And yes, mindfulness

Here’s what I wrote some months ago:

“I’m feeling grumpy this morning. Why? I could list reasons like ‘guilt for not having been running lately’, ‘fear that I’m not a good enough singer for this band after all’ and ‘there are problems at my workplace that I can’t solve’. But these are not actually reasons for my grumpiness. These are the manifestations, the reasons why I conclude that I am grumpy. This is how I can tell my mood is low.

So I’m not taking these thoughts too seriously. They are all true to some extent, but at the same time they are not that important. Before I worry more about them, I’m at least going to eat and drink and wait. Maybe have a meaningless chat with another human.

This doesn’t mean that I’d stop being grumpy. I still am. It comes in waves and has a constant hum.

I can’t make that feeling stop because there is a real reason for the grumpiness, I just don’t know what it is. But I can stop the second layer of worry. I don’t need to conclude that everything is going to hell in a handbasket because of me not running enough and I need to do something and if I don’t, shame on me. Because there is no reason for that.

That in turn I know because I know that there are things like low blood sugar, that my body wants something to be done about, and feeling generally bad is its way of communicating it to other parts of the body in order to get some attention and make that happen. But those different parts aren’t always very good at that communication, and then the conscious executive function (the “me” in my machine) is left guessing what the problem is. And sometimes guesses wrong. So these ideas about guilt and fear could just be false alarms.”

I already wrote earlier about this aspect of metacognition, this combination of accepting a negative feeling and then leaving it be. I count this as one of my most important skills. Note the word ‘skill’: it doesn’t just happen, you learn and train it. You train it through mindfulness meditation.

Now I’m pretty sure that just mentioning mindfulness or meditation, and the two together in particular, is going to make some people groan disapprovingly. It’s got something to do with new age hippies and Oprah Winfrey and goes together with celebrity diets, start-up culture and yoga. At the very least it’s an overhyped fad like decluttering your home with the Kon-Mari technique. Right?

Well, no. Or yes too, but no. I can of course see why a casual observer would come to that conclusion. But just because Kon-Mari is (perhaps) silly as a technique, it doesn’t mean that decluttering your home would be equally silly.

When I talk about mindfullness, I talk of something far more mundane than healing crystals and mystical energies. In my view, mindfulness is more on par with brushing your teeth every morning and evening and taking the stairs instead of the elevator in order to take care of your overall physical wellbeing. Even the meditation part doesn’t need to look like “traditional” meditation with closed eyes and lotus positions. I actually do a small mindfulness exercise quite often exactly when brushing my teeth, exactly because it’s boring.

I’m not the only one with that view of course. If you, like me, have a totally secular and material worldview and are still intrigued by the concept of mindfullness, you should listen to Michael Taft. (Note on the word material: apparently it needs to be pointed out that this does not mean being overly excited about things you can buy with money, but being of the opinion that there is nothing beyond the physical world, no souls or spirits of any sort, and that your mind is just a thing your body does.)  Here‘s a lecture that’s a great place to start. It’s almost an hour long but just the first 10 minutes are already packed full of things I’d want to repeat word to word. So I’ll try to summarise:

  • Definition:  Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience.
  • Meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular can be taught and practiced completely outside a spiritual context.
  • Emotions are not airy pink fluff to be controlled or even avoided, inferior and opposed to sense and reason. They are there for good evolutionary reasons.
  • “Understanding the background and function of emotions is clearly of supreme importance. The clearer picture you have of your emotions the clearer picture you have of your entire life.”

I am honestly overwhelmed about how much I wish people knew about all this. It has given me so much personally in several areas of my life but also when I look at the state the world is in… In particular: we would all be so much better off as individuals but particularly as a society if we understood the mechanisms of how we end up dividing people in to ingroups and outgroups . But knowing that it happens and understanding how and why it happens, is completely hollow if I as a person can’t recognise and see it, feel how it feels, when it is happening to me.

I am optimistic however. I think that all this will slowly but surely become common knowledge much in the same way that it is nowadays common knowledge that you should wash your hands regularly: that practice is only like 150 years old, and was originally rejected by the medical community. For a good reason, actually: before germ theory there was no good scientific explanation of why washing your hands would do any good. Now every good parent will teach their children to do that. Maybe one day mindfulness will be an equally boring thing that you do because that’s just what people do.


Metacognition reading list


I was reading The soul of money by Lynne Twist, and thought of making it the first book to actually write about here in this blog. (Note: I’m using Audible links here because that’s where I’ve got them and it’s easiest for me to pull them from my library there. There are surely text versions available as well.) I was going to say that for the most part I do agree with it, and wish more people would learn its central ideas, but that I can’t imagine recommending it to anyone who isn’t properly prepared. It smells too much like The Secret.

But I don’t think people know about The Secret (which of course is a good thing!) so I can’t use that as a guidepost. And thinking about this I remembered again how that particular piece of nonsense played a role in my personal learning experience about metacognition. And in fact, how I can’t start writing about the books I read, and the points I want to make, without explaining where I’m coming from.

Starting in 2007, I was depressed. I was always functional, and all in all it was pretty mild compared to many, but I still was. In my interpretation it was caused by the chronic severe stress that I put myself through by finishing my PhD, divorcing, moving to a foreign country, and starting to work in a new place that I never really accustomed to, all in one go. It’s normal to fall down under a heavy burden. It becomes depression if you can’t get back up after the burden goes away.

I understood that, and oh how grateful I am that depression was talked about openly enough already back then. I could name it. I could understand that I was not supposed to feel like that. So I did what became naturally to a research nerd such as me. I went online to search for happiness. Literally.

And I found, among other things, The Secret. To quote Wikipedia,

The Secret is a best-selling 2006 self-help book by Rhonda Byrne, based on the earlier film of the same name. It is based on the pseudo-scientific ‘law of attraction’ which claims that thoughts can change the world directly.

It’s the idea that if you just want something enough, the universe will grant it to you. The framework is tempting but I didn’t have to peruse the web page very long until my bs-meter hit critical levels. (And I never ended up reading the book.) I can’t quite remember how, but related to that search, and that finding, I also found the podcast Skeptic’s guide to the universe. And the rest is personal history.

Listening to SGU introduced me to the concepts of skepticism and critical thinking in the active, hobby-like way. That lead to reaching out for the local skeptics and hanging out with them (and I knew that meeting people is good for your mental health — it is bittersweet to remember now the anxiety I felt before the first meeting and how wonderful it turned out to be). It lead to other podcasts around the subject. Listening to that stuff weekly, and occasionally discussing such things with others, is bound to make you learn. I learned about fallacies and biases in human thinking, but the crucial point — which I think many who call them skeptics miss — is that you have to point that skepticism first and foremost to yourself. To your own thinking. You can’t take your own feelings and thoughts and conclusions about them at face value, without examining them.

That was an extremely important idea for me at the time. Some days were better, other days were desperate. In reality, when I looked at it objectively, I could see that there was nothing different in my situation or in the world on the good days and on the bad days. But I felt different. So totally different in fact that I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t reach the other emotional state from one. I tried both ways, I really tried. The moods happened close enough to each other that I could clearly remember, as a disembodied fact, that it was different the other day. But in the desperate mood, I simply couldn’t see how it would ever be possible to feel any joy or optimism. In the good mood, it was equally impossible to grasp that utter conviction of the futility of everything. I described it as a closet, with a tight, solid door. On either side of the door, you know as a matter of fact that the other side exists. But you can’t see through the door.

With time, some professional help and a tiny bit of medication I got better. But I like to think that for a significant part, I reasoned myself out of it. By questioning my own feelings and thoughts. By not believing them just because I had them.

But the podcasts stuck. I’ve since stopped listening to SGU in particular, but there are others now (Radiolab, You are not so smart and Freakonomics are the main ones at the moment), and then there are audiobooks. I’ve noticed that somehow I can’t focus on reading but when someone reads for me, I devour book after book.

So I’ll put down here a brief summary of my reading list and the themes they cover, grouped roughly by concept and in the order I have recognized them.

The first audiobook I listened to was Guns, germs and steel by Jared Diamond. By the same author, The world until yesterday and The third chimpanzee (so far I’ve skipped Collapse), as well as Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Harari consider the pre-modern, evern pre-historic, evolutionary context of the human animal, its behaviour and culture.

The second book was Predictably irrational by Dan Ariely, and it opened the now rather well-known field of behavioural economics for me. This sublist also includes: Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman (of course!), Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Misbehaving by Thaler.

Interestingly, Debt: the first 5000 years, by David Graeber kind of falls smack down in the middle of those two categories, behavioural economics and the long history of culture evolution.

Then there was Steven Pinker. Pinker is kind of a category to himself: How the mind works, The blank slate, The stuff of thought and The language instinct will have you covered about how the human mind actually works. The better angels of our nature will tie all that to the first theme of long history of species/culture evolution. Throw in some Robert Sapolsky – Why zebras don’t get ulcers and Behave – (there’s also a full lecture series on Youtube) and you’ll also have the messy “wet” biology side of it too (and some criticism on Pinker for balance). In the other direction, Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness explained will sort out why all that is troublesome for philosophers, and why it need not be.

Then there’s, hmm, let’s call it the scientific self-help category. This is where you really have to be careful because the line between a nuanced, humane, dare I say soft but still realistic understanding (that is, such that involves no angel dust or mystical energies) of the human condition, and the total bs is very very thin. Carol Dweck’s Mindset was mentioned in the previous post. Brene Brown’s I thought is was just me (but it isn’t) and The gifts of imperfection clearly go here, as well as Gretchen Rubin’s The happiness project. Then there are those that sound a lot less like self-help, but still kind of are: The paradox of choice by Barry Schwartz, Practical Wisdom by Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Stumbling on happiness by Daniel Gilbert, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton and even Drive, and To sell is human, by Daniel Pink.

It may not be obvious, but to me the connection between these “self-help” books, and the books on the more technical side of the human behaviour is clear and strong. The self-help is the applied side of it: what to do when you’re stuck with a human mind. The overarching message in both is that we have next to no idea how and why we do what we do, and are in fact so clueless about it that most of the time we can’t even see that. But if we manage to acknowledge that, then there can be some progress after all.

There are also some recurring ideas. Prisoner’s dilemma is one of them. It is an amazingly clear and simple device compared to how much there is to say about it. I have even made one scary and life changing choice with courage, after I recognized it as a form of prisoner’s dilemma. This interactive presentation is an easy and entertaining introduction and well worth the time even if you are aready familiar with the concept. (And there is more like that on the same site.)

For more straightforward giggles in a similar context, I dare you to search for trolley problem memes.

P.S. There is one person who has patiently listened through absolutely all of my musings about all of these books and podcasts and everything, and actually paid attention. Please join me in showing respect and gratitude to my nom-sharing back-scratching partner in life, and our 10 years together.

I can’t catch up, and that’s ok

I’m not completely right in the head. No one is, of course, but the ways I fail at thinking are more important to me than the ways other people do.

A fundamental flaw I have (or: am trying to get rid of? The distinction is relevant, as I’m going to explain) is that I can’t recognize my achievements or progress. In my mind, what ever I know and can do and have learned to do and have achieved, is trivial and basic and something that anyone who gave a try can master and indeed has mastered. Anything I don’t know is the important and relevant part of whatever we’re talking about. Stuff that only the real Doers of the Thing know.

The real catch here is that when I do learn a new thing (which actually isn’t that rare) this view doesn’t change. It’s not that I’d move closer to real expertise. I just recalibrate my worldview: move that thing from the list of relevant things to the list of trivial things. I myself will forever stay at the verge of actually starting to be worthy.

I’m certainly not alone with this. This is an aspect of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, as opposed to growth mindset. These mindsets are general views on people’s abilities and skills and on learning. According to the fixed mindset, people simply have a certain collection of abilities and intelligence, and while you can learn some things, your basic qualities are what they are, end of story. You either are “good at” or “not good at” something. The growth mindset on the other hand focuses on the possibility of improving any ability, rather than catalogueing strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve read Dweck’s book at least three times. I read it twice in a row the first time. It made my fixed mindset so thoroughly, so painfully clear to me. Mostly through this: since a fixed mindset does not believe that improvement is possible, any situation where it might be shown that you can’t do something, is a threat to your self-worth. “What were you thinking to even try? This is not for you, you idiot.” your mind says. Or rather, would say, if you tried, but you won’t because you cleverly avoid any such situation. Who would want to be judged, and found lacking?

But many people see it differently. I have trouble even describing the growth mindset view on such situations because the thought pattern is so alien to me. But to some people being a beginner is not a threat, instead it’s even a source of joy. Not knowing how to do something means there is a chance to learn! Happy happy joy!

There, I can’t even explain that without being sarcastic so let’s try an example instead. My work as a data scientist happens partly at the intersestion of programming or software development on one hand, and academic research on the other. In fact, this is how I’ve transitioned from statistics to data science: by learning a lot of computer nerd stuff. A while back a colleague asked if I use a certain static program analysis tool in my work. I didn’t know about the tool, or in fact even about the concept of static program analysis. Two possible reactions:

“What’s that? Oh! No, I don’t use one, since I didn’t know about it, but it sounds like a useful thing, and I’m happy that I now know it exists. Thank you for asking.”

On paper this in fact does sound perfectly reasonable to me. But my actual reaction was this:

“What’s that? Oh. Well no, because how the hell am I supposed to even know about such things? I’m a statistican, not a programmer! I haven’t been taught this stuff! You can’t expect me to know this stuff. In fact, you know what? Fuck you too.”

Well. Not an exact quote, but the “you can’t expect me to know this stuff” was the content of my actual answer, and my mood deteriorated to the f-word department. I had been judged. (This was not the colleague’s intention, obviously.)

Another example: I play Supercell’s Clash Royale, where you are matched against random rather anonymous players around the world in a few minute duels. I’m currently trying to learn a new strategy and find it very challenging (that is: very very annoying). You can also play training matches against your guildmates and then re-watch and talk about it afterwards. I was reminded of this possibility when a new guild member played many such matches, and then joyously declared that everybody was very skilled, and it was a good learning experience. Hmm, I thought, sounds plausible. Maybe I should request help as well?

Absolutely not. To show to people who actually know how to play, that I can’t? No. Never. No way in hell.

So what does this have to do with me writing a blog? I’ve sort of wanted to for a long while, but never quite got to it. I now see that the fixed mindset is one factor there. I connected the dots while reading another book, Inevitable by Kevin Kelly. Kelly made a point about how so much media content is being created, in the form of blogs, music, videos, tweets, that you just can’t catch up. You literally can’t because the amount of content produced daily is more than you can possibly consume in a day, many times over. Kelly continued to talk about filtering and personal recommendations in relation to that, but it reminded me of something I had read, specifically about Twitter (but really can’t find now). In that piece the Twitter stream was compared to an actual river: you can go to it, and dip in, but when you go away the river keeps on flowing, and later when you come back, you only come back to the river, not to the water that was flowing there the last time. Just like with a real river, you can’t catch up. But they also said, and so does Kelly, that the best content, the most relevant and the most interesting, will flow by you again. Many times. In endlessly new combinations and formats. You can’t catch up but it’s ok because it’s literally impossible, and because the new is there.

That was a liberating thought. It brought to view a silent unrecognized assumption, inspired by the fixed mindset, that had captivated me, and made me uneasy about Twitter, blogging and a whole lot of other things. I don’t need to read all the other blogs on the subjects that interest me before writing about it myself. I don’t need to catch up before exposing myself to the discussion. It’s ok to be a beginner. Saying again the same thing that somebody already said is a contribution: it’s not showing that I am trivial, it’s showing that the point is relevant! And besides, maybe somebody missed it all the previous times it was said.

And if I’m told, you know, Some Random Blogger said the same thing, maybe I can manage to reply “They did? How cool! What else did they say, that might be interesting to me?” instead of “For fucks sake, why am I even trying when I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about, since Some Random Blogger said the same thing already before me, and therefore everybody knows it, and I was actually the last one to figure it out, and that’s how much I suck at this.” It’s not a judgement, it’s an encouragement. Or so I’d like to learn to think.

P.S. I’ve been sitting on this post for months. I could say that I wanted to have more content prepared before posting (and indeed now I do), but that would only be half true. The other half is I’m just horrified, simple as that. But the funny thing is that when I was preparing to actually publish, I found my old blog! I had nearly forgotten. To my amazement, the first post (it’s all in Finnish) is about the exact same thing: the justification of me wanting to say something that has been already said. It seems that back then I reached that conclusion far easier.

And yes, the underlying theme and my approach to it is the same, although in 7 years I may have made some progress. Happiness at work was a great starting point but there’s so much more.