24 May

Idea Age is here. How can you get yourself ready?

Idea Age It is not a secret that we are facing exponential threats from resource crunch and environmental degradation. This 5 post series argues that in response, we are inventing a new idea age.

  • Exponential Threats talks about the seriousness and inevitability of growing threats humanity is facing.
  • In Exponential Technology, we argue that our technology, our best ally, is not sufficient to tackle these threats. We will also need unprecedented level of human ingenuity.
  • In Origin of Ideas, we see where human ingenuity comes from.
  • In Age of Creativity, we see that we are entering an era of unprecedented global creativity.
  • In this last post, we address how you can prepare for the idea age

 It’s all about Networks

To understand creativity, we need to understand networks. Network

  • Creativity is the process of combining two or more existing ideas (shown as a ‘node’ in the image above) in a new and useful way.
  • Every idea is a network of two or more ideas. So, each node is a network in itself.

We can use the image above to represent a single brain by taking each “node” as an idea (or knowledge or information) inside that brain. Or we can use the same image to represent creativity at the level of a society. Then each node is taken to represent an individual brain. A network becomes ‘stronger’ when the number of nodes or the interconnection between the nodes increase. Now, let’s see how we can prepare ourselves for the idea age.

Idea Age is also Exponential Era

We live in an exponential era where changes happen in ever increasing pace. One bad thing about the exponential era is that the difference between the winners and the ‘also-ran’ is huge. Exponential Era We are presently in an important point in history. People who ride the exponential tide now will have a very different future from the people who remain in the 20th century. Of course, we are not arguing that the life in the bleeding edge of exponential era must necessarily be better than the slow and steady pace of the past. But some like it hot. And fast. Here are few simple things you can do to hitch your super-exciting exponential ride.

Get out of Paucity Mentality

Openness will be a substantially important hallmark of the idea age. People who operate with paucity mind-set are usually too afraid to open up. In the Idea Age, operating in isolation are too slow. Also, team consisting of different skill sets is usually much more effective than a genius operating in isolation. The difference will be more striking with passage of time.

What are the things that you are too afraid to share? What is the worst thing that will happen if you start sharing them? How do you know you are right about it? Don't forget to apply this question to your personal life too!

Become an Idea Altruist

In Idea Age, everyone has an idea that they don’t have enough time to implement. So, you are less likely to have your idea stolen today. Start sharing your ideas. You can start by sharing ideas that are not critical to your livelihood. And then move on to sharing life-or-death secrets. When you start sharing ideas, you become visible to others with similar interest. They might incorporate your ideas in their scheme of things, or lend their ideas for you to use, there by making both of you better off.

List three ideas that you think others will benefit from. And how can you share them with others? Blog, FaceBook, talks, forums, interest groups, white papers, stories...?

Education and Experience

Education is a journey. Not a destiny. Never stop educating yourself. We have cart load of online educations resources available these days. Some of them are listed below:

Most online education resources are free. There are interest groups, discussion forums, group efforts… In Idea Age, education is a life long process. Every time you learn something new, you increase the number of idea-nodes inside your brain.

If self-education is not your cup of tea, try by learning something that you love. It does't have to have practical value.

Once in a while, learn something that is completely unrelated and irrelevant to you. In an area where you already have proven expertise, any new learning will bring only incremental advantage. When you deal with a completely unrelated subject, anything you learn will increase your knowledge graph by a huge margin.

Of course, we shouldn't forget that 'doing' is a form of learning too! So, go and do something that you haven't done before.

More importantly, block time out for solitude. Most people require some quite time once in a while to digest and assimilate what they have learnt.

Future favors the Networked

Idea Age is all about networking of ideas. Learning increases the number of idea-nodes inside your head. To increase the number of nodes outside your head, connect with other heads. Identify at least one person from each of the following category and connect with them:

  • People who have common interest
  • People who have no common interest
  • Idea altruists
  • Super-networkers
  • Life-long learners
  • Opinion makers

Have habits built into your life that provide ample networking opportunities. For example

  • Participate in networking events
  • Write/talk about your ideas
  • Participate in online forums
  • If needed, block out time every week (or every day) specifically for expanding your network

Of course, when you are expanding your network, you must take care to ensure that the quality of your network is maintained at all times. Or else, you can easily end up being inundated.

Network. Look for quality, similarity and variety.

Healthy Body and Brain

Of course, if you can’t maintain a healthy body and a physically fit brain, none of the above really matter. Here are some basic guidelines for maintaining healthy body and brain. These are rudimentary, but non-negotiable:

  • Maintain healthy weight
  • If you have cardiac or glycemic issues, eat low GL, zero oil, no dairy, vegan
  • Moderate alcohol, no smoking
  • Supplement with multivits, antioxidants, Omega 3, etc. Anti-ageing?
  • Exercise
  • Sleep prepares the brain for creativity

Here are three best kept secrets that will help you live much longer and have a healthier life:

  • You are the designer of your body – at least, from this point on
  • Your brain starts dying when you stop learning
  • Your body starts dying when you stop having sex – except when you go on calorie restriction, in which case you extend your lifespan, but shut down your sex drive

A New Chapter?

In all probabilities, Idea Age is mark of a new chapter in human history. By the time this renaissance is through, our lives would have become more different than any of us have dreamed of. When you prepare yourself to enter the Idea Age, I want you to keep one thought in your mind: You are very likely to live past 100. If that is true, how do you plan to spend the additional time?

This post has four prequels and they are listed below in their order
- Exponential Threats identifies the growing threats that are going to hit is so fast we won't have a choice but to change our present way of living
- In Exponential Technology, we argue that our technology, our best ally, is not sufficient to tackle these threats. We will also need unprecedented level of human ingenuity.
- In Origin of Ideas, we ask where human ingenuity comes from.
- In Age of Creativity, we see that we are entering an era of unprecedented global creativity.
23 May

Age of Creativity

Age Of Creativity

This 5 post series addresses as to how “we are facing exponential threats from resource crunch and environmental degradation and in response, we are inventing a new idea age”.

  • Exponential Threats identifies the growing threats we are presently facing
  • In Exponential Technology, we argue that our technology, our best ally, is not sufficient to tackle these threats. To do that, unprecedented level of human ingenuity should come into play.
  • In Origin of Ideas, we discuss the source of human ingenuity, both inside an individual’s head and across the society.
  • In this post, Age of Creativity, we will see why we are entering an era of unprecedented global creativity.
  • In the last post, we address how you can prepare for the coming Idea Age

There are a bunch of reason for us to believe that we have entered a new age of creativity. Another renaissance. But in its scope, this one will be like no other. By the time it has run its course, humankind would have, I speculate, made a clean break with the past.

New Knowledge

Creativity is a process of combining existing ideas/knowledge in a new and useful way. The process of creativity can be thought of as forming new connections in a network of ideas. In a network, addition of a new node encourages sprouting new connections (image below).

Network with newNode

If we are considering idea generation at social level, then we can treat each human being as a node in our network. As we have seen in an earlier post, bigger human population creates more new nodes.

But if we ignore the physical containers of idea/knowledge/information, every new discovery or idea becomes another node in the fabric. When a new node is added to a network, it makes new pathways possible (image below).

New Node New Pathways

Birth of an node (idea) increases the number of existing connection (ideas), which in turn increase the possibilities of several more connections (ideas) germinating.

Note: If you have already noticed the fractal nature of ideas, you will find intuitively understand the recursive nature of the paragraph above.

Thus, the new ideas increase exponentially in quantity! Today, we are seeing important new ideas coming in every day, with each new idea begetting even more ideas. We are getting inundated with creative opportunities. Understand the idea-inundation is key to preparing for the age of creativity.

New ideas have another interesting effect. When we come across novelty, it increases the levels of a brain chemical called dopamine. Among other things, dopamine inside our brain increases the alertness and focus.

 

Note: Dopamine is also responsible for feel-good and libido. It also plays a major role in romance. Effect of dopamine is designed to wear off with repeated exposure. Translation: Less novelty, less dopamine.

Brains are built in such a way that we love to work with novel stuff. Novelty tickles our brain cells into working with them. With so many new things popping up all around us, we are all gradually becoming idea generating machines (the only way to work with a new information is to integrate it with the rest of our knowledge base, which is same as forming new connections to the novel idea).

New Tools

Vast majority of younger generation is familiar with tools for data analysis, visualization and (product) design. These tools are helping us to combine ideas much more easily, and with far less resources and time.

We also have massive interest-groups online, who come together to create, fine tune, implement and exploit new ideas. Idea generators get almost instantaneous quality feedback. Instantaneous feedback is the corner stone building expertise in any domain.

Global Size Melting Pot

Large Melting Pot

Today, we not only have more than 7 billion brains in the network, these brains are also inter-connected in a way that was unheard of even 25 years ago! While internet is the pipeline through which the connectivity happens, we have several internet-dependent devices that improve the quality and pay-off of the connections.

Social media is one such device that helps us extract more juice out of global connectivity. The world has now become a huge monkey-see-monkey-do society, with each of us learning from everyone else. Because we all show our best face in the social media, we are learning positive habits/attitude from each other in unprecedented speed. And by helping us to learn to express ourselves in small steps, social media is helping us all to become creative.

Other devices that help us make the world one huge melting pot are online communities, special interest groups (already discussed above), cheap access to markets, free online education, etc.

Attitude Shift

Honey Bees

We are not strangers to the win-win nature of idea sharing. However, we have had tremendous reservations in sharing ideas that brought power and money. But that has changed now.

Today, we have more opportunities than any one of us can handle alone. Besides, the speed of change is so rapid that there is not enough time for a single person to build sufficient expertise to exploit a domain. Consequently, we are beginning to more freely share all sorts of ideas. In a world where a product has a typical life cycle of 3 to 5 years, one lone individual trying to build an edifice out of a single idea over 20 years is often a recipe for disaster.

We are also going through another important attitude shift: We are rediscovering the pleasure of belonging to a community.

We are social animals. We seem to be biologically pre-disposed to deriving pleasure from sharing. We are taking the pleasure community to new levels by becoming pioneers of sharing. We already share things from cars to clothes to house. Sharing, or Collaboration Economy, is becoming the next big thing and a manna for the folks keen on sustainability.

Role of Current Economy

american-financial-crisis-comparison

With the global recession, the people in the West now have more time than they have money. The resource crunch is incentivising them to become more creative and democratizing the process of idea generation.

In the same time, masses of people in the developing countries across Asia and Africa are leaving poverty behind. These people now have some surplus time and money. They are beginning to explore things beyond basic survival. There is a good chance that this population, which has leapfrogged into knowledge world, will be more adapt in working with ideas than the earlier generations that came off the boat.

Threat to Survival

The last factor that democratizes the idea generation process is the pressure from the serious survival threats that our civilization is facing presently. Because of their exponential nature, the threats will hit us so fast that our existing creative infrastructure won’t be able to handle them. We will end up recruiting all creative faculties, every human brain that is ready to contribute.

In the next article in this series, we will see what we can do to prepare for the idea age.

22 May

Origin of Ideas

Origin of Ideas

This 5 post series will addresses as to how “we are facing exponential threats from resource crunch and environmental degradation and that in response, we are inventing a new idea age”.

  • Exponential Threats identifies the exponentially growing threats we are presently facing
  • In Exponential Technology, we argue that our exponentially growing technology, our best ally, is not sufficient to tackle these threats. To do that, unprecedented level of human ingenuity should come into play.
  • In this post Origin of Ideas, we discuss the source of human ingenuity, both inside an individual’s head and across the society.
  • In Age of Creativity, we address as to why we have reasons to believe that we are entering an era of unprecedented global creativity.
  • In the last post, we will address as to how you can prepare for the coming Idea Age

Before discussing how human creativity is likely to save the day, we must first understand the origin of ideas, either inside a human head, or across a society. After all, there are striking similarities between both types of idea generation.

Human Mutation and Population

First, a small detour. Faster Human Mutation A paper was published in 2007, showing how the rate of human mutation was picking up speed with time. The reason was discovered to be the rising human population! More humans meant more mutations. More mutations, of course, meant more variety and better chances of human race continuing to eke a living. According to Matt Ridley, as he argued in this TED talk, there is one other thing that becomes more common with increase in population: Ideas. Ridley argues that since people make ideas, where there are more people, we have more ideas generated. But ideas funny creatures. With ideas, 1+1 = 11. Value of an idea goes up multi fold when it is in the midst of other ideas. For example, take the idea of petroleum mining. When this idea is not combined with any other idea, it has zero value (imagine a guy digging out tarry goo, with no idea what to do with it). But when it is combined with other ideas like IC engines, automobiles, jet planes, plastics, war, pollution, etc., the idea of petroleum mining becomes a formidable! Idea Having Sex Each idea makes several others come alive. To better understand how ideas work, you can think of ideas having sex (an analogy introduced by Ridley in his TED talk). But since ideas combine in every which way possible, we should think of them as polyamorous, egalitarian, libidinous and indiscreet! Ideas Are Indiscreet But the value of an ideas is derived from its ability to combine with other ideas. Not from its ability to stand alone. According to Ridley, an environment that fosters mixing of ideas is much more productive and valuable than sheer IQ. For example, industrial towns like Tiruppur and Sivakasi pop up out of nowhere to become an island of superior performance only because these towns end up having a bunch of people thinking, eating and breathing closely related ideas. Interestingly, a reasonably large population is needed to sustain idea generation and specialization. And when it comes to playing the idea catalyst, no population is large enough. There is evidence from the past that China stopped advancing its science and technology when it cut itself out from rest of the world. Similarly, it is my personal belief that India fell short of exploiting its potential to innovate when it decided to cut itself off from the West (the chief idea generators at this point in the history) after obtaining its political independence from the British.

Creativity Inside your Head

Interestingly, creativity inside your head works in a very similar fashion: Generating a new idea inside your head is just a matter of combining two or more existing ideas in a novel way. To foster your own creativity, you will need rich knowledge base. The more ‘idea raw materials’ you work with, more appropriate will be the ideas generated by you.

Ideas

You get to work with more ‘idea raw materials’ when (a) you are knowledgeable and (b) you get to retain more of what you learn. Retention is partly genetic, partly due to repetition and partly due to physical health of the brain. Of course, we will have better understanding of memory as more research throws light on the subject.

Next  to memory, your ability to communicate between different models of your brain is important to combine ideas in a novel way. The physical health of your brain like blood circulation, health of the myelin sheaths insulating the axons, etc., determine how well you can combine ideas inside your brain and create new ones. If the circulation is poor (supplies of less energy) or the myelin sheaths are damaged (increased noise level during communication), all energy hungry neural operations like creation of new ideas get down regulated.

Sustained attention is a faculty that is known to play an important role in creation of new ideas. As if, the longer you hold an idea in the center stage of your head, the more opportunities you give it to finding a suitable  partners to hook up with.

Living and interacting with people who have a knack for creating new ideas certainly helps your own creativity. They teach you that it is alright to come up with new ideas and supply you with building blocks for generating new idea.

Most importantly, learning to suspend one’s critical factor is an important ingredient of personal creativity. People have a tendency of snuff out new ideas, even before the idea was given a decent chance.

Of course, intention/motivation is another huge factor in fostering personal creativity.

The last factor in personal creativity are external. Some people respond to external pressures (e.g. impending deadline) by becoming creative. In these people, pressure activates their norepinephrine, increases their mental alertness and actually makes them more creative. Another brain chemical that increases the mental alertness is dopamine. Dopamine levels in the brain increase when you are faced with a novel situation, when you are suitably rewarded or when in love (among other things). Typically, when you are in any of these situations, the level of your personal creativity go up.

Interestingly, we have entered an era that supplies ample quantity of several factors that we saw above. In the next installment of this series, we will see as to how creativity across the globe is in the process of reaching unprecedented levels.

REFERENCES:

- This post is a sequel to Part-1, Exponential Threats and Part 2, Exponential Technology
- All the posts in this series are based on the presentation Idea Age is Here
15 May

Exponential Threats

 

Exponential Threats

This 5 post series will addresses as to how “we are facing exponential threats from resource crunch and environmental degradation and that in response, we are inventing a new idea age”.

  • This post, Exponential Threats, identifies the exponentially growing threats we are presently facing
  • In Exponential Technology, we argue that our exponentially growing technology, our best ally, is not sufficient to tackle these threats. To do that, unprecedented level of human ingenuity should come into play.
  • In Origin of Ideas, we discuss the source of human ingenuity, both inside an individual’s head and across the society.
  • In Age of Creativity, we address as to why we have reasons to believe that we are entering an era of unprecedented global creativity.
  • In the last post, we will address as to how you can prepare for the coming Idea Age

 

We (humans) are facing an imminent danger to the present way of life. Something must change. The popular belief is that change will drastically reverse the decades of advances that we have made in obtaining ourselves substantially better quality of living. Whereas, the popular hope is that we will come out on the other side much stronger than we are today.

Given that I am an ever-hopeful, I fall into the second camp and strongly ‘hope’ that some incredible breakthrough will come along (after all, what is the point in living, if one belongs to the ‘hopeless’ camp). The obvious candidate for the ‘breakthrough is coming’ camp is the exponential technology. That may not be the case.

All available evidences go to argue that over the coming decades, idea generation will be democratized, quality of average idea generated (or quality of idea generated by average Joe) will improve and give us new solutions that we didn’t even know were possible. This coming Idea Age will be very similar to various renaissance periods from the history, but much more potent. It is my hope that by the time we are finished with the idea age, we would have changed the human race both biologically and culturally.

More importantly, when idea generation is going to be democratized, a significant portion of human creative energy is going to be spent on improving human happiness. After all, in the centralized idea generation era that we currently live in, there is too much focus on economic value of the ideas.

Read on to understand more about the coming cultural and destiny shift, to learn what it would mean to you, and how you can prepare for it.

Growth vs Resources

We are stuck in an economy which is required to grow year on year, endlessly (image below).

Growth is Exponential

For example, no one (at least, no value investor) will ever buy shares in a company that doesn’t promise year on year continuous growth. You wouldn’t want to take up a job that can’t give you continuous increase in revenue. For reasons that I am not getting into here, we can’t wish away the exponential growth cycle without substantial hardship.

The trouble with exponential growth is that our consumption of raw materials doubles once in a few years (image below).

Exponential Growth

If, for example, take Oil. The global consumption of oil grows at 7% per annum year on year. At that rate, the global consumption of oil doubles every 10 years (1.07^10 = 1.97). Every time when consumption doubles, the amount of oil consumed during the new 10 year period equals the amount of oil consumed during the entire period coming before that! That kind of consumption growth can’t be sustained indefinitely.

Way back in 1972, a bunch of European scientists have modeled the global population growth and resource utilization and put their results into a book titled The Limits of Growth and updated it in 2004. The book predicted that our civilization would face a collapse during the mid to later half of current century.

In 2012, New Scientist published a paper wherein the predictions of 1972, as laid out in the book, were compared with the actual date obtained till the first decade of 21st century, and using much better modelling techniques. The result was a chilling conformation that the reality is not much different from the predictions of doom made in 1972 (image below)!

Boom and Bust

 

While the original 1972 predictions have been hotly contested and called deficient, surprisingly very little criticism has been heard about the 2012 New Scientist paper.

In the meanwhile, NASA recently announced that it has come up with climate model that matches with climate changes remarkably well. Based on this highly reliable model, NASA predicts that if we continued ‘business as usual’, by end of the current century, the global temperature would raise by as much as 14°C in the arctics and by lesser degree in other parts of the world.

Global Warming

 

Of course, NASA also pointed out that if we respond to impending climate change aggressively, we might just be able to get away with minimal damages. But the political will and preparedness seem to be widely lacking.

Given the looming resource crunch and consequent economic collapse, aggravated by global warming that is at least partly irreversible, we will have no way but to significantly change our present way of living.

Exponential Technology

While we are facing exponential problems, we have one exponential solution at hand: Technology. In the sequel to this post, we will understand exponential technology and how can it help us to deal with our exponential problem.

REFERENCES:
- This post is based on the presentation titled Idea Age is Here
- You can find the next parts of this series at Idea Age is Here: Part-2, Exponential Technology and at Origin of Ideas
01 Aug

John Galt was a Psychopath

Psychopaths

So was Howard Roark.  And, very probably, Ayn Rand was a psychopath too.  But they were all so called ‘high functioning’ psychopaths.  In other words, they have a psychopath’s psychological make up, but they have used the traits constructively.

For reasons that I don’t quite understand, twentieth century was the century of psychopaths.  May be industrialization happened too fast that we didn’t have time to learn to live with strangers.  Or the World Wars (another product of rapid industrialization) promoted leaders with psychopathic tendencies.   Or may be we were tired of living in a close nit society for too long that we were wallowing in our new found individuality.

Whatever may be the case, twentieth century idolized the lone wolves.  Towards the end of the Twentieth Century, we recognized our true social nature.  And we are just beginning to understand how important it is for our physical and psychological well being that we are emotionally connected to other people.

Few posts ago, we saw the SCARF model proposed by David Rock, which identified five central human drives (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness).  Couple of earlier posts addressed Status and Fairness.  This post is about Relatedness.

We are beginning to see research coming out from all over the world, showing that the quality of life and the longevity are tightly correlated with the quality and (to an extent) the quantity of meaningful relationships we have.  Meaningful relationships will include people with who we can have a real conversation or do something with full immersion, people who care for our wellness dearly and people we care for deeply.  People can have such relationships with pets or even plants.

Our default state of response to strangers is suspicion and fear.  Strangers are treated as enemies unless proven otherwise.  For our threat antennae come down, we need to know that the strangers mean no harm.  Hence, for a person who lives among people he or she doesn’t know well enough, the whole world is made up of enemies.  Everywhere they go, they are treated with hostility and the fear that others are always out to get them.

Add loneliness to this constant state of fear, it is no surprise that lone wolves are a bitter and unhappy lot.

Fortunately, a little while ago, longevity scientists have begun to notice a strange anomaly with the people who lived in well nit societies.  It appeared that they lived much longer and happier, and with far less lifestyle diseases, than the normal people.  Even tending to live plants seemed to have some positive effect on people!

And then, the internet and the social networks came along and the fabric of society changed once and for all.

Today, we are much more connected in every sense possible than we ever where in the past.  The trend will only continue.  Because the world is so very networked, we have more number of people to relate to than ever before.  Because we share more online, our relations are typically deeper than they were in the yesteryears.  Similar thinking people are now able to discover each other from different corners of the world.

Good practices discovered in one part of the world spreads to the other parts very swiftly.  More importantly, xenophobia is on the decline.  And meaningless or outdated taboos are falling down one after another.  Because the world is so well connected, there is a free flow of scientific and productive ideas and even the lay people are beginning to discover their creative and thinking skills.  And the world is going to become richer, and happier, by many folds over.

Because we have discovered the necessity and joy of relatedness, the world today is much happier and richer than it ever was.  Because we are so well connected, there is never likely to be a Third World War.  When it comes to networking, we have barely begun to scratch the surface.  What we have seen as the benefits of networking is nothing compared with what is waiting to happen.

Given how beneficial networking ‘among the masses’, isn’t it strange that lone wolves like John Galt and Howard Roark wanted to create an utopia that was made by, and made for, a handful of intellectually gifted people who had near zero social skills!  To understand this anomaly, we should take a quick look at the typical personality features of high functioning psychopaths (taken from the book “Wisdom of the Psychopaths“; a more elaborate character set is here):

  1. Ruthlessness
  2. Charm
  3. Focus
  4. Mental Toughness
  5. Fearlessness
  6. Mindfulness
  7. Action

Galt, Roark, Dagny Taggart or any other protagonist created by Ayn Rand almost always had all the 7 features given above. The epitome, I think, is the way she explains child rearing as an objective profession (or sorts) that one opts in!  Anyone who is oblivious to the magic of rearing having and raising a child, in my mind, must be a psychopath.

22 Dec

Anoxia of a Negative Thought

Happiness

We’ve heard people claiming that we use only 20% of our brain (or is it 10%).  It’s wrong!  We know beyond doubt that the brain is a finite resource and the demand placed on it often surpasses the resources available.

When the brain is assigned more than one task, they compete inside the brain for resources and the energy hungry tasks usually are sacrificed.  Of course, unless it is more critical or more rewarding (in which case, other tasks are sacrificed).

The neocortex (and particularly, the Pre-Frontal Cortex) is central in high cognition (though, higher cognition occurs outside the cortex too).  It is also the most energy inefficient part of the brain.  Evolutionarily, it is the most recent part of the brain, whereas the rest of the brain has been around for millions of years more.  The rest of the brain has had time to evolve better efficiency.

Neocortex is the part of the brain where you hold a thought and process it.  It is also where we hold a negative thought and ruminate over it.  If such a thought is about something that happened in the past, we call it sadness or regret.  If the negative thought is about the future, we call it worry.

Ruminating the past doesn’t change a thing.  We all know it but we often find ourselves unable (the thought it too powerful) or unwilling (we feel guilty to let go) to extricate ourselves from this thought pattern.  The sad thing here is that none of this will ever change the past.  But the rumination will deprive our ability to be available to the people and the challenges that are right in front of us today.

But there is a very interesting perspective to worrying that is not immediately obvious.  When we are facing a future challenge, we ‘usually’ do not need more than a few seconds (if not minutes) of thinking to find the solution.  If we are unable to find a solution after a short reflection, we probably lack data/skill and we need to go out and get some.  In the former case, worrying is a meaningless sacrifice of our mental health.  In the later case, worrying stunts our ability to acquire additional resources that will help us actually solve the problem.  Either way, worrying extracts huge cost from us.  Almost always, it is a wasteful exercise.

Here is a simple technique to stop from dwelving in a past or future negative event:

Do something that shifts the flow of blood (i.e. energy) from the neo-cortex!  It is that simple!!

Get up and walk.  Exercise.  Dance.  All these things shift the energy flow inside your brain to the regions that have the motor control.  If you are good at it, sing a song, play a music or simply listen to a type of music that doesn’t accentuates your negative mood.  Play with kids, play with pets, go to a movie, go to some chat room, spend time with friends.  Start a movement, contribute time to a cause, join a mission, join a competition.  Meditate. Cook.  Shop.  Party.  Watch a movie.  Fall in love.  Travel.  Bunjee jump.  Wear Spandex and fight crime.

The choices are limitless.  The point is to get on to something that shifts the blood flow from the structures that ruminate or worry, to anything other structure in the brain.  All the grand strategies that are taught to stop worrying/ruminating all boil down to this simple thing.

Most of the typical anti-worry or anti-rumination methodologies work ‘on’ the negative thought.  While working on a thought, you must hold it in your mind.  The more you hold a thought in your mind, the more deeply entrenched it becomes and the more difficult it is to extinguish it.  There lies the simple elegance of the shift-blood-flow technique.  It takes just a second to implement and it doesn’t ever involve working ‘on’ the negative thought!

14 Nov

Madonna-Whore and Generalization

Madonna-Whore Generalization

We are naturally inclined to associate only one idea with one person.  This innocuous cognitive limitation called generalization is hugely responsible for decoloring people and societies.

Sigmund Freud originally identified a condition wherein some men couldn’t get sexual arousal in a committed relationship.  He claimed that these men suffered from Madonna-Whore Complex, wherein  they could see a woman either as a saintly Madonna or debased Whore.  Of course, social biologists (and even some psychologists) these days would tell you that these men suffer from the ennui of monogamy.  But their argument can’t hold water when you consider that men marry certain type of women and sleep around with different type of women (women are no different either; but that is the topic for another post).

The reason that most people can’t see both a dependable partner and playful sex-fiend in a single person is due to the cognitive error of generalization.  We can associate only one image with one person.  Even when we look at our own self, we like to generalize!

People in marketing have known this cognitive limitations for a long time (you can read more about it in Marketing Warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout).  For example, we all think of Toyota as ‘value for money’ car.  So, when Toyota wanted to sell luxury cars, it named it Lexus and formed a completely independent sales and service network.  When Coke did a brand extension (by coming up with more varieties like Diet Coke, etc.), people got confused about what that name stood for and it lost market share to rivals.

Remember how we are usually surprised that the topper of the class back in the school/college days ends up with just a ho-hum life.  Or, how the back benchers always seem to have a knack for coming on top in real life.  We are surprised only because we have wrongly generalized that someone who is doing good in studies must be good in everything else too.

This compulsion to want to put people into neat categories is a cognitive trick used to reduce the amount of energy spent by our brain.  When people behave in a way that demands rethinking on our part, we go out of the way to deny the reality or for the deviant to confirm.  It is a lazy way of living.  But we should not under estimate the power of mental inertia.  The entire multi-billion dollar advertising industry is there only to change our mind by working against the mental inertia.

This is a basic limitation with it origin in the core of our biology.  We have always lived with this limitation.  Our societies and social norms have integrated this limitation into the very fabric.  While generalization has its own advantage (saves on time and energy spent thinking), damages due to generalization pops up everywhere we look.

We will see several more manifestations of generalization in the future posts.

12 Nov

In Celebration of Eccentrics

Bell Curve

If you take the human population and plot any of its characteristics (height, IQ, etc.), you will find that the curve takes the shape of a bell.  Most of the people fall near the center.  As you move away from the center, the population falls off rapidly.  Farther you go from the center, the drop off flattens out.

For some reason that we don’t understand, bell curves are there everywhere.  It is so common that it is often called the “Normal Distribution”! Distribution of Human Height

The curve above shows the actual distribution of height of Americans.  The normal height for women is about 162cm and the normal height for men is about 178cm.  There are very few women who are taller than 188cm and there are very few men who are taller than 203cm.  Women tend to stick closer to the normal than men (sharper bump) and men seem to have much wider variety than women (flatter bump).  There is similar variation between men and women when it comes to IQ distribution as well. You can say that the people who are farther away from the normal have eccentrics.  For example, men who are shorter than 160cm or taller than 195cm have eccentric heights.  Similarly, women who are shorter than 145cm or taller than 177cm have eccentric heights.

To summarize it, people whose traits are clumped around the center are normal.  People who are farthest from the center are eccentric.  It is easy to understand the simple concept when it comes to measurable quantity like height or IQ.  What is interesting is that this distribution is applicable for other traits qualities as well.

Put it in other words,

  • Normal are the people whose traits are most common in a population.
  • Eccentrics are the people whose have rare traits.

A trait becomes more common in a population usually if it had an evolutionary advantage in the past.  But it is not always true.  For example, we could have lived just as happily with four or six fingers.  There is no special evolutionary advantage of having five fingers.  

Also, just because an evolutionary adaptation had been helpful in the past (and hence, it is normal in the population today) doesn’t mean that we can’t live without it today.  An example is the hair on the head.  Except that it is usually thought of as an indicator of youth, that too a weak indicator, hair on the head has no survival or mate selection advantage.  If the entire human population becomes bald overnight, no one other than the hair dressers will find their life threatened!

Interestingly, there are traits that were disadvantageous in the evolutionary past, but are considered an advantage today.  For example, Thom Hartman suggested that people with ADHD behave as if they are hunters in a farming society (this hypothesis is turning out to be more true than he imagined).  He argues that farmers produce such strong societies that every time in the past when a farming society confronted a hunting society, the farmers was completely vanquished the hunters.  However, within a farming society, people with hunter traits ‘can’ perform much better than typical farmers.

Normal is not always superior.  Normal is just that: Normal.  The most common.  Eccentrics are not always inferior.  Eccentrics are just rare.

Normal is made by mixing a little bit of each color.  It results in a dull gray. Eccentrics, on the other hand, is all of few shades and none of the rest.  Eccentrics are like a riot of colors.  A celebration of colours, if you will.  Very rarely does an eccentric come across another eccentric of matching or complimentary color.

But then again, we are all eccentric.  Some of us show it on the surface and the rest of us manage to bury our colors deep down inside in order to match colors with rest of the colorless people who have learnt to bury their own colors just as deep.  We have standardized ourselves to the least common denominator!

That is sad.

This blog will be an exercise for you to discover your true colors so that you can flaunt them proudly.  This blog will also be an exercise in learning to appreciate the colors that others display.  More importantly, this blog will an exercise to learn to live your life without muting your real self or without demanding similar harsh sacrifice from others.

From your side, you just need to make sure that you bring two things to the table: An open mind and eccentric level of IQ that falls on the right side of the normal.

Riot of Colors

Happy festival of lights!

09 Nov

Little Bit of Madness

Starry Night, showing van Gogh's madness

4 out of 5 writers are known to have incidence of bipolar disorder in their family.  1 in 2 entrepreneurs are known to have ADHD spectrum disorder.  People are known to get powerful religious visions after epileptic seizures.

What is going on here?  Why haven’t these conditions go away from human gene pool, even though they usually are detrimental to the carrier’s ability to reproduce?

Consider gayness.  Gay people don’t get a chance to pass their genes.  Gayness is an evolutionary dead end.  Then, why does gay genes still exist in the population?  Some people think that androgynous people are selected more often.  Nature, in its efforts to produce androgynous people, ends up over-doing by producing gay people.

Likewise, little bit of madness offers an evolutionary advantage, which more than compensates for the debilitations.  Nature, in it ability to produce slightly eccentric people (who are typically more successful) ends up overdoing at times.

Interestingly, how much madness is good for you is decided by how well you are able to handle your condition, if you are able to extract an advantage from it, if you are able to nullify the damages, etc.

If you are one of the people who have a beautiful mind, don’t try to be normal.  Before you do that, please think (a) what unique advantages does your eccentricity bring you and (b) how you can counter/manage its debilitations.

If you ace these two requirements, the world will praise you for your uniqueness.  Not call you mad!

At the top of this post, I’ve clip a Vincent van Gogh’s painting called ‘Starry Night’.  This work, the way he draws the stars in it, is considered to bear evidences to his epileptic seizures.
05 Nov

God, Evolution and Internal Compass

Internal Compass

Whenever a belief or an attitude is shared by all (or most) of humanity, it must have offered us a significant survival advantage in our evolutionary past.  After all, people without this belief/attitude were wiped off from the gene pool!

In an earlier post, I discussed about how our sense of spirituality is suspected to be an evolutionary by-product.  Scientists working on evolution suspect that our compulsion to subscribe to concepts like God and Life-Purpose might have similar evolutionary origins.

Take, for example, an animal which sees a movement in the bush.  The animal must quickly decide if it is a fake alarm (say, rustling of the wind) or a predator.  An animal which mistakes a predator for rustling of the wind will get eaten up.  Whereas, an animal which wrongly concludes the rustling of the wind to be a predator lives to see another day.  Over a period of time, the “better safe than sorry” animals, the ones who see an agent in the rustling of the wind, dominates the gene pool.

This compulsion to err on the safe side has endowed all of us with a bias.  Because of this bias, we (and all other animals) often see an agent/pattern in most random noises.  Social biology thinks that we may have invented God and Life-Purpose because we have this compulsion to imagine an invisible hand in everything.

Of course, this doesn’t disprove the existence of God.  But it certainly puts a strong argument that our internal compass might be always stuck towards the North.