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.