Exercise and thinking

I recently chanced upon a study showing that aerobic exercise can be beneficial in mild cognitive impairment. It literally increases the size of the brain. The fact that we can now image brains in a way that detects this is exciting. Nobody is really quite sure what it means, but the fact that it is so tangible and obvious is really gratifying – and hard to argue with. Interestingly, mindfulness also changes brain structure on imaging.

There have been plenty of studies of this sort – including on healthy people. They show that exercise benefits one’s mood and working memory, enhanced cognitive strategies, hippocampal neuroplasticity – in short, exercise helps your brain do its thing. I wish this message was easier to spread. Exercise for a functional brain.

In my own subjective n=1 experience, exercise makes a huge difference to how I feel emotionally. It’s like a shield that keeps irrelevant noise out – and it was quite hard to believe how well it works until I tried it. At this point, I’ve been non-stop at it for over 3 years. My main motivator to stay going with exercise is how it makes me feel. Not immediately, not right after a gym session, but on average. Having said that, isn’t our motivation nearly always how it makes us feel? How I got into it was the classic monkey-see-monkey-do dynamic. Some like to call it having a role model. During my masters, I was surrounded by a bunch of health-freaks: they were all from continental Europe, wore fancy running shoes, drank a lot of coffee and read the Economist. The enthusiasm with which they discussed running routes for their new city, whether or not a Fitbit is worth the investment – and so on, rubbed off on me. I had to try this, ze fitness. I never stopped.

exercise benefits depression

I’ve experimented with running, spinning, HIIT, swimming, weights – pretty much anything that is solitary and non-competitive is good. During a particularly busy stint at the hospital, I injured a joint – meaning I couldn’t properly weight bear. I could barely get around the seemingly endless corridors of a large Dublin hospital with nobody to cover for me on call. Exercise was not on the menu. About a week into this state of affairs, I noticed that I was starting to get sad for no reason at all. It took some introspection to figure out that it was likely down to the fact that I wasn’t exercising. The biochemistry shifted, the chemicals released during exercise wore off – and now I was feeling down. I took corrective action: so I cannot weight bear. Time for abs of steel! As if. In any case, the change in my mood from a week of significantly diminished physical activity was stark.

This experience is echoed in the story of a patient I once saw in a psychiatric hospital. He was a young guy who exercised a lot: 20 miles on a bike every day, marathons, the works. For about a year and a half he attended a cardiologist about a chest pain. He had virtually every conceivable test done – none of these tests detected any abnormalities. By the time he saw me, he had had a few attacks of this chest pain in the space of a few days – and a very low mood. The week before two things happened: he twisted his ankle and his girlfriend had just broken up with him. Long story short, the man’s chest pain was psychosomatic. He had a perfectly healthy heart. The stress of his girlfriend breaking up with him, superimposed on not being able to exercise due to a twisted ankle, led to the mood collapse as well as the chest pains.

Clearly, exercise is addictive. This is part of the reason why people keep exercising despite pain. Before I discovered the absolute must that is a foam-roller, I caused a repetitive strain injury in my calf from running too much. I couldn’t really stop: I was so into it, I just gobbled down two Nurofen and off I went. If, six months previously, someone told me that I would be like this, I would never have believed them. My buzz was all about cuddling up with a book and drinking hot chocolate – not hopping around with a painful calf in the permeating Dublin rain.

Once a psychiatry professor came to talk to us during lunch. His opening question was: “What is the single most effective intervention for both physical and mental health?” Some annoying know-it-all raised their hand and said: “Exercise.” (Okay, okay, it was me). I would still say it though.

I think it is the perfect example of the 80/20 rule, or even a 99/1 version of it. Exercise takes up very little time – if you’re clever about it – and delivers unbelievable results. In short, exercise is definitely on the to-do list of anyone who is interested in having a clear head. It’s surprisingly easy to get carried away into fitness-junkie territory, however, it is definitely worth the risk. In any confusing situation, it’s mindfulness and exercise.

exercise for healthy brain and good mood

A religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble

Breakfast of Champions was completely different to my first encounter with Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-five. Breakfast is vehemently anti-American – in a way that is could be anti-any nation and is disturbingly relevant today. Vonnegut has a way of stripping away the sugar coating. He speaks of the slave-trade as buying and selling agricultural machines. This comparison is brought back every time he mentions the social problems of those whose ancestors were slaves: he compares them to actual metal machines and explains that the latter are cheaper leaving the former jobless. Plain, cynical and sobering.

The book is largely centred around the concept of free will. As a medic, I recall learning about free will in physiology. Back in the 1980s, Libet et al did a clever experiment showing that the brain initiates a movement before we are aware of wanting to carry out the movement. Subjects were asked to sit in front of a clock. They were told to move at will – and note the time when they decided they were going to move . An EEG was recorded. Essentially, the EEG showed that the impulse to move occurred around a second before subjects became aware that we’re going to move. Libet and colleagues said:

“cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any (at least recallable) subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally.”

This is a good review of the subject free will in physiology. In short, awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. Whether volition is causal to movement – nobody knows. Our story-telling machine brains do like to think that it is causal of course.

As a person fascinated by mindfulness, I was curious about Vonnegut’s reference to transcendental meditation. Bunny, one of the characters, used TM. Vonnegut described the procedure in Breakfast. Vonnegut doesn’t hide his scepticism.

I appreciate that absolutely everything that involves a financial transaction can be called a scam. Some people think it is insane that the seemingly skill-less abstract art is sold for millions. Some people trust in banks, corporations, governments – and others are swayed by the evidence that these institutions cannot be trusted. Appreciating this subjectivity, my impression of transcendental meditation is that there is a big scam element to it. There are also some elements of religion in it. While I am interested in learning about the ancient tradition of this particular kind of meditation, the TM organisation and its specific take on the technique smacks of danger to me. I would certainly stay well away.

kurt vonnegut free will transcendental meditation breakfast of champions

Kurt Vonnegut’s wife and daughter were practitioners of TM. He said: “Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” So far, so good. He later said about TM:

“a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble.”

This really resonates with me.

Much like positive thinking, transcendental meditation promises the world via some very simple thing that you have to do compulsively – and preferably attend expensive seminars. It’s very important to never doubt the high priests of these respective philosophies – otherwise, it won’t work. I mean, come on.

It also makes sense that TM and positive thinking has worked for some trustworthy high-profile people. It’s because what they call TM and what they call positive thinking is different to what the seminar-selling folk mean. They take a common sense approach – not a “I will take everything literally and follow all instructions” approach that the gullible people these things attract take.

Escaping the cr*p never really works. Transcending into an imaginary ocean of perpetual calm is a form of cheap escapism that only works for seconds. On that note, I recall having a really bad stomach pain. Without any set purpose, my mind wandered and I imagined getting a shot of morphine. I immediately felt much better. However, I still had to go to hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. One simply has to acknowledge their pain and deal with it. Thinking magically won’t resolve it.

The proper, non-commercial, non-popularised practice of TM is a form of mindfulness -and I have every faith that it works well. It’s not my weapon of choice, but I recommend that people try it. Om is a always a good mantra to start with. I don’t see the value in getting mystical with “personalised” mantras. The point remains: if it walks and talks like a scam, it probably is. The other point is that Breakfast of Champions is another worthwhile book.

transcendental meditation scam kurt vonnegut breakfast of champions

Why people get addicted to checking the news

The news has been in the news a lot  lately. Trump got elected and Facebook et al are under fire for allowing fake news to spread.

There are people who feel compelled to stay in tune with the news though it doesn’t make a difference to their lives in practical terms. Why?

We love stories. Our brains are designed to make and perceive stories.  The news in like a bed time story for adults. Going to different countries, or even different news outlets in some countries, will reveal two things. First, the main character is always a good guy. Second, the good guy always wins. It can’t all be true, but it sure makes a good story.

Our brains are designed to scan for danger. This is to keep us alive. The news usually reports a lot of bad things.

Our brains prefer exceptions rather than the ordinary. This is kind of like scanning for danger. It’s another mechanism to draw our attention to anything that’s odd – called attentional bias. The news certainly reports a lot of odd.

Our brains love noticing change rather than seeing the wood for the trees. It’s called anchoring. A small cut to a health system’s funding is likely to cause outrage despite the fact that it is otherwise generously funded. The news only reports changes.

Seeing the same thing over and over makes us like it. It’s called the mere-exposure effect. We like the news anchors and the tune of the news opening titles.

We love having opinions. The news is told in a way that it is easy to make judgements. It also makes us feel that our judgements are informed. This leads to naive realism and naive cynicism: assuming that our worldview is informed and everyone who disagrees with us in uninformed and biased.

It makes us feel like we’re right. Our brains love confirming that what we already know is true – it’s called confirmation bias. Because the news repeats itself a lot, it constantly feeds us the same type of information. A nice resonant echo chamber. To make things worse, we believe things more when they are repeated. It’s called the illusory truth effect. A vicious circle of biases.

It gives you something to talk about with your friends. Empty chatter is better than none to most people.

For most people, the news is a distraction that brings all of the above pleasures. It’s neither meaningfully informative, nor does it make our lives better.

why am i addicted to the news

Our brains are story telling machines

Why do coincidences occur? Why is it that you randomly remembered the girl you used to play with in junior infants  and she suddenly added on Facebook the next day? Isn’t it fascinating? It is easily explained: you thought of hundreds of people that day and one of them just happened to come across you on Facebook. The feeling of a miracle with a deeper meaning remains though – because it makes a good story.

If there’s one thing that we have a lot of, it is information. I belong to the generation that was asked to learn facts in school as if it made a difference. Google was only starting up back then. Now, the landscape is somewhat different. There’s too much information available, so the skill is in making choices on how you use it.

Our brains don’t like working hard, understandably. They have evolved to conserve energy and focus on what’s important. For many of us, the important – safety, shelter and food – is easily accessible. An adaptive response would be to try and retrain our brains to see past this.

The obvious way of dealing with information is by making stories. The media don’t say: “We will run this fact”. They say “We will run this story”. We consume information based on stories. However, this approach is ridden with problems.

It seems that picking out the information to retain – and use in making decisions – is the point at which biases occur. The first step to retraining how we think is to become aware of what’s already there on autopilot.

cognitive biases story telling

To deal with an avalanche of information, we have adapted in the following ways:

  • Availability heuristic. We overestimate the probability that an event will occur if a similar event occurred recently or impacted us emotionally. Anything unusual is worth remembering – and more likely to occur. Ignore the expected”. It’s like Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. A doctor who recently saw a case of TB meningitis will be thinking about this rare cause for every nervous system-related case for months.
  • Base rate neglect. We opt for contextual conclusions that make a better story than what it is actually more likely.“If it makes a good story, it is likely.” Imagine you see a 20 something year old with long hair, tattoos and an attitudinal look. You are then asked, what is the likelihood that he a Christian and what is the likelihood that he is a satan worshipper? People will rate satan worshipper much higher than it is ignoring the fact that there are billions of Christians and very few satan worshippers. This is closely related to the Illusion of validity. We have an unshakeable belief that we can make sense of information, even if there is no sense to be made of it, i.e. it is known to be random. “What story is this data telling me?” Furthermore, when we don’t know something, our brains will plug the difference from our history and our stereotypes. Expectations get confused with reality a lot. “I can’t be wrong” This forms the basis of the placebo effect. The placebo effect always scares me. It’s more than a cognitive error, it actually has a physiological basis. Our brains will literally dampen the pain of an electric shock if we’re expecting it to be a 1/10 when it is actually a 7/10. It also forms the basis of the halo effect: “A good doctor is also a responsible driver.”
  • Anchoring. “It’s only the change that matters, not the absolute value”. We are also emotional about it as is demonstrated by the framing effect: “Is the change good or bad?” Getting caught up in assessing these changes, we lose track of what the actual result is. For example, if we give people the option to sign up now with a discount for earlier registration, they are much less likely to sign up than if you tell them that there is a penalty for signing up later. The money values are all the same, the behaviours are different.
  • Attentional bias. It is the tendency of our perception to be affected by our recurring thoughts. We only pay more attention to things that interest us than we realise – and ignore things that don’t interest us too. “I am only interested in X and I can ignore Y.” This is how people become infatuated with other people and how the “Law of Attraction” works. If you only focus on the positive, you will only see the positive. It’s a close cousin of the Confirmation bias – which is we pay more attention to information that supports our views. “I prefer data points that agree with me.” The famed Ben Franklin psychological hack, “foot-in-the-door”, is using this. If Harry asks you for a small favour, you are likely to do it – because you are nice. If Harry then asks you to do a bigger favour, you are more likely to do it than if he never asked you for the small favour. What’s happening in your brain is as follows: I’ve already done this guy a favour, hence, I like him. If I like him, surely, I will do another favour. In other words, we are rationalising that we are consistent and looking for reasons to confirm our conclusion. It could be argued that this isn’t irrational though. If you feel like you are building a relationship with a person through these favours, you may be going ahead with them even though you are completely aware of the trick.
  • The illusory truth effect. The more something is repeated to us, the more it becomes true in our minds. “If it’s repeated, it’s true.” It is of course made worse by attentional and confirmation bias leading us into the downward spiral of a nice and resonant echo chamber. Were you, perhaps, surprised that Trump got elected?
  • Mere-exposure effect. We like people and things more when we see them often. “I like you cause you’re around.” Thank God, or there would have been a divorce rate of 100%.
  • Cue-dependent forgetting. We can’t recall information without memory cues. “Oh and remember it was raining outside?” When you are asked about turtles, your brain searches within its repository for “turtles”. A Google search would look through a gazillion files and look for the word “turtles”. This is not how our brains search. Memories are retrieved through association. You will think of the documentary that you saw about soft-shelled turtles in Ussuriland. So far, so good – just like Google. But, that will also pull up memories of who you watched it with and the comfy red jammies you had at the time. Neither of those facts related to turtles according to Google, but they do, according to our brains. If turtles were never brought up, you probably would never have remembered these particular pyjamas you once had.
  • Frequency illusion. We begin to notice something a lot more when we learn about it. “I am shopping for a black BMW, but I just noticed that everyone seems to have one!”
  • Hot-cold empathy gap. It is difficult to relate to an experience when you are in a certain state. “I am not a psychopath, but why are you sad if I am happy?” If you are hungry, it is difficult to focus on anything else. If you are calm, it is hard to imagine what it’s like to have a panic attack.
  • Omission bias. We judge harmful actions more harshly than harmful inactions. “You cannot do this!” Euthanasia gets people much more emotional than letting someone die by not actively treating them with every last option.
  • Picture superiority effect. “A picture says a 1000 words.” It is easier to take information from a picture. This is probably because it builds context – and so tells a story.
  • Naive realism/ naive cynicism. “I see the world like it is, and anyone who thinks I am wrong is biased.” We ignore the fact that we are only looking at the world through a set of filters and lenses.

our brains are story telling machines

Cognitive curiosities: what our minds do without telling us

I am fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the human mind. This is an ever expanding collection of my finds: biases, assumptions, adaptive mechanisms and shortcuts. I don’t recommend reading all of these books – some are (much) better than others, but here are the highlights by theme.

Awareness

We often deal with difficult questions by answering an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution. Is Jenny good at her job? becomes Do I like Jenny? [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

It’s impossible to learn if you think you already know it. [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]

Self-awareness comes in layers. The first is to recognise an emotion. The second is to ask why the emotion is there. Usually it is due to some event occurring: e.g. a piece of news, a breakup, a raise, someone looked at you funny, etc. The third is to acknowledge what meaning you ascribed to this event through your values and rules. For example, you may believe that someone breaking up with you means you’re not good enough as a person, or that getting a raise is a consequence of your hard work. The more important the relevant value is in the hierarchy of values, the more intense the emotion. The way you decide your values makes all the difference to how you feel. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Emotional contagion is a real thing. [Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman]

We think that other people pay much more attention to us than they actually do. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We tend to assume that others see the world similarly to the way we do. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

When your working memory is occupied, your ability to think is compromised. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Priming: our actions and emotions are affected by things we are often unaware of. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Naïve realism: the feeling that we see the world as it actually is, rather than through the lens of our perception. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We are aware of the brain’s finished products, e.g. conclusions, theories, beliefs, emotions, but not so much how these were arrived at. Hence, it is difficult to recognise one’s own errors of cognition/assumptions. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Surprise leads to enhance conscious attention. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

People believe that they are more attractive than they actually are. This is why most of pictures look so bad. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Our brains are story telling machines. If we don’t know the facts, the brain will pad the story with assumptions. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley] It is easier to come up with a story that makes sense when you know fewer facts – as it is a simpler puzzle to solve. This is because we have an unbelievably powerful way of ignoring what we don’t know. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

“The media” are frequently accused of being biased. However, they never seems to be accused of being biased in favour of those accusing it. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

God always seems to agree with the person citing him. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We have an overwhelming need to be consistent. We assume that other’s are consistent too, it’s called the halo effect. In our minds, a brilliant pianist is automatically a great driver and family man. However, a convicted criminal is automatically an aggressive driver and a wife-beater. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Desiring a positive experience is a negative experience. However, accepting a negative experience is a positive experience.The more you want X, the more 1/X you will feel. This applies to wanting to improve your appearance, mood and spirituality. The key point of the book, phrased more civilly, is to play to your strengths. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Leaving your sense of self open to be influenced by external circumstances is dangeorous.
The narcissistically inclined live in an unwalled city. [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]

What feels bad isn’t necessarily bad and vice versa. Negative feelings are biology’s way to draw our attention to a (potential) problem. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson] [Principles by Ray Dalio]

Feeling bad is made worse by taking things personally, believing that it’s going to last forever and affects absolutely every area of your life. [Multiple works by Martin Seligman]

cognitive biases mental health

Time

Future-oriented people tend to be more successful professionally and academically, to eat well, to exercise regularly, and to schedule preventative doctor’s exams. But they are the least likely to help others in need. When faced with a choice to engage in a behaviour, future-oriented people believe that they are choosing the consequences, rather than the behaviour. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Present-oriented people tend to be willing to help others, but appear less willing or able to help themselves. They are the least likely to be successful. Good leaders are in the moment and have a way of communicating this to their audience to make them feel like they are the leader’s sole focus. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

How we think and feel today influences how we remember yesterday. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Anything that limits our sense of an unlimited future changes our motivations and priorities so that they now focus on emotional satisfaction in the present. Those who feel like the future in unlimited, favour quantity over quality: more friends, more hobbies, etc. Those who feel the future in only short, e.g. due to a terminal disease, favour quality over quantity.  [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd] This is interesting in the context of stoic philosophy.

Money

We respond to a change in wealth in a measure that is inversely proportional to the initial amount of wealth. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We take on more risk when all our options are bad. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We perceive value as relating to gains and losses rather than to wealth. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Having explicit goals has a positive impact on achievement. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Understanding other people

Spending more time together doesn’t help you read the mind of the other person. It gives you the illusion that you can. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Emotion is carried through voice more than it is through visual expression. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Reading body language and trying to take on the other’s perspective doesn’t seem to help to understand the person better. What does help is creating situations where people can openly tell you what they think – and listen carefully. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

A quick way to build rapport with someone is to unveil private thoughts or memories to each other.  [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

A relationship is more likely to succeed if bad experiences are avoided. It has less to do with the good experiences.[Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Body language

We smile when we feel happy, but also, when we’re forced to smile by holding a pen in our teeth, it makes us feel happy. [Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are]

Two minutes in a power pose (think Wonder Woman or Usain Bolt crossing the finish line) lead to these hormonal changes in cortisol and testosterone that configure your brain to be assertive, confident and comfortable. Conversely, a small pose (arms and legs crossed) leads to changes that cause you to be stress-reactive, and feeling shut down. [Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are]

When you are in the high-power pose condition, it causes you to take more risks. [Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are]

It is difficult to empathise with a person fully until you assume their physical position. [Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman]

People who have had Botox have duller social senses being unable to mimic the facial expressions of others. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

cognitive biases psychological hacks

We love echo chambers

Confirmation bias: we pay attention to the facts that confirm our point of view more that the ones that refute it. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman] When volunteers were told that they have poor IQ scores and given the opportunity to read up on IQ tests, they paid more attention to articles that questioned the validity of IQ tests than articles that validated them. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

The part of the brain that is involved in trying to understand what others are thinking, the medial prefrontal cortex, is more engaged more when you’re thinking about yourself, your close friends and family, and others who have values close to your own. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

How we are sold

Shoppers were shown four identical pairs of stockings. They didn’t know that they were identical. Shoppers always preferred the stockings on the far right, they were the last that they examined. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Making people want the right things

Changing the context is far more effective than changing individual minds. Otherwise cleanly people will litter if there’s already rubbish on the floor. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Economies grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

irrational human minds cognitive biases

Black swans

Our memories cling onto the most outstanding, least likely things. Hence, when we predict the future, we tend to assign erroneously large probabilities to unlikely events.[Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

Predictions based on intuition tend to be overconfident and overly extreme. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

When we’re not sure about the probability of something, the best course of action is to default to the base rate and the propensity to revert to the mean. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We crave uniqueness

We crave the feeling of being unique and constantly seek evidence to back it up. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We are much more likely to notice an opportunity to develop if it makes us feel significant. [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]

A man who claims to be searching for himself is looking for a sense of distinction. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We are what we do – not what we think, say or feel. [Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston]

People tend to overestimate the differences between us and other people. This has implications for religious, racial and other conflict. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Opinion vs experience

Expert opinions are not significantly more reliable than nonspecialists. [Expert Political Judgment… by Philip Tetlock]

Falsehoods will be accepted as the truth through frequent repetition. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Virtually everybody sees themselves as above average. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert] [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Our bias towards seeing ourselves as above average is accompanied by the perception that we are also less biased than average. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We seek to change our experience before we look to change our attitude to it. We don’t automatically look for silver linings. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We become less confident in a decisions when we are asked to produce more arguments to support it. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We rate something based on the memory of the most intense point and the end point of an experience. Hence, an experience of consistent low-intensity pain is remembered as being better than a few intense shocks. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Intense shocks trigger psychological defences, but the mild shocks do not. That’s why you could forgive your spouse for cheating but stay angry about the dishes. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

A good strategy to predict how we will feel is to find someone who just went through the experience and ask them how they feel. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

If we deliberately avoid chasing short-term outcomes, the quality of our decisions and outcomes improves. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We are obsessed with sunk-costs. This fallacy keeps people locked into situations that they should have left a long time ago. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

The planning fallacy: people are overly optimistic when they make plans. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

how to improve self awareness

I know one thing: that I know nothing

It is virtually impossible to remember what it’s like not knowing a fact/skill once you know it.  [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley] The jury cannot disregard the prosecutor’s snide remarks. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert] We cannot reconstruct past states of knowledge. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman] I wonder about that. Is that not how negotiations work? Is that not how we lie to someone?

What we call “fact” is simply conjectures that have met a certain minimum standard of proof. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

People prefer certainty and clarity over uncertainty and mystery. While increasing our chances of survival they diminish happiness. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We look for causal relationships to situations that require statistical reasoning. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Happiness

Happiness is determined by expectations and our history rather than by real events alone. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Deliberate attempts to feel happy tend to lead to feeling worse than we did before. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We think that we will regret bad actions more than bad omissions. However, 90% of people regret not having done things. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

“Presentism”: we tend to evaluate historical figures using the values of our own time. Judging Thomas Jefferson for having slaves or Sigmund Freud for patronising women is like arresting someone today for having driven without a seat belt in 1923. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We consistently overestimate how bad we will feel and how long this feeling will last if something bad happens. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We only care about a parameter when it is highlighted through side-by-side comparison. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

Optimism is largely inherited. Optimists perform better. They take on more risks that they realise and bounce back from failure more easily. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

how to improve motivation

Motivation

People will work harder to avoid bad things than to get good things. It’s a consequence of loss aversion. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

It is easier to assume that you’re going to fail than actually testing it. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

A sense of control over the outcome is very important to motivation. We have control over how we assign values and thus perceive the world as well as what way we’re going to act [Multiple works by Martin Seligman] The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be. [Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston]

We are more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to go after good ones. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

When believe that you can achieve something, you work harder. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Repeated failure in early life creates a sense of learned helplessness and leads you to give up on that area of performance. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Mentally rehearsing reaching goals step-by-step helps to achieve them. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd] [Principles by Ray Dalio]

Happiness and self-respect are our strongest desires. [Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston]

Giving up on a dream isn’t always failure. Sometimes we make wrong decisions about what we aspire to (assuming that that in and of itself isn’t a failure). [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Anyone who gets really good at something have a belief that there’s lot os room for improvement. They doubt their work a lot. It’s beneficial to accept the possibility of being wrong unemotionally. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Meaning and significant accomplishment is only possible through focusing and saying no. It means massive opportunity cost and less freedom, hence, few people do it. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson] [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]

Intuition

People taking a test do much better when they are in a good mood. They become more creative. They also become more prone to logical errors. Unhappy test subjects were shown to be incapable of performing an intuitive task well. Mood affects our intuition.[Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Mood

People in depression focus on the past. They feel that ruminating on the causes of their symptoms will help solve their problems. This only leads into a downward spiral. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

 

Why daydreaming is so addictive

I only became interested in mindfulness as it enhances my ability to get insight into reality. It wasn’t to treat a condition such as depression. It wasn’t because I belong to a subculture where mindfulness is considered cool. It was the realisation that constantly being carried away in thought is a way to ignore reality.

why am i addicted to daydreaming

It is a well known fact that dopamine (one of the many normal brain chemicals that makes us happy) gets released as soon as we anticipate something good, not when something good actually happens. It really is about the journey, not the destination. The more unpredictable the reward – the more dopamine is released in anticipating it. Robert Sapolsky in Stanford did a lot of interesting commentary on that. Apparently, when you’ve practiced a certain pathway/belief enough, it doesn’t matter how far away into the future the reward is. It doesn’t have to be immediate. He explains how this is the basis of gambling and, half-jokingly, says it may even play a role in how we think about religion!

At one point today, I noticed how I reached for the phone to check Instagram wondering if my friend posted more pictures of her exciting trip through Asia. I felt the rush when I picked up the phone, not when I saw the picture. Mindfulness at work. The other crazy thing I realise about my behaviour is that… the reward isn’t really all that rewarding. I mean, ok, I get to see a picture and vaguely feel connected to my friend.

So what about this theory? Getting carried away in thought – daydreaming – is similar to anticipating something. Whether we are obsessing about a person we have crush on, or worrying about the future – it is a form of anticipating something. Our brains clearly learnt that in the past there was a reward associated with this anticipation – we got to kiss our crush or avoid some fail through worrying about it enough at some point in the past. Furthermore, the reward isn’t predictable – you win some and you lose some. Not every crush is going to result in a wonderful experience and not every bout of worrying is going to result in avoiding peril. It is possible that our favourite day dreams cause a release of dopamine.

Mindfulness prevents getting carried away in thought, thus, I hypothesise that it prevents anticipation – and the accompanying dopamine rush. This is why it feels like more work than sliding into a day dream.

When I put it like that, it makes me realise just how addictive day dreaming is. I mean I kind of knew it already, but this little theory of mine helps me think about how I want to control it – not be controlled by it. Is mindfulness the cure? It is literally the opposite to day dreaming, but I don’t think in and of itself it will help with this particular addiction.

Assuming that everything is a habit – cue, action, reward – mindfulness can be slotted in instead of the day dream. In other words, whatever causes you to day dream (boredom?) has to be caught early, responded to with practicing mindfulness instead of day dreaming – and a chocolate bar, or whatever floats your boat, as a reward to stabilise the habit.

What patterns can you think of where anticipation is everything and the reward is meaningless? Would it be good for you to replace them?

Trust and likeability

What is trust? I think it is a feeling. It’s not an objective measure of how reliable somebody is.

I have many friends who are incredibly unreliable, incompetent at times – yet I still trust them because I somehow know that they will be reliable when it will really matter.

I think it is about having coherent values.

Belonging to one tribe – however you chose to define it. The reason we have tribes is probably deeply rooted in our DNA. A long time ago we were conditioned to know that if we lose our tribe, our survival chances are lower. It is the very reason why public speaking is so difficult for so many people. They feel that getting up on stage with a high risk of embarrassing themselves would lead to their audience – their tribe – to alienate them. It is one of the many examples where our brains are scanning for survival situations when really they would do much better to chill out a bit. It is one of the things that mindfulness really helps with: instead of assuming things and following the same scripts, it allows to take a step back and perceive a situation from a different standpoint.

In this day and age we have learnt to pay less attention to the superficial: race and socioeconomic background. Values lead the conversation on trust and exposing authenticity and vulnerability strengthens it. Trust makes us feel remarkably good. It is one of the things people value most in life: the goodwill of other people.

psychology of trust

Trust emerges in the strangest situations. We seem to always restrict the group that we trust.

Having a common enemy automatically builds trust among complete strangers. Nostalgia is a phenomenal marketing strategy because it immediately builds references for values we all accept and love – hence it builds trust. This means trust is scalable.

You don’t need to know much about the person: just pick up on the relevant markers of trustworthiness – and there, you are best friends. Our brains sort of skip over the whole due diligence process required to build trust.

Celebrities always say that fans feel that they know them personally – that’s the power of the illusions that trust can create.

One of the key reasons why social media have changed the world is because it trades in trust. Social proof – knowing that our friends, whom we trust, trust ABC brand – that causes us to trust the brand too. It’s like human link juice.

Being transparent is hard.

It takes courage as we run the risk of being rejected – that’s what the survival brain thinks about first. “Always budget for the downside”.

A better strategy would be based on the realisation that by being transparent we will be able to find the people who share our values. They are out there.

The easier it is for them to find you – the better life will be. Haters will be there and they won’t accept you even if you try and deceive them into believing you.

In the words of Elbert Hubbard: To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. Don’t stand for anything. Make unfalsifiable claims – like the multinationals that none of us have any time for. It seems that to get trust, you need to be directional.

After all, making a decision means, literally, cutting off other options. And we all know that being indecisive is worse.

I can think of an exception to that rule: when somebody takes a strong position in a conflict averse environment. Certain societies value a lack of extreme statements. When my friends started expressing their opinions on Brexit on social media, people were reluctant to engage either way. Sometimes having a strong opinion in and of itself is against the values of a given environment. It seems to be a mantra we now have in the West. What if being agreeable and non-directional has become a value? Or is it simply the easy way out? Is it just a special case of the Stanford Prison Experiment?

There is one situation where strong opinions should definitely be held back – and that is in anything you don’t know well. Most commonly, this appears to be geopolitics. People who know nothing about politics make black and white claims. Obviously, this will garner support and trust from some parts of society, but a low quality signal is just that. Over time it will become clear whether you know anything about the thing you are preaching about . Trust is a long game.

More than 7% of communication

Looking at things from as many angles as possible is my favourite past time. I was reflecting on the nature of how we use language in light of my recent musings on what psychiatry taught me. Most of all it taught me that what people say isn’t nearly what they mean. It’s like the same words mean different things to different people – and you needn’t be in psychosis for that to occur. Rather than considering one language from the point of view of two people, I scouted for insights the perspective of one person and two languages.

what-people-say-isnt-what-they-mean

However, before we go there, we can even look at one language. The way we use words even differs within the English speaking world – I am sure you can think of examples. Saying someone is different in Canada is a polite way of saying they are an outright freak – and not in a good way. Not so much in Ireland: different can be good.

I happen to be bilingual in English and Russian. You can judge my command of English, and I can tell you that my command of Russian matches that. Consider this situation: you’ve just met a lovely new colleague over lunch and found the interaction pleasant. You meet a colleague you are friendly with later and tell them of your encounter with the new girl: “She’s very nice.” There’s no way you would use the word nice when speaking of someone you met and liked in Russian. You would say what literally translates as: “She’s very interesting.” The literal translation happens to be rude in some parts of the world, especially in Ireland. In Russia, nice is reserved for kittens and puppies. All the while, the emotion you experienced from the encounter is exactly the same. This is why translations go wrong.

Maybe it’s just a bad example and a poorly matched translation? Let’s consider something black and white then: yes and no. When Russians say no – and they do that a lot, it could mean that there’s some minor adjustment required, or it might even be an interjection – the same way that well is in English. When you say no in English – especially in the UK and Ireland – it means you never want to hear this again. A Russian nice is much nicer than an English nice, and a Russian no is much milder than an English no. No wonder there are misunderstandings. Words are able to cardinally change the way we feel about something.

So why do they keep saying that the words we use account for just 7% of communication?

Should we avoid losing?

Freud is famous for all kinds of weird reasons. I believe it is more of a reflection on society than it is on Freud. He got some stuff right and some stuff wrong. One of the things that he managed to articulate incredibly well is this simple concept: we are driven by wanting pleasure and avoiding pain. In this simple equation, avoiding pain is much more important. In other words, we will forego pleasure in order to avoid pain. I remember learning that lesson when I was 7: I am sure I’ve done a lot to learn it through my own mistakes, but what got really etched into my brain was my cat’s behaviour. My lovely cat, she was probably about 5 months old then, got on top of the kitchen counter while no one was looking. I may have been an accomplice in her trespassing. She speedily made her way to the divine smelling milk that was getting heated up on the hob. As she put her pus into the pan, she must have burnt herself off the edge of the pot. She jumped right down with a loud meow. She didn’t get seriously hurt. What fascinated me though is that she never went near the hob again. Ever. Even if I put her regular cat food bowl on the switched off cold hob. She would just proudly sit there and wait for me to put it back where it belongs. My cat made a decision – and it was final. Avoiding pain is key.

mindfulness fear of failure losing

If you come to associate something with pain, you will probably fear it to some extent. So the question is: should you be afraid of losing and associate it with pain? On the one hand, it means that you will avoid losing. Is that the bottom line though? Winning isn’t the same as never losing.

I don’t know whether losing in some shape or form is part of the obstacle course. Maybe you can just get through a life of poetry in motion without ever losing. I don’t think I can think of any examples of it though. It is important to remember that the people we think of when we think of success generally have some control of what is put out in the world about them. So we are looking at a highlight reel. However, considering some really famous actors, politicians and business people – it is easy to think of things that were outright flops. Cringy films, awkward public statements, bad investments, a personal life that could be on Jeremy Kyle – it all seems part of everyone’s journey.

As somebody who has a clear sense of agency and whatever control that humans can have over their own lives, I envisage life as a series of option trees. Every time there is a fork in the road – that’s when life is shaped. Moments of choice are what shapes that part of our lives that we can control. However, I have been making the assumption that if I make the right choices, I will never experience losing. Hence, losing equals bad choice – my bad choice. I am starting to question that assumption. 

It is important to take a step back and consider what we call losing. What do we call failure? Is failing simply falling short of our expectations? In that case, for anybody who likes philosophy and mindfulness, it is immediately obvious that losing happens in our heads – not in real life. Expectations are great, but a dose of humility can be a real treat when we get so carried away so as to believe that we are owed our preferences at all times.

Not to sugar coat it – because it is true – but losses now can mean large gains later. While that’s a metaphor for our experience, it is quite literally a description of an investment: debit now for credit later. To continue with the investment analogy what really matters is how you compound it. Does a loss mean new learning and information that adds to your overall game or does it mean debilitating poison that stops you from carrying on? It is clear that the latter option is better. So maybe being afraid of losing in and of itself is damaging. I don’t know for certain that losing is unavoidable. A consultant psychiatrist I used to work with and revere used to use this metaphor: if you want to box, prepare to get punched. 

It’s not easy though, to find a balance. If you focus too much on being OK with losing, you will get too comfortable with low standards. This seems to logically make sense. There’s an interesting analogy I would like to draw. I have discussed the Stoic attitude to death in this article. Essentially, not fearing death is one of the most liberating things that a person can do. This goes against all logic: surely, if you stop fearing death you are more likely to die? Yes and no. It seems that literal life-or-death situations are thankfully exceedingly rare for most people. Unless you actively seek out dangerous situations, you are unlikely to die prematurely because you adopt this belief. However, you are more likely to take small risks – as now, they are framed in this bigger perspective and seem not that huge at all. So could it be that by de-vilifying failure, it is possible to make better decisions rather than worse ones? 

If you focus too much on always winning, losing becomes too scary to deal with. I don’t think it is better to assume that losing is inevitable than to assume it is possible to avoid it. Assuming anything is always risky business though necessary to simplify things. Sometimes we will lose because the timing isn’t right, sometimes it will be completely beyond our control – but we have to keep our eyes on that part of it that is within our control. I think the key is to not think of losing as detracting from your final wins – that are surely ahead of us. Winning is a long game and losing is just a lesson that refines our approach and let’s us know how to do better next time. Failure is a form of constructive criticism or a reflection of conditions beyond our control. Should we be afraid of failure? All in all, I think it is too high a price to pay as it constricts our ability to get to the big wins. Should we avoid losing? I don’t even know if that’s completely necessary. It’s not the actual end result. If you make a P&L statement analogy, high costs don’t mean no profit.

In medical ethics, they often talk about an act of commission and acts of omission. In other words, to act and to not act are equally consequential. In the medical context it is something like this: you cannot euthanise a person by actively injecting potassium chloride in their veins, but you can allow someone to die by choosing to not instigate active treatment (in most parts of the world). In our culture, we have come to see failure as a negative consequence of an act of commission. Doing something outside of what is prescribed is an act of commission, meaning it takes more deliberation and implies more responsibility. It is much more likely to cause strong emotions if it doesn’t go right than ending up with the same result from doing nothing. So what about acts of omission? The definition of failure has to allow for acts of omission. I think failing to invest in something worthwhile or to tell someone you love them is as bad as investing with poor returns or being rejected. However, if we only concentrate on avoiding losing, we are bound to miss out.

Moving from Freud to Frankl, it’s important to consider the meaning of failure. I think the visceral fear of failure comes from the meaning people have been conditioned to attach to failure: you are failing because you aren’t good enough. I mean you may as well take a gun and shoot your sense of self. What is enough? Enough is completely in our heads. Maybe you are failing because you aren’t that good yet. It’s describing the same facts, but the way it makes you feel is completely different. A much better question to ask would be: how can I use this? Looking at failure from more than one angle instead of fixating on a bunch of assumptions is going to help. If you can make use of it, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Our brains are somehow wired to move towards the thing we think about the most. Those who survive car accidents tell how they could only think about the thing that they crashed into – rather than thinking of the gap that they may have been able to drive through safely. Budgeting for the downside is good, but once a decision is made, it has to be a fleeting thought at the back of your mind. You can’t focus on avoiding failure and expect success. Even in those forms of financial investments where avoiding losses is the foundation of all success, the game is to put yourself in situations where losses are least likely – rather than trying to predict them, e.g. in trading. In venture capital, it’s the opposite – you only need one smashing success. While we can’t be completely unaware of our surroundings, the focus has to simply be on winning.

I think it is time to start letting go of the fear of losing because that way we’re risking missing out on something really great. Losing requires humility to accept our own mistakes non-judgementally and use them. Only this way, we have a chance of winning in the long term.

Sporadic rewards

There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon observed in dolphins. Dolphins a particularly high ratio of brain size to body size. As humans, we are behind them. Generally, intelligence correlates to this metric, hence the claim that dolphins could be more intelligent than humans.

meditation techniques and accessories

When a dolphin does a trick you like – you positively reinforce it by giving him a treat. Rinse and repeat. A bit of operant conditioning never hurt anybody. However, to be clever about it, the trainer then gives the dolphin a treat only when the dolphin jumps especially well – let’s say higher, through a hoop, whatever. The trainer creates an understanding in the dolphin’s head that he must not just jump but give it all he’s got. The way this works best is when the trainer only rewards the dolphin sporadically. The dolphin isn’t quite confident he will always get the reward. This creates the infamous gambling-like anticipation. Does this remind you of anything? I think it is quite reminiscent of how managers assign promotions.

Bain & Co summarised the conventional thoughts on behaviour modification here. They got the basics down, but they preach that behaviour are modified best when the rewards are likely, immediate and positive. I guess likely doesn’t mean certain. The science behind this relates to how dopamine is released in response to anticipation, not reward. If the reward is uncertain – that causes more dopamine, hence the effect.

In short, if you want someone to always give it their best, be a tad sporadic with your rewards.