Another reason to be less demanding

“I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

I came across the idea that our self-esteem is equal to our opinion of others.

Sounds esoteric, but I reflected on it and there may be something to it.

Assumption:

A mentally well person accepts that she is an ordinary human being and that most people who surround her are ordinary human beings.

Hence,

a) if she is highly critical of most ordinary human beings, on an average day she is critical of herself

b) if she is accepting of others’ faults,on an average day she accepts her own faults

Doesn’t this add up?

I sort of talked about this when I hypothesised that people criticise others for the things they hate about themselves. Reading over it, it seems naive and slightly needy, but I still think there was a grain of truth in it.

“Yet another reason to not be a demanding pig”, I gently remind myself.

The selfish catharsis of criticising others

“Rare are helpful speakers, rarer still are good listeners, but rarest of all are words that though unpleasant are helpful.”

– Nàgarjuna

The concept that we criticise others for what we dislike about ourselves is met in Buddhist writings and is popular amount (pop) psychology publications. I was wondering if there is any basis to it.

The inspiration comes from criticism I kept receiving from my grandmother. It always came down to competence with her: I was criticised for being incompetent in its various incarnations. Over little things. Leaving the light on in the corridor. Not leaving the light on in the corridor when guests are over. Forgetting to buy something in the shop.

Then there were big things. Any time I defended myself against her criticism over big things, it inevitably transpired that her accusations were based on erroneous assumptions. She didn’t realise how hard I was working or what I was trying to do. Mostly though, it was over small things, especially for not complying with her idiosyncratic world view.

She wasn’t even that tyrannical: she would say to me that I am my own person and I make my own decisions. According to her, what I heard from her wasn’t oppressive and unsupportive, no, it was just her opinion – and she is entitled to one, right?

Naturally, her approach showed a lack of understanding of human emotion, relationships, empathy…

Furthermore, looking back on her life, it’s easy to see why she might see herself as the very thing she is accusing me of, of cautioning me against seeing as how she doesn’t actually mean harm: “incompetent”. Her life was so full of endless challenges: stagnation and lack of opportunity under Brezhnev, hopeful but troubled times under Gorbachev, then turbulent and Darwinian fighting to get by under Yeltsin.

All of the above have left her with no real tradable skills, just the knowledge of how to adapt while not getting accused of something she didn’t do, swindled or killed. By today’s definition of success she’s not all that “competent”.

So was she just trying to counsel me so that I avoid her fate? That may be what she told herself, but I believe the real motivation isn’t quite as selfless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Knowing that she isn’t the picture of competence and success as it is understood in today’s culture, she pokes holes in the competence and success those around her so as to not feel quite so inadequate. In other words, if those around her aren’t better than her – at least in some ways, then she’s not so bad either. It was done to maintain self-respect.

Any time I would ask her if she has her phone before leaving, she would snap at me: “Stop asking me such nonsense!” It’s not that I felt that she wasn’t independent or indeed was trying to be in some way offensive. However that obviously hit right where it hurt the most: competence and independence.

Obviously, this extends beyond issues like competence and independence. It can be anything at all.

Interpersonal criticism and rejection always come down to the same main point: it’s far less about the person being criticised or rejected, it’s about the needs of the person doing the criticising and the rejecting.

I am not writing this to simply hate on the critics and tell them to get out of here “with their negativity”. The really interesting part is the following. Next time when you feel like criticising someone, ask yourself: is there something about me that makes me criticise this person? It can be fascinating what you find out 😉

Is there any mysticism to this? I don’t think so at all, even though these kind of theories often arise from the more spiritually inclined. I believe this phenomenon arises from recency/attention bias. If something is on one’s mind, e.g. competence, one is more likely to find issues with it in others.

If we were to try and be scientific about it, I would design an experiment like this: interview a person about things that bother them the most about themselves, then interview those closest to them in a random population, without directly letting them know the hypothesis. 

I think an intervention-based trial would be less than ethical, but that could be tried too! For example, criticise person A about trait X and then ask them to find faults in people in a prerecorded video. Thoughts? 

“If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”

-François de La Rochefoucauld

Lessons from the May challenge: all about anxiety

How did the 16 days in May challenge go? Not to the discouragement of my readers, I admit defeat.

16 day mindfulness challenge

This really was a challenge, and I am not that happy with how it went. Why? Life got in the way. I was under a lot of pressure to get a project done with lots of codependencies and lots hinging on it. During the early days of the challenge, I received fairly disconcerting feedback, so everything else went on hold. Anxiety took over.

A lot of people suffer with anxiety. Many refer to a small study that was done among the elderly and asked them what their biggest regret in life was. Many said that they worried too much. Well, of course! With the benefit of hindsight, that’s easy to declare.

A lot of people also say that anxiety isn’t going to help the outcome. Of course it will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it. Naturally, there is pathological anxiety – and I am not talking about that, but in these days of overmedicalising feelings strong anxiety is seen as needing to be gotten rid of.

Maybe the problem isn’t the anxiety? Maybe the problem is the thing that’s causing anxiety? Genius thought, I know. But it seems to be denied any viability in our society. [Then they ask how did we all turn out to be special snowflakes. Hmm.]

Well, I didn’t get rid of my anxiety or try to suppress it. Once I just admitted to myself that I was anxious, a weight came off my shoulders. This is that classic acceptance thing they talk about in mindfulness. Anxious. So what? It’s not a crime. It’s not a defect. It’s just my experience and right now, in this moment, it’s not actually that bad at all. Acceptance of reality gave me the opportunity to work on the underlying cause of the anxiety.

Right, closer to the point:

1. A day without assumptions

OMG. How do you live without assumptions? Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. When I got my worrying feedback, I immediately started mind-reading, mitigating the worst case scenario, assigning probabilities to possible outcomes and acting. Acting is such a drug against anxiety. The problem is of course that directionless hustle isn’t necessarily better than inaction. It’s exhausting and it is possible to do damage like a bull in a china shop.

2. A walking meditation

Definitely a win. Interestingly, it was my olfaction that work up by doing this. I spent most of my life living in a city and that’s not the sort of place where you want to expose yourself to smells. Also, a walking meditation is kind of more lighthearted than the more perfectionist sitting meditation.

3. Get one thing that you have been putting off done

I’ve emailed a bunch of people about a project we all committed too, but all left it to stagnate. Two of the three recipients were very helpful in moving it forward and now, somehow, we have a fourth, who just contacted me out of the blue. Coincidence? Providence?

4. Make a list of your habits

I was too nervous to do that with all my stress. What if I exposed something so disappointing or annoying that I would be too upset? I simply didn’t have the reserve to do it at this time. I will add it to my list (guess that’s a habit…)

lessons learnt from mindfulness

5. Ask: Why am I doing this?

W was easy. I know what I consider meaningful. I also know that this changes. I know why I am doing what I am doing though sometimes I wish the routes were straight lines. Ultimately, we have to adapt to our environment and respect the peninsulas of circumstance that we navigate around.

6. Wear the worst clothes you own

Haha, well that led to a clearout! (Anyone of eBay?) It wasn’t so bad at all. Where I live, in Dublin, clothes aren’t as much of a status symbol as they are in some places – like Russia, or I imagine China, or even the UK. I am very grateful for that.

7. Spend the day on your own, no social media

Fail. I can spend the day on my own, but social media – that’s tough. I have this sensation that I am about to get some kind of interesting news via social media. All it is in reality is a trained dopamine-mediated habit. I need to get out of it. It’s not that hard, but once again, it may expose things. For example, it can expose just how lonely I feel sometimes. And then, if I commit to not having social media, at least on certain days, then I am leaving myself to confront the loneliness. As a teenager, I used to travel a lot – and it would always be a connection flight. Sometimes, the connection would be 4 or 5 hours. This was before the kind of engaging social media we have now and certainly before widespread free wifi. I just remember that horrible mix of boredom and loneliness and I don’t ever want to feel it again. Having said that, I always say I come up with some of my best realisations in transit. Maybe then, I should just take the bandage of and be alone with myself, whatever may bubble up.

8. Write down the things that annoyed you

Fail once again. I was worried that it would put me in a foul mood. That’s quite presumptuous and possible wrong. It remains on the to-do list.

9. Go through the notification settings on your phone

Done. Much less distraction now. Best decision ever.

10. Try some mindful cooking

I couldn’t really do that. I was worried that I don’t have the time with my project. It also felt a bit wrong to be messing around with new recipes when things are shaky. Once again, pretty presumptuous, but hey, all I can do is all I can do.

11. Note how much of the stuff you do isn’t for you

This turned out to be a surprise. Even from a Machiavellian points of view, I can easily argue that everything I do for others is done as an investment into a relationship.

12. Look back at where you came from and see where you are now

What a magical thing to do. I thought of my parents, of where I was born, of where I started, of the role I had to play in where I am here today. I think so many of us get upset as we feel that life happens to us and that we don’t have any real control. To any human being, it is very upsetting to not be in control. But is it true? On the one hand, in the grand scheme of things we are small and insignificant. But in the context of our own lives, we are a big deal. Just like the Stoics would argue it’s important to focus on what you do or think as a person. Circumstances aren’t always a form of feedback about how well or poorly we are doing. Looking back at how we navigated our circumstances, even back when we were younger and much more naive, is bound to generate some feelings of pride and invigorate the perception of who we are people.

13. Pay attention to the people in the shop queue

Well, let’s just say I was dragged shopping in IKEA during this time. There was a lady in front of us in the queue who changed her mind on what she was going to buy and was hiding the goods she was going to just dump at the cashier under a pile of bags. Before sneaking the stuff away, she looked over at us a bit like a poorly trained dog looks at people passing by when it’s eating. But I really couldn’t be bothered judging. Maybe she has too much sense to just buy 3 French presses (that don’t filter anything by the way)?

14. Check email only twice a day

Fail. What if something super important happens and I don’t even know?! I need to work on this.

15. Look back at the last 5 purchases you made and whether you needed them

They were all quite optional. I’ve learnt the lesson of not having useless clutter a long time ago (moving dorm rooms every year in college will teach that fairly quickly). However, I was quite surprised at how I could have gotten away without having a lot of these things.

16. Thank yourself for trying so hard

This is a lot like looking back at where you came started. Yes, sometimes the seas part, the light shines, the lucky break happens and we should be endlessly grateful for these blessings. However, we should thank ourselves for working so hard and having faith even when things don’t look good.

lessons learnt from mindfulness challenge

Happy May Day

Happy May Day all.

Here are a few reasons to love May:

  • It’s actually warm and the days are long
  • The first of May is a day of celebration – no matter the reason, everyone finds something to celebrate on 1st May. I wonder if we could extrapolate this attitude…
  • Exams usually end in May and freedom begins
  • The most memorable Bond girl/villain is called May Day
  • … 1,000 other reasons
  • (I am biased because my Birthday is in May)

I have made a little gift for everyone. A gift and a challenge. I find 30 day challenges a little scary, so this is a 16 day challenge!

A list of reminders drawing on mindfulness, Stoic philosophy and just general common sense urging us to be more present.

I hope you enjoy it. Print it out and see how you get on. I will report on how I got on on 16th May.

16 day mindfulness challenge

The wheat from the chaff: philosophy vs self-help

There is something cringy about the notion of self-help. Yet blogging in the philosophical rambling genre invariably has a whiff of it. Even more generally, be it the Bible, Seneca, Leo Tolstoy, Viktor Frankl, Daniel Kahneman or Oprah, or in fact, any autobiography, aren’t they all essentially trying to answer the same question, namely how to make the most of our time here?

what is the difference between philosophy and self-help

Where do we draw the line?

Some writers, psychologists and philosophers have been using a quagmire of specialist terminology to warden off any suspicion of belonging to the self-help family. Religion is many things to many people, but it definitely ticks all the self-help boxes. What about picking up a new hobby? Is that a self-help action? What about ringing up a friend? What about going to the gym to get some endorphins? While we usually draw the line at solitary activities, preferably done alone, by overweight single middle-aged single women called Bridget in the company of Ben and Jerry… But being serious, it isn’t clear how to actually draw the line between legitimately working on oneself and being the gullible victim of charlatans.

Following a discussion on a wonderful Facebook group, Scott Brizel suggested an interesting approach: the problem is solved by noting the distinction between philosophy and ‘wisdom traditions’, even though wisdom traditions are (possibly wrongly) often called philosophies. Wisdom traditions propose strategies for living well, while philosophy is a method of inquiry into the meaning of ideas. Despite the loose use of ‘philosophy’ with respect toward it, Buddhism, for example, is a wisdom tradition, not ‘philosophy’ nor even ‘religion’. Religions tell creation stories, yet they may attempt to add value by establishing an associated wisdom tradition. The three ideas are often conflated, with some systems being both religions and wisdom traditions, but if you note the distinctions I draw, it will be easy to distinguish them.

Why people buy self-help books

The biggest predictor of whether a person will buy a self-help book is whether they have bought one before.

It is possible that the soothing feeling people get from buying and/or reading literature in the self-help genre is simply the reassurance that there is a solution to the problem.

As human beings, we have a profound desire to affect the world around us. This even applies to very young children, who can be taught to pedal a bike. While they don’t understand the significance of pedalling, the fact that the wheels are turning seems to motivate them to do more of it. Seeing tangible results of our actions gives us the feeling of control.

The feeling of control, the belief that our actions will deliver an impact, is probably our number one motivator. So no wonder people buy these books: by buying a book, they are buying equity in the belief that they can change themselves or even the world around them.

why people buy self-help books

Anyone who questions the ability of self-help methods to genuinely address the problem they aim to address seems like a party pooper who is stealing our dream of control. Indeed, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and security, in this case it is the belief that there is an answer and a role model to guide hold our hand, is more important than the need for self-actualisation.

Self-help books give a sense of safety and certainty. Placebo and religious texts have this in common too.

The authors inevitably portray themselves as a role model for whom these rituals have worked. Indeed, studies done on laboratory animals in helpless positions try to do things that are somehow associated with a reward or schedule. It’s an anxiety-defying ritual, not a solution to the problem per se.

As a child I spent a lot of time in Russia where books were very cheap and ubiquitous – and in the pre-internet era, well, they were the internet. Fiction never really did it for me, unless it was detective stories, and they, as we know, tend to be less than well written for the most part. Encyclopaedias were a bit hit with me, but also books on psychology.

As Western culture came flooding in, so did Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins and their friends becoming an instant hit with a society turned upside down. My peers and I read some of these books, and they’ve left a negative impression congruent with the aftertaste of much of the rest of Western culture with its endless brands: the obvious repackaged and presented as a revolutionary discovery.

By the time The Secret came around, I was starting college. It wouldn’t occur to me to read that. I got a summer job in a book shop (the shopkeeper suggested I take the academic section, hmm, wonder why). The manager, when he wasn’t schooling me for being late, was perplexed at the proverbial middle-aged women who buy The Secret merchandise: he wasn’t sure how an adult could be convinced that by writing their wishes in a notebook that says The Secret on it (€7.99) as opposed as normal writing pad (€1.99) is better. I guess he just didn’t get why people buy things.

Years later I saw the film Little Miss Sunshine that I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to forget that they’ve held a self-help book in their hands.

why self-help doesn't work

What does the self-help obsession tell us about the society we live in?

Based on my reading of Durant’s The Lessons of History, the rise of the self-help genre is nothing unusual: whenever the role of religion diminishes in society, we flee to other sources of wisdom, or surrogate wisdom as the case may be.

For most millennials I see around me, our moral word seems to be a quilt of Christianity, Western liberalism with a touch of yoga-driven mysticism. I often think that it’s better to be confused and forced into questioning values than to unconditionally accept a bunch of dogma.The wishful thinking of self-help puzzled me for a long time. Is it really that different to a prayer? As a professor of psychology Rami Gabriel puts it:

Popular psychology comes with a message about the possibility of surmounting obstacles through the free will of the almighty self, as well as continual exhortations to practise hopeful optimism and disable despair and hopelessness: in all, a reflection of an individualistic, even narcissistic, culture in the contemporary US.

I would change US to the West. The cultural shifts in the US may be modulated as the cross the Atlantic, but Europe feels the reverberations of these developments for decades. I strongly agree with the narcissistic piece: all of this literature proclaims that you can change the world by changing yourself. While it may seem humble at first, it is actually enragingly self-centred. Of course, the purpose isn’t to be self-centred. It is to keep building the sense of control that would (in theory) allow one to rise above whatever circumstances that are holding them back.

So what is the difference between philosophy and self-help?

Self-help is hedonistic: do this and life will get better. Philosophy doesn’t aim to change one’s life, only to understand it.

Philosophy doesn’t provide any real recommendations. Self-help is bursting with answers: it is prescriptive. I guess the reason I am even asking this question is because if I hear someone say “don’t think about the negative”, I am keen to think of what the reasons and implications are, in other words, I think of the philosophy of the recommendation. To me, self-help is a truncated philosophy, though it doesn’t try to be.

Philosophers don’t tend to solve problems, they tend to ask and sometimes try to answer questions. Self-helpers have all the solutions. In fact, they tend to only have one solution, for all ills.

 

Want to be great at something? You simply need to like it

A lot of the literature in psychology, especially the type read by people not trying to get a Ph.D., is focused on success. How to be successful. What do successful people do. You know. It gets quite tiring after a while, especially because for the most part it is a thinly veiled sales pitch or click bait.

Inspiration or perspiration?

I’ve gone through the non-click bait writing/research on the matter and noticed some interesting patterns.

First, I will define success as being in the top 1% of something: swimming, earning money, cutting out adenoids… whatever floats your boat.

It appears that in the majority of cases, someone’s success in a particular field is mostly related to experience and practice, not to innate ability.

I’ve been very fortunate to have gone to school with some incredibly talented people. As we were growing up, I watched their motivations change: some people would get by on raw talent, after all school was never designed to be difficult, while some, who were mediocre to start, became unbeatable.

This observation of mine is echoed in the literature. Even if one’s first attempts at something are poor, it is bears no relationship to the overall outcome. Obviously, there are some factors at play, but they tend to be obvious: like, to be a jockey or a ballerina you simply have to be light.

However, when the mission is a little more intangible, such as becoming a good writer or being good at maths, the impact of practice greatly outweighs that of talent. This dynamic is also congruent with the idea that a mindset of believing in one’s improvement is fundamental to motivation (as distinct from the belief that one’s ability is fixed which ultimately leads to learned helplessness).

how to get good at anything

Aptitude tests show aptitude, not outcomes

Consider aptitude tests. I would argue that they need to be scrapped as they predict nothing at all. Research doesn’t support the assertion behind aptitude tests, namely that the X-factor is present in a person before they put in the work required in a particular field. I also want to prevent anyone from conflating the ideas of practice outweighing talent vs nurture being more important than nature, but I will come to that later.

I like to observe people. I especially keep a mental chart for anyone who I flag as having a high IQ or a high EQ. All of these people consistently make bad decisions in their respective fields of prowess when they aren’t paying enough attention. My musings are once again congruent with available data: SAT scores explain 9% of the variance in first year college grades.

Interest is far more important than aptitude.

Even if you have the aptitude, you still need to focus on what it is exactly you are doing to actually perform well. For example, I did well in my (what you would call equivalent to) SAT’s and in first year of college. But not in fourth year: I was only around 75% centile. Why? I lost interest, didn’t like it, stopped paying as much attention and didn’t put in as much time into the specific subject.

do aptitude tests matter when choosing career

What is the relationship between accomplishment and practice?

Can you max out your practice? Sort of: you can reach 100% in a test, but in reality practice always leads to improvement. There is of course, such a thing as inappropriate practice: overtraining, staying up at night to study instead of sleeping, but you get the point.

Anders Ericsson did some great research in this area. He confirmed a few interesting things:

  • Improvement is subject to diminishing returns. In other words, one makes more progress in the first 1,000 hours practicing something than they do in their most recent 1,000 hours.
  • Interestingly, he found that these diminishing returns often create the illusion of a plateau, however, progress continues as evidenced by a ton of studies.

is it important to like your career

What is deliberate practice?

Ericsson uses the term deliberate practice to differentiate junk hours from practice that will actually make a difference in one’s level of achievement, and this is how he defines it:

1. Focus your attention on the work with the intention to improve.

2. Your practice should be targeted to your current level of skill. 

3. After you attempt something, you should get to immediate, informative feedback until you have complete clarity in relation to what you did right and what you did wrong.

If practice is all I need, how do I motivate myself to practice?

All of this sounds very laborious: having to chip away at something, constantly look for feedback and address endless mistakes. There is only one way to avoid this hell: to like what you are doing. They say that if you pick a job you like doing, you won’t have worked a day in your life. It is sort of true.

My parents’ generation nearly all switched jobs. My parents, being Russian, were in their 30s when the USSR collapsed and so were forced to find a new way to make it. My generation is also constantly changing jobs. I know so many young doctors, nurses, solicitors, accountants who end up changing their field of work: however, they aren’t forced by harsh economic perturbations. They are forced by the discrepancy between what they were taught would be good for them as a career versus what is it actually like.

Aptitude tests and risk-averse parents had aspiring accountants believe they will be good at their job. They are good at it, but they soon realise they are ambivalent about it.

And it is hard to get up early in the morning 5 days a week when you are ambivalent. This is the reason so many people who were so “promising” end up having lacklustre careers: if you don’t like doing what you’re doing, you’re not going to find it easy to practice and if you don’t find it easy to practice, the competition will quickly leave you behind.

I recall taking a deep breath in and out to simply refocus as I was writing a note in a patient’s chart towards the end of a 14 hour shift in the emergency department, the last 9 of those without any breaks. The nurse sitting beside me took this to be a sigh of desperation and said: “It’s just another half hour until you’re finished.” Clearly, this nurse has been in a place where she was literally counting the minutes until she can go home. She was being supportive and relating to an experience she thought I was having. I was just tired. The way she said it was: “I know how much you don’t want to be here; I feel the same”. I bet there was a time when she was really excited about her work. She is good at her job. But she will never get better. And because lack of progress causes tremendous unhappiness in and of itself, she is likely to leave that job.

practice beats talent

What if I like something that I can’t turn into a career?

I think that that’s just a story we tell ourselves. Wearing a suit and going to work 5 days a week isn’t a career. Or maybe it is, but in that case we don’t all need a career. It’s hard for me to guess what people need, but I hypothesise that people need meaningful impact. And in this case, it is possible to make an impact doing virtually anything. Is it possible to make a living out of it? I would argue that it is. It requires some creativity, but with the internet people have been able to find their tribe much more easily. By listening to the audience, it will soon become obvious how to make what you are good at extremely useful to people – and monetise it. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, you can be a freelancer, or even an employee. As for security, I also believe that that’s more of a story. Corporations collapse, technology makes professions irrelevant, cheaper labour elsewhere leads to job losses… Employment is far riskier that it is made out. 

The point is that it is being good that sells.

If you manage to get amazing at something odd (break-dancing, why not), you are at least as likely to sell it as if you’re mediocre at something for which there is a lot of demand (accounting). I will let you judge the level of happiness attained through these two routes for yourself.

It’s not all that simple of course. If you’re relying on being the best at something, you need to constantly put in the practice or create systems around you that will allow you t grow, e.g. creating things that last like organisations and leveraging other people. If you are relying on being mediocre where there is high demand, you will probably get away with it for the rest of your less-than-happy life.

What if I don’t know what I like?

You do, but it’s hard to be honest with yourself because it may lead to a lot of uncomfortable conclusions.

I’ve always liked writing, but I was always told it is a road to nowhere. Of what use is writing? When you’re 17, you listen to adults and trust them. Having said this, I liked science just as much. However, my interest in science was encouraged, but my interest in writing wasn’t.

It can also feel like it’s a very individualistic thing to say: “I like X”, X being piano, fashion, philosophy, whatever. We’re taught that it’s not about liking things, it’s about finding a good solid field where you can be successful. Whatever that means. So saying “I like X” is immediately contrary. There is an implicit “it doesn’t matter what you like, the choice you make it about your future! This isn’t a game!”

This kind of attitude plants a lot of doubt of course: what if X is just an infatuation? What if in 3 years’ time I am sick of painting and all I want is to start a family which is far easier to do if I become an accountant? It’s a risk, I guess, but I’ve never met anyone who really liked something and actually got sick of it. They may have been repeatedly rejected, something bad may have happened that became associated with X – but I’ve never met anyone who just lost their passion from first principles.

It can even cause guilt: doing something that you like feels like it isn’t work and is therefore not valuable. The insight here is that it feels like work to most people. 

It’s also important to remember that we like things we are good at. It’s therefore good to at least try and differentiate between positive feedback and genuine interest.

should-i-do-what-i-like-or-what-makes-money

How are accomplished people’s brains different?

Isabelle Gauthier and Michael Tarr created a new field of study: Greebles. These are a family of 3-D structures, they are made up, none of the participants of their studies knew anything about them and had to learn from scratch.

As the participants practiced identifying and classifying these ridiculous Greebles, Gauthier and Tarr observed the developments in their brains using fMRI. When participants were first learning about Greebles, a huge portion of their brains was active. As they practiced more and more, fewer regions showed activity, but they ones that remained active became more active. Greebles are a nice example, but there are a number of studies like this that all point that brain activation gets more precise and efficient.

The meaning of meaningful glances

I also like to observe experienced doctors. Every morning, a senior physician would do a round and be presented with the case details of the patients who were admitted through the emergency department overnight. A lot of these presentations are really vague, that’s just the nature of the activity. The experienced senior physicians have a way of narrowing it down effortlessly: and most of the time they are correct. There is one minor detail that I noticed: they tend to fixate on something for a few seconds before they pronounce their verdict on the working diagnosis. It’s like they aren’t really here. The transient but significant fixation is especially juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of the emergency department.

It turns out that that’s a thing that experts do. Studies of eye-tracking movements of by Joan Vickers call it the quiet eye.‹ Ordinarily, our eyes jump from one object to another, about 3 times per second. The movements are controlled without our conscious involvement. As we focus on a task, these movements become more deliberate. Especially accomplished people tend to stop their eye movements for as much as a whole second as they are about to act (or make a decision). Once again, we are looking at precision and efficiency: limiting the information input to be able to focus on what is relevant. This seems to be the real skill behind being accomplished at something (incidentally, it is also the skill that is directly trained though mindfulness meditation). 

Having reviewed the mechanics of being good at something, it is obvious that it comes at an obvious cost. By going in for the kill each time, the accomplished performer is likely to miss something in plain sight simply because their optimised equation didn’t factor it in. There is valuable flexibility in being a novice.

You may also like:

Paul Graham: What Doesn’t Seem Like Work?

FT: How a ‘no-plan’ plan launched a career at Facebook

A downward facing doc explains the brain wiring behind mindfulness

Do you ever just wish you could get someone who knows virtually everything that’s known about the brain and quiz them about mindfulness? Well, I do – a lot – and I just got my wish!

It is my pleasure to present this interview with John McBurney MD. A practicing physician with of over 35 years’ experience, he is board certified in Neurology, Clinical Neurophysiology and Sleep Medicine. He holds an Integrative Medicine Fellowship… The list of his professional accomplishments is obscenely impressive, so I will jump to the bit we all really want to know about: Dr. McBurney maintains a daily mindfulness meditation practice as well as home yoga practice, hence the downward facing bit. Needless to say, I was beyond curious to find out his understanding of how mindfulness affects the brain.

For those of us who are put off by the mystical connotations that surround mindfulness, could you take us back to a schematic, reflex-arc type view of the process and describe the neurological response to mindfulness practice?

I think that the issue of mindfulness intersect with the leading-edge of neuroscience. It is supported by extraordinarily robust data. This area of study has been termed contemplative neuroscience. The Mind and Life Institute which is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the neuroscience community and the Dalai Llama  is an important sponsor of research and education on contemplative neuroscience. It ultimately comes down to the concept of neuroplasticity.

Donald O. Hebb coined the doctrine: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. It was an extension of the work done by an American philosopher and psychologist William James in the early XX century. You can practice “bad” things or “good” things – and neuronal ensembles form accordingly. In mindfulness, we are essentially practicing good things.

There is a resting ensemble of neural networks called the default mode network that was discovered using fMRI studies where individuals were asked to lay in the scanner and think of nothing in particular. This kind of mindless mental activity is accompanied by a lot of  self-referential ruminative recursive thoughts that are subserved by brain regions that lie along the midline, especially the prominent in medial parietal lobe. Those types of internal mental states that are remarkably robust and persist under deep general anaesthesia and even in a coma and are probably the neural basis for the self.

The more outward facing parts of the brain – like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – are more responsible for an outward orientation to the world have top down executive influence on the activation of those networks.

In mindfulness, in cultivating awareness of the breath and voluntary moment by moment awareness of the brain, we are training the brain – just like when you are learning to play the violin or any other complex skill – we are training to break out of those self-referential ruminative recursive mental states and to achieve an orientation toward the outer world and in the present moment rather than anticipating the future or reliving the past.

contemplative neuroscience mechanisms behind mindfulness

There is evidence that mindfulness leads to weaker connections in default mode network. Could we be losing something by focusing more on the external realities rather than the self?

Not everyone has a well formed default mode network. People who have been subjected to severe developmental trauma, neglect and lack secure attachment do not have robust default mode networks. Mindfulness can lower defence mechanisms that are there with good reason. However, most people with a well formed default mode network and secure attachment. We are “taming an elephant”: there is very little chance that we will significantly weaken the elephant.

Occasionally, we do hear of adverse experiences arising from mindfulness. With any robust intervention there are always potential risks.

How long does it take for mindfulness to have a manifest effect?

The results can happen almost immediately, however, they are also cumulative. We are still figuring out what the minimum effective dose it. This reminds me of the discussion of the minimum effective dose of aspirin in stroke and heart attack prevention. When I was a resident, we were advising patients to take two 325 mg tablets twice a day. Over time this dropped to 81 mg of aspirin a day. There is speculation that the required dose may even be lower.

There is a study that defines a new marker. The original fMRI/EEG studies were done by Richard Davidson in Tibetan Buddhist meditators with over 10,000 hours of meditation. This number is somewhat arbitrary and refers to this idea that is the number of hours to become an expert at anything. However, the question arises: what is the relevance of the changes in functional connectivity in the brain in someone who has devoted such a monumental amount of time to meditation to the likes of you and me?

A very neat study was published by David Cresswell in Biological Psychiatry in 2016. They invited individuals with high level of stress, unemployed adults, to a weekend retreat experience. They were randomised to in 2 groups:

  • a 3 day mindfulness retreat (the treatment group) and
  • a 3 day relaxation retreat where they read stories, told jokes and had a good time (the control group).

The study was conducted in one centre over one weekend, so it is well controlled. Initially, both groups rated the interventions as being equally helpful to them, subjectively.

The researchers looked at the functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus. They also looked at Interleukin-6, a known marker of inflammation, that has been previously shown to be elevated in stressed out unemployed people.

Even with this brief weekend mindfulness intervention, the treatment group developed increased connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cyngulate gyrus. There was a neuroplastic response even after a 3 day mindfulness retreat. This was also associated with a decrease in the marker IL-6. Even after 4 months, IL-6 was decreased in the treatment group, but in the control group, IL-6 levels continued to rise, independent of whether they managed to get a job or not.

This is also relevant to doctors, who are at high risk for burnout. Because of their work commitments, the mindfulness retreat for doctors was condensed from the standard 8 week model developed by John Kabat-Zinn to a weekend intervention. The question was: does the weekend model work? The research at the University of Wisconsin where this was developed was reassuring: the residents are less stressed out, more effective and have a greater level of satisfaction.

We still don’t know the absolute minimum dose, but it seems that a weekend of mindfulness can be life-changing for the brain.

Another paper published in PLOS ONE from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Harvard looked at the practices such as meditation, prayer, mindful yoga, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong, etc, i.e. ones that elicit a relaxation response (as opposed the stress response).

This study showed that in both novice and experienced practitioners of relaxation response modalities, there were changes in the epigenetic transcription of the genome. There was upregulation of pathways associated with mitochondrial integrity, downregulation of inflammatory pathways, improved insulin-related metabolism and improved nitric oxide signalling.

Long term potentiation, the standard mechanism for memory formation, strengthens existing neural connections. This happens immediately, as you read this. Over time, long term potentiation leads to formation of new connections,through synaptogenesis, dendritic arborisation and neurogenesis i.e. brain structure changes. In turn, this affects the most neuroplastic neurons located in the hippocampus.

mindfulness minimum effective dose response neurology

In reference to this fascinating recent study of the fight or flight response, it seems plausible that breathing regulates our stress levels much more than conscious thought. Could you explain the significance of this in terms of mindfulness?

The ancients believed that emotions reside in the body. This comes up a lot in serious yoga classes.

This highly innovative study shows that the control of the adrenal medulla – the main effector of the stress response – is not from the conscious ruminating thinking centres, but by the motor and sensory cortex.

This explains why breathing, as well as yoga and Tai-Chi, are an important part of meditative practice. In my experience, these kind of interventions do affect the stress response in a beneficial way.

Mindful exercise exists in many form. For example, weightlifters need to be very mindful to maintain perfect form. Cycling is another example: it is vital to concentrate on every pedal stroke and maintain an even cadence. Once you start to day dream, you notice straight away that your output is way worse. This overlaps with the concept of flow. It is about getting in the zone. There is a very inspiring TED talk by Judson Brewer MD, Ph.D. that explains the physiology behind flow and how it is augmented by mindfulness. Mindfulness is work, and it does require discipline. There is a paradox here of non-striving and non-doing while also being disciplined.

You are a sleep medicine expert. Could you comment on the relationship between mindfulness and sleep?

Insomnia is a complex problem with many causes. However, for most people with idiopathic insomnia, the cause it these self-referential recursive ruminations. They aren’t able to “turn their brain off”. Through mindfulness practice, they are generally able to tame the default mode network that’s responsible for ruminating and daydreaming. A simple strategy would be to lie in bed and concentrate on the breath. This would ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

mindfulness default mode network neurological basis for the self

Mindfulness is a mainstay treatment for many mental health disorders. What about use of mindfulness in the treatment for organic pathology of the brain usually treated by neurologists?

There is some preliminary data that mindfulness training has a beneficial effect of seizure frequency in patients with epilepsy. It is a medical condition associated with tremendous anxiety and stress, so mindfulness could have a significant benefit in more than one way. It may even have a benefit it terms of remembering to take medication on time, etc.

Some robust studies show that the frequency of relapse in multiple sclerosis decreases with mindfulness intervention. The effect from mindfulness is similar in magnitude to the effect from beta-interferon. There is also some research showing that the frequency of inflamed Gadolinuim-enhancing lesions decreases with mindfulness.

John Kabat-Zinn used to take the patients who suffered from chronic pain or had diseases for which we had no answer, and those patients got better. Even beyond neurology, there is some evidence that mindfulness can have benefits in psoriasis. We are probably only at the bottom of this mountain.

Dr McBurney is a board member of Mindful Medicine. It is a non-profit organisation that focuses on teaching mindfulness to health professionals using retreats. He is founder of McBurney Integrative Neurology and is a clinical assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Dr. McBurney is a native of Alabama and a graduate of Auburn University and the Emory University School of Medicine. He completed his neurology residency and EEG/Epilepsy fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In 2014 he completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

Dr McBurney has given me so much to think about. I will follow up with part 2 of our discussion that focuses more on the philosophical and life experience aspects of mindfulness once I wrap my head around it.

neurological path mindfulness default mode network adrenal medulla