Category Archives: Psychology

Inside your head

Easter links

Easter’s here and I’ll be taking the rest of the week off (I need a vacation after my last vacation :o). Meanwhile, here are some cool links:

Sad monkeyDepressed monkeys. Yep, macaques can get the blues too. Research in this can increase our understanding of depression and open new possibilities for research.

The Slow Leadership blog offers excellent tips on how to kill creativity. It’s depressingly(!) easy.

Video of the most amazing Rube Goldberg-like devices. Now that’s creative. A word of warning: Turn down the sound, or the repetitive, japanese, childrens-tv-theme will drive you to desperation inside of 45 seconds.

The proven path to happiness

Positive psychology can make you happier and this article by Martin Seligman et al proves it (pdf). With diagrams! The paper studies a number of very simple actions (eg. writing down three positive things each day) and shows that they work very well.

Martin Seligman is the author of the excellent book Learned Optimism (read my review here) and the founder of the positive psychology movement which is based on the idea that psychology should focus more on what makes people happy, rather than focusing solely on curing mental illness. Makes sense to me :o)

Goal-free living

At the WorldBlu forum I had the pleasure of talking to Stephen Shapiro who just finished writing a book on goal-free living which is coming out in january 2006.

As soon as Stephen mentioned “goal-free living” a flash-bulb went of in my mind, and I knew what he meant. I also knew that this is what I’ve been doing for the last 3 years, I just haven’t had a name for it. Here’s how Stephen introduces goal-free living:

We are taught from a young age that in order to achieve great success we must set and achieve our goals. However in doing so, we become focused on where we are going rather than enjoying where we are right now. We sacrifice today in the hope that a better future will emerge, only to discover that achievement rarely leads to true joy. Goal-Free Living presents an alternative philosophy – that we can have an extraordinary life now, all without goals and detailed plans. By living for each moment, it?s possible to have a successful life and follow your passions at the same time.

YES! 3 years ago I left the IT business with no new plans in mind. I gave my self some time off, and never once though consciously about what I should do next. After about 3 months an inspiration came to me, and The Happy at Work Project grew out of that. Also, for the 3 years we’ve been running the project, we’ve been goal-free. Rather than setting strategies, plans, targets, measures and budgets, we’ve done our best to cultivate every opportunity that came along and to create some ourselves. So while Stephen’s book focuses on the personal sphere, I’m here to tell you that it works just as well in a business setting!

His book gives you 8 major tips on how to live goal-free:

– Use a compass, not a map
– Trust that you are never lost
– Remember that opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly
– Want what you have
– Seek out adventure
– Become a people magnet
– Embrace your limits
– Remain detached

That is quite simply brilliant thinking. Read more about goal-free living here.

One of the high points of the forum was when Stephen took the stage and gave a goal-free presentation about goal-free living. He’d originally intended to talk about a different theme, and had nothing prepared on goal-free living, but a few other conference attendees dared him to do it. Needless to say he nailed it, and the goal-less nature of his presentation underscored and validated the message.

Procrastination

Sometimes “you really should do X” but you don’t. Here’s some excellent advice from AmbivaBlog for all of us procrastinators:

According to “archetypal psychologist” James Hillman, who at some point dissolved my own suicidal feelings of frustration and failure into laughter, procrastination is a “disease” only from the point of view of the heroic ego, which believes it can and should control everything — first discipline the self, then save the world. (“Enormous inner strength and will!” “The fight of your life, for the rest of your life!”) Procrastination is one of the signs of the soul at work, undermining and sabotaging the grandiose aspirations of the hero-ego, perhaps so that something real can happen, or not happen, as it, not I, wish. In Hillman’s work procrastination means uncountably many things to the soul. It’s an intrinsic part of the work process, resisting the pen the way the knots in wood resist and redirect the chisel; it’s like the dance of avoidance all animals do on the way to their most primal gratifications, building up the intensity of mating or fighting by postponing it. It’s much like the way we turn red-faced and flee from the very person we’ve fantasized confessing our love to, or the way we eagerly look forward to going “home” and then sink into a ghastly regressive lethargy, binge-eating on our parents’ couch, because what the soul wants is something less literal than we think we want. And one of the things it wants, and loves, is its problems, which Hillman says are like heraldic emblems.

Read the entire excellent post here.

I often berate myself for not just getting the stuff done I need to do… but I also find that I can force myself to do it, and it turns out to be difficult, or I can wait until he right moment (whatever that is) and suddenly it’s so easy, it feels as if the work does itself. On the other hand, sometimes I DO force myself to do it and it also turns out to be easy :o)

Why do we play at war

Bernie DeKovens Funlog is my favourite source of play ideas (such as no-ball football or junk games). Occasionally even he gets serious, for instance when answering this question:

Why do people enjoy meeting in cyberspace to engage in simulated warfare, with games like Halo and War Craft? Why do people want to spend their time “killing” each other as a pastime?

His answer is classic:

– we play war because we need to play with it – there’s no other way to integrate such an awful reality into our understanding of the world. it is too ugly, too irrational, too stupid for us to grasp in any other way.

– we know we’re not really hurting anyone or anything, we know that we can’t really die, and without that knowledge, we couldn’t have fun

– we can trust each other if we all know that we’re trying to kill each other, that the very worst in us is not hidden or subsumed by any other attempts at being human, so when we meet, we can meet above all that

I enjoy this view because it is appreciative without romanticizing anything. War games of many kinds have been with us for as long as we have been human, and according to Bernie, this is not a bad thing to be avoided or outlawed. There’s more: Read the entire answer here.

Two kinds of decisions

Why is it, that you eat that extra helping of ice cream, even though you know full well, that it’s not good for you? Why do you smoke that cigarette and why don’t you go out and exercise? We may now have the answer!

It seems that we use our emotions short-term decisions and analytical thinking for decisions that have no immediate consequenses, according to a new study published on October 15 2004 by the National Institutes of Health.

For the study, a research team which included NIA grantee David Laibson, Ph.D., of Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA, asked 14 participants to choose between receiving money at an earlier or later date. For instance, a participant might be asked to choose between receiving $27.10 today versus $31.25 in a month; or $27.10 in two weeks versus $31.25 in six weeks. As the participants made these choices, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This imaging tool enables researchers to measure second-by-second brain function in thousands of specific brain regions.

When participants chose between incentives that included an immediate reward, fMRI scans indicated heightened activity in parts of the brain, such as the limbic system, that are associated with emotional decision making. In contrast, deliberative and analytic regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal and parietal cortex, were activated by all decisions, even those that did not involve an immediate reward. However, when participants resisted immediate rewards and instead chose delayed rewards, activity was particularly strong in these deliberative areas of the brain.

“Our research suggests that consumers have competing economic value systems. Our emotional brain has a hard time imaging the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions,” Dr. Laibson says. “Our emotion brain wants to max out the credit card, even though our logical brain knows we should save for retirement.”

From my personal experience, I remember the first time I tried Bungee jumping. I’d signed up for it a week ahead, with a (in retrospect) rather cavalier attitude. Bungee jumping – pphhh. Thousands of people do it, rationally it can’t be that difficult or dangerous. But let me tell you, as the actual moment approached all the rational, logical arguments went out the window and I was SCARED!

One implication of this study seems to be, that if you want people to deal rationally with a threatening issue, it’s good to do it ahead of time, before the issue becomes immediately critical. Another implications is, that once the situation IS critical, emotions will come into the foreground. There is nothing wrong with that, you just need to appreciate it and to make room for expressing those emotions.

Consciousness – an illusion?

In an article entitled The Grand Illusion: Why consciousness only exists when you look for it, Dr. Susan Blackmore looks at different models of consciousness.

It seems that most of our current thinking on consciousness is being contradicted by modern brain research, and that a new model is needed.

If you are not yet feeling perplexed (in which case I am not doing my job properly), consider another problem. It seems that most of what goes on in the brain is not conscious. For example, we can consciously hear a song on the car radio, while we are not necessarily conscious of all the things we do as we’re driving. This leads us to make a fundamental distinction: contrasting conscious brain processes with unconscious ones. But no one can explain what the difference really is. Is there a special place in the brain where unconscious things are made conscious? Are some brain cells endowed with an extra magic something that makes what goes on in them subjective? This doesn’t make sense. Yet most theories of consciousness assume that there must be such a difference, and then get stuck trying to explain or investigate it.

She also mentions some studies done with change blindness. Take a look at this picture, and see if you can spot what changes every time it flashes.

Here’s my favourite quote from the article:

It sounds bizarre, but try to catch yourself not being conscious. More than a hundred years ago the psychologist William James likened introspective analysis to “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” The modern equivalent is looking in the fridge to see whether the light is always on. However quickly you open the door, you can never catch it out. The same is true of consciousness. Whenever you ask yourself, “Am I conscious now?” you always are.But perhaps there is only something there when you ask. Maybe each time you probe, a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a “self” who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was.

Perhaps a new story is concocted whenever you bother to look. When we ask ourselves about it, it would seem as though there”s a stream of consciousness going on. When we don’t bother to ask, or to look, it doesn’t, but then we don’t notice so it doesn’t matter.

The fact that you can’t unconsciously examine consciousness made me think of this grook by Piet Hein:

Mirrors have one limitation: You can’t
either by hook or by crook
use them to how you look when you aren’t
looking to see how you look.