WHAT IS THIS?
Daily, snackable writings and podcasts to spur changes in thinking.
A blueprint for building a better brain by slow, consistent, daily drops of influence.
The way we think is both our greatest tool - indeed our only tool - and very often it is also our biggest leash. We are only who we think we are. Our opportunities are also limited by who other people think we are. It stands to reason that if we’d like to change who we are, we must start with an effort to change our thinking. Read more here
November 17th, 2018
Usually we hear about taking it to the max. Turn the volume up to eleven, go the extra mile, just one more drink, do one more push up, just one more bite. Just one more pair of shoes or gadget. Just one more Netflix episode.
It would be easy to just label ourselves as consumers, often mindless in the act of consuming, and shake a finger at this culture of consumerism, but like any generality, this misses nuances that begin to erode such a label.
We would be better described as filters of experience. We are like combs that are passing through all the various versions of reality that we can muster. Perhaps we are organizing it, or perhaps like a combine harvester for farming; we are trying to separate the fruit from the straw in order to level-up our current reality to a more interesting and expansive one.
Unfortunately it seems that the long time we spent without abundance dictates in evolutionary biology that we have feedback mechanisms in our brain, mostly attached to dopamine production that has us geared towards taking it to the max when it comes to things we find pleasurable, like food, sex and rock and roll. Oh and drugs of course.
The opiate crisis, the obesity epidemic, and the ubiquity of internet pornography might simply be described as the result of a dopamine mechanism that is still calibrated to much leaner environment when such abundance was not available. Our systems were in equilibrium in those earlier leaner times and now that we’ve changed the environment, our systems don’t respond ideally because they are not calibrated for such ripe resources. This is essentially what evolutionary biology seeks to explore.
While the dopamine cycle might win a majority when it comes to dictating human behavior, it does not dictate all human behavior.
That dopamine cycle is part of an older part of the brain if we view the brain in terms of evolutionary development.
Our newer hardware, the neocortex is where our executive function mostly resides, and it’s this part of the brain where we as humans can do a truly remarkable thing: we can learn something conceptually, understand it’s full ramifications without actually experiencing them, and then override our older systems, such as the dopamine cycle and change our behavior to gain a greater understanding and experience of reality.
To put it simply, we might be hardwired to take it to the max, but we can run any new program we want, thus allowing us to take it to the minimum. That is if doing so makes sense.
Take for example the case of Angus Barbieri. In 1965 Angus weighed 456 pounds, and in that same year he decided he was sick of being so heavy. So, under doctor supervision, he went on a fast. The doctors recommended a short fast, but Angus really took it to the minimum. He fasted for 382 days and lost 276 pounds. He took vitamins and drank tea, coffee and sparkling water, but other than that, he did not eat.
Just remember that fact next time you hear yourself say “I’m starving!” or when you hear someone else say it. If you have the resources to read this post or listen to this episode, then it’s simply not true. The human body has powers that are unfortunately rarely tapped in our comfortable modern society.
The benefits of fasting have been known in the scientific community for decades and recent research is only adding robustness to this old knowledge.
It does well to think about it this way: If you knew you were going to lose 90% of the possessions in your home tomorrow, what would you safeguard today? This is essentially what the body does when there’s no food available. It holds on to the essentials, making them stronger and more robust and then… literally…. cuts the fat.
William James once wrote, “We learn most about a thing when we view it under a microscope, as it were, or in its most exaggerated form.”
Exaggerated form is the key phrase here. The extremes are where things literally reveal the breadth of their existence. If you run for as long as you can today, that’s potentially useful information. Funny enough though, if you do so, you’ll be able to run farther tomorrow, and extend your own personal extreme.
Sitting in silence for one minute might feel chaotic and unbearable, but do it enough times and gradually the experience changes.
This is another way to take it to the minimum. Those who meditate daily are trying to do essentially that. Take the mind down to a current minimum of activity. For reasons beyond the scope here, it clearly has a lot of long term benefit.
Another example is a sort of lifestyle exercise that the ancient Stoics used to practice and recommend. Seneca would for several days a month eat the plainest food, wear the simplest clothing and sleep on the floor. Though he was one of the wealthiest men of his time, he found great benefit in this practice because it kept him perpetually prepared for potential disaster. If he woke up one day and found that he’d somehow lost all of his wealth, the experience of living on bare essentials would not be a shock, and so his mind was protected from panic, distress and chaos in this way.
Risk is a very strange concept in our cultural mind these days. Somehow, in the same cultural breath, we say that improvement and innovation requires taking risk, and yet we constantly look for safe, risk-averse options.
The mistake is thinking that this is an either/or situation. We love either/or’s because for whatever reason we love taking a side, perhaps it helps with establishing some kind of identity. Straddling categories seems to be difficult even though this is generally where the most interesting and beneficial experiences arise from.
We can ask about our behaviors and habits, what should we try to take to the max and what would be interesting to take to the minimum?
To loosely quote Brian Koppelman and David Levien: the only person more capable than a man with infinite resources is someone with nothing to lose.
Taking one’s self to the minimum can make one invincible to things that annoy, frustrate and panic other people, granting you clarity to see the next best step when everyone else is caught up in their own idea of what’s happening.
November 16th, 2018
Let’s try a little experiment together.
What is the next thought that you are going to have? Purple Elephant.
Of course in this case, the sudden mention of purple elephant almost certainly invoked a strange and unexpected image in your mind. Perhaps a different thought or two was capable of sneaking in before hearing the words ‘purple elephant’.
But this is the forceful example of the experiment. And it exhibits the fact that we are not really in control, nor can we well predict what sensory inputs are going to arise as objects in consciousness – plainly speaking, we can’t really be all that sure about what we are going to experience.
This is likewise true for our internal life. Let’s try the experiment again, but with a less intrusive twist.
What exactly are you going to think after your current thought and after that thought, and the following one?
Whatever thoughts occurred during this small space of time, can you look back at them and honestly claim that you authored them in some sort of predetermined way? We might be able to claim that actions that we take in the real world are predetermined based on a swirling crescendo of related thoughts contemplating that action, but can we claim that kind of predeterminedness about the thoughts themselves? Where exactly would this predetermining take place?
Suddenly unanswerable questions about free will and destiny and fate start cropping up in potentially very controversial and unsettling ways. But this is not really the point of the exercise.
The hope here is simply to engage in the act of noticing one’s own thoughts. Undoubtedly, millions of people, potentially billions have passed through time on earth without ever having this experience.
The first undeniably powerful gift of this act is that it can also be applied to emotions that are arising in our experience. It’s been said many times before that the angry mind that notices it’s anger ceases to be so angry. This act is the virtuous compliment to the often touted direction for compassion to ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes.’ This act of noticing your own thought is in effect taking you out of your own shoes.
Let’s put this in more pragmatic terms. Imagine for a moment that someone is filming you. Now imagine that every time you get really angry, the feed of that camera gets suddenly rerouted into your eyes so all that you see is yourself getting angry in the larger context of whatever room or situation you are in. Extremely few people would not be self-consciously effected by the embarrassment of such a perspective.
As Winston Churchill once apparently said, ‘a man is about as big as the things that make him angry.”
Imagining this camera filming our anger is almost always guaranteed to put the object of our anger into proper focus, into a proper context, revealing it to be fairly petty.
The act of noticing one’s thoughts and emotions in this way is effectively like building an internal camera that we have focused on the actions, emotions and thoughts we see our self having or experiencing. Such a self-referential remove allows our executive brain to have more input on which thoughts we’d like to see propagate again, which emotions should perhaps not be entertained so faithfully and which actions had the best impact on the reality we are experiencing.
This is in essence a first vital step towards mindful wisdom. Wisdom has been defined in many ways both simple and complex, but if we regard just one here and claim that wisdom is simply not making the same mistake again, this mindful ability to notice what we are doing instantly raises the probability that when we are making a mistake again, we will be able to notice it and stop ourselves from continuing in such Rut-like behavior.
Whether there is some kind of indivisible self that is the auteur of our experience or if it is merely a phantom that is helpful to imagine, or some kind of self-referencing that cancels out the necessity of some faux phantom, doesn’t matter. We would do best to consider useful questions that we can actually make productive strides with, such as, would efforts to notice what I’m thinking or feeling or doing be beneficial to my wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around me? Regardless of the curious and potentially eerie paths of thought such practice might open up, the answer is without a doubt a resounding yes.
This episode of Tinkered Thinking self-references a larger context of Tinkered Thinking’s current complete cannon by specifically referencing Episode 125: Rut, Episode 35: You are not All of You, and Episode 23: Pause.
November 15th, 2018
The experience of giving advice that is either rebuffed or simply never taken seriously enough to be translated into action on the part of another person is nearly ubiquitous. It is uncanny how we can listen to a friend’s plight and feel like we can understand and see the solution so clearly. And yet, any advice we might give is so casually dismissed, it’s as though that friend is already familiar with the idea, as though it’s already been deeply considered.
Does this mean we are giving poor advice? Or does it have more to do with our friend’s relationship to potential solutions?
It is far easier to simply complain and lap up any potential sympathy on offer with our mind’s little cat tongue. This feeds that short term system of pleasure. It’s enjoyable for only as long as it lasts, like a donut.
Can we think back for a moment and look over all the advice that’s been on offer through out our life and find anything that we now wish we’d taken to heart? Most likely, the answer is yes. It was an instance where someone caring gave us a gift. One that we tossed aside and never used, and now that enough time has passed, it might not even be possible to use anymore.
The marketer or entrepreneur is faced with a similar dilemma. Such a person is looking to give a kind of gift to the world, to strangers who may or may not use such a gift.
The marketer or entrepreneur has the similar choice of playing into those short term desires, or proffering a solution that requires effort, imagination and action.
Facebook and Instagram, for instance, while they seem to be ‘free’ actually charge a huge fee with regards to time and attention. To illustrate this, just think about all the time someone spends scrolling some sort of feed during the day, multiply that number of hours by 365 and then by the minimum wage. In the United States the minimum wage is $7.25. According to one source, the average time spent on social media during a given day in 2017 was 135 minutes. If you do the math, remembering that people take part in their social media job 7 days a week, this comes to just under Six Thousand Dollars. Essentially, at a bare minimum, this is one way to see what platforms like Facebook and Instagram are charging.
These platforms work so well because they play into our short term system of pleasure – it’s a kind of instapleasure tactic that informs the structure and user interface of these products. They are the equivalent of a friend who never offers any constructive feedback, but simply gives into our base desire when we feel the need to complain.
The other sort of marketer and entrepreneur, who wishes to give a useful gift that risks being unused faces a harder challenge. Without those instapleasure tactics, it’s difficult to get people to listen long enough to understand what might be on offer. Such is the case with the complaining friend. Emotions are at the wheel in that situation. Just think for a moment how many times a friend has really paused and grown quiet at the proffer of some piece of advice. More likely, the advice was met with an immediate response beginning with the all-too-often ‘Yea, but….’. This is not the mark of thoughtful engagement, it’s emotional reaction, pure and simple. It may be couched in reasonable sounding language, but the mere quickness is a guideline for recognizing the difference between someone who is riding an emotion and someone who is thoughtfully trying to discover a solution.
Just as time functions as an important guideline in the short term, it is the most useful tactic in the long term.
The marketer or entrepreneur who is looking for the quick turn around on investment, is more likely to feel like a sore loser when things don’t pan out the way they hoped. Individuals on the quest for such a quick turn around on investment are more likely to build things that use our instapleasure system in order to get what they want. Tactic and result have a fishy similarity here.
Conversely, the marketer or entrepreneur who seeks to make a good change that does not rely on the instapleasure systems within people may be less inclined to feel like a sore loser when things don’t pan out immediately. Someone who is willing to have skin in the long game, is somewhat like the loving parent who is continually gives unused advice. How feeble would the concepts of love and friendship be if we felt like sore losers every single time someone didn’t take our suggestion?
Considering the monstrous size of the global problems that are looming to face our species, we might do well to consider for a moment looking at the whole of humanity as a family. This might be laughably unrealistic, but has there ever been a moment in previous human history when we have had a bigger opportunity to be connected across the globe? No. And while such a fact does not automatically make us a family, the technology that makes such a fact possible is certainly a practical step in this direction.
While much of the internet is currently geared towards hijacking our older, more volatile and instinctual impulses, we must remember that it is still evolving. The number of people who have stopped using facebook, for example, is an interesting micro-event in this evolution. In the future, we might look back and view the quick adoption and spread of these platforms in the same way we view a bad relationship that began in a hot and fast way. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But the consequences slowly revealed themselves, and in the absence of some new instapleasure, perhaps our quieter, more thoughtful selves decided to pause and contemplate some real changes, some new actions, and better behavior.
We might for example, opt to go to a quieter corner of the internet, where we are challenged to think, to pause and to grow, instead of engaging in that frenzied scroll. Or perhaps there’s a product that might actually improve our lives that we reconsider. A book, or a meditation service, or an online course. While the internet is technically 25+ years old, not everyone got on at the same time, and it may be fair to say that the internet and it’s evolving platforms are still experiencing the volatile ups and downs of a sort of puberty.
While it seems unlikely looking at the internet’s short past, it is possible that it might settle into a far more thoughtful medium. Such a thing might sound absurd, since there will always be shit kickers to stir the pot, but what if some clever person unleashes a new algorithm on the internet that begins to organize influences? Bringing the trolls into check and highlighting the quieter spaces?
Perhaps not, but the people who were smart enough to tap into the instapleasure tendency of our limbic system may grow bored of such an easy game. Appealing to the executive cortex isn’t just more challenging, but it expands the options infinitely since we can curiously contemplate things far beyond the reach of our impulsive limbic system.
Regardless, those quiet gardeners who are curating better spaces and creating better things need only continue. The internet as a whole may not mature to that level of thoughtfulness, but individuals do, and will continue to do so, enabling those thoughtful spaces required to reconsider unused gifts.
November 14th, 2018
At the heart of motivation is motion.
What is more motivating. . . Or rather, what gets you to move faster and more efficiently:
The chocolate donut on the other side of the room?
The thumb tack you just sat on?
One quick game of neuronal ping-pong yields the observation that one situation is positive and one is negative. But strangely enough, the negative situation - i.e. sitting on a thumb tack - is more motivating.
What would happen if we reframe depression as that thumbtack?
The difference and difficulty is that a thumbtack has a clear and unambiguous message, i.e. you sat in the wrong place. And depression has a hazy, ambiguous message that contains no clear solution and even worse: no clear problem.
But what is the message?
Things need to change.
In essence the thumbtack is saying the same thing: you’ve sat in the wrong place, and you should probably change that. The sooner the better.
Depression provides no such clarity.
Think of the exasperated and scared parent who has tried everything to comfort and care for a baby that simply will-not-stop-screaming. If only that tiny kid could talk, perhaps our parent could get some . . relief. Such relief is a function of clarity. The exhausted and scared parent has no clarity about what is wrong. The ability to communicate would suddenly give rise to a channel for clarity, and whatever information the child could give the parent could then prompt actions on the part of the parent that would in turn make both happy.
If only depression could talk, and specifically detail what in the hell is wrong, perhaps then there might be an opportunity to iterate towards some kind of relief.
The message depression carries is about as meaningful as a baton in a relay race. Depression holds that baton - that message - that things must change. And it will continue to run towards the depressed and desperate to pass on the message, mute to the meaning, unending in it’s efforts to get closer and closer and closer in order to hand off the message.
What if that enemy running faster and faster to catch us is doing so in order to try and help?
But each time depression overwhelms the depressed, the baton is not passed, the message is usually not received. And after enough time, the race is on again. But a look over the shoulder, and suddenly, the race seems to be something different.
What if at the heart of depression there isn’t simply a deeply powerful notion that something is wrong, but also a hope – an assurance - that things could be better and that things should be better? If only we have the courage and resources to recognize and root out exactly what is wrong.
If only we can get the message, instead of constantly looking in the rear-view mirror, if only we could grab the baton, that simple message of depression that something needs to change and look forward and charge with all our might towards a better future.
We might think of a coin with two sides. Such sides are so close together, and yet they could not be more diametrically opposed, facing in opposite directions. Perhaps this is the case with depression. It broadcasts the fear of what might happen if things continue, but also contains an implicit hope about how much better things could be if the appropriate actions were taken.
We might do well to remind ourselves of the strange and useful etymology of the word ‘fear’, how knowing it can paradoxically give us courage, to take worthwhile risks with the aim of potentially fulfilling the hope that may be at the core of depression.
November 13th, 2018
Even with the biggest theatre, it’s possible to slowly change the background color of any scene with almost no one noticing. Everyone is too wrapped up in the action on stage to notice such things, even though they are relatively huge changes in comparison. The important difference is the speed of change. The slower something changes, the harder it is to notice.
The most insidious way this unfortunate fact of human memory impacts us is with regards to health.
If one’s health could be stratified into distinct levels from poor to excellent, each level would form it’s own echo chamber. As long as the shift from one level to another isn’t drastically quick, the difference is hard to notice. Such a trend across levels compounds until people find themselves in a state far from what they remember being able to do with their bodies years and decades prior.
Like an individual whose viewpoint is never challenged but only supported by like minded people, the realization of a certain level of health can be a subject of ignorance. Simply put, we are used to how we currently feel and imagining feeling better can be difficult, even if we have experienced such an improved condition at some point in the past.
The individual whose viewpoint on some matter is stuck in an echo chamber only benefits from productive challenges to that viewpoint. The analog for the echo chamber of health would be to challenge our bodies with different experiments, whether they be with food, exercise, sleep or even breathing. Just as negative changes in health are only noticed with sudden changes like getting hit with the flu, so to is the case with the positive that we might discover. Our experiments in health are better done in concentrated isolated ways so as to make any potential effect as noticeable as possible.
Bear in mind that performing multiple experiments makes it harder to differentiate which strategy is creating the effect we are experiencing.
Most important is simply to bear in mind that any current mindset or state of health is generally extremely convincing. It is hard to imagine change without either experiencing it to some degree, or witnessing it. Skepticism about our own state can be our saving grace. A curious skepticism can the thin edge of the wedge – our tool to start prying open our current state in order to potentially level-up and live a better life.