience will find solutions much faster, particularly if it doesn’t have to deal with the irrelevant musings of old people. If the old people do not know anything, the young people stand only to lose out if they spend anytime listening to them. But if what is occurring is actually the same thing that happened 35 years ago, shutting out the old people who have experience with it forces the remainder to solve the problems without the benefit of having access to the knowledge that has already been discovered.
The “okay boomer” phenomena is a clear indication that this is happening again. The 1960’s saying “never trust anyone over 30” has been rebranded and launched into the minds of next generation. It is a pejorative that a younger person will say to an older person in an attempt to dismiss their point of view because it came from someone who doesn’t know anything about how things are now and who is probably responsible for why things are so bad. It’s a power grab of sorts because it tells someone that they are too old and too ignorant to provide anything of value to the discussion while simultaneously placing the person who says it above them in a number of hierarchies.
Saying it is rude. Dismissing something out of hand with no evaluation is
short sighted. Shoe-horning yourself into a higher position is a
And yet saying it is very effective because it hurts to hear. The emotional
reaction to being dismissed is primal and automatic. It lands like pain. It’s
no good and by the time you notice how you feel about it, the reaction is
already well established. Now you have to deal with someone calling you old. It
is a lot to handle and the energy that is building in your body would be
released if you could just attack. You can’t, so how are you going to deal with
The thing is this, NO human being likes to be dismissed. Even when they have nothing to add or contribute, the act of remaining connected to the group or a person is at least slightly rewarding. Having someone else sever this tie on you removes this reward and the sense of alienation and worthlessness that accompany being pushed away hit you like a punishing blow.
Everything I am saying here applies equally to ANYONE who uses any tactic
of dismissal to reduce the force or silence other people. And in a way, I can understand
why some millennial or generation Z members direct “okay boomer”
towards older people. What have they had to listen to being directed towards
A couple of years ago, I was talking to one of my friends about her job,
and she mentioned that there are a lot of clueless people in positions of power
and influence, who cannot seem to make a good decision to save their jobs. This
women is bright. She thinks faster than nearly everyone I have ever met, she
sees connection between things that seem completely unrelated, and she has a
very clear understanding of what is going on inside the heads of the people she
is talking to. She kind of scares the crap out me because she’s fine with being
wrong, making mistakes, admitting to them, and learning the proper way to
handle the situation next time. There is no arrogance and she is kind to
everyone, until they give her a reason to not be.
In this particular conversation, she was relating to me how her boss had
responded to one of her concerns about a process change by saying “oh you
millennials, you’re all so keen to point out what can go wrong. Such a sense of
entitlement, like you expect everything to be perfect” before discarding
her suggestion and chastising her. When I replied with “oh, that’s
rude” followed by “but they pay you to point out what could go
wrong” she took off.
“I’m f’ing glad he said it Pat. He SHOULDN’T need me to identify the stupid things he does, and he clearly doesn’t WANT me to. Throwing me into a bucket based on when I was born and suggesting that all those people have a sense of entitlement actually works better for me. We’re not partners anymore, we’re not aligned. He’s an ageist knob who now gets to drive his career into a brick wall. I’ve been dismissed, he gets no more of my help.”
He was fired less than three months later for screwing-up the very thing she was trying to help him with.
If she had said “okay boomer” to him, I would have understood it and I would only fault her if the reply was a reaction vs. a response. But she said nothing to him in spite of the fact the interaction annoyed the hell out of her. She was less offended that a simpleton had said something stupid than she was that he dismissed her outright because of some story he tells himself about all people her age.
This is where I struggle with “okay boomer.” On one hand I can understand someone wanting and feeling that they need to say it to someone, particularly if that person has a track record of saying “millennials are lazy” or “millennials don’t want to earn their place” or any variation of the same theme. But on the other hand, meeting rudeness with rudeness is a kind of biblical vengeance that makes me question the righteousness of the responding party after having determined that the instigator is unable to address the material concern and is therefore going after the person for things they cannot control and which do not make any difference.
My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is a remarkably useless way to behave.
My friends’ response was perfect. She vented out whatever negative emotion
that was created and journeyed forward honoring the belief system that her boss
possessed and made clear to her – if all millennials are that way, best they
don’t bother you with it anymore. She continued to listen to him until he was
fired because she had a lot to learn about how not to do the job. So even
though he had dismissed her, she had not dismissed him. What he knew was still
valuable because it was knowledge, even if some of his beliefs were out of
line. She had no desire to make the same mistakes he did so continuing to pay
attention to him was only going to make her future easier.
If you were to take only one thing out of this post it would be to always
remember that when we have not lived through history, our decision to ignore
those who have will guarantee that we get to.
…the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.
I can easily imagine that there is a saying that political operatives use behind closed doors that goes something like “don’t worry about the middle until the month before an election, then throw them a bone and they’ll fall into line.”
The reason why I have no trouble putting these words into the months of hypothetical people who work for very real political campaigns and politicians is because the political candidates and parties ACT like this. In Canada, a country that has a very limited campaign time and predetermined election dates, we have to listen to politicians throwing mud at each other and towards the supporters of their political rivals for close to 4 years, only to have them pivot and talk at the middle for 36 to 50 days as the campaign officially runs. The Canadian public vote on the third Monday of the forth October following the previous election and on the very next day everyone goes back to ignoring the middle while focusing their praise and efforts on either the left or the right, and their scorn on the other side.
I’m not sure which is more embarrassing, the behaviour of the political class or the fact that the overwhelming majority of Canadians, those who make-up the middle, allow this abuse to continue. It is like all those in the middle suffer from a collective Stockholm syndrome or from the disease of low expectations caused by the race to the bottom that has us hand-over our power the moment someone exceeds them.
There is another saying, stick with me here, that has a public life, one used by personal trainers, coaches and anyone who is responsible for directing the actions of other people that explains who is at fault.
“If you have a client who is doing something wrong, they are doing it because you coached them to do it or because you are letting them do it.”
So the reason why the politicians treat the majority of Canadians with complete contempt is because we have coached them to do it by letting them do it. It’s sad for them because they might actually want to do good for people, but we let them treat us poorly nearly all of the time and respond like trained animals when, come election time, they promise us something nice and shinny.
This last federal election in Canada, and the last midterm election in the US, have seen a change in the strategy that the political class employ to manipulate people into giving them a job or allowing them to keep the one they manipulated themselves into last time. Whereas they used to only buy our votes, they have added catastrophizing to the play book. This is very effective for two psychological reasons, a re-framing effect that capitalizes on our inability to process information effectively and an emotional hijack that triggers a reduction in, and possible elimination of, logical thinking.
The re-framing effect converts a cost into a loss. Previously, a vote for anyone other than them would cost you whatever it was that they were promising. Everyone accepted this fact and has more or less made their peace with it. In fact, we seem to be able to handle paying big costs so long as we get something of value out of it. For example, lets imagine that a person was carrying a $10 bill in their pocket and when they reach into their pocket they notice that it is gone. They have, for all intents and purposes, lost it. However, if they take some time to consider what has happened and decide that they will only carry money in their wallet which will be placed into a zipped-up pocket, they may be able to perceive the missing $10 as the cost of this lesson. They have paid $10 to ensure that they will never lose $20 or $50. The value of this lesson is at least $10 but may be $40. That is a 1:1 ratio or a 1:4 ratio. It sucks but it wasn’t a complete waste and in the long run, there is a chance that they will be better off for having learned this way vs. some other way.
From a psychological perspective, a loss of $10 is experienced as more painful than a $10 lesson. The reality is that re-framing a loss into a cost actually requires more energy in terms of having to think about “what did I learn?” The brain however does not view it this way and accepts what has happened as a fair or fair enough trade of one thing of value for something of approximate value.
By catastrophizing the outcome of voting for anyone OTHER than them, they are effectively telling people that a vote their opponents is going to destroy everything that is good in your life. So not only do you not get the thing, the cost, but you will NEVER get the thing and your remaining time on the planet is going to be much harder than you can possibly imagine, the loss of practically everything. The story they are telling is that a vote for someone else is both a cost and a loss, and this is enough to boost the psychological pain associated with simply thinking about doing so.
This catastrophizing is also very emotionally triggering. YOU are going to be responsible for destroying the world and eliminating the future of every young person that has the potential to exist. That’s a big cross to bare and arguably the worst thing that you could ever do, and you are going to do it simply by voting for the other guy. That makes you the worst person in the universe, something that you can avoid by voting for someone else.
Being emotionally triggered is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on which emotion has been triggered and the magnitude of the emotional response. Being happy is not the same thing as being sad, and being slightly angry is a very different state than being apoplectic, and each of these states has a different impact on the brain. The general rules of thumb are 1) the greater the magnitude of a response, the larger the impact on mental functioning and 2) emotions that have a negative valence have a greater impact on cognitive functioning than emotions that have a positive valence.
For example, someone who is slightly happy will show brain activity that is very close to their neutral baseline and they show very little impairment in cognitive test. Someone who is very happy will have a greater deviation from baseline both in terms of brain activity and performance. Someone who is slightly angry will show a moderate change in brain activity as well as performance when compared to their neutral baseline and to their slightly happy state. An extremely angry person will display a very large deviation from baseline, with certain areas of brain effectively being off-line; the dramatic alteration and decrease in brain activity will temporarily eliminate certain cognitive processes rendering the person operationally different from who their are at baseline.
Emotions that are of a positive valence tend to impact critical thinking while emotions that are of a negative valence tend to impact logical thinking. The narrative practical implication of these alterations are that happy people are willing to take action, but they are more inclined to make mistakes that a level of skepticism or a second review would catch. In other words, they are less likely to feel “wrong” and will therefore move forward believing that they are right. Angry people are more likely to react in disproportionately large ways and are more inclined to take “final” actions or actions that permanently take care of the situation – they will be more aggressive than normal and will attack with the full force of their fight or flight abilities.
The underlying mechanism at play is not the same and for the purposes of winning elections via the introduction of losses, it is sufficient to understand that large negatively valenced emotions suppress activity in the prefrontal cortex which has the consequence of eliminating the future, removing the ability to regulate reactions, and to reduce logical thought. This is a survival response that is adaptive and has historically been very effective at keeping our species alive because in a life or death situation, the individual needs to take drastic action or else they will die. When time and intensity are of the essence, there is little time for rational thought because any delay might just prove to be fatal. It basically comes down to “do this or die” and since this part of our programming evolved hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago when death was all around, it was both necessary and effective. However, modern life has effectively eliminated most of the actual life and death moments, meaning that nearly all of these reactions are out of place and are very likely to cause more harm than they prevent.
But the code that programs these processes and the hardware on which they run is exactly the same today as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. This means that anyone who is able to trigger an emotional response in another persons brain has the ability to alter their thinking in very predictable ways.
Another important fact to consider is that negative things are more salient in our minds than positive things. In order to counter-act something that has a measurement of -1 in terms of negativity, the person will need to be simultaneously exposed to something that is a +2 in terms of positivist. This is why re-framing a loss as a cost makes the experience less negative. It is also why the “sunny ways” talk that was thrown around during the 2015 Canadian election wasn’t present in 2019 – it wouldn’t have worked because the tone of this most recent election was intensely negative and fear evoking.
So in summary, modern elections are about fear and anger because 1) these emotions reduce logical thinking, boost catastrophizing, and promote action of a specific type (getting people to the polling stations to vote for the candidate that will protect us from the object of fear or anger 2) you only need half as much of these emotions so they are more favourable from an economic stand point 3) the bypassing of critical analysis that positive states fuels is very narrow in terms of time frame and context – when a person is happy, you will be able to slip things past them but since they return to baseline very quickly, the door is only open for a short time and 4) negative emotions persist for a much longer time than positive emotions. All emotions are made up of matter in the form of neurotransmitters and hormones but negative emotions are composed of more physical material because they actually serve to fuel physical action. The entire body is involved with a fight or flight response, therefore these chemicals are released into the blood and circulate everywhere. It takes time for the body to remove them from the blood stream, particularly if no intense physical activity has occurred. The mass of happiness is much smaller, it serves very little survival purpose, and it is more psychological in nature meaning it is more or less only a brain experience. It requires much less clean-up and in fact it can be stopped almost immediately if something bad happens right in the middle of it. This is not the case with intense anger.
It is complicated. It is well understood but it is complicated. It is also very hard to be aware of as it is happening because the very thing that is responsible for noticing it happen is the same thing that it is happening to. So when you are happy, you are not well set-up to analyze what is going on because your critical faculties are dialed down. When you are angry, your brain has been hijacked and is only capable of focusing on survival. Outsiders can see it, and we can see it in ourselves after the fact, but as it is going on we are nearly powerless to do anything against it. This is why we have seen the addition of losses and catastrophizing to the political campaigns – they do predictable things and make us susceptible to manipulation, lies and bullshit.
Well, there’s a lot.
First off, we are being lied to by everyone and we can uncover the nature of the lie based on the emotion they are working to activate.
Those that are trying to make us feel happy are about to insert a thought into our brains that we would normally resist or at least vet for accuracy. For example, taxes will go down or the standard of living is going to improve for everyone. The realities here are that if taxes go down, services will be reduced OR deficits will increase OR the taxes for someone else will increase to make-up any shortfall, the standard of living does have, in the short term, a zero sum flavor and it doesn’t happen for everyone all at once – it starts with the rich and works its way down to the lower classes.
Those trying to make us angry or scared are trying to motivate us to take action to ensure that we survive. Ultimately the action is to vote for them, but it will also include vilifying the group they are talking about and updating our definition of them to include aversion, disgust and anything else that will move us away from them. The goal is to manipulate our world view to have us want to see the other group eliminated and to condition our nervous system to release negative emotion in response to thoughts or the mere mention of them.
Second, the re-framing of costs as losses is an economic manipulation in that creates an imaginary loss that then serves to trigger a negative emotional response. It makes something out of nothing and this something has a big impact on our nervous system and brain. Logically, we know that a vote for one person is the same as not voting for everyone else and that not voting for any particular person will probably cost us whatever it was they were promising. BUT when this is presented as loss and not cost, it increases the significance and is much more likely to trigger negative emotion, which will suppress logical thinking.
Finally, the story telling that uses catastrophizing IS triggering for fear and anger and it DOES suppress logical thinking. The moment we react, we no longer have the ability think about the future, which eliminates our innate capability to ask the question “what do they have to gain from making me feel angry or scared.”
In summary then, for most of the time the politicians ignore the people in the middle while trying to do things to make their base happy. When election time comes around, they begin to focus their attention towards the middle in an attempt to buy votes through promises of goods or services, take votes away for their opponents by presenting costs as losses, and to temporarily suppress cognitive abilities by manipulating blood flow to the prefrontal cortex via the release of emotional neurotransmitters and hormones.
Phrased another way, be concerned when they are talking and be very concerned when they are talking to you.
What is the significance of the middle having figured out how politicians manipulate them when they are not simply ignoring them? Society is very expensive and there is a constant demand for our limited resources. We are already giving a lot of them to the government and regardless of who is in power, not everyone gets the same value from the money they spend. The D’s or L’s will look after their base first and everyone else second while the R’s or C’s will look after their base first and everyone else second. But each side has a punching bag on the other side that they hammer to get money for their base or to generate votes. We flip flop back and forth between these two sides with things getting worse for one group and better for another, then reversing, all the while those in the middle get nothing new while paying disproportionately for the entire thing. When we say something about it, we get chastised, lied to, told that the solutions for our problems come from a different level of government, or, worst of all, get told that is it nuanced in a tone that reeks of condescension and from a person who is so smug that they do most of their talking with their eyes closed. They treat us like we are stupid, which may actually be true given that they do get voted into office over and over again.
Personally, I am glad this part of it is coming to an end, and the sooner the better. Politics is both boring and complicated, and for the very same reason. It’s so complicated that most people who talk about it do not know enough to have a good conversation making their opinions shallow, uninteresting, and therefore as valuable as those opinions spewed out by a partisan talking head.
This being said, it is going to be a lot worse before it begins improve unless something awful happens that serves as the catalyst to united people. World war one and two, the space race, the aftermath of 9/11 before the politicians decided it would be a good time to eat the public’s liberty and freedom, and the occasional sporting event, like the 2019 NBA final, that has one country align together for the metaphoric face off against another country.
The reason for this are very simple, human beings NEED an enemy and they will find it in their friends and family if there is no one else around to blame for life going the way life goes. We find it a lot easier to declare and demonize a new out group, like the liberals, the conservatives, the tree-huggers, the immigrants, the Apple fanboys, the whatevers…. But we are not fussy when it comes to filling the role of dangerous and vile enemy so when a real enemy does not exist we’ll find someone and set about re-framing everything in our life that bothers us as being somewhat causally related to them, even if that person is our neighbour or someone we have broken bread with.
As bad as this seems, the fact that we have started turning on our fellow citizens is actually a sign that things in the world have gotten a lot better in so far as most other people in the world do not spend much time or energy making our lives tough. Life is actually very good, void of serious conflicts, and our biggest threats are actually the known consequences of our own actions. Pollution, global warming, and the abundance of low cost, highly rewarding foods will shorten the lives and reduce its quality for more people than any of our enemies ever can, will or did.
This being said, the need for an enemy that we can blame for everything seems to be written into our operating system, a fact that renders us vulnerable to manipulation by anyone who successfully labels another group the enemy because of all the automatic behaviour that this triggers. Fear reduces our ability to think completely about it and we move forward believing that they are the problem without ever noticing what is going on as it is occurring.
But lies are lies, and no matter how convincingly they are told sooner or later they will be discovered. The volume of them has increased so dramatically recently that anyone who consumes the news or talks to anyone is getting exposed to dozens of them a day, hundreds a week and thousands a year. With this amount of exposure and practice, it is nearly impossible to not get good at spotting them. And with the Internet available all of the time, EVERYTHING a politician says will remain on the record and at easy reach. We will identify the pattern, and as soon as we do, most of the automatic and unconscious click-whir power that the liars have will evaporate. They will be seen for what they are, other people who have a conflict of interest that serves to fuel their motivated reasoning and the ideas they push forward in spite of the fact that they are demonstrably false. While they are not all full of shit, none of them are full enough of diverse opinions and experiences to be seen as objective brokers of reality. They are just human beings who need a job and want the power and are so blinded by these desires that they will try to convince you that one idea is better than all others and any of the others will harm you, your children and all the other good people who believe what they do.
I’m not holding my breath for this to happen quickly, mostly because I cannot hold my breath for the next two to seven years. BUT there are promising signs that things are starting to change. Specifically the ugliness of the last US election, the last Canadian election, the awareness that Fox News and CNN are biased sources of whatever it is they are pumping out 24 / 7, along with the fact that violence has started to breakout at protests about some issues. All of these things are bad, but they are bad in a way that is both unsustainable and so outside of the normal human interaction dynamic that they stand as examples that something is not working. The volume just needs to get turned-up a little bit louder before the middle can no longer ignore what is going on, moving them to put their foot down and putting an end to the nonsense the fabulists are spewing in order to get whatever it is they are seeking.