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.

The value of work

As someone who really gave it everything when it came to studying or working and not necessarily seeing it as having given me what I wanted, I ran the risk of learning helplessness. Somewhere within me there is a belief that work is a double edged sword. Work is only useful when the direction is right (no physics puns intended). In all honesty though, it really is a vector. I have seen so many people expending so much energy getting nowhere fast. Ray Dalio says that you should only work on the things you really want.

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As a true millennial, I didn’t know what I wanted for a long time. Something is telling me that in another 5 years, looking back on this note, I will think: Ha, I though I knew, but I didn’t really. In any case, I have a better idea now than I did five years ago. I recognise what my priorities are. It’s family first and everything else after that.

The learnt helplessness comes in where you finally get the freedom to start again and work on what you really want, but you wonder – is there any point? What if I am wrong again? There’s also a feeling of being spent – having worked so hard in the past, you’re not sure you’ve got the energy anymore. Of course, these beliefs aren’t helpful and luckily they are entirely changeable. I guess I wouldn’t have even ever come close to being aware of them had it not been for mindfulness. The truth is that work is useful when it is in the right direction. Time is going to go by so I may as well put in the work and make a bet on what I believe in. There’s no certainty and no promises, but it is better to always have a direction and therefore a chance at a legacy. The spent thing is nonsense too – you only get stronger from exercising mental muscles through study and work. Past experiences can equally serve as references for one’s ability to succeed regardless of the complexity of the task. After all, there’s always a choice.

What mindfulness teaches you

I had a really hard time trying to do mindfulness last night. It took me a good 30 minutes to even get into my first proper breath that I could focus on. This is unusual for me. At this point I’ve been a pretty decent meditator for about 1.5 years.

What was it? Procrastination. Why? Falling asleep and meditating is effort. It takes effort to not go down 10 million rabbit holes. Saying no is more difficult than it may initially seem. However, it is completely necessary. Focus is the mother of execution. The only way to execute is by focusing on one thing at a time. It’s unitasking. Even if it seems like you are multitasking: you are only ever doing one thing at any given time – just switching more often than you think. Multitasking is a form of hiding: if you fail, you had “so much going on.” Whereas if you are working on just one thing – you can’t really run and hide from it, it is staring you in the face.

The other thing that mindfulness teaches you is that it’s not how many times you fail, it’s all about getting back up on your feet. It doesn’t matter how many times your mind wanders. Every single time you bring it back – you got back up on your feet. The neural pathway that is responsible for bringing you back has just gotten that little bit stronger. It’s like a biceps curl for your focusing muscles.

Does it only do focus? No. It also gives breadth somehow. There’s a technique called noting. So when a memory comes in: you say memory. A plan, an idea, a fantasy, an itch, a dart of pain, a noise and so on. Identifying things helps to deal with them.

Once I was able to get past the initial wall of procrastination and actually went and did it, straight away – I got an amazing reward. I saw the sky as cloudy and then my mind just shifted to the other side of the clouds – where is was sunny and still. Maybe this was just a really small hypnagogic hallucination, but it gave me an insight. Cognitively, it is such an obvious thing: we all know that things have different meanings depending on what side you look at them. To really feel it, to really internalise the meaning of this is something much deeper.

Asking better questions

The American election is everywhere. I hate thinking about politics. It’s wrong to hate it because it is important. Whether you have an interest in politics or not, it has an interest in you. So it’s important to know what you think. This insanely funny cartoon is from The New Yorker:
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“I had a dream that this election never ends and I never have to go back to worrying about my own problems.”

The kind of questions that seeing Clinton and Trump debating stimulates are all nasty. Who is lying? Who is lying more? How can we trust this person to be a president?
Asking these questions has me thinking in circles. A much better set of questions would be:
1. What future do we want for the world?
2. Who can help us achieve this future?
3. Do we have an election system that allows us to achieve this future?

The answer to the first question is muddled. The western world seems quite divided. With cracks in the EU and a painful election in the US, nobody is clear on what they want. The other two questions are simply worrying.

Doctors and social media

This post came out recommending things that doctors should and shouldn’t do on social media.

So the article sites these 5 things you should never post as a doctor on social media:
1. Inaccurate Medical Information
2. Anything that Violates Patient Confidentiality
3. Your Personal Information
4. Opinions on Controversial Issues
5. Complaints or Rants

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Point 1 is universal. It has to do with due diligence and integrity, not with being a doctor. Point 2 – about patient confidentiality – is sacred. 100% agreed.

My questions is:
Must a doctor always continue to be a doctor on social media?

A doctor isn’t a public figure – with a few notable exceptions. Doctors don’t have a responsibility to treat every interaction with another human being (including virtual interactions) like they are consultations with a doctor. Anybody who perceives it that way is misguided. The same way you don’t expect a lawyer who sat down beside you in a coffee shop to give you bulletproof advice or a professional investor sat next to you on an airplane to tell you the next big stock – you shouldn’t expect a doctor to remain a doctor in non-medical situations.

The rules above are coming from a place of fear. While the above is probably meant as a recipe for an easier life, it seems to put constricting expectations on doctors that will ultimately harm them and their patients.

As it stands, doctors aren’t outspoken enough about problems they face. They are the last to complain, the last to go on strike, the last to give their opinions on how their own system could be improved. What if they talk about their problems? Is it going to get controversial? Hell, yeah!

A propagation of fearful attitudes called for by the author of the linked article couldn’t possibly alleviate the global healthcare problems that we are all facing. Yes, information should be accurate and useless rants are… useless. However, given the extent to which doctors like to follow rules verbatim, it seems that the above rules (“don’t speak unless spoken to”) wouldn’t serve them well in the long run.

The overflowing cup

I heard this Asian parable today. A student wanted to learn from a master. He already considered himself a good student and quite intelligent. The master sat him down for tea. The master started pouring him tea. He filled the cup, but did not stop. The tea was spilling and running down the students legs. Eventually, baffled, the students exclaimed – what are you doing?! The master explained: you cannot fill a cup if it already full.

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Asian culture is so interesting. Modern day Asia and the US value achievement. Modern day Europe and history book Asia value savouring and contemplation. The culture of letting go that is so central to the teachings of Asian religions and meditative practices seems counter-intuitive at first. Will you learn if you let go? Are you giving up? What is the difference between letting go and giving up?

It’s not like we are as finite as a cup. However, the most accessed memories are references are probably quite a small portion of everything we know. I think that above all it is letting go of stuff that’s not relevant any more. There’s learning and then there’s going around in filtered – not tinted – filtered glasses. Past experiences create distorting filters that add meanings to things that aren’t necessarily there. Staying in touch with reality is our biggest job. It is the one thing that allows people to figure out how to make their dreams come true: you need to always be aware of the ever-changing direction of the wind so that you can adjust the sails in order to get to where you need to be. You also need have a map, however. You need to learn to predict the weather – as much as it is possible.

The trick is to constantly reassess what should be in your cup. Beliefs shouldn’t just be formed by your own experiences, but constantly change with incoming information. An awareness of outside data is important, but an awareness of your own internal software is equally as important – that’s what mindfulness is for. It’s not just garbage in – garbage out. It is good data in – garbage out if the software is garbage. Every day is an iteration in testing both perception and our inner workings.

Why we do the things we do

I recall listening to a podcast with Naval Ravikant. He struck me as a super intelligent guy. He spoke about fear a lot – how so many seemingly diverse emotions are all just different forms of fear. I have come to agree with that view wholeheartedly. Anger is a form of fear – someone is breaching your borders and rules. Sadness is a form of fear – that something this good will never happen again. Anxiety is pretty close to being the same thing as fear. Then there’s the fundamental fear of not being good enough or deserving of a place in other people’s lives.

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He also said: “Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.”

At first, it seemed to make a lot of sense. It’s quite a mechanical definition: we couple outcomes with feelings and manipulate ourselves to accomplish the outcome with the nicest feelings. It is pretty obvious to me at this point that we are always after an emotion we will enjoy.

I don’t like the way he used the word “unhappy.” Maybe that’s not the best word to express his actual sentiment – after all it was a podcast and you don’t really have time to craft the exact sentence you want when you are talking. He didn’t strike me as a happy guy, neither does Tim, the host of the show. I think that betting your sense of happiness on outcomes is a bad strategy. In theory, it will make you work harder. However, if you look at yourself in the mirror and – regardless of what you actually look like – tell yourself that you are a fat bast*rd and the only way to not feel this bad about yourself is to exercise – then you’re not going to exercise, are you? If you promise yourself chocolate cake after a session in the gym, you are more likely to exercise – a bit of operant conditioning works wonders and has little to do with feeling bad. So it’s not putting yourself in an unhappy state with a promise to be happy given that you fulfil a condition one day, it is something else.

Naval also said this: “I actually think happiness is the absence of suffering. It comes from peace. That comes from being careful about desire, judgment, and reaction.” This makes more sense, supporting the hypothesis that he wasn’t very careful about his choice of words in the first quotation. Aristotle, Epictetus, Seneca, Confucius, Aldous Huxley, Victor Frankl, to name but a few, agree on one thing: that your emotions should not be directly dependent on what happens to you. Emotion, the word, means something that stimulates action. So these clever men tell us not to leave ourselves at the will of circumstance and stand for something independent of that. On a practical note, of the best books I’ve ever read in the business genre, What they don’t teach in Harvard Business School”, postulated that one of the most important things was to act, not react. Obviously, there is a time and a place for being reactive – mostly in survival situations. Fear is our friend here. However, while our brain constantly scans for these situations, they aren’t all that common, thankfully!

So the question arises: Why do we do the things we do? If we are happy already – because we chose to be – why should we bother putting in effort to strive towards things that are currently outside our reach? The only explanation is that happiness should have nothing to do with it. Everyone is motivated by slightly different things, but it is ultimately down to meaning. For some, a happy undisturbed life is meaningful. For some, it is a life of service – to their family, nation – or whomever they identify with most. Meaning is hard to measure because it is internal. I am sure there lived many a housewife who brought up 2 kids and probably felt as much or even more meaning than a military general who made it into history books. I think that’s why we do the things we do – we don’t chase after happiness, we chase after meaning.