Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 2

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.

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This is the second half of the post Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited.

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.

The 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.

Attention 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.

Generally 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.

Learning 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.    

Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 1

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.

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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.

In the 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 so wrong.

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.

The level 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.

But this 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.

Five 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.

The 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts On Facebook – Post Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding To Criticism – Post Revisited

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.

How I Have Been Wrong – Post Revisited

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

The 5 mistakes I admitted to were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Mindless Menace Of Violence – Post Revisited

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.

Choosing A Fitness Club – Post Revisited

So you have decided to invest in your future and start to work out, good for you! You won’t regret it. Improving your fitness means that you are going to be improving your health, and that always means that in the weeks, months and years that follow, you will live with at least a little bit more ease.

And like many people you have decided to avoid the upfront cost of buying all the needed gear to create a home gym and instead join a local gym. Okay, that is probably a good idea, particularly if you have never been a fitness enthusiast before. Improving ones health is not for everyone so unless you commitment devices are an effective way for you to stay on track, buying a bunch of equipment isn’t the best idea because it is expensive, it takes up room, and in the event you choose that fitness isn’t for you, its continued presence in your home serves as a kind of impulsiveness hangover.

Join a gym for a year and be curious about what the membership reveals about your commitment to physical self improvement. Review this decision at the end of the first month, the first quarter, nine months in and midway through the tenth month. If you like it, renew or invest in a home gym, and if you don’t, make sure to cancel your membership so it expires at the end of the year and you don’t end-up paying for time you don’t want or use.

Gyms are like restaurants or candy stores – not all are created equal. And if you have specific needs, you might have to send some time looking at different ones to make sure the fit is right. If you don’t know what you are looking for, and this is probably the case for anyone who is just beginning their journey into the realm of deliberate fitness, how do you go about finding the right gym for you or at least right enough to allow you to get started and objectively make the decision if its a trip worth taking?

There is one major consideration and a few other things to look for that will help you make as good a decision as is possible about something you know practically nothing about.

Will you go there three to five times a week, every week for the next twelve months? If the answer is no, don’t join. Look somewhere else and if the answer is always “no”, save your money or spend it on something else. Of all the considerations, this is really the only one that matters because improving fitness takes consistent effort over time. While one workout will help, the true benefit is cumulative. It will take about six months training  three to four workouts per week to get to a decent level fitness. This is between 78 and 104 visits to the gym over that twenty-six week period.

Keep this thought in mind when you are visiting the potential gyms. You will be coming to this place between twelve and sixteen times a month and if you do not see that as a possibility, don’t sign-up. This is actually more important than what you will be doing at the gym because a safely done low quality workout done consistently is more effective than the highest quality workout done infrequently.

This is the major consideration and the only show stopper. You don’t have to like it, although it is better if you do, you just have to do it 78 to 104 times in the next six months. If you are confident that you will and are willing to make that commitment take a look through the tips below on things to look for during your initial gym visits to get an idea of what you will be signing-up for.

When to shop: Make it as close to real life as possible. If you plan on working out right after work, make the visits right after work and drive from work. If you plan on going first thing in the morning, wake-up one day and make a dry run. Road and gym traffic have a pattern that is very stable. It isn’t enough to imagine that it will be rush hour and things will be busy because when we have “go fever” our optimism will colour our imagination in a way that will make us over confident that we won’t be annoyed. When we make the drive under real life conditions we are having an experience that is very close to what we’ll need to do over and over again. If it sucks before we sign-up, what reason do we have to believe that it will stop sucking once we pay?

Time of day plays the biggest role in determining the type of people who go to the gym. There are five distinct types of gym trainees and you will undoubtedly start to become one of them as you spend more and more time training when they train. They are early morning, off-hour, after work, late evening lifters, and the generalists. As rules of thumb, anyone who is willing to get out of bed to go to the gym will likely be highly driven and have less time to waste on things they deem as unimportant. The after work people will have a similar desire to waste as little time as possible. The late evening lifters tend to have a very focused lifting intensity but a more laid back approach to their between sets time. Off-hour people have selected these times because they work for them in terms of traffic flow and life management. The generalists workout whenever they can or feel like it. If you don’t like the mood, tone or energy when you visit, it isn’t going to change. But if you decide to train at that time, you probably will.

Once you get there: what does the parking lot look like? Are there lights, are they on when they shouldn’t be or off when they should be on? Are there garbage cans and are they overflowing or is there garbage all over the place? Is there sufficient parking? Are the specialty parking spots close to the entrance? Is there an employee of the month parking spot? If there is cleared snow, how has it been left? Have walkways been shoveled and salted or sanded? Is there a snow shovel visible? Do they have a flag pole and if they do, what is the condition of the flag? Is it at the right position – half or full mast? How are the cars parked – are they within the lines, are they backed or driven in?

All of these things will give you a good impression of how the staff approach their job and how the landlord approaches their tenants. Parking lots have very few rules or laws that specifically apply to them so most of what you will see will be the reflection of decisions people make to go above and beyond what is required. People who are willing to walk past garbage are making a decision to leave it on the ground, which is a reflection of what they believe they are responsible for.

The way people park is also very revealing. Double, crooked or otherwise selfishly parked cars are an indication of a possible personality flaw in the driver. In every case other than that of someone being a bad driver, there is a near zero percent chance that this flaw will not manifest itself in other ways inside the gym. While the staff is not responsible for how people park, they are responsible for making sure the members act in a socially acceptable way which includes how people park.

The first twenty feet: this is about first impressions and it includes information from all of your senses – feelings, smells, sounds and sights in that order. There shouldn’t be a taste and if there is, you should probably take a few moments to reconcile that fact. Is the floor level, is it bumpy, are there broken or missing tiles, is there a floor mat and is it clean, does the door open and close smoothly, does everything you tough feel clean? If you shake someones hand, what is their hand shake like? Do all of the staff shake hands the same way? Our brain picks up on the feeling of things in a mostly unconscious way, so give it the opportunity to take this information in and generate a perception. Our feet will feel problems very quickly and will make you aware that something isn’t right. Try to notice the information that is coming from the floor because it tells us a lot about the existence of a cleaning schedule or system and the level of care given to maintenance.

People who are moving intensely are burning a lot of energy, generating a lot of heat, sweating a lot and releasing a lot of water and carbon dioxide. For these reasons, gyms need to have very good ventilation. The air should be fresh, dry and odorless along with being at a temperature that matches the time of year.

What do you hear as you walk in? The volume and type of music, the sounds of the equipment, the amount and volume of chatter between members, what do the staff say to you and to the other members? Are there systems in place to control greetings and prospective member intake?

Finally, what are you seeing? Is the gym clean, well organized and tidy? Do the staff have uniforms or a dress code? Is the gym branded and if not, does it look like someone has given its appearance some consideration? Are the signs up to date, mounted in a consistent way, and appealing to look at? Can you tell the staff apart from the members? What are the members wearing? Are their finger prints or dust on things? Are their any burned out lights?

As you tour the gym: is any of the equipment out of order and if so, how long has it been that way? If it isn’t clear, ask someone. Is there a way to clean the equipment after use and do you observe members doing it? Do the members put equipment back after use? Are their weights left on the machines or barbells? Are there enough dumbbells and how high do they go? Is there a functional training area? Do they have squat racks and are there any Smith machines? How many hamstring curl machines and of different types are there? Do they offer group fitness classes, do they have their own studio and does it have an independent ventilation system? Is it clean and tidy?

Make sure you go into the change room and all bathrooms. Are they clean and tidy? What is the condition of the lockers? Is there soap, paper towels and toilet paper available? How is the water pressure and is there hot water? Are there any signs posted and if so, what do they say? For the record, people can be disgusting and most of the problems that management need to deal with concern the change room. The signs here will paint a clear picture of what they are hoping to put an end to or prevent from ever starting.

The staff: how are they acting? Are they busy, friendly and radiating an energy that is positive and free of drama? Do they look like they work out and with those who don’t, are their eyes moist and vibrant? Is this a job for them or a calling? How do they interact with the members? Is there a clear supervisor or manager and if so, are they on the floor or in an office behind a computer? How long have the staff worked at the gym?

The member enrollment conversation: is it a hard sell or an easy conversation? Are they trying to get you to join on the spot and have answers for any of your objections? Do you get a weird feeling in your stomach during their presentation that is a sign that someone is trying to control your thinking or emotional state? Are you being listened to and heard, or is the person just waiting for their turn to talk? When they reveal the price, do they try to reframe it or put it in context that relates to your fitness objectives? Are they honest about what the gym is and what it isn’t? Are they offering an enrollment gift as an incentive to join and if so, is it of high or low quality? Are they clear about the cancellation policy? How do they answer your questions and do they freely release information? In general, do they know what they are talking about or are they just there to process you as a transaction?

Final thought: The thing about gyms is that they are, at their core, big rooms with equipment and people. YOU are the engine that drives the results and that is only going to happen if you go consistently over time. The highest quality equipment and top level staff have no impact on members who do not show up, and they have only limited impact on those who are their regularly. What determines the cost of the membership and the value you get out of it is the number of times you go to the gym and how intensely you train when you are there. A $250 a year membership used once a month is essentially more expensive than a $700 a year membership used five times a week, every week for the entire year. And that $700 a year membership is a much better value when each of those workouts is performed near your max possible effort.

YOU are the difference maker. The gym is a tool that you will use and the staff are a part of the service that makes the process a little more convenient and maybe a little more enjoyable. But the responsibility of making your future better falls completely upon you. A gym membership is not the solution, USING that gym membership is.

If you haven’t read or do not remember, check out Choosing A Fitness Club. There are a few other tips or considerations that you might find helpful.

The Next Generation Gap – Post Revisited

Around 12 years ago I wrote the post The Next Generation Gap in response to reading the New York Magazine article “Say Everything”. The article was like nothing I had ever read before and it was a kind of wake-up call that reminded me that I was 34 and no longer in the drivers seat in terms of determining what was new and cool. My generations run at the front was over and we had been replaced with something that was so much different from everything that had ever come before.

The essence of the New York Magazine article was that the young people had always known the Internet and had come of age when broadband and the exceptionally low cost of storage had eliminated the need to be selective. Gone were times of film and chemical development that took time and money, replaced with digital cameras, unlimited pictures and the ability to store them online. Capturing a moment is just a matter of taking a bunch of pictures, switching to review, thumbing through what you got and keeping the ones that you want. It didn’t matter because there was no cost associated with taking a picture and you got to see it instantly to make sure your hair was right and that no one was blinking.

2007 was still very early days in whatever it is was we were going through and at the time of my post, the iPhone was about three months away from US release. Looking back on it now, it seems quaint to think about a world without the cloud, without instant access to Facebook, twitter or whatever social media applications matter right now. But 2007 was the calm before the explosion, and the younger people at the time were carving themselves a long lasting identify by capturing and posting large portions of their life online, for almost anyone to see, forever.

That was the essence of the article. With a no rules and no holds barred approach to making everything available, what the heck were these people doing to their future? There would be no secrets and anything they did would come back to haunt them. The article didn’t predict this of course, it was just so obvious that it would be the outcome given that no generation had ever existed so transparently before. They were young and naive. Actions have consequences, even for those who lack the foresight to predict them. Give it a few years, a decade at most, and the day of reckoning would hammer down on those too willing to share everything.

Except that isn’t what happened. The day of reckoning arrived, sure, but the hammer avoided those who shared so much. It turned out that living out loud and in constant public view served to immunize them from the fall that comes along with finally being outed as a closeted asshole. Except that wasn’t how it happened. People did simply not grow tired and immune to all things shocking – if that was the case, when the hammer dropped it wouldn’t have made a sound or crushed anyone. By growing up in a time when everything you say and do will be documented by someone, posted on line, and be instantly accessible forever, you learn to behave like a person who is one day going to have to account for your actions. Who you are is well known to anyone who is willing to take the time to find out. All of the bad things you have said or done are as accessible as all of good deeds you have bragged about or made public. Lives have been destroyed, but mostly those who are members of the older generations who managed to control the message and manipulate everyone’s point of view.

Smart phones were tools that young people knew how to use and they had potential consequences for bad behavior that were obvious to them at the time and have become obvious to the rest of us over the last decade. When you are in public, either physically or via broadcast, there are NO secrets and nothing will be forgotten. This isn’t brand new, it’s just that before powerful people were predictably able to shift opinion before by slut shaming, buying favors or silence, changing the subject completely, lying or controlling the narrative to such an extent that demonstrable facts didn’t matter. Powerful people are less able to do this now, so for a much larger portion of the population, there is no escaping the past.

Being held to account for your transgressions is a good thing, particularly when the fear of that account acts as the disincentive for transgressions in the first place, because the world is a better place when people behave and treat others as they want to be treated themselves.

There is a down side though, and it has to do with the volume or quantity of stuff that is being created. There is a devaluing that is going on, which paradoxically explains why making everything available to everyone all of the time has had the impact of causing people to feel like they don’t matter or that they cannot keep up. A quick comparison between social media streams clearly indicates that most people live a life that is way more exciting and just plain better. Envy is the more common response when we see the Instagram photos of an influencer who has been able to parlay their genetic lottery winnings into a life of unreasonable amounts of fame, fortune and fun. Our May “two-four” and “August long” weekends at a friends cottage are great experiences and fantastic memories until we see how the real The Weeknd or Kylie spend their time. Then we feel kind of crappy because our twice a year indulgences don’t keep up.

It’s everyone’s social media stream though. And when people notice the crappy feeling associated with being average, they share more and more stuff in an effort to lift their Klout Score or its current alternative. And in response to sharing more, other people feel worse and try to medicate the crappy feeling of being average by sharing more. This of course leads to billions of experiences being shared and made available to everyone which results in a reduction of the value of any individual experience. The joy is lower and it has a much shorter half-life. Whatever sense of elation we got from witnessing the solar eclipse evaporates the moment we see that Sally saw it from a cooler location when we look at the photos she posted. We may choose to not experience it all, instead opting to watch the HD video the next day on YouTube or watch people watching it.

Which gets us to the problems with sharing everything. The goal is no longer about having an experiences, it’s about sharing us having them, which is not the same thing. The result we might be seeking, although we won’t say it, is to trigger a negative emotional response in the people who consume our social media stream. The inevitable outcome is that everyone else is doing it. This results in most people having two types of experiences, those of documenting what they are doing and those of looking at the experiences that other people have documented. Neither of which is the same thing as being present and engaged in what you are doing from moment to moment.

The upside to sharing everything has probably been an improvement in civic behavior because we all know that we’re not going to get away with anything for very long. The down side is that there is a growing mood of collective melancholy as we are constantly reminded of how much better life can be but isn’t for us.

And that makes me a little curious about what the next generation will do to shift culture in response to living out loud and wide open. Time will tell, it always does….

Reasons To Not Be Afraid – Post Revisited

About seven years ago I wrote what I still regard as the most honest, vulnerable and personal thing I have ever posted. The title of the post was Reasons To Not Be Afraid and it represents as close to bottom as I hope I ever go.

At the time, it had been about six weeks since my father had died and after taking the month of February to rot, drink, overeat, smoke, and basically spiral down, I had a moment of clarity. It was around 4:55 AM on the morning of Wednesday February 29. For some reason, probably because my brain had stopped enjoying the experience of being inside my body, I was snapped awake with the realization that my dad was dead. While this was obvious and something that I was clear on, given that he died on January 29, a part of me had been pushing it away. But through the fog my brain was able to do its thing, reconcile all of the sensory information, interrogate my long term memories and force into my consciousness the painful reality that he wasn’t on vacation and that he was never coming home.

I lost my shit! Waking-up angry is one thing, this was an entirely different animal. My body was already filled with a chemically induced rage courtesy of my medulla dumping the previous months share of adrenaline into my blood stream a few moments before my eyes opened. The worst part was that my eyes opening was not the first action I took that morning. My body had been up and moving around for a while before I joined the party and it was my joining in that slowed everything down; not right away though. I was along for the ride watching my body wrecking things as I tried to get a handle on a tsunami of grief, a growing pain in my right foot and the feeling that something should be ringing in my ears that people get when they are smashed awake by a threateningly loud noise.

There were a few things wrecked in my room, nothing of much value and nothing that was ever missed, but destroyed nonetheless. A fan, a pair of old headphones, a plastic water bottle, stuff that had been near my bed when my hands decided that those items needed to be as far away from me as possible and the rest of my body agreed. The predawn peace had been shattered by things exploding against the wall that had done nothing but try and hold up the house. Its answer? Make sure everything stayed on the inside of the room by providing the perfect surface to convince a few million molecular bonds that their partners were not worth holding on to. It was the noise of their scream as they let go that was responsible for waking me up.

Oh, and I had kicked something.

What does bottom look like? Well, it depends on the person I suppose. For me though it was kind of unremarkable. Bottom was sober. Bottom was clear headed. Bottom was a profound sadness. There wasn’t regret, my dad and I had been very close. His death wasn’t the shock that him getting cancer had been. When someone is given 6-12 weeks to live you know full well what is in the mail.

I was just tremendously sad.

Hitting bottom didn’t look anything like the view on the way there either. And in fairness, even the journey there wasn’t something that would make anyone shake their head in disgust. In the month between his death and me finally accepting it there had been a lot of drinking, over eating and too many cigarettes. Too much sleeping and too much time spent by myself working on a Morrissey flavored depression that was equal parts self indulgence and self pity. But there had been a lot of writing, a lot of insights and a lot of unconsciously coming to terms with the reality that my life was unworkable and had been for a very long time.

With my dad gone, I needed to grow-up – I needed to grow-up anyway, his passing must forced the issue. And as I lay on the floor of my room bawling that morning I accepted that my journey had begun.

Writing the “why’s” and “what ifs” lists in the Reasons To Not Be Afraid was good therapy advice that I had been putting off because the thought of the pain looking that deeply at my life might cause seemed too much to bare. This was an inflection point, a moment when the polarity reverses and the pain of continuing along a path becomes greater than any conceivable pain that would come from seeing what I had made of my life. While I didn’t particularly like what I saw and I detested the fact that I had become someone so afraid of the world that I was compulsively avoiding it, I knew that these were just feelings. If things were different, I would probably feel different.

That was the switch flipping. I had no idea if the future was going to be better, if I would attack the world with confidence and become a man of powerful and pragmatic action. That post, and the lists contained within it, were a reflection and the manifestation of untested beliefs. By doing different things, I would be able to find out if the beliefs were accurate and I would be able to feel something different. That was enough for me. It was clear that I was the one who had been making the decisions and choosing my actions, so I was free to make different decisions and choose different actions. And that is what I did.

Life got better, much better. It turned out that I had been living a lie. While the world is every bit as bad as I thought it was, living in it and being a part of it is a lot easier than avoiding it. While the “why’s” list did contain some accurate reasons, it also included some ad-hoc justifications for indulging in compulsive escapist behaviour. We’re all very good at coming up with reasons to support doing whatever it is we think we should do. The gold though was in my lack of imagination in the “what ifs” list. I was right about most of the things. As I changed my behavior, life got easier and it changed for the better. But I had been negligent in my consideration of the outcome of sustained small actions. Any action taken eliminates an almost infinite number of potential futures while simultaneously creating the possibility of an almost infinite number of alternative ones. It wasn’t just that I would no longer be hiding away from the world, it would be that I was actually engaging it, and that meant doing things, things that I hadn’t even considered being things before let alone things that I would be doing.

Seven years on the only thing that I would change about the post is the last line “I’m not necessarily afraid, but I am anxious,” which was more wishful thinking about the future than anything else. It was too early to make a definitive call on what the experience of change was like. The truth is that I am both afraid and anxious of doing new things and of the unknown in general. And I think I always will be. Life doesn’t start being less scary. There isn’t a desensitization effect as a result of doing stuff.

The main difference now is that I accept that I am afraid and I do it anyway.