This category contains items that are a follow-up to a previous post. The intention of these posts is to review a topic or take a different run at it. Our thinking changes over time and some of what was discussed before no longer applies, was incorrect, or was incomplete. Understandings should expand as time passes and given that some of my thought processes take a long time to render a clear result, this category exists to capture these outcomes.
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.
It works something like this: each one of us has an identity. This is kind of like a narrative story we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do and the values we possess. This is, for the most part, an unconscious and automatic thing – we do not often find ourselves asking the questions “is this the right thing to do” or “do I believe in what I am doing?” The entire thing is so powerful that we almost always act in a way that is congruent or aligned with our identity, all without much or any conscious thought or analysis.
On March 23, 2012, I attended the Landmark Forum in Toronto. A few of my friends at the time had suggested that I go because they had both enjoyed and grown from the experience. It was something that I also found useful and it has had an impact on a lot of my life. In August 31, 2012, I posted Some Information About Landmark Education that covered my feelings about the process, at least as they existed at that moment in time. I suppose my feelings have evolved over the last seven years, so I have decided to write a follow-up post.
A few things before I begin:
I was only a participant, I have never worked or volunteered
for them, and I have no reason to believe that I ever will. There is a near
zero percent chance that I will ever take another one of their courses. This
isn’t because I think they are useless, the people I know who took a few of
them got a lot out of their experiences, so anecdotally they are valuable. I
don’t think I’ll take any more of them because I don’t want to. Since I began
my meditation practice, the source of most of my demons has become crystal
clear and most of them have disappeared.
Education alone does not set people free, consistent action over time probably can. It is hard work, thankless and void of any immediate gratification, so most people never really change in a fundamental way. We throw a new coat of paint on our life and go back to doing what we have always been doing. Knowing that we are full of crap and getting very clear on how exactly we are filled with it makes us enlighten-to-our-bull-shitting, it does not make us honest brokers of truth. I suppose that’s fine, I’m still hopeful that one day I will grow-up and become the person I was destined to become. But maybe I already have….
There was nothing unique or revolutionary about the information they provided EXCEPT for the way it was packaged. This isn’t a fault or even a problem. It’s actually more of a universal truth about facts and wisdom. These things exist even when they have not been discovered, and even when they have been uncovered, not everyone who listens will hear them. The exact reason why a message will find its way into our brain and then into our consciousness is not always clear, so Landmarks repackaging of the information is helpful and I dare to say needed because it is good information, it is true, and it allows for a solid de-cluttering of the mind of anyone the ideas happen to infect INDEPENDENT of the source.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, some things
are just crap. They are no worse when the outcome is awful, and they are no
better when the outcome is a transformation into the realm of greatness. As
happy as I am with my experience at the forum, the information that I acquired
and how it all continues to echo on in my life, I remain convinced that the
seminar afterwards was not nearly as benign. This, I say, knowing full well
that there is a very good chance that I would not have met my wife Heather had
I not attended it. The ends however do not justify the means. When compared to
the Forum, the seminar is an entirely different animal.
The Forum is introductory and transactional, the
seminar is a long haul experience aimed at capturing people for at least the
next seminar but hopefully for a long time to come. Everything about the Forum
was single serving – short concise impeccably scripted lessons, a short one on
one interaction between you and the person who was sitting beside you, and then
a quick pivot onto the next lesson. It was highly choreographed to the point
that I am nearly certain that each time the leader reached for and ate a mint,
that it was part of the script. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because it
very easily could have been, meaning that I paid for and got a world class
The seminar was not so good, and for this I
cannot fault the leader. I don’t think I liked her very much, but I’m not sure.
She had a job to do and she did it well. My main beef was the amount of time
consumed with the attempts to sell the next seminar; which I don’t think is
necessary for something that is very high quality. That makes me laugh because
maybe it wasn’t high quality and they knew. Maybe it was only my experience
with it that was high quality and the results were the outcome of my subsequent
actions to generate a different future. Again, the information that was presented
weekly was useful. It was neither new nor revolutionary, but it was packaged
and presented in a Landmarky way, building upon the lessons from the Forum, and
using the Forum languaging to help consolidate the experience. This makes for
easy predatory listening and a click-whirr type of interaction that have people
fire off fixed responses when the speaker says one of the trigger words.
I suppose I should be as honest as I possibly can
be here because I am kind of reviewing a service that a business offers and who
I am will have a big impact on what I think and feel about the service. In
fairness, I can be a real dick from time to time. It happens less frequently
now than before, but it can be very easy for someone to form a piss poor first
impression of me that only reflects who I am about 5 to 10 percent of the time.
This 5 to 10 percent just happened to coincide with the seminar group meetings.
They were awful and I didn’t do a single thing to make the experience any
better for most of the group members.
At the first seminar, we formed groups of six
people who we would have phone meetings with once a week to talk about the
material, our experiences trying the material on, and to talk about any of the
challenges we had. As a rule, I don’t like this type of thing because it is the
phone and it is strangers. My group members were fine. They were just people
who, like me, imagined that there was an easier or better life available and
were willing to try things out to see what could be done to make it happen. I
wasn’t the same type of person as most of the members. I straight-up know that
I can be an obnoxious asshole and I exercise my right to choose to be that
asshole whenever I feel like it. My life was crap or great because of my
actions and NOT because other people didn’t do what I wanted them to do.
Superficially that contributed but when I get right down to it, other people’s
action have nothing to do with my response and assuming that I use my personal
power to think, feel and do what I need to, screw everyone else. This isn’t a
bad thing, it’s freeing actually. I make the life I want to have and I leave
other people alone to do the same. But this live and let live approach was a
little out of place with most of my group.
This is a problem with self-help groups, religions, cults, and any collection of people who identify around a particular thing, a problem that only shows up when resources are scarce and competition for them is high, or in times of turmoil, stress, or uncertainty. Basically, it is the combination of the cognitive biases of the fundamental attribution error (the tendency for us to view our own actions in situational terms while viewing the actions of others as indicators of intent or character), the self-serving bias (the tendency to view ourselves in more favorable and self-esteem enhancing ways) and the in-group–out-group bias (the tendency for us to show more favorable views towards members of the group to which we are affiliated while viewing more harshly those who do not belong to the group). These things come together to render much of our thinking about other people as subjective and a reflection of inaccurate heuristics. Available cognitive capacity and then the willingness to use it is the antidote to this problem, but when it came to the seminar group discussions there wasn’t much of either to go around.
It works something like this: each one of us has
an identity. This is kind of like a narrative story we tell ourselves about who
we are, what we do and the values we possess. This is, for the most part, an
unconscious and automatic thing – we do not often find ourselves asking the
questions “is this the right thing to do” or “do I believe in
what I am doing?” The entire thing is so powerful that we almost always
act in a way that is congruent or aligned with our identity, all without much
or any conscious thought or analysis.
Being a participant in the Landmark Forum can
surface this identity and the information can influence it. Those who resist
the lessons or are unwilling to see themselves in the story of another
participant are displaying their identity in so far as they are claiming,
“I am NOT like that.” That is neither here nor there because it is a self-improvement
workshop, so your role as participant is to try on EVERYTHING to see what comes
out of it. And it also doesn’t really matter much with the Forum weekend
because it is over and done with very quickly. This means that none of the
other participants will ever have the opportunity to notice you assimilating
the new information into your identity and observe some of the messiness
associated with this process. To automate anything, it requires consistent
mindful practice over time, which is energy consuming and can be very
destabilizing as a once held value disintegrates to make room for the
integration of an updated one.
Being a participant in the seminar, you remain
connected with people over a 10 to 12 week period, so you begin to see the
efforts people are taking to move into a different future as they get better
and better at working with the information they are being exposed to. This is
particularly obvious during the weekly group calls, at least with some of the
members. But it is messy and since no one is starting at the same point or at
the same time, the progress is frustratingly random. This was something that I
was used to, given the amount of time I had spent as a personal trainer. Some
people get things instantly, others improve at a consistent slow pace, while
others will get worse only to suddenly improve dramatically. It’s an individual
journey in the gym, just as it is an individual journey everywhere else in
life. The problem is the “group-think” that the three cognitive
biases mentioned above triggers. Well, the problem is when you are NOT a part
of the group that has been infected with the “group-think,” which was
me, unsurprisingly, given my tendency towards assholism.
In my defense for how I act, I try hard to not
automatically assume that my feelings are correct. I have been suspicious of my
brain and my emotional system for a long time, well before I knew when it
cannot be trusted and why that happens. Feelings are not thoughts, and while
both tend to influence each other in a way that makes them seem inseparable,
they are not the same and they can be pulled apart if you are willing to put
the work into it. It’s hard though, and like any skill, it’s nearly impossible
at the beginning, messy in the middle and effortless at the end. While I had
not yet gotten very good at doing this back in 2012, I had been working on it
for a while and had made some headway. This is why I was like poison to the
majority of my group.
Having no desire to be a leader, and no interest
in blindly following what the instructor was saying, I was seeking evidence or
the truth. A good idea is a good idea, and the better an idea is, the larger
the evidence pool will be for its truth. This meant that I asked a lot of
“why” questions and was guilty of asking “what reasons do you
have for saying or believing that?” which is really annoying for people
who are in the process of trying to recreate their identity. They are fine
questions, the answers are important, but having to put the work into finding
out and then explaining the answers to someone like me seems more like a
disruption than an exercise in good intellectual hygiene. It became very clear
to everyone that I was not automatically on-board with what the instructor was
saying. If I had drank the Kool-Aid, my liver had metabolized the poison very
quickly allowing me to be curious about everything that was going on.
This is the problem with in-group-out-group biases. Because my behavior was not the same as the behavior of everyone else, I was clearly in the out-group. Under normal circumstances, this doesn’t matter, people have the available mental energy to consider two different points of view. But personal development courses are NOT normal circumstances. Most of the people are in flux, moving from one identity to the next, which casts a massive cognitive shadow on the available resources. The lack of available mental energy, when coupled with my lack of conformity to the group norm, cast me as an out-group member which triggered all of the associated nonsense and erroneous thinking that are associated with cognitive biases. Things degraded very quickly and it was not all that pleasant.
The upside is that I did learn a lot about what it makes sense to stand-up for and what it makes sense to just leave alone. My own personal development and that of my clients is worth taking a stand for, but I’m less convinced that I should attempt to play a role in the journey of others simply because it isn’t helpful for them and I have better things to do with my time. It probably makes things worse. As soon as their brain flips the switch and transports me into the out-group, the lens of preconception has been dawned and my actions will obviously indicate my true intention.
But more interesting is the fact that struggling
to explain why something is the way it is or why a feeling you are having is an
indication of truth are symptoms of something problematic. What the actual
problem is can be any number of things; at the simplest would be an
unwillingness to say out loud what ones intentions or wants actually are, but
on the other side would be an over reliance on gut feelings, a lack of self-awareness,
a need to belong to group or the desire to experience the rewards associated
with social validation.
The way I see it, if you do not know why you feel
the way you feel, you cannot actually claim to be feeling anything at all. You
are having an emotional response, which may manifest as anger, sadness,
concern, etc… but it is not anything more than that. I’m of the school of
thought that in order for it to be anything other than an emotional response,
it needs some weight behind it and in this case, that force is supplied by
thoughts, thinking, logic and rationality. Without any of these, it is just
something that is being triggered by some number of unconscious thought
processes which are valid but since we do not know what they are, we have no
idea what the feeling is all about. This is not to suggest that the emotional
response is not real, it is a thing that can be measured so it is therefore
real. But it is a subjective experience that has no transferable meaning to
anyone else. The narrative reason for a feeling CAN be shared and transferred
to others, so it can also be interrogated for accuracy, validity, and
An example here would be for the Landmark
Advanced course – this is the second course in their curriculum and it is
assumed that everyone who takes the Forum and who enrolls in the seminar
afterwards WILL take the Advanced course. My friends who suggest the Forum to
me did recommend that I take it, but they were also not so set on me doing it
right away. Their advice was to take it at some point, but ONLY if I put into
action any of the lessons that were taught in the Forum. If I wasn’t willing,
able, or open to doing that, there wasn’t any value in attending anything else.
As it would happen, the next Advanced course was scheduled to run on the
weekend of the third or fourth week of the seminar, so on weeks two and three,
there was a big sales push to encourage people to sign-up. I was unsure about
going, so I made the call to wait and see what value I was able to extract from
what I had already done. On the last group call before the course, 3 of the 5
had signed-up and they were encouraging the other 2 to join them.
The next call was unreal in its strangeness. The
only other non-attendee was not on the call, so there was a full court press to
get me to sign-up for the next Advanced course offering. Now I will not lie, I
was slightly more interested at that point in time given how they were all
gushing about how transformational and life changing it was. Whatever they had
experienced had made an impression upon them, at least in terms of what a
weekend experience has to offer. But, me being me, I asked them why I should
go? What they each got out of it? How they believe their futures will be
different and better because of it? The usual types of questions I ask when
someone recommends an outlier experience to me. A $1300 weekend course is very
different from a $12 movie or a $50 dinner, so I was seeking the specifics. The
thing was that no one had any. They had had an experience and since it seemed
powerful, they took that to mean that it was significant and therefore a
worthwhile thing. A bar fight or a hangover is a significant experience, but
that does not make either one worthwhile. I was hoping to find out why the
Advanced course was like a hangover in terms of significance but unlike a
hangover in terms of the worthwhileness.
Looking back on it now, I realize that it was a
kind of dickish thing to do because it was based off of a less than genuine set
of assumptions. I KNEW that they had no idea about the answers to those
questions because the experience had not landed yet given that it had just
wrapped-up a couple of days before. I also knew with near certainty that 2 of
the 3 people would not be capable of answering the question accurately based on
the limited information they did have access to. My memory does not serve me
well here, but I have a sense that the remaining person was less vocal about
the recommendation and was passively going along with the other two. When I
started with the questions, she was able to answer with something along the
lines of “it got me into a different head space and allowed me to consider
things from a different perspective that I would not have done on my own or
without going to the course.” That is an answer that I can believe and
that doesn’t really apply to me. I have no trouble considering things from a
different head space and my life is simple enough that I just take the time when
I feel like doing it. She needed a commitment device and a sequestering and had
no trouble justifying the spend to get these. She didn’t ever bring it up with
me or the group again and for that I was grateful.
But it didn’t really make any difference because the
other two were relentless about how I MUST go. And yet, they never were able to
give me a reason why or any indication that they had figured out why they felt
so strongly about it. Which brings us back to the legitimacy of feelings if
there are no thoughts to back them up. They were having an emotional response
to something but they did not have access to the reasons why they were having
it. That isn’t anything that I will spend much time considering because when
you get right down to it, thinking up a reason why an experience is
transformative shouldn’t even be necessary if the experience was in fact
transformative, you would just know why. They have a great weekend, they were
taken on a roller coaster ride and when things wrapped-up on Sunday evening
their memory buffer was filled with the peak parts of the experience and how
they felt on Sunday when it ended. This is how experiential memory works so it
wasn’t a shock that they thought that everyone should take it. That is fine,
but it isn’t thinking and it isn’t a logical rationale for spending time doing
something. Factor in the ease at which people are capable of thinking up
justifications for anything and their lack of insight or even an answer becomes
even more revealing.
Their experience was so transformational that not only can they not give a specific example of something that will be different, but they are not even able to come-up with a justification on an ad hoc basis. This did not sit well with me. For example, I can be a dick and call someone out publically for some nonsense perspective they have. When asked later I am able to say why I did it – in terms of my reason at the time – and I’m then able to think up a variety of other possible reason that were not part of the decision making matrix at the time. That’s what a brain does when it is trained to do it. The third person had trained their brain to do it and answered accordingly. The first and second people had never asked their brain to perform this function so when I made the ask, their brain threw an error and they just said “you gotta do it, it’s transformational and it will move you towards your future possibilities.”
“I don’t, it might be, and the jury is out
on whether or not that happened for you so I’m going to table my decision for a
while so I can collect some more evidence.” The fact of the matter is
simple, what you get out of life is linked to what you put into it. A weekend
course is just a weekend course if, upon its completion, you close the work book
and never think about it again. But a weekend course, or a ten second
conversation with someone for that matter, can be transformational if, upon
completion, you never close the book or never allow the conversation to go
silent. The initial experience is just the introduction so your actions
afterwards are what will determine if it was a beginning or if it was the
beginning, the middle and the end, all wrapped-up nicely in a tight 48 hour
The first and second did more to shape my decision than I ever let on. Frankly, I wasn’t going to tell them that they didn’t have any useful insight or that they had turn me off by recommending something to me that they couldn’t actually recommend or which was recommended simple to bolster their view that it was fantastic because there was another checkmark in terms of social validation. My opinion isn’t worth that much and how I choose to spend my weekends should have no impact on the lived experience of strangers or my cohorts in a personal development class.
That was then and it was a while ago. I am very comfortable with my having taken seven years to reach this point and will say that the Forum remains a highlight in my journey through life. It wasn’t the best thing that I ever did but it has a positive emotional valiance. There are some crappy things about the weekend, the seminar and the company – primarily the push for continued enrollment and the slightly dogmatic way a few of the people end-up acting. Both of these reveal a lot more about me than anything else.
Why do I hate being sold to? Why do I care if someone else has been sold to so effectively that they instantly change their identity into someone who LIVES Landmark? These questions are neither difficult to answer nor are the answers interesting. I hate being sold to when I am not expecting it because it obliterates my flow in terms of thinking. The solid stream of information about the subject matter hits my brain and makes it do dynamic and fantastically rewarding things. I LOVE thinking and the reward systems of my brain respond to the spontaneous generation thoughts that are triggered by the material. A quick sales plug lands like punishment when I’m floating along on a dopamine bliss. As for why I care when other people drink the Kool-Aid and get after their new passion like it is their first crush, well the answer is kind of boring, this is no longer something that I do. I have given-up hoping that I can know or control the content of other people’s minds and have found the experience of letting go to be exceptionally liberating. Some people like cars, some people like the sports, others like furniture, while others are passionate about being outraged. And none of it impacts me. I’ll talk about cars, the sports, listen to people talk about furniture, and really connect about things that trigger outrage, but it’s all transient and pointless for the most part.
This final fact is really what the Landmark Forum is all about. Almost everything is completely pointless and there are a tiny number of the actions that we take that actually matter. Maybe there is more on the line for those who have children, but I’m not qualified to answer and I do not know. And even then, if there isn’t and people act like there is, or there is and people act like there isn’t, it still won’t matter all that much. The world is a big place, and it is statistically nothing when compared to the mass of the universe. I’m just a bag of molecules, seven dollars worth of carbon, and if the earth is nothing in comparison to the universe, and I am nothing in comparison to the earth, what am I in comparison to the universe? I’m going to give that question exactly the amount of consideration it deserves.
The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.
Seven years ago I wrote the post Almost 6 Months Later which contained some thoughts about the things that had happened in the six months following my fathers death. I believed that at that point I had moved most of the way through the grief process. 90 months later, I am certain that the process doesn’t ever have an end point. Instead, we get better at dealing with it as life moves on and our brain adjusts to create a new normal.
I am not sad and I do not believe that this is a pessimistic view. The fact is that we never stop developing and adapting to the stimulation we bring into our brains, so there is no reason to believe that adjusting to the death of a loved one ever stops. Our brains grow from the beginning of life and probably continue to grow for a few minutes after we take our last breath. They are complex organic computers that spawn and prune connections between billions of neurons to form long term memories and create processes that allow it to handle the world more effectively the next time the world brings it the same type of stimulation. They are never still and the only time they ever go dark is when we die.
In the original post, I spoke about someone who I met whose father had been given the diagnosis of a very slowly developing cancer. She was upset and having a tough time processing the news while her dad was very matter of fact about it. He was well into his eighties and didn’t really care all that much. He was old, had lived a complete life, and since he wasn’t actually running out of runway, he didn’t think it was worth the energy to worry about or to consider the diagnosis. He felt that there was as good a chance that old age would take care of things before the cancer did and since he wasn’t worrying about old age, it didn’t make any sense to deal with the fact that the doctor had told him that he had cancer.
A year later, Heather’s father was diagnosed with a few different types of cancer – no one was sure where the original tumor had been, but it had metastasized to the point that it was in his bones, throat, and possibly his brain. They said possibly because while he did have a brain tumor, it didn’t seem to grow at all between the scans; unlike the other tumors that ate his spine and began to close over his throat. Unlike my dad, who stood to gain very little from treatment, her dad was able to under go radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation worked wonders on his throat, opening it up again and allowing him to eat and drink anything he wanted, which he did. The chemo was less well tolerated, and he stopped it a few weeks in because of the side effects. After the tumors, the skin is the next place to begin to show the side effects of the chemicals – most of the chemotherapy medication that has traditionally been used in treating cancer works by killing tissue. It is reasonably specific in so far as it will primarily target the type of cell that makes-up the tumor, but it is not perfect and is not isolated to JUST the tumor cells. With chemotherapy there will be collateral damage and with him it began to take a toll on the skin of his lips and neck. Given that he was never going to be cured, he made the decision to stop the treatment and put an end to these awful side effects. He was close to seventy and had more or less made his peace with the life he had lived. He died the following July.
While at the time of my dads death, I was unable to find anything good about it; the possible exception being that since his GBM wasn’t painful, he got to enjoy the final 6 weeks of life as much as anyone can enjoy any six week period. The post I wrote six month later, I made mention to feeling useful to my friend because of what I had just experienced. With the sad news about Heather’s dad, I was able to be even more useful. This was a good thing, and it did, in a way, give my dads death a little more meaning or value. It wasn’t that I knew what Heather, her sister, and the rest of the family were going through, I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly know what their experience was like. But I did have experience with the process. So while I lacked the specific knowledge of what they were going through, she had someone to talk to about the feelings she was having and the thoughts that were popping into her mind with someone who was a little further along in the grieving process. I was able to talk to the very odd sensations and feelings that accompany your loved one seeming to improve with whatever treatment they receive and how there are feelings of disbelief that there is actually something wrong.
This is like an emotional time bomb that makes normal living close to impossible. No matter how good you feel, there’s a monkey on your back that at some point in the future something very crappy is going to happen. When you feel bad about what is going on, there is the thought that you need to cheer-up and enjoy your remaining time together. No matter what you are feeling, a thought pops into mind to tell you that you should feel something else. It’s a destabilizing experience, as though you are gas lighting yourself, and over time you begin to not trust how you feel or to simply allow yourself to experience whatever is occurring from moment to moment from any place other than the certain future when your loved one has died.
Her dad, just like mine, did his best to address this thing by encouraging his children and the rest of the family to go about their life’s as well as they could. There wasn’t any point in cycling on the future because it was going to happen when it was time. Until then it was just something to deal with later. On his advice, Heather and I took a trip to Mexico, our first big trip together. I don’t recall any specific moments of overwhelming sadness and the trip was a lot of fun.
Years later, Heather and I both have moments when we think about our dads. Speaking to my moments, I don’t get sad anymore, although there can be times when I wake-up feeling stunned that my dad is gone. These I know are just the emotional chemicals that my brain has released in response to some mental process that my brain has drawn a connection between and thoughts about my dad not being there. There have been a number of times in my past when I had these feelings, and they seemed to link-up to conscious thoughts relating to something that always was but was now no longer. Adjusting to dramatic change is tough and the brain isn’t very good at doing it all at once. It needs a lot of time and stimulation to eventually land in a place that doesn’t feel painful or register as loss, but is just a feeling of “offness.”
Of course, I have done a lot of stuff in the meantime that has had a big impact on how I approach the experience of being alive. There is no doubt in my mind that how I handled my father’s death served as another example of how some of my ways of operating were not helpful or were contributing to the level of difficulty I was having living from day to day. I accept this, and realize that dealing with death is not something that we are taught or that most people have much experience with. Improvements in healthcare, food availability, sanitation, safety regulations, and vaccinations have boosted life expectancy, meaning that the initial experience with the death of a loved one do not occur until much later in life. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is great that people are living longer. Being alive is at least something, so the fact that more than twenty years have been added to the average life span in North America means twenty more years of that something. But on the other hand, it means that, statistically speaking, the first exposure to the death of a loved one is going to occur twenty years later than it would have before.
The significance of this delay is best understood when considering the compounding effect of experience over time. Someone who has been writing for twenty years is going to be much better at it than someone who has been writing for five years. In the case of physically writing, the fifteen extra years will give them much better physical control over their hand and finger movements, allowing them to become an expert in terms of handwriting. In the case of writing words that capture ideas, those extra years of practice will mean that the brain will have adapted more completely to whatever the mental stimulation that brings those ideas to consciousness and then to paper represented. This is much more to the point. The grief process is long, possible permanent, and it does represent one of the more significant things that a human being will have to deal with.
Death is real, it’s a thing that happens, but it is less significant than the experience of grief would have you believe. My view of it has changed over time, as I mature and my brain works its way through the grief processes that have been triggered in my life. When you are in it, it feels awful. You are almost incapable of thinking about it in real terms, and will instead deal with the abstract aspects of it. This is not good or bad, it’s just what happens with most people. But it is not a pure reflection of reality.
Consider it from a materialistic point of view. People are bags of molecules but a “person” is a rich narrative understanding that is a collection of things. My dad married my mom and they had two children. This is a biological thing and it can be measured. But the relationship that I had with him cannot be so easily understood. He did do a lot of stuff to change the physical environment that I lived in – he worked to make money so that we had food, shelter and clothing – he took physical actions in the world to make sure that the family was safe, secure and mostly free of worry, and he talked to me to teach me things and to alter some of my decisions or actions – the ideas that he had were captured by the air flow that left his lungs and passed over his vocal chords allowing these ideas to be generated in my head when that air vibrated my eardrums, creating the electrical activity that my brain converted into the understanding of the words from which the ideas were created. That is no small feat. Make no mistake about it, my dad did a lot for me and he did almost all of it through the same methods that human beings have been using throughout their entire history.
My present understanding has nothing to do with trying to diminish anything about the important role he played and that all parents and caregivers play. But when you detach from the whole thing and break it down into the material or objective reality, it all becomes so much less than the story we are living when we are gripped tightly by the hand of grief.
When my dad died, I lost my father, yes, but he had already completed 98 percent of the “father” things that he had the potential and willingness to do. From this point of view, his death makes almost no difference to my playing the role of “son.” The role I get to play is not the same as it would have been had he not died in 2012, but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Only one thing happens, so there is only an alternative experience or outcome when we take the time to think about it. Any notion about what it would have been like if he had continued to live for another twenty years is immaterial. It can only exist as a thought and even then, it can only exist in the brain of the person who is thinking it. This is vastly different from the 98 percent of the things that he did that contributed to his playing the role of father. Some physical matter was impacted by those actions and that makes these actions real and of material consequence.
Sure, we can make an argument that, by him dying, he was no longer able to take action and that therefore is a material difference. This is true, but we’d be hard pressed to say with complete certainty what those actions were. Okay, I have every reason to believe the family would have continued to enjoy Sunday dinners, so his passing very likely marked the end of them; or at least him eating dinner with us. But the truth is that this is only the most probable outcome. Something else could have happened that put an end to the Sunday dinners. We’ll never know, and that is the point of it. While someone is alive, we can say with certainty the material impact that their actions have on the world – what molecules they put in motion, which ones they stopped moving or prevented from moving, and which ones they impacted to change their direction and velocity. When they are dead, or did not exist, we can only engage in a game of speculation about how they would have impacted the physical universe.
The initial phases of grief are awful, not because the person is dead and they are no longer impacting the physical world in a way that make their loved ones feel good which is perceived as bad. The intensity of the early part of the grief process is magnitudes larger than that. The reason, I believe, why it starts off at such a high level is because their death is interpreted as the loss of EVERY SINGLE possible impact they could have had on the physical world. It has very little or nothing to do with the present moment. The genesis of the feelings is an unconscious and automatic loop that has the brain cycling on all of the future possibilities that are now off the table. This happens fairly quickly, and unless the person has the ability to clear negative emotion faster than the brain creates it, they can find themselves getting overwhelmed.
The feelings the person is having are real. The chemicals that cause the body to experience the emotion can be measured and the increased brain activity in the areas that are responsible for processing negative emotion can be observed with an fMRI machine. BUT since these changes will not occur in the bodies of people who did not know the deceased person, their cause is purely perceptual and the result of specific mental activity in the brain of the bereaved. So while death is real, and the emotional response to a death of a loved one is real, this response does not have a direct physical cause. It is an abstract interpretative reaction that is triggered in the brains of almost all human beings and many animals. It is a part of the genetic code that evolved over millions of years and is a deeply seeded part of our operating system.
Now given that it is a natural and genetically coded process, we are innately equipped to handle it. It is a mechanism that evolved because it improved our fitness in terms of survival and reproductive success. This is the problem we are running into now, because as life expectancy grows, the necessary experiences that trigger and shape gene expression are delayed. This delay is at least twenty years – given that life expectancy has grown by this amount over the last century – but it is almost certainly longer. Regardless of the time frame, every previous generation of human beings lived much shorter lives and had to deal with infant mortality rates that were in the double digits. This means that exposure to the early death of a loved one was a way of life not so long ago, and it was a fact of life for every ancestor (prehuman) in our evolutionary past; even if they were not capable of relating to someone as a “loved one” many of their species died young ensuring that those who survived long enough to reproduce had figured out how to get back on their feet again.
Maybe a more concise way to phrase this would be to suggest that only recently and only within our species, that death has become increasingly more abstract as our direct exposure to it has been delayed for decades. The positive is that we are living longer, the negative is that for many of us, our first exposure to it comes well after our brains have fully developed. While this may seem like a bonus it isn’t because children and adults do not process stimulation and information in the same way. The prefrontal cortex of a child is much less well developed than that of an adult meaning the younger a person is, the lower their capacity for thinking about the future and for generating timelines. As a consequence, children do not have the same grief experience as adults.
So returning to the compounding effect of experience over time comment, it’s very easy to imagine a child 2000 years ago having their first experience with death and grief at age 10. It means something to them, but it cannot mean the same thing as it does to their 30 year old father because they do not have the same hardware. However, the child has the experience and the process runs its course. Meaning that, over time, their brain processes and reprocesses it, and as their brain fully matures, they have been working through the experience for 10 or more years. And they have probably had other death experiences that influence and play their part on the grief process. By the time they are 30, they will have a level of resilience that is the result of wisdom and NOT the result of willpower or wishful thinking. They know it sucks but they know that in time they will feel better because they will have gone through it a few times and have become aware and desensitized to it.
Even when their brain is fully formed and capable of peak levels of abstract thought, their life experience will have populated their long term memory with sensory information that reflects the truth about death. When compared to their contemporary counterparts, their reactions will not be the same in terms of magnitude and may actually differ completely in terms of content.
My first exposure with the death of a loved one was when I was 21. There is no comparing this to the second experience I had almost 20 years later. Yes, there was sadness and a sense of despair, but there was also a wisdom of knowing that I didn’t need to think about it all of the time and that I was actually free to NOT think about it if I didn’t want to. The first month was tough the second time round, but things were only as bad as they could be for a couple of weeks, and even then this was only when I thought about it; or when I was not able to NOT think about it.
And that is really the value of what I went through. I knew what it was all about in terms of the human experience of grief and its innate emotional experience. It’s intense and rough at the beginning as the brain works its way through the list of EVERYTHING that is lost, but then it calms down and starts to get a grip. Over the weeks and months it narrows its assessment to what might have been lost and focuses on what was actually lost. What begins as thousands becomes 4 or 5 things that you can honestly say are gone because you know you would have done them. For example, I miss talking to my dad about things. He was curious and kind, and he had a lot of life experience that helped to provide perspective about what those things actually meant or what they meant 20 years ago when they happened, and 40 years ago when they happened. I miss his laugh, not because it was a particularly good one, although it was, but because when you hear someone laughing like that, you know with absolute certainty that they are in the moment and it is a great moment to be in. And I kind of would have like for him to meet Heather because she’s awesome and he was awesome and I think they would have become good friends. But none of that stuff is worth crying about and even if it does make me sad from time to time, it does not make me death date +2 days sad.
Which is the point of all of it. Had I known what I would miss and be sad about and focused only on that stuff, I would have had a much easier time with it and would have been a lot more use to my mother, brother and sister in-law, and whoever else was negatively impacted by his passing. But technological progress has liberated us from having to have the experiences that make human beings effective grievers. We have the genes to make us good at it, we just don’t have the experiences to bring about their expression.
At this point in my life I do not think much about the future deaths of the people that I love. It is something that I am capable of doing but choose not to because it makes me feel lousy. I know I will be subjected to grief again unless I’m the first one to go, so I’ll deal with it when it comes along. What I do know is that most of what the older people say about death and how to navigate through the first couple of months after the loss of a loved one is solid advice. Look after your health as well as you can. Do your best to stay nourished. Take the time to do the things that you know work for you. Put in the effort to reestablish your sleep schedule as soon as you can. And go easy on yourself, no matter how you feel. It is fine to not think about it, just as it is fine to take some time to bawl your eyes out. Over time, you will feel better and adjust. The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.
It takes effort to learn things and it is emotionally discomforting to not be certain about things – critical criteria for opening up and allow new information in. It is important to accept that the better your store of information and the higher your amount of practice, the better your processes will be and the greater your predictive accuracy.
So what can we do to improve our ability at affective forecasting other than the things that have already been mentioned in part one? That’s a good question that I’m going to try to answer, along with suggesting an alternative to trying to predict future emotional states.
In my original post, I mentioned the lack of lasting happiness that was associated with my getting visible abs and I related similar experiences that my clients reported when they achieved their fitness goals. The achieving a goal was a fine experience, but the physical transformation had no lasting impact on the level of happiness or satisfaction that was experienced. We all returned to baseline very quickly, as regression to the mean predicted would happen. The only technique that I had found to be effective that promoted a lasting happiness or sense of accomplishment / satisfaction was to anchor the negative feelings they had at the beginning of their journey and to trigger these feelings later on to remind them what it used to be like or to create a perceptual contrast between then and now. This is a trick though, it isn’t anything more than a thought experiment that generates a sense of gratitude that things are no longer the way that they used to be. It’s powerful, it’s effective, and it can keep people going when they’re not sure the effort is worth it but it doesn’t actually change the baseline. It improves affective forecasting in so far as it gives the person the ability to predict gratitude and its associated happiness and then trigger it in the future to give them the sense that they were right about their prediction.
The truth is that human beings have NO idea why they do what they do, think what they think or want what they want, or if they even want what they think they want. We are, in a word, clueless about these things. And that is fine. Does a dog suffer an existential crisis because it didn’t get the $30 food? No, it eats what it is fed and then tries to get its owner to play fetch or whatever activity brings it the most reward. Cats don’t care that they get adopted by low energy people, or high energy people, or people who do laundry on Friday evenings. They just live their life dealing with what they have to and taking whatever steps they need to in order to continue to live. So long as they aren’t being harmed and are being looked after relatively well they stay with their owner and do whatever cat things their brain has them do.
Human beings are not as wise as dogs or cats. Almost every moment of our life is an existential crisis and the source of agony. It doesn’t need to be that way, it is just that way because we choose to do the things that cause it to be that way. We suffer simply because we have not accepted that our brain controls EVERYTHING and that conscious awareness is an unintended consequence of having a large brain and that consciousness itself is just another unconscious mental process that happens to manifest itself as awareness. We over complicate things believing that we are in control of what goes on under the surface and then suffering when reality has our experience regress to the mean and our baseline level of function returns. Approaching everything with an inflated sense of optimism that the next thing we do will turn out perfectly, we repeatedly get returned to “fine” or “okay” after a moment of satisfaction.
It is probably a good idea to consider the possibility (reality) that life was not meant to be any better than it is right now. While our health and life span has never been so high or so long, there is nothing to suggest that we are any happier now than we were a hundred years ago. Things are improving across the planet, food insecurity and personal safety are concerns of a decreasing number of people, more of our species has clean water, electricity, plumbing, and equality of opportunity is being granted to more and more people in a growing number of countries. Life is easier and per capita each individual has more than at any other time in the history of the human race. But there is no indication that we are any happier. And this moves us to the final section of this post.
If we are not very good affective forecasters and if having more things, more money and a life that is easier than before does nothing to improve our level of happiness, is there anything that we can do to improve things?
The reason why I suggests a 98% certainty that any prediction a person makes about their future emotional state will be incorrect is because there are a couple of ways to actually improve things. They all amount to the same thing, taking steps to change your baseline so that when things regress to the mean they go to some place that is slightly different than before. Will this make us better affective forecasters? No, but it might make life a little easier to experience and it may allow us to have better connections with other people.
There is a Buddhist saying that goes something like “where your attention goes, your mind will follow” that represents the first step in changing your baseline. The brain is programmed to make sense of everything it comes in contact with. It can do this by actually making sense of it, by unpacking what it means, what is it, how it came to be, how it works, and so on or it can do it by ignoring it. The fact of the matter is that most of the time it takes the path of least resistance and ignores everything. It takes effort to learn things and it is emotionally discomforting to not be certain about things – critical criteria for opening up and allow new information in. It is important to accept that the better your store of information and the higher your amount of practice, the better your processes will be and the greater your predictive accuracy. This will allow you to live a life with more ease and it will allow you to spend less of your time in a state of uncertainty, confusion, denial, or having to deal with being wrong. All of these things have a negative emotional valence to some degree. While this does not automatically equate to a greater level of happiness, it is very much like the contrast happiness made possible by anchoring a negative feeling from the past and reminding someone that their life is no longer like that. It’s a start if nothing else.
But it is an important step in the right direction. Knowing things is helpful when making decisions and it comes with a bonus in the form of the chemical reward that is released by the brain when it matches a pattern or knows the answer to a question. You’ll never go wrong when you learn something that is true.
formula here is very simple, pay deep attention to the things that matter to
you and that you want to learn. Practice doing them often and over a period of
time, always paying deep attention to what is going on, and your brain will do
the rest. It will lay down the brain tissue to support the new knowledge and it
will create the unconscious mental process that supports implementing the new
information in useful and prescribed ways. Pay attention, practice consistently
over time and your brain will grow in response to the stimulation. It’s just
that simple, although it isn’t easy. In fact, it can be hard work and you are
not necessarily going to feel like doing it all of the time. Do it anyway.
But what does it mean to pay deep attention? Well, it means being aware of what is going on in your brain and body while you are practicing. It means cultivating a keen ability to concentrate on things that are not necessarily obvious or innately rewarding. It means gaining the ability to quickly identify when your mind has wandered and to then shepherd it back onto the task at hand. And doing this over and over and over again, as often as the mind wanders.
is the only way you can use your consciousness to trigger the brain growth that
will make life different, and probably easier. The fact of the matter is that
you have no idea what your brain is going to do with the sensory information it
gets. Your brain does what it does and that’s about all there is to say about
it. The only control you have is to determine what that information is, and on
the quantity and quality of that information. That is it. It would be great if
we could get the brain to do specific things with it, but we do not really have
that kind of control over how the brain functions.
speaking, the brain will run a bunch of innate processes and will have the
ability to run a number that are specific to the life you have lived. A plumber
for example will see things from the eyes of a plumber and will likely be more
aware of water and to any sounds that have a water-like quality. An animal
doctor will see things through the lens of managing the health of animals and
avoiding unnecessary stress of the living creatures that happen to share the
same geographic space as them. The point is that the plumber and the
veterinarian were not born with these mental processes. Their brain created
them in response to the things that they paid a lot of attention to and
practiced consistently over time. This is what being an expert is about. Taking
in a lot of information consistently over a period of time and allowing the
brain to manufacture or write the code for the processes that this stimulation
evokes. Sometimes these processes will be predetermined, like how to join two
pipes together or the symptoms of distemper in a cat, other times they will be
determined by the brain and based on how it responded to the stimulation, like
the first heart transplant or the idea for an iPhone.
Paying attention is a mental skill, much like reading or identifying causal patterns or relationships based on spread sheet information. It can be independently rewarding although reaching this point can take a lot of effort and hard work. Initially, we will find it much easier to pay attention to specific things that we have learn to find rewarding. Again, these things are skills and we learn to find certain things to be rewarding through the pairing of those things with the release of reward chemicals. However, the upside to this fact is that we can condition ourselves to find paying attention to the most trivial things to be as rewarding as paying attention to our biggest passion. It just takes consistent practice, over time, and the willingness to return our attention to whatever object we are practicing on everytime it wanders.
Curiosity is one of the best tools at helping this process along because at the root of curiosity is the question “what is going on here?” that the brain is almost powerless to not answer anytime it is asked. Something is always going on even if we have historically made the decision to ignore it. Being alive feels like something. Even of you are not consciously aware of the feeling in your left knee from moment to moment, your left knee is there and the sensory receptors are sending information to your brain constantly. Most of the time we are only aware of that information when something extraordinary has happened – it bumps into a wall, hot coffee is spilled onto it, you land funny after taking a jump shot – but that does not actually mean that information is not always being transmitted to the brain. The brain has had to figure out how to deal with the constant supply of information from millions of sense receptors and over time it created a mental process of paying attention only to the stuff that is in contrast to what is coming in from the surrounding sensory receptors or stuff that is very different from what was coming in from the same receptors the moment before. This is a process that allows us to effectively navigate life without being constantly overwhelmed by trivial and insignificant data; it is much more akin to an active ignoring than it is to a lack of information. And we can, with sufficient effort and practice, create a counter process that allows us to notice the information that is flowing in from moment to moment from any part of the body we want.
This is when our baseline takes a step in the direction of better. By cultivating the ability to pay attention to the sensations that come from the body, we begin to notice the sensations that are coming from the body when we are doing other things. While it may be very unlikely that your knee will vibrate or feel warm in response to someone lying to you, it is not entirely out of the question that this could happen. And if we assume that it does, by learning how to pay attention and then creating the mental process that allows you to notice the sensations in your knee, you will have effectively turned your body into a lie detector. This isn’t going to make your life better, but it will prevent you from believing lies while it will eliminate whatever negative emotions or experiences cause by finding out that someone has lied to you; which is a contrast improvement in the quality of life.
how to pay attention and turning your attention inward will reveal a lot of
stuff about the experience of being alive that you been ignoring for years. You
will very quickly notice how the mind wanders and the frequency of random
thoughts that seem to have no relationship to what you were thinking or doing
the moment before. And this is the next big step up in terms of your baseline
moving towards something that is better. You’ll probably notice that the brain
is doing stuff ALL of the time and you are only just aware of a small number of
these things. You’ll likely notice that some thoughts appear instantly and
powerfully while others seem to bubble-up as though out of thin air and only
take hold if you allow your attention to go to them. You’ll get better at
allowing thoughts to come and go and grow very comfortable with the wisdom that
no matter what it is you are thinking or feeling right now, it will not last
because it hasn’t always been there.
And maybe, with enough practice, you’ll realize that you are more of an observer of life rather than the driver of it. You’ll grow comfortable with the fact that your brain is controlling the entire thing and that you have an amazing brain that is capable of profound and unimaginable things. And you’ll get so much better at deciding what you want our of your time on the planet and paying attention to the things that will give your brain the experiences it needs to make those things happen. Life will get easier because you’ll stop spending time on the things that do not help to move you forward or the things that you are doing habitually simply because they are your baseline. While life will have fewer ups, it will also have fewer downs, which will make living it easier. You won’t suffer through the eliminated down times and you won’t suffer when the good times fade away. This may seem like a sure fire way to create a boring existence, it is the exact opposite of that. It is a stable existence that is filled with the curious pursuit of the things that you want and the chemical rewards that the brain releases in response to doing things that it has been conditioned to reward.
And in the end, it will make you a much better affective forecaster because you’ll know with certainty what you are going to feel in the future. This is slightly different for everyone, but in general it is a peaceful satisfaction that is slightly pleasant, slightly rewarding, and reinforcing. It won’t be a “high” per say, but it will make going to sleep a lot easier and it will help you get out of bed to start the next day an almost effortless thing.
I wouldn’t go back and change anything about how I arrived at this moment in time with these realization because I can’t but mostly because those experiences were critical in helping me arrive here. When I think back on my experiences of achieving a goal, there has always been a sense of satisfaction that lasted longer than any sense of happiness. Human beings have no issue with hard work and we have evolved to reward ourselves chemically when we put the effort in and get a little more reward any time we reach the successful end of a journey. Would I rather feel happy or satisfied? I think I would rather feel satisfied because it doesn’t peak nearly as high, it lasts longer, and it fades out gradually. Most importantly though I’m certain that it will be the outcome when I reach a goal and when I take any individual step towards that goal.
That’s about all there is to say about affective forecasting right now. You can keep doing what you have always been doing and get it wrong or you can take the time to improve your ability to pay attention and then use this skill to create a new mental process that allows you to experience the present moment as it is. When you do this you will shift or change your baseline and stabilize your affective experience making it more predictable. The outcome of doing this for me is that I’m going to feel satisfied when I put in the work and a little more satisfied when the goal is reached. And then I will begin to feel normal again regardless of what I achieved.
Most of the important stuff is controlled by the brain automatically and without any conscious intervention. And by the same token, most of the conscious thoughts that we have play no role in the manifestation of the quality of our life or the richness of the emotional experience of being alive. In a very real and almost absolute way, our brain does what it needs to do with conscious awareness being more of a side effect to having a large brain than a critical piece of it.
About five years ago I wrote Affective Forecasting to talk about some of my feelings about human beings inability to predict how they are going to feel in the future. I concluded that the best predictor of how we will feel in the future is how we feel right now because we have a baseline level of functioning that our brain will work to restore any time we move away from it. There are a few exceptions to this, chronic pain or becoming locked into a mental cycle that re-ups suffering, but almost everything else will be habituated quickly and allow us to return to whatever psychological state reflects our “normal.”
I recommend you give the original post a read or a reread before you continue this one. It covers some of my own experiences, the experience of some people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and some of the experiences that my clients have had while working towards their fitness goals and after having achieved them. Without fail, NO ONE was correct in their prediction about how they would feel when the future becomes the present.
half decade since I wrote the post, I have had a lot of different experiences,
consumed a lot of information, and draw almost the exact same conclusion. How
you feel right now is very likely going to be how you feel in the future. If I
had to bet on it, I would put the odds at around 98%; we will return to the 2%
later. The big difference between then and now, in terms of how I think about
the subject, is that I know a lot more about why we get affective forecasting
Life is very complicated, so the brain has come-up with a variety of ways to make living more efficient. Generally speaking, the brain needs certainty that it is populated with a world view that reflects reality well enough to allow it to make accurate predictions. This certainty serves to reduce cognitive overhead simply because it prevents the brain from cycling on the unknown. While this is more of a narrative explanation than a neurological or biological one, and it does introduce a few assumptions in order to avoid tackling the hard problems of consciousness – for example, is the cycling the result of uncertainty or is the uncertainty the result of the cycling – the outcome is the same, uncertainty is exhausting and “knowing” is mentally a lot easier than not knowing, even if the knowing is not based on any evidence.
The brain creates processes to help manage the information flow. Many of these processes function with almost complete perfection. There is a relationship between the amount of real world experience the person has, practice, and the quality of the process. The more hands on practice a person has, the better their brain will be at making predictions or guesses about a particular thing. This is what one would expect because it is the manifestation of how the brain functions optimally – physical experience with the real world is evidence and the greater the amount of evidence, the larger the memory pool the brain can draw from in order to make predictions.
These processes are created automatically and unconsciously in response to stimulation flowing into the brain. You are almost powerless to stop it from happening. In a way, the brain is innately programmed to write code to optimize the handling of the influx of information of a particular type under a specific context. And this is a very good thing! It is empowering to know that all you need to do in order to become an expert at something is to pay very close attention to what is going on while you are doing the thing and to practicing it consistently over a long period of time. By paying deep attention, you will maximize the in-flow of sensory data which will cause the brain to adapt more completely to the stimulation. Over time, the neural networks that support the most efficient way of dealing with the data will grow dense and allow for the automation of nearly perfect ways of responding.
So far so
good, but things begin to fall apart when the processes are not based on a lot
of real world evidence or practice. Processes that are formed with insufficient
information and fail to have predictive accuracy are called cognitive biases.
If we stop now and consider the world from which the brain evolved, we’ll notice that it was a complicated world, but that it was very small in terms of the diversity of things that a living being would be exposed to. It consisted of doing the same ten things each day – finding food, finding water, finding shelter, finding security, getting sleep, staying warm, protecting family, establishing connections to other living beings, maintaining social connections, and teaching the young or ignorant the skills needed to satisfy the other nine needs. Life was hard, and the experience of living was a binary flip flop between periods of satisfaction and an immediate need to satisfy something. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was, and the living beings just did what they had to continue to survive. NOTE – I left out reproduction as one of the ten things because without the ten, reproduction was a liability that was more likely to reduce the chances of survival than to promote it.
of abstract thought that was involved with living and surviving was low. Most
of what happened ACTUALLY happened, so the creature engaged the real world in a
physical way. This is the definition of evidence and the brain is perfectly
suited for this type of environment.
is no longer the world that human beings live in. Our world is much more
complex than before, and the abundance of this complexity is abstract in
nature. Most of what we know doesn’t spontaneously exist in nature. It’s real,
but not really real. It is the consequence of some creative insight that just
happened to be deemed as valuable or rewarding enough by other human beings to
get picked-up, shared, and spread throughout various sub-groups of the
population. Those who did not have the information did not understand, want or
even consider it. Those who did have it would use it to their advantage, and
would likely use it against those who didn’t have it. Not necessarily in a
direct way, although sometimes, but in a way that gave them an advantage. The
consequence was that those who had more information would do better than those
who had less.
Writing and reading, farming, and tools are examples of this. Writing and reading are very similar to teaching, but their creation eliminated the need for the teacher and student to actually spend one on one time together, and it allowed for the teacher to teach hundreds or thousands of people in one shot thus making the process exponentially more efficient and creating the opportunity for the standardization of knowledge about a subject. Farming was very similar to gathering food from the wild and hunting, but it allowed for people to concentrate their efforts onto a much smaller well defined area which reduced the labour cost per unit of food. Tools allowed people to perform more work with the same amount of labour which reduced the cost of the work. These three technologies – writing and reading, farming and tools – represented a way for people to do more of what they were already doing. They were advances that created an abundance of resources that groups were able to use to make their lives easier. They were abstract ideas or novel ways to accomplish existing goals with greater ease or efficiency.
The consequence to abundance is that everything expands, which leads to a massive increase in the amount of information that is available or known and the propagation of this information. At some point, the world in which most people lived no longer resembled the world from which their brains had evolved. The software was fine for small groups who had ten things to do over and over and over again, but it wasn’t really ready for whatever modern society was becoming. Gone were the days of direct hands on daily experience and practice, which allow for the creation of nearly perfect processes. Here were the times of indirect mental practice with abstract things that don’t actually exist in the real world. Consider traffic lights for a moment. We have a good understanding of them, but what would happen if someone who had never seen them was placed into the driver’s seat of a car that was approaching a red light (assuming that they know how to drive a car). There is a set of rules that govern the behavior of cars at traffic lights and without knowledge of these rules, things could get dangerous and ugly. Regardless of how effective and helpful these rules are, they only exist in the minds of the people who know what traffic lights are, and they only exist because someone invented traffic lights as a solution to a problem. They do not exist in the ocean and the wildlife in the forest have no need to them.
This brings us to cognitive biases. Our brain is very effective at creating mental processes that govern and control things that it has had ample sensory data for, the predictive accuracy of these process is dependent upon the verification of these predictions. Without this error correction, a process will not evolve and improve. Thinking about the traffic lights, the rules governing traffic light behavior are abstract but they are easily and consistently verified and validated. There are very few accidents with intersections (when compared to the number of cars that travel through an intersection) and much fewer with them when compared to non-controlled intersections. There is an abundance of sensory information available that is transmitted and received by people allowing their brain to create a near perfect rule concerning them.
This is not the case with most things in modern life. While there is an abundance of sensory information available about any specific topic, there are millions of topics meaning that there are probably billions of possible pieces of information to know. A billion of anything is too much for the brain to handle so it means that it will ignore practically everything. At best, it will create a sufficient set of rules that are well tested and accurate that will provide professional expertise, a set of social rules that are well tested to ensure coexistence with other people, and lot of mental processes that have not been tested but are accepted as being valid. These are cognitive biases, and human beings have shared patterns of thinking that result in the formation of a fairly consistent list of cognitive biases.
It is important to mention that this does not have to be the case in theory, and is likely the consequence of our need for certainty. Those who are innately fine with uncertainty or who have trained themselves to always assume that there is always going to be something that they need to learn about every subject and to be curious and seek out this information are much less susceptible to making decisions that are based on cognitive biases. They will either admit that they do not know and will find out or they will take the time to learn and experience enough evidence in order to correct the processes and boost their predictive accuracy.
years ago, I was less aware of what I didn’t know and the role this void was
having on my life. While I had noticed that I wasn’t very good at affective
forecasting, I hadn’t taken much time to consider why that was the case. I was
also aware that the same was true for my clients – they were only temporarily
happy or satisfied when they achieved a hard earned goal and would quickly
return to normal. My noticing this was why I had started to suggest to them
that that they track in on their reasons for seeking my help vs. the outcome
they were hoping to achieve. How someone identified that they were physically
weak and needed to improve their strength was more important than knowing that
they wanted to become stronger because two cognitive biases impact the
perception of the future when it comes to physical transformation – the
optimistic bias and the planning fallacy.
optimistic bias basically has a person believe that things will be easier and
will result in better outcomes than they will. The planning fallacy has a
person believe that things will progress more quickly and result in faster
outcomes than they will. These two things work together and, as a result, we
are lousy affective forecasters. Things take longer and are never as good as we
believe they will be.
By tracking in on the specific reason why a person realized that they were not physically strong, the focus is shifted away from imagined perception of what the future will be like and onto the reality that they’ll be able to do the thing that caused them difficulty. They will have a reference point for how bad they felt at the beginning and this can be leveraged to contrast to their life today. It can be used to motivate them to notice that even though things are moving much more slowly than they had anticipated, they are getting better as they move further and further away from the moment when they realized they were physically not strong.
Now I know this because I noticed it in myself and in others because I had been lucky enough to have the experiences that allowed me to see it occurring. This motivated me to say something about it and to then seek out the reasons WHY it was the way it was. This is the reason why we engage the help of experts. They do not suffer from the same cognitive biases, at least not in the same way, as we do. They have taken the time to be uncertain and to then seek out the evidence to update their processes to make them more accurate. After having done all of the work, they do not make the same mistakes that the rest of us do and they are actually in a position to help guide us through the experiences that we need to have in order to get what we want.
With all of this being said, my 98% guess at the odds of someone getting their affective forecasting wrong should now be becoming clearer. It’s the perfect storm of a number of factors.
The first is that we do not have a good set of rules or processes set-up when it comes to doing something that we have never done before. This opens the way to the impact that cognitive biases can play.
The second is that we are generally not very open to new information and will rely on our gut feeling and hunches to guide us vs. any objective assessment of what happened before or what is the more likely outcome. This fact needs to be understood completely because it is part of the same problem I was alluding to when I mentioned that the brain does not do well with uncertainty.
Feelings are not the same things as thoughts. Both are related to and will influence each other but they are very different things. Feelings are, for the most part, the brains way of alerting us to a memory that we have about the past that was significant. The nature of the emotion will reveal information about the memory that can provide context or other background information. The reason for this is very straight forward, the brain is very effective at gross single trial learning and can condition a very specific emotional reaction, in terms of the chemicals that make it up, to something that happens. The conditioning is very general and tends to be void of most of the contextual clues that reveal exactly what happened, why it happened, and what could have been done differently to avoid the situation. But it is a strong association and sufficient enough to trigger the release of the same chemicals whenever the brain perceives the same or a similar event. If a particular loud sound preceded something frightening, the brain will learn to release the same chemicals in the event that it hears or perceives the same sound in the future. On the very extreme side is post-traumatic stress disorder that may cause a returning war veteran to become extremely anxious or panicked when they hear a loud bang from a truck, a door slamming, or something on television. Their brain has done such an effective job at conditioning a sudden loud sound to a sympathetic nervous system response that this response will be triggered even when the person is well aware that they are in a completely safe context. This type of learning is extremely sticky and may last for decades afterwards.
Given that feelings have a real life experience aspect to them and the fact that they occur BEFORE we become consciously aware of their causes, they have a characteristic of having always been there, at least in the moment and before we take any time to reflect on what is going on, and of being very important. Both of these things are true, at least from a historic point of view. It makes a lot of sense to prime the body for a fight or flight series of actions as quickly as possible the moment the brain senses a threat. In fact, a very good case can be made that those individuals who had a tendency to be primed for action even before they were conscious of the need for action, were in a much better position to survive when a legitimate thread presented itself. It is entirely probable that a part of our operating system evolved to favor type one errors and to instantly react as opposed to waiting for validation, which promotes the likelihood of a type two error. It is better to be wrong and live than to be certain and die. It you think about it, the last person to respond to a real threat has the greatest chance of being the one who has to deal with the threat directly because they will be the last one to start running away. There is almost no cost associated with running away when you don’t need to and a huge advantage to being the first one to run when you have to.
So feelings are important, and they played a big role in keeping our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce. Paying attention to them and reacting to them is an innate part of the code that runs our operating system. But much like the nature of information that we were tasked with handling – the ten things that we needed to do every day in order to continue to survive and how our skill level with them was earned through direct experience with the physical world – our present environment is very different from the one that shaped our brains. A lot of the code is fine, but some of it doesn’t apply to the same extent or at all in modern life. A full on fight or flight response is something that will never be needed by most of us. The world is not nearly as dangerous as it used to be and now most of the things that will kill or damage us can very easily be avoided with a little bit of thinking.
I cannot say that the emotional system is antiquated or that our gut feeling should be ignored, but I will say that we have a very good reason to slow things down a little bit and to allow the source or probable source of an emotional reaction to surface before we take any action or commit to any view about the correctness or wrongness of something simply because the gut weighs in on it. The truth is that the gut is based on previous experience and we do not have instant access to the exact memory that shaped the feeling or conditioned the emotional reaction. If the conditioning was formed based on inaccurate information or under a general context and not a very specific one, the gut feeling cannot be trusted to be correct. Better decisions will become possible when we take the moment to think about things and to ensure that we do not make either a type one error OR type two error. It is possible that we will be able to take the time to figure out what the correct answer is or to lean into the uncertainty for long enough to allow logic and statistics to bring forward probabilities.
Of course, this will not happen when we go with the gut and act without thinking. And this contributes to our profound inability to accurately predict how we will feel in the future. Our initial feeling that “I’ll feel very happy when I get the body that I have always desired” or “that I will feel sad if I find out that I have a terminal illness” are gut reactions to thoughts about a potential future. They are not based on what IS and are therefore suspect. It’s true that you might feel temporarily happy and temporarily sad but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that you’ll simply return to baseline and feel the same way you feel right now.
It is our lack of openness and a misplaced reliance or trust on feelings that prevents us from taking in the information and having the experiences that are needed to eliminate cognitive biases. Education and experience is the antidote to them simply because these are the things that the brain needs to create, shape, and refine the mental processes that allow us to make accurate predictions about the world.
The final factor that contributes to our poor affective forecasting is that very little ever changes. Staying alive is a very difficult task and almost all of our mental effort is directed towards sustaining life. We are oblivious to most of this effort and tend to only become aware of the things that require us to move in order to satisfy – we get thirsty or hungry, we feel cold, we feel pain, etc. – and that is about it. Most of the important stuff is controlled by the brain automatically and without any conscious intervention. And by the same token, most of the conscious thoughts that we have play no role in the manifestation of the quality of our life or the richness of the emotional experience of being alive. In a very real and almost absolute way, our brain does what it needs to do with conscious awareness being more of a side effect to having a large brain than a critical piece of it.
The end result is that most of what we are and how we experience the world will remain as it is and as it has always been for us REGARDLESS of the things that we achieve. Everything regresses to the mean eventually. No matter how happy you are right now, if it is at a higher level than normal, you can be certain that it will not last. And as much as that is a tough pill to swallow, the opposite is also true. If you are less happy right now than normal, it won’t last and you’ll be back to normal after a while. In fact, regression to the mean is so prevalent in terms of affect that practically everything we do will have no impact on the mean simply because most of what we do is done automatically and without conscious awareness or intervention. Life is just that difficult to maintain that the ninety percent of our actions and thoughts are controlled by the brain and it doesn’t waste much effort adjusting to the things we believe that we want.
I’m going to stop this article here and post the second part of it next week. It covers what you can do to improve your affective forecasting and suggests an alternative to trying to predict your future emotional state.
In December 2011 my family took a trip to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. The trip was taken just to cross-off a possibility from the short list of possible actions that is given to you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. The list was my dad’s, which means the cancer was his. GBM, the most common type of brain cancer. It was a primary tumor, it grew very quickly, and it was located in a part of the brain that made it difficult to operate on and there would be very serious damage to the surrounding tissue. Surgery could be performed but since there was no chance that they would be able to remove all of the tumor it would grow back, likely at the same speed it grew in the first place.
My dad was 67, which placed him on the do nothing side of the surgery decision matrix. He was remarkably healthy for a man of that age, still very lean, strong, and in possession of all of the markers of good health. Apart from the cancer he was in great shape. During the conversation with the oncologist he said that they would be willing to perform the surgery because it was low risk in so far as my dad would live through it. The decision was my dad’s to make, but only after sitting down with the treatment team of doctors who would look his case over and give their honest assessment of what should happen next.
What struck me at the time and what I still remember very clearly is the flatness of each one of the doctors. They were nice, seemed kind and were honest. At no point did I or my family get a sense that they were being anything other than truthful. There was stuff they could do. The surgeon said that there was no way to get rid of the entire tumor without leaving the brain as a complete mess, but he could de-bulk it and doing this would give my dad a little more time. The radiation doctors knew they could destroy a lot of the remaining tumor, and this would buy some more time. The oncologist wasn’t confident that there was anything more that could be done because the blood brain barrier prevents most chemo therapy drugs from entering the brain. While there were some experimental medications that showed promise, getting into a drug trial was unlikely given my dad’s age. We were free to source and buy the drugs elsewhere but he wouldn’t be able to offer any support or advice. The feeling we all got was that they would go to bat as hard as they could, in the event my dad decided that he was going to treat it.
My brother asked what it would look like if my dad decided to take whatever treatment options were available and each doctor spoke dispassionately as they gave their best guess. The radiation doctors said 5 treatments a week for 6 to 10 weeks. Possibly a few courses of them over the remaining time. The first week wouldn’t be too bad, but from there it would get tougher as the tumor cells died, along with any other tissues that were impacted. It would start like a cold, then move into the realm of a flu and effectively become the worst sickness he had ever had. A week or so after the final treatment the body would begin to show signs of recovery, and my dad would start to feel better. After a few weeks he would be back to feeling cold and flu free. They avoided saying back to normal because that was never going to happen because radiation was only going to be used if surgery was performed. Whatever version of my dads brain existed before he went under the knife would be gone forever, so the radiation was going to be destroying the tumor along with a portion of whatever brain tissue remained.
The surgeon went next. His version was more intense because his intervention involved gaining direct access to the tumor. The radiation was a beam generated by a machine that penetrated the flesh and bone; which is kind of like shining a flash light on something. Surgery involved cutting the skin, peeling back the scalp, sawing through the skull, cutting a path through the top layers of the brain to get access to the tumor and then cutting and burning away as much of the tumor as he could while trying to avoid cutting away viable tissue and damaging the thousands / millions of tiny pathways connecting different parts of the brain to one another. Once the debulking was complete, they’d close-up, join the piece of the skull that was removed to the rest of the skull using metal plates and screws, flip the scalp back and stitch it back together. There would be antibiotics to prevent infection, pain killers to help deal with the pain associated with cutting through the skull and scalp – there wouldn’t be any pain from the brain because it doesn’t have pain receptors – and a few days of recover in the hospital.
There was an enthusiasm in how he described what he would do, and I was confident that he would do it really well. But whatever sense of optimism his enthusiasm created crashed when he talked about the recovery.
“We have no idea what we will have to do once we get inside. We’ll do more imaging before we go in, but there is no way to know exactly what the tumor looks like, what other tissues it involves and how it will have grown between the scan and the day we do surgery.” He paused to let this sink in before continuing. “Given all of that, the tumor is still be there and it will grow again. And it is brain surgery. We’re cutting into your brain and we will be removing pieces of it. No matter how careful we are, and I am very good at this and our team is excellent, your brain is never going to be as it is right now.” Another pause and then, “even as the tumor continues to grow now, you are still you. You won’t be after surgery. Removing pieces of the brain changes who you are and we have no idea what that will actually mean until after surgery and about a month and a half of recovery. There is a chance that surgery and radiation will buy you another 9 months, maybe 11.” Looking at the oncologist, who nods, then back to my dad, “great, you’re healthy, maybe 15. But it isn’t you who will have them, it will be the post surgery version of you and there is no way to predict who that will be, what they will be like and what they will still be able to do.”
The next few moments were longer than any before or since. The silence hung in the air, most uncomfortably.
He was very good at his job though, and took a brave next step. “If I had a relative who was just like you, and this was their brain scan,” holding up the printed image of my dads tumor, “I’d help them get their affairs in order and then go and spend a month or so somewhere hot and sunny with them.”
The oncologist spoke next, not giving much time to let what the surgeon had just said sink in. “There were a couple of things they could do in terms of medication, but the powerful chemo therapy drugs that have a strong track record of destroying cancer sell couldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so there wasn’t anything that he knew would work. We’re looking at surgery, radiation and whatever medication makes your remaining time easier.” And that was more or less that.
My dad decided against surgery and that was the end of it. There wasn’t going to be a cure so why bother with all the hassle of having to recover from brain surgery, maybe having to relearn how to walk or talk or think only to die in a few months anyway? Didn’t seem to him to be worth the inconvenience. He was still himself and would be until he died, so he got after enjoying whatever remained.
I haven’t been back to the Juravinski Cancer Centre and haven’t spent any time thinking about that day until about an hour ago when I reread the original post. What hit me was the paragraph about how we filled the half hour or so between the initial conversation with the oncologist and the group chat with the treatment team:
Some food at the cafeteria / lounge that had a piano but no singer. The family chats back and forth about stuff. I’m looking around and starting to feel strange because as I look at each group of people I’m trying to guess which one of them has cancer. If you haven’t played this game, you don’t really win when you guess correctly. There’s a table of 3 people, one is dying, the two that aren’t are going to be grieving their asses off soon. You can’t guess who is who without looking at their faces and when you do, you see a 21 year old son with his mom and grandmother, mom’s in a wheelchair because she has cancer. I felt rage deep inside that made me want to wreck something for what’s about to happen to this poor kid. I suddenly wonder what type of cancer killed the cafeteria singer and as I do, my eyes meet Des’ and he’s just seen the kids future too. I glace away towards my dad unwittingly winning another round of the stupid game my brain is playing.
I do not remember writing that nor do I remember thinking it. In fact, I have no recollection about that moment whatsoever. I can relate to it, it sounds very much like something that my brain would do and the words are almost identical to the ones I would use to describe such an experience.
I remember a conversation with my dad about art. I was sounding off about a painting being really expensive for just being a picture of something and he said “son, you have no idea what that picture actually represents, or what it represented at the time. Sure, it’s a picture of a scene, and to you and me it is a really good picture. It looks like what it is a picture of. But imagine that this was the first time someone did that, would that make it more important?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about and he knew it so he continued, “before that picture was painted, people didn’t paint pictures like that, they painted pictures like how they painted pictures. That artist saw that paintings didn’t look like real life and that real life didn’t look like the paintings and he changed that. He saw something that was always there but no one else had ever seen, and if they had, they had never painted it.” He could see that I was still kind of lost so he added, “art is a strange thing son, the artist who created that was the first to paint that way and he was probably laughed at for how bizarre it looked compared to everything else. But it was art because it captured something about reality that no one had ever captured before and after he did it, it could not be unseen.”
That is how I consider the paragraph I quoted above. I wasn’t the first person to have that experience, and I am probably not the first person to put it into words. But I feel good knowing that I captured a moment of humanity that is uncommon but likely experienced by everyone who sits in a cancer center, life on pause, waiting to hear from a team of doctors who are there to offer up their advice about what they can do in response to the cancer that has taken hold. It’s peaceful, still, and extremely short lived. Life starts up again as soon as we gather in the room, and this moment fades into the stew of memories that shape who we become, even if time causes us to forget that it happened.
In early August 2007 I wrote a post called My Thoughts On Facebook in which I outlined why I had deleted my account.
I reactivated my account a few months later and engaged in the social media world to a certain degree for about 8 years. I stopped posting to Facebook a couple of years ago when I became aware of how the platform made me feel – mostly crappy – after taking an inventory of how my day to day actions were contributing to my sense of well-being. For the record, I do not blame Facebook for my actions nor do I hold them accountable for how I interacted with the site. I was always free to act otherwise and they did not evolve the brain chemistry that makes the quest for “likes” so addictive.
When it got right down to it, I had to answer the questions “why am I doing what I am doing?” and “should I continue to do what I have been doing?”
Many of the people I know use Facebook for the reasons it was created – to stay in contact with other people in a way that gives them control of when and how deeply they get involved. They are busy and finding the time to meet up with friends is tough and usually unnecessary. Most of the connections serve to download whatever updates are needed just to make sure nothing important slips through the cracks, and this is what Facebook is really good for. It’s a semi interactive medium that allows all of our friends to read whatever they feel like that we are inclined to share. “Here’s pictures of a wedding, a vacation, a child’s concert performance, a cat video I found funny, etc….”
This is something that I still use it for, except I don’t post anything about my own life any more. My wife tags me in pictures and that is about it. I’m happy to stay up to date with the on goings of people I know, and I’m honestly happy that their lives are progressing as lives do. Those people have the opportunity to see where I have been with Heather, which is about all I do that I think is worth sharing – here I am with my favorite person doing something we decided to do, planned out, and made happen.
My problem with Facebook, and I literally mean my problem with it in terms of me judging myself, is that it plays on the most insecure parts of my personality. I had found myself posting for “likes” and then feeling good or bad depending upon the responses of other people.
After my dad died, I was a little lost and set about posting a lot in an attempt to generate some sense of belonging or connection. At the time I knew what I was doing and was fine with giving a few months to it because I felt so aimless. It’s hard to say if it served that purpose given that human beings move through grief and maybe I would have felt better anyway but I’m willing to be charitable and say that in the months following his passing that Facebook did afford me the opportunity to reach out and engage the world in a way that contributed to the rebuilding of my happiness. And if it had ended there I think I would still be active on the platform.
It was my quest for “likes” that I identified as problematic; specifically, the transactional rules I had manufactured that governed my engagement. On the face of it there shouldn’t be any complexity here. Posting a quote that I found that was interesting or a thought that I had that I believed was inspirational are not a cause for sadness or social turmoil, and for a lot of people these things are one and done. Socially well-adjusted people will either post the things and deal with whatever comes of them, having no emotional response one way or the other along with no need for a particular response, or else they will just not post them because none of it matters all that much. I was not one of those people. I noticed myself considering “likes” as a growing part of my life. It wasn’t enough for me to get a kick out of reading something or having an interesting thought, I needed OTHER people to get the same kick or acknowledge a kick of sorts. In the very lamest sense, the quote or the idea was not the source of joy that it once had been, the reward came from other people liking or commenting. And the moment I noticed myself deleting posts that didn’t do either of these two things I realized that I had crossed some boundary into the realm of behavior that wasn’t working for me in terms of happiness.
I don’t recall the date, but I recall the moment when it dawned on me that my behavior was not what I wanted or needed it to be. When you hear yourself think “okay, that didn’t work, I have to delete it so people don’t know that it was there” and watch your hand click “delete post” a switch has flipped. Again, I don’t blame anyone but myself nor do I believe that most people develop the same maladaptive behavior. It was me and that is all I am talking about here.
There is NO reason why my happiness should depend upon the decision other people make to check a “like” button about my musings UNLESS I had conditioned my brain to respond that way. Given that relying on other people for anything, let alone actions that will lead to my happiness, is a pointless exercise that leads to unhappiness and resentment, along with it being the effective non consensual enrollment of other people in a contract they don’t even know exists, the question had to be asked, “what the hell was I doing?”
That is much more interesting, and something that I would not have taken the time to figure out had I remained engage in the pursuit of approval on social media. In fact, my life changed directions the moment I asked that question.
Why do people do the things that they do? The superficial answer to that question is usually going to be a post hoc rationale for an action. This is fine when that is the actual reason for doing something. But how often is that?
Not very often. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actually have to do most of the things that we do – there is no compelling or life preserving reason to participate in nearly every social interaction we engage in. Most of our communication is pointless in terms of it doing anything useful. It is made up of talking about things that don’t matter, about people, about how things that are as opposed to how we engineer them to be, back stabbing, or conversations about subjects that we don’t know anything about and cannot contribute to. With the exception of work and child rearing, how many of your thoughts, internal or said out loud, make a difference? Do any of them change anything? If so, which ones and why? And of all that remain, why did you think and then say them out loud?
I’m more than willing to create a bucket called “thinking out loud” to throw these pointless utterances into because thinking is a complex thing and sometimes the physical matter we add to a thought by saying it out loud gives it an energy that makes it actually real / useful when trying to uncover the truth of something. A lot of what I say is actually an attempt to think; in much the same way that my writing is a way of thinking. Writing is better than speaking for this because the words have a much longer half-life and the ability to reread them causes them to be more “real” – both have an impact on the objective world in so far as each takes brain activity and converts it into something with more mass – air and sound waves with talking and physical movement that creates a visual representation of the thought – which give us an opportunity externalize the stimuli and receive it as though it is coming from outside of us.
So with the exception of communication from these three categories – child rearing, work, and thinking – what is the point of the rest? I’ll maintain that there really isn’t one, at least not one that can universally be viewed as helpful. Most of what remains will be in the realm of useless speak or back biting, that serves as validation that we are alive, worthwhile, and connected to other people or to make us feel more secure in our connection with other people by denigrating those who are not there to defend themselves.
My Facebook quest for likes satisfied this. I wanted to feel connected to others and worthwhile and relied on the influx of “likes” as proof of these things. When the likes didn’t come, didn’t come quickly enough, or were not in the numbers I wanted, my quest was not satisfied. The experience is not a flat emotional experience. Getting the likes was rewarding – I had trained my brain to release reward chemicals in response to them. Initially a like was all that was needed, but over time it needed to be more than one and by the time I found that I wasn’t feeling good about being on Facebook the likes needed to arrive very close to the time of posting and needed to cross a threshold number within a certain time frame. Let’s say they needed to start within 10 minutes and needed to hit 10% of my friends list within 4 hours. A post that was liked by 2% didn’t give me what I was looking for, and instead of feeling like nothing, it felt like the absence of something good.
This should sound very similar to addiction, particularly what you might have read about cocaine addiction. Everyone who takes the drug reports that they feel at least good but probably fantastic the first few times they take it. And of course they do, it stimulates the release of dopamine, among other things, which is one of the primary reward chemicals the brain releases. Under non drug situations, the release of dopamine is associated with a change in the internal environment that is perceived as the occurrence of a conditioned stimulus. In learning theory, classical conditioning is the learning that occurs when a reward is closely paired in time with a stimuli that is benign (not innately rewarding). The result of this pairing is that the reward will be released when the stimuli is experienced. Pavlov uncovered this type of learning when he noticed that dogs began to salivate when they heard the sounds that preceded their daily feeding. Since the salivation occurred before the food was given, he realized that the reward was not required to trigger the behavior. The language around the entire thing can be slightly confusing but the conditioning process is real and the discovery shined a big light on what was going on in the brain. What was actually going on became less important than what the animal believed was going on – the raw sensory data mattered less than how the brain interpreted the raw sensory data.
My addiction to likes is a version of this that only differs in terms of the complexity of the perceptions – the unconscious meaning that I was putting on likes. Almost all of the learning happened unconsciously and without my awareness. I think I liked the feeling of social validation and approval although there was nothing intrinsically rewarding with seeing a thumbs up icon appear, or a larger and larger number appearing to the right of it. This was simply visual information. The heavy lifting was being done by unconscious thought processes that extracted / manufactured the meaning. The release of reward chemicals was also done unconsciously and based on the output of a process that interpreted the likes as social validation. None of this was anything that I was aware of as it was happening and it only became obvious months or years later when NOT getting the likes as quickly as I wanted them created a negative experience.
Again, NOT getting likes isn’t a thing that actually exists. However the brain is able to interpret the absence of something as a negative when it has learned to expect something positive. The lack of likes did not trigger the release of dopamine. Since my brain expected this reward, not getting it was experienced as a negative.
The big upside to “likes” addiction when compared to drug addiction is that you only experience the negative withdrawal symptoms when an anticipated reward is received. When I stopped posting, nothing changed other than the elimination of some rewards and some negative experiences when my posts were not received the way I was anticipating. I did not notice the times when I did not get rewarded and did not NOT get rewarded. This is very different from cocaine which is reported as one of the toughest drugs to withdraw from.
Understanding this process is important for a few reasons. When we introduce an exogenous chemical that triggers the release of reward chemicals, our body starts to down regulate the production of the impacted reward chemical because it tries to maintain homeostasis. With Cocaine and dopamine, each person has a natural level of dopamine inside the reward centers of their brain. When they take cocaine, the concentration of dopamine increases. Initially, this will feel great, but since the increase pushes levels above the upper threshold of what is natural, the body adapts by decreasing dopamine production to restore homeostasis. If, which isn’t usually the case, the person does not increase their cocaine consumption, their brain will find a level of dopamine production that reflects the normal level. They won’t feel high anymore, just normal. This is called tolerance and it is the manifestation of the brains attempt to keep things within a very specific level of operation. If the cocaine is stopped, the brains decreased dopamine production will result in a lower than normal level of dopamine which will be experienced as a negative by the person.
Dopamine and other naturally occurring reward chemicals are considered action creating or action promoting because they will motivate the person to take whatever action they have paired as the conditioned stimulus. In my case it was the quest for “likes” but in the case of a cocaine user it will be drug seeking and taking behavior. The reason why my quitting Facebook cold turkey did not cause me any withdrawal was because I hadn’t done anything to down regulate my natural dopamine production. My brain was operating as it naturally did. It manufactured the normal amount of dopamine and released it in response to the things it had been conditioned to release it to. The only tolerance that had occurred was the learned tolerance to the number, frequency and speed of “likes.” My brain was doing what it always was doing and that is to grow accustomed to rewards in so far as to grow the magnitude of the stimuli that was required to trigger the release of the dopamine.
This is different from chemical tolerance because my brain was still capable of manufacturing and releasing a normal quantity of dopamine. It just doesn’t do it in response to the same amount of stimuli as before. It is a type of behavioral tolerance or stimuli tolerance – it is completely perceptual and based off of brain activity. Chemical tolerance is the brain changing how it functions to reduce the amount of the dopamine that is manufactured. It has nothing to do with perception (mental activity) and is a completely biological response to changes in the physical internal environment.
The other reason why it is important to get a good understanding of the Pavlovian conditioning of reward activation to perception is that it reveals a lot about how human beings find themselves locked into acting in ways that do not objectively reflect their best interests. I am grateful that I set about trying to get likes only to find that there was a growing need for them in order to experience whatever positive outcome I was getting. Had I not journeyed down this path it might have taken me a lot longer to notice what was going on and, therefore, what had always been going on. It was just very easy to notice the changes in my response given the immediacy of things that happen on the Internet.
It is fair to say that my brain operates in more or less the same way as everyone else’s brain, which is more or less the same way that every brain has operated for millions of years. Not that pre-modern man thought about getting “likes,” just that they had a brain that would release reward chemicals in response to things that it wanted to repeat; in the same way a dog’s brain gets it to do the things that preceded a reward before. This is both exceptionally simple and remarkably powerful.
Much of its power comes from the fact that it is both unconscious and automatic and this renders us almost completely incapable of stopping it. The opposite is not true, we CAN consciously impact it – we have the ability to teach our brains that any benign or neutral stimuli is rewarding simply by rewarding / triggering a reward within close temporal proximity to the stimuli. In fact, given our power of perception and our ability to have conscious thought, there is almost NO limit to what we can condition our brains to believe is rewarding because the idea of future reward serves as a sufficient proxy for actual reward. We can learn to delay gratification almost indefinitely so long as our brain has sufficient experience with finally receiving a reward for something that it delayed.
There is a lot of talk about the marshmallow experiment that deals with delaying reward. The initial reports from the study seemed to reveal that children who were able to delay gratification at an early age were able to carry this ability with them into adulthood and, as a consequence, had better behavioral outcomes. Children at a particular age were given the choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 5 minutes. Some of the children would just eat the marshmallow immediately while others would hold off for the larger reward later. Children in the second group were said to have the ability to delay gratification and were viewed to have better impulse control and they appeared to have fewer behavioral issues later in life. The narrative here makes sense, but subsequent studies reveal a more detailed picture that isn’t as cut and dry.
Children who were able to delay gratification could very easily be flipped into non-delayers if during the initial trial their waiting was not rewarded with the promised larger reward. This is an important finding because it complicates things dramatically. The researchers did not have control or complete knowledge of everything that happened before the study. While it might seem that some children were incapable of delaying gratification, it is possible that they had just learned that there is no such thing as delaying gratification based on their previous experience. If a reward is available now and a greater potential reward might be available later if they wait, experience has shown them that there never is a greater future reward, there is only a reward now or no reward at all.
The brain will reach a particular age that context will begin to factor into things meaning that a child of a particular age won’t be flipped into an immediate gratification seeker by a dishonest actor and will simply identify the dishonest actor as being someone who cannot be trusted. This means that there is an age / maturity threshold at which point the brain will be able to parse the context for specific information that will allow them to make a tight rule about who cannot be trusted vs. a general rule that no one can be trusted. It would not surprise me that, before this age, the dishonesty of a primary care giver would have a catastrophic effect on the long term trust strategies developed by a child.
All of this is said to explain that rewards are not a simple topic or that the rules that apply to dogs necessarily apply to humans. The larger the brain, the more complicated and robust the rules can be. And as an individual gains more experience and forms more long term memories, these rules can be shaped by things that are not real, have never happened, and are not even in the realm of possibility.
This is where Facebook and my quest for “likes” was given room to grow. Social acceptance is a thing that human beings are coded to identify and something that we likely find rewarding. The initial rewards may not be dopamine fueled, but it would stand to reason that they would be sooner or later. Once that happens, dopamine will be released in response to any form of perceived social validation coming from any perceived source. And after my brain got used to getting it, it would begin to need more and more of it in order to trigger the reward. This is why I started to dislike my time on Facebook and why I found getting off of it to be a positive. There was no withdrawal, just the creation of freedom as I no longer felt the drive to think up something profound to post in an attempt to harvest “likes.”
From what I gather, I am not alone in finding the potentially rewarding nature of Facebook likes to be more than a little disruptive to the day to day experience of being alive. Most of the social media sites have altered their business model to become attention capturing and holding over something else. People who are a lot smarter than me are working on the problem of how to keep people engaged with the sites / platform by stoking whatever emotional triggers serve to hold their attention most tightly. They don’t care about doing good or about helping people make the most of their time on the planet. They care about keeping users attention while generating as many clicks as possible. Social validation, outrage, humor, in-group / out-group thinking, etc….. it doesn’t matter. The attention of potential users is what is critical because this is what they will use to generate money.
I don’t blame Facebook or other social media platforms. It isn’t their fault they have figured out that third party companies will pay them a lot of money if users remain connected to the platform. And it isn’t their fault that they have figured out the way that peoples brains work and are using it to generate a lot of money. I’m kind of grateful actually. As much as it might seem like it was a big waste of time, I wouldn’t have taken the time to figure out what I was doing or why I was feeling the way I was had I not had the opportunity to do those things and feel that way. Facebook actually helped me wake-up to what was going on in my brain by forcing me to ask some very important questions.
Why do I do what I do? Well I don’t know, but at least some of the time I know it is for the dopamine. The rest of it, maybe because it makes me angry or outraged, maybe because it once got me something I thought I liked, and maybe because I’m not all that different from the rest of the living beings on the planet and do what I have done before and just normalized.
I have no idea what role Facebook and other social media platforms will play in my future but I’m pretty certain that I’m going to have a better idea of how they are trying to get me to do it. And I think that is actually a lot more fun and interesting than anything else. Knowing and accepting that I am the product and the fuel in their business model gives me a lot more control of how mindfully I engage it, and in setting the limits of what I’m willing to do and for how long.
About seven years ago I published a post title Responding To Criticism. It outlined a more pragmatic way to handle criticism that can shift / reverse the negative emotional valence reaction and allow you to make take the most out of the interaction regardless of the validity of what is said or the intentions of the person who is giving it to you. Basically, you treat the interaction as if it is a part of an improv act and employ the “yes, and” strategy. You simply just assume that the criticism is valid and take some time to figure-out what the consequences are.
At the time I suggested that you remain quiet and approach it as though it is an introspective exercise. There should be some later processing to factor in who the person is that offered the criticism because the motives of other people can be much more revealing than the actual words they are using. The key is to accept whatever it is that the person says as being a possible truth and to allow it to exist without judgment. This is tough to do when we feel that someone has just criticized us given that negative value judgments tend to trigger emotional reactions that hinder objectivity.
I maintain the view that we should accept whatever is said as being the truth and remain as open and non-reactive as we can to ensure that we are able to extract as much value from the statement as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we unconditionally accept it as the truth, just that we accept it as true for the initial run at it. This is how improv operates, there is a single thread that runs from beginning to end as each player takes their turn reacting and responding until time runs out, the audience is laughing, or a natural end point is reached. Unlike improv, once our introspection reaches an end, we return to the beginning and reprocess the subject factoring in context – who the person is, what their motives are, how they would gain from having the criticism accepted and acted on, etc…. This is much closer to dialectical analysis because it allows for the consideration of much more of the picture than simply just the words.
Frankly, in the moment you cannot care much about the person who has shelled out the criticism because having feelings towards them one way or the other will bias your initial interpretation of what they said. As such, you have to try things on from both sides – like you care about them and are more willing to assume that they are telling you the truth OR like you don’t care about them and are more willing to assume that they are lying to you. The best option is to assuming each, one after the other, in order to arrive at a more complete picture of things.
You’re probably going to keep this process to yourself and not ask them to be a part of it. They’ll say their piece and you’ll go through the pros / cons of it being true and then the pros / cons as being the statement made by someone in the present context. However, you may want to get the other persons involvement. Doing so is a little risky in so far as it can be interpreted as being confrontational and if done carelessly it can prevent future feedback from a well meaning person.
In this case, the “yes and” part of it is done out loud. As opposed to doing the introspection and analysis yourself, you push the responsibility of much of this onto the other person. By asking them to explain the consequences of your behavior, you might be able to find out why your action / behavior is problematic, how it makes them feel, and to uncover the distance between your intention and the actual outcome. There is also a chance that they will be able to suggest an alternative that might lead you to the outcome you are seeking. Regardless, how the person addresses you will indicate a lot about their state of mind and might just reveal their actual intention / motives for saying something in the first place. The rule of thumb is that people are either trying to help or trying to hurt and their follow-up answers will be aligned with their intention.
No matter what they say, you will have to take some time to process all of it from both sides of the coin in order to extract the maximum benefit from the interaction. The positive outcome is clear when the person is acting with good intentions – they what the best for us and are providing a portion of the road map towards achieving that. In the case of a person who is being critical because it serves their ends, the introspection that is fueled by the dialectical analysis will bring up a lot of very useful information – who to trust and why or why not, the nature of this persons relationship with the world and with facts, the nature of how they operate in terms of manipulating you into feeling or doing something, and, most importantly, what they view as bad in so far as most people do not criticize others for things they themselves view as positive.
The good, the bad, the ugly and the UGLY. How you engage the other person in response to criticism will go a long way in determining what you get out of them. With those who are making an earnest attempt to help, you will get the good stuff out of them by employing either the good or the bad approach, but will likely alienate them with the ugly, or when the bad approach is used exclusively. Those who wish you harm will offer up more useful information when the bad approach is used and less with the good approach. When the ugly approach is used, they will shutdown or attack. The quickest way to find out someones intentions is to use the ugly approach; but this comes at the cost of the potential alienation of those who care about us and a toxic interaction with those who wish us harm.
The good approach will have you ask probing questions to uncover what the person heard you say and how that made them feel. You are approaching the other person with an open mind and a sincere willingness to understand how your action made them feel, how it was interpreted and what the consequences or likely outcome will be. It is granular, very specific and absent of any judgment. Everything is fine and after this interaction, the future will be better. You are taking the responsibility for guiding the conversation, something that will become more clear when you read the bad and the ugly, but in general they will not feel any resistance and your curiosity will prevent any defensiveness.
The bad approach will have you ask a flat question that is very much the same as “yes, and?” This is more like improv in that it is assumed that each person has an obligation to take a turn and contribute to the conversation / interaction. Whereas you were asking them specific questions with the good approach, which removed any sense of obligation, the bad approach is more forceful. You are agreeing with the person by saying “yes” but are then asking them to explain the consequences of that truth. This is much more abrupt and it instantly forces them to think about the interaction in terms of possible outcomes. Someone who is offering genuine feedback will already have done this to some extent and while they may become slightly defensive by your direct ask, the information you are seeking will be readily available. Those who are throwing bombs, or are have been emotionally triggered into criticizing you, will not have this information available to them because they will not have spent any time thinking about it before they speak.
The ugly approach will have you ask something to the effect of “so what?” This triggers defensiveness in almost everyone who hears it because it is empty of curiosity and is completely void of the collaborative agreement that are innate traits of the good and the bad. It also has hints of a dominance hierarchy in that they are being forced to present a justification for their criticism / feedback for consideration. The dynamic is set up in such a way that you get to be a decider and vet the legitimacy of their rationale. It has a linguistic / conversational structure that is establishes inequality or validates that the interaction is not between two equals; this is the primary characteristic of contempt.
The ugly has a long lasting quality that the good and bad do not have. It creates a negative emotional experience in most people. This serves as a punishment in a psychological sense – it suppresses the actions that preceded it along with creating the pairing of negativity with the person, serving as a disincentive to spending time with the person in the future in any context. An honest player might engage the person once or twice because they are genuinely trying to be helpful but they will quickly learn that it isn’t worth it. A dishonest player won’t care because their objective was to do harm and the ugly response serves as proof that they were successful. Those who rely on this approach will quickly find themselves surrounded by people who do not care about them, do not try to help them and will say and do whatever is required to end the interaction as quickly as possible.
The UGLY approach is any reaction that can be considered to mean “you would say that” or “I don’t care.” It is the outright dismissal of the other person and not just their opinion. Regardless of the intentions of the person who offered feedback / criticism, the reaction will be negative. The relationship with a positive operator will be permanently damaged; they may not say anything to indicate that harm has been done but things will never be the same again. The reaction from someone who is setting out to do harm is very likely to be hostile. This slight will be noticed and will serve to fuel the escalation of their animosity. An UGLY response will eliminate the possibility of harvesting anything good or useful from the interaction because it will stop it dead in its tracks.
It is fair to say that the difference between feedback and criticism is determined by the intention of the person who is offering it. Those who are trying to help are giving feedback while those who are trying to harm are given criticism. However, the intent to do harm does not necessarily mean that you will be harmed or even that you cannot benefit from the other persons efforts. When you assume that everything is feedback and offered-up with the goal of improving your future actions, on the initial pass, you will be able to extract a lot of potentially useful information. You are not on your own here and can engage the other person in this endeavor. Depending on how you set about extracting this information, you have a lot of control on both the amount of information they reveal and the context from which it is coming. Bad actors can be revealed quickly, and their efforts to do harm do not need to be successful.
Of course, when you assume only nefarious motivations you will miss out on the positive intentions of the good and will never have access to the possible benefits of listening and hearing what the unsavory players have to say.
About five years ago I wrote the post How I Have Been Wrong to cover some of the mistakes that I had made up until that point during my time in the fitness industry.
The 5 mistakes I admitted to were:
Believing that nutrition is more important than food.
Believing that the program is more important than consistency.
Believing that by creating an emotional response a transformation has occurred.
Believing that EVERYONE should workout and become more healthy.
Believing that what gurus said was more useful than what I knew.
I can confidently say that I did not make those mistakes again, which is a good thing, so I have decided to take another run at the same topic to cover some of the other mistakes that I have made. This list has less to do with the fitness industry specifically, although some of the lessons could be applied to it, and you may notice that some of the items were actually the fuel for realizations outlined in the first list. I’m also going to alter the way I present the mistake by stating the lesson first and then unpacking the error. The list is by no means complete and will be added to in future posts.
Most of our thinking is unconscious. The brain is always active even when we are not doing much. Whether it be the passive assessment of sensory information for signs of threat, the reprocessing and consolidation of memories / experience, the interrogation of memories in order to reveal patterns or connections, the triggering of mental processes that help the brain make sense of the world along with the reprocessing of the output of these processes, the control of thousands of physiological processes, or the moment to moment adjustment of biological functioning required to maintain homeostasis in order to maintain vitality and life, the brain is always busy doing something. We have very little awareness of these things and are generally only aware that they exist as a consequence of their output or when they don’t work the way they are supposed to. At best we can only influence the input that the brain receives in terms of content and volume by directing our attention in varying degrees to specific things in the physical or mental environment, and be aware of the output of whatever processes yield information that can be moved into consciousness. For example, when asked what two plus two is we become aware of the answer but we have no awareness of what is involved with generating that answer.
We should always keep in mind that consciousness is another one of these automatic and unconscious process for which we only have access to its output. This is a big one because it doesn’t seem to make much sense given that we are conscious. But take a moment to consider the experience of being awake and alert and try to determine why you are not aware of something that you know but are not thinking about. What comes to mind is not everything that you have ever experienced. It is in fact only a tiny portion of what you know and not necessarily the most useful part of it. In order to bring to mind more information, we need to spend more time thinking about a subject. And on two different days, our initial thoughts about a subject might surface two completely different things. Sure, both things will pop up if we spend 20 seconds thinking about it but for some reason what appears in consciousness is not consistent. Something big is going on under the hood that is determine what comes to mind and we have almost no access to the inner workings of these processes.
Human beings are meaning making machines. We need coherency and order and are more than willing to make things up just to ensure that we have these things. Facts are less important than narrative consistency and we will ignore them when they are in conflict with our existing world view to ensure that we remain “right.” The reason we do this is to conserve the mental energy associated with maintaining open loops. This is a survival practice that allows us to close off experiences and move forward having more complete access to our cognitive capacity. It is safer to be wrong and energized than it is to be unsure and drained. Uncertainty is exhausting, so a false certainty, while not accurate, was actually a safer bet in terms of survival in our ancestral past. It isn’t an ideal trait for living in the modern world but it’s deeply coded into our operating system and requires deliberate effort to suppress.
Human beings automatically answer every question they hear. What is remarkable is our ability to come-up with answers to questions we cannot possibly know the solution to. This happens because our default course of action is to solve problems quickly so we can go back to burning as little energy as possible. Most of our answers will be centered on addressing “why” something occurred in an effort to gain the illusion of control in the future. Cause and effect relationships between stimulus and response are understood to be an essential part of the universe, so we gravitate towards uncovering / making-up these types of things. When we do not have any specific information, we will make-up whatever is required or generalize based on binary pairings that are of the “us” vs “them” flavor.
The longer we believe something or the longer a belief goes unquestioned, the more confident we become in its truth or factual nature. The reason for this have to do with the organic nature of the brain. Memories and mental processes are stored in neural networks – rich interconnected collections of brain cells. It is tissue that is made-up from the food we eat and has been laid down in response to the sensory and mental stimulation the brain has been subjected to. The structure of these networks is completely dependent upon the stimulation meaning that it will only be impacted by what happens. Given that most of the mental functioning exists below the level of conscious awareness, we have no idea about the true amount of stimulation that occurs, all we can know is what we were aware of.
However, what we pay attention to will shape what happens afterwards and the more we pay attention, the greater the impact on the cellular structure. By focusing very intensely on something, we dramatically increase the impact on the brain because it saturates the sensory input buffers with data / information of a particular type, which will result in a greater stimulation and force a higher level of adaptation.
This is not an innately dialectical process. What goes in is what gets processed and assimilated. The brain doesn’t spontaneously set about trying to figure out if it is correct or not. In fact, correctness, truth, and rightness are not even things that the brain is in a good position to understand let alone seek out. It deals with “what is” and more specifically, taking its experienced “what is” and making an internal representation of it so it can be better equipped to make predictions in the future. It has no relationship or coding for something that isn’t experienced – the neural networks that make error identification possible will only exist if the brain has had sufficient experience with the subject matter. It cannot interrogate perceptions against information it doesn’t have, and since the information is not there, the brain just moves forward with what is has.
This is the reason why errors MUST be identified as quickly as possible to ensure that the error is not rehearsed into long term memory. Once the tissue has been laid down to code for the error, it’s going to be much more difficult to correct it. And the longer the organic tissue resides in the brain, the more sticky the information it codes for becomes.
Consciousness is the last thing to deal with what has just happened. Reality is objective in so far as the physical material of the universe exists and is moving in a particular direction. Subjective reality does not exist in the same sense physically. In fact, what each one of us is aware of is just the output of a reality simulation that is running in our brains. This simulation is based on a stew of sensory data, long term memories, perception, and thousands of other unconscious mental processes that come together to serve up consciousness from moment to moment. For example, the thing we look at and experience as a tree is something that is out there, but the “treeness” of it is only something that exists in the brain of the person who is looking at or touching it. This is to say that we do not experience the tree directly, we experience mental activity that is interpreted consciously as tree. This conscious awareness is just the final step in the entire process and there is a lag of between 100ms and 500ms between the sensory data that trigger the sensory cells and our experience of that triggering.
Most people are completely enamored with their perception of their own brilliance. Obviously, given that we manufacture a meaning that is coherent and void of any innate error correction. What goes in and is stored is not viewed through a lens of probability of being correct, it is just brought in, processed, and stored as an internal representation of the external world. Since we cannot process what isn’t there, there isn’t ever a reason for us to actually believe that we are not completely correct, at least not an automatic or spontaneous reason to believe it. This leads us to have a growing level of certainty about almost everything that we have any experience with. Since there is no process for review, we move forward knowing we are correct and much better than other people at most things.
The reality is a lot more average than that. We might have some skills or talents in a particular area, so maybe a brilliance of a particular flavor in one or two things. We might be good at a few others that we have worked at. At everything else, we are at best average at but given the nature of statistics, we are probably below average at most things. Even being average at something isn’t actually all that good. Based on the distribution of skills, someone who is at the mean level of capability might only have between two and ten percent of the abilities of the most capable person. It’s understandable why we believe we are brilliant but we aren’t and should probably stop pretending so we can actually get better at things.
Learning new things is simple, but it is very hard work. Since all learning is the physical adaption to stimulation – the laying down of tissue – it takes time and effort. Organic material can only be generated at a finite pace, so regardless of our desire to learn quickly, it can only occur as quickly as biology will allow. About the only thing we can do to speed it up is to maximize the input of sensory data by working hard and paying very close attention to what we are determined to learn. This process will reduce the length of time needed to learn something but it will require a lot of mental energy and it will have a negative impact on our ability to do other things.
Direct physical experience is more important than anything else when it comes to surfacing talent and developing skills. Aside from maximizing the speed of brain growth in order to hard-wire a new skill, direct physical experience is required to trigger gene expression, which is ultimately the reason why some people have talent in a specific area while most others do not. Without direct physical experience, the genes will remain dormant and our potential will never be actualized. The biggest opportunity for human beings here is based on the fact that we seem to have way more genetic code than we are currently using. The stuff isn’t all useless as has previously been suggested. Much of it codes for traits that were previously helpful and are no longer needed to serve a survival function in modern life. But the traits are still in there because they were hard earned and helpful in determining evolutionary fitness.
Human beings have no idea why they are thinking what they are thinking in spite of their certainty that they know why. All of our explanation are post hoc and are based on what has happened as opposed to what is happening. It may not make a lot of sense to look at the world in these terms, but by not doing so we remain convinced that we know our motivations for doing things and that our conscious experience of reality is a reflection of what is actually going on. Neither of these things is true, and there is a growing body of evidence that indicate this fact. Functional MRI studies show that the decision making parts of the brain peak in activity level before the subject is conscious of the decision they have made – they will actually believe that they are making the decision after the brain has already made the decision because this is what it feels like. Given the need for a coherent meaning and understanding of the world, it is not surprising that people resist accepting the reality of what is actually going on and will instead choose to believe that their consciousness is in the driver’s seat.
Almost everything we say and think is unimportant, not helpful and serves only to distract us from the fundamental truth about life. Working backwards, the fundamental truth that people are resisting is that life is hard and it is finite. We’re all going to die and before we do, we will struggle through almost every day having to do a bunch of different things to help sustain life. No matter how satisfied we are in the moment, it will pass and we will become unsatisfied again forcing us to do more work. No one likes this fact, and most of us resist even considering it by remaining distracted by anything that will hold our attention. The end result is that we talk more than we should, about things that don’t matter, are not helpful, or cause others pain and suffering. But it feels like it matters and it feels better than the experience of reality in our own minds when we are forced to not be distracted and to actually allow life to be what it is.
If you are not sure about this, take some time to consider, on the fly as it is happening, what you are talking about in terms of it being important and helpful. You’ll very quickly notice the trend towards back biting and engaging in useless speak. Now perform the same inventory on your internal dialogue and notice how so much of it is the very boring play by play announcements or the musings of a psychopath who doesn’t have your best interests are heart and seems hell bent of ignoring reality almost completely by focusing on the very limited perspective made possibly by having a seat in the theater of your mind.
So there are a few things that I have been wrong about. There is a lot more, but I’m going to need some time to process what I have just written down and to notice the output of that processing. Maybe I should be a little less hard on myself and phased it as things I wasn’t getting right or didn’t realize but this seems like trying to put a nice spin on things. It doesn’t really matter when all is said and done. History is what it is and since my brain works hard to create a meaning that is coherent I have no doubt that I’ve already stopped feeling bad about not knowing that I didn’t know something and begun to lay down the tissue that will help me make better decisions in the future.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. so 51 years ago today Robert F Kennedy gave the speech that is referred to as “On The Mindless Menace Of Violence.”
The first time I ever heard the speech was sometime in early 2011 and I found it very moving. Some of my feelings were covered in the June 1, 2011 post On The Mindless Menace of Violence that has a link to a YouTube clip of an audio recording of the speech.
The first half of 1968 was a particularly bad time in America and early April was a low point of an excessively brutal year. News about MLKs murder traveled quickly and seemed to be the spark that lit the powder keg which was the growing level of dissatisfaction among the coming-of-age Baby Boomers and pretty much every race of people that wasn’t white.
The rage which was justified, could no longer be contained and riots erupted in many U.S. cities. These brought about swift reactions from the authorities. The first reaction was to try an put an end to civil unrest using force, and the second was a shift in the political climate that added a lot of momentum to the movement towards more equal rules and policies.
RFK had been a big advocate of civil rights and had a strong following among ethnic voters and within these communities. That spring was a time when the democratic primaries were being held to choose their candidate for the Presidential election later that year. Against the advice of his advisors, he made a single campaign stop in Cleveland, Ohio the day after King was killed. This was not the first time that he disregarded the security advice of his campaign staff.
He did not have a death wish but he also knew that the there was an important job to do and that fear would only get in the way of completing it. He was very aware of what was going on all around the country we he stepped in front of the crowd of 2200 people at the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel and gave the speech.
When you listen to it, and you really should because it is powerful and dissimilar to the speeches we have grown accustomed to from modern politicians, it is striking that he does not give anyone a pass. The thrust of it is geared towards the perpetrators of violence and how they are taking actions against people who simply want to live their life and make things a little better for themselves and their families. He tries to paint a picture that we are all the same race – the human race – and that any action of unnecessary violence against one of us is an act of violence against all of us.
He knew full well that what happened the day before in Memphis, Tennessee was going to happen again, and again, and again, but that it could not go on forever because we would not let it. Two months and a day later we was killed and a lot of the optimism and belief that the human spirit is good and that it would eventually outshine evil seemed to evaporate.
He was right however, it just took a lot of time. The world is very different now than it was half a century ago. Most younger people don’t care about race, religion, sexual orientation, or any of the things that were historically used as wedge issue to trigger the us / them or in-group / out-group thinking. In every way life is better today than it has ever been. Sure, it’s not perfect, violence is still a fact of life, there are a lot of people who are suffering and not everyone enjoys the same advantages or head start. But it is better and improving.
What is less talked about is what RFK did on April 4, 1968, which is in a big way, much more impressive and it goes a long way to explain why he took the stage the following day and why he campaigned fearlessly until early June.
Kennedy had learned about Kings death as he boarded a plane to fly to Indianapolis for a campaign rally. He had some time to amend his speech and prepare some remarks to talk to the severity of what had just happened, what MLK represented and meant to the world and to speak to the void that his murder created. He cared about the people, but could not directly relate to how they might be feeling. There was a concern that into the void would flow more and a dramatic escalation of violence, which would cause more death and suffering which would serve as the fuel of a chain reaction that would be nearly impossible to stop.
This concern is legitimate given the tendency for people, and all living things, to be driven to action right as hope evaporates into helplessness. This is a very dangerous time given the feeling that there is nothing to lose, nothing to gain, and the window of opportunity to do massive harm to those you deem as responsible for everything that is wrong with your life. It is not rational yet there is a certain flavor of wisdom in it, which is why Kennedy took the chance to try and walk the country back for the edge
When he spoke, the first thing he told the crowd was the Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. This was news to everyone who had gathered to hear him speak. He conceded that many might be filled with hatred and a lust for retribution. There was no judgment in his words and many regard this act of empathy and compassion as being a source of peace and stability in a moment when the country was beginning to explode into chaos.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
That night there was no rioting in Indianapolis and the following day he gave the On The Menace of Violence speech.
The world never got to enjoy the actualization of his vision. Nixon won the election in November and became president the following January and while he is regarded as having been remarkably liberal and progressive, especially for a Republican, he had some flaws that took him down along with a lot of his administration.
The 1970’s were like a decade long hang over for the turmoil of the 1960’s and the Vietnam war. The public was divided and did not have a lot of trust in their elected officials. There were no leaders like JFK, MLK or RFK and the global economy was in rough shape and a dramatic increase in the cost of oil in 1974-75 created an energy crisis that further suppressed optimism.
RFK was right though. Human beings are two sides of the same coin. We can be evil, violent and thoughtless towards other people. But we can also be kind, compassionate and responsible. The side of the coin we happen to find ourselves on is determined by what we are taught as being appropriate and socially acceptable. When we learn that our fellow citizens are our brothers and sisters, different but the same as us, we learn to treat them more fairly and act towards them with kindness. This is what generation X learned from their caregivers and families, and these are the lessons we pass on and try to teach.
His speech is a relevant today as it was back in 1968 because treating people fairly and with compassion will never be the wrong thing to do.