July 8th 2023
Lucid dreaming lets you shape your dreamscape, whether your aims are practical or fantastical. These tips can get you started
A vivid dream is like a free virtual-reality experience, no expensive headset required. While your body lies tucked up in bed, your mind can take you to exotic lands and introduce you to amazing characters. If you’re lucky, you might even be granted fantastical powers, such as the ability to breathe underwater or walk through walls.
I mention luck because it can often feel as if dreams are randomly generated – the day’s events might shape the narrative, but otherwise it’s usually a case of waiting to see what your brain comes up with. But it doesn’t have to be that way: in so-called ‘lucid dreams’, it’s possible for you to have a degree of control over what happens. This opens up many options for using dreams to your advantage, such as to rehearse for real-life events, generate ideas, or simply have a whole lot of fun.
Over at the lucid dreaming channel on Reddit, for instance, choosing to fly like a bird is a particular favourite. ‘All of a sudden I was soaring up into the sky and the most intense feeling of bliss, happiness and excitement took over my body,’ wrote one user. Another recalled flying ‘over the city, the deep blue ocean and even a bunch of islands’, and deciding to evade missiles along the way.
‘A lucid dream is a dream in which you know you are dreaming,’ explains Mark Blagrove, professor of psychology at Swansea University in Wales and the co-author of The Science and Art of Dreaming (2023). ‘As a result, you can either decide to simply observe the dream with the knowledge that it’s not real or you can actually alter the content of the dream.’
People use lucid dreaming to practise all manner of real-life tasks, including rehearsing musical performances, making speeches and preparing for awkward conversations
You might have experienced a lucid dream for yourself already. Research suggests that around half of us will have the experience at least once in our lifetimes. A quarter of people have them regularly. Whichever camp you find yourself in, there are various techniques you can use to start purposefully having more lucid dreams.
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Reasons to lucid dream
Before trying out some of these techniques, you might be wondering if it’s safe and worth the effort. Note that, if you have sleep problems or mental health difficulties, lucid dreaming could make matters worse – so check in with a doctor or mental health expert first. If you’re good to go, there are a few enticing reasons you might want to give lucid dreaming a try. There’s some preliminary evidence that it will make your dreams more positive, thus improving your waking mood. Another small study found lucid dreaming to be associated with lower stress and higher self-esteem and life satisfaction. Most tantalising to me, though, is the idea that you could use your lucid dreams to practise skills that you need in waking life.
One researcher looking into this application is Daniel Erlacher at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Although he cautions that his investigations are preliminary, he and his colleagues have shown that people can use lucid dreams to practise a basic finger-tapping task, such that they improve as much as others who practised the task in waking life – by about 20 per cent. The research team has uncovered similar findings for darts and coin tossing. Commentators on the website Quora have claimed to use lucid dreaming to practise all manner of real-life tasks, including rehearsing musical performances, making speeches and preparing for awkward conversations. ‘I would recommend this to everyone who has lucid dreams, to use the dream state for practising sport or music or whatever,’ says Erlacher.
Other reasons for which you could use lucid dreams include to boost your creativity, for example by asking dream characters for their ideas. On his deathbed in 1920, the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan reportedly said he’d used lucid dreams to help him solve problems. Or you could try dealing with nightmares via what’s known as ‘lucid dreaming therapy’. The basic idea in the latter case, says Erlacher, is that, when you realise you’re in a dream, you confront yourself with the kind of nightmare content that’s been troubling you, be that a creepy house, a nasty person or something else. ‘You can go there and you can say: “Hey, what are you doing here? It’s my dream,”’ Erlacher says. ‘What people describe is that the nightmare disappears, usually.’ The more control you feel you have over your dream content, the more likely it is that you will benefit from this approach.
Use a bracelet as a cue – any time you catch a glimpse of it, ask yourself: Is this real, or am I dreaming?
Ways to have more lucid dreams
Whether you’re just curious or you can already see the ways lucid dreaming might be helpful for you, here are some basic techniques to get you started:
The easiest approach is to get into the habit of asking yourself whether you are awake or in a dream, at least a few times each day. This technique has come to be known as ‘reality testing’. The thinking is that, if you do this often enough when you’re awake, the habit is likely to carry over into your dreams – in which case it can trigger a lucid state of being aware that you’re dreaming.
A popular way to do this, explains Blagrove, is to use a bracelet as a cue – any time during the day that you catch a glimpse of the bracelet, you ask yourself a reality-check question, such as: Is this real, or am I dreaming? ‘That questioning transfers over into the sleeping state,’ he says. Once you ask yourself the question while asleep and become aware that you are, in fact, dreaming, you can choose whether to just observe the dream or try to influence it in some way.
Another approach I’ve heard about is to check occasionally throughout the day whether you can pass the fingers of one hand through the palm of the other, which of course is impossible, thus confirming that you’re awake. Similar to the basic reality-check question, if you perform this strange ritual often enough when awake, the chances are that you’ll do it in a dream. While dreaming, it’s likely that you will be able to pass your fingers through your hand, and you might trigger a lucid state in the process.
Wake back to bed (WBTB)
With this approach, you set an alarm two to three hours before you would normally wake up. That is just the time when you’re most likely to be having rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is a stage of sleep that is strongly associated with having dreams. After waking, you keep yourself awake for an hour or so before you allow yourself to nod off again.
Keep a diary of common symbols or images that you experience in your dreams, and then form the lucid dreaming intention around those images
The WBTB approach aligns with what is known about the brain basis of lucid dreaming, which experts admit is fairly limited for now. The lucid dream state tends to be associated with greater frontal brain activation than non-lucid dreaming, especially during REM sleep. The WBTB approach would appear to help you target this brain state, thus increasing the odds of achieving dream lucidity. ‘What happens with this technique,’ explains Blagrove, is that ‘your sleep is much later [than normal] because you woke yourself up earlier and, as a result of the circadian rhythm, your brain is more activated. And also you’ve just deprived yourself of some sleep, so you have a much more intense rapid eye movement period occurring.’
Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD)
This approach builds on the WBTB protocol and similarly involves setting an alarm to wake a few hours before you would normally rise. In fact, Erlacher says you really ought to combine WBTB with MILD – otherwise you risk simply ending up with a bad night’s sleep.
At its most basic, the MILD technique involves waking yourself up toward the end of your usual sleep period and then forming a conscious intention to have a lucid dream when you fall back to sleep. ‘It’s a sort of self-suggestion method,’ says Blagrove. Some experts suggest repeating a mantra to yourself, such as: “The next time I am dreaming, I will remember that I am dreaming.”’
A more elaborate version of this approach is to keep a diary of common symbols or images that you experience in your dreams, and then form the lucid dreaming intention around those images. For example, if you frequently see flying cows in your dreams, you might tell yourself, prior to returning to sleep: ‘When I see a flying cow, I will know that this is the dream.’ Erlacher explains: ‘So you combine these events with the suggestion of “I will know that I’m dreaming when I see this.”’
The senses initiated lucid dream technique
This approach was proposed by a blogger and lucid dreaming enthusiast more than a decade ago, and now it’s often mentioned in the academic literature on lucid dreaming. Despite the mentions, it’s been studied only once, but the results were promising. As with WBTB and MILD, the idea is to set an alarm to wake yourself a few hours before your normal rising time.
Once awake, you close your eyes and quickly cycle through some of your senses a few times, first focusing on your sight (with eyes closed), then on what you are hearing, then tuning in to your body. After doing that a few times quickly, you then repeat the cycle a few times more, but this time slowly. Once you’ve finished the slow cycles through your senses, you let yourself fall back to sleep. It’s been claimed that you are then much more likely to have a lucid dream. The full tutorial is available online.
Targeted lucidity activation
This approach has been used recently by sleep labs to try to induce more lucid dreams, and it’s probably the most ambitious of the techniques described here. You might need to rope in your bedtime companion, if you have one, for some assistance.
Spend a few minutes reflecting, while simultaneously exposing yourself to a red flashing light or electronic beeping sound
The basic principle is this: during the day, you spend a few minutes reflecting on your thoughts, your sensations and your state of awareness (a little like ‘reality testing’), while simultaneously exposing yourself to some distinct sights or sounds, such as a red flashing light or electronic beeping sound. You’re conditioning yourself to be self-reflective when you experience these stimuli. Then, while you’re in REM sleep, you need a way to expose yourself to the sensory stimuli again. The idea is that this will nudge you to reflect on your state of mind and surroundings (but without fully waking you up), thus prompting you into a lucid state.
This is where your understanding partner could come in handy. They should be able to tell when you’re in REM sleep by watching your eyes flicker under your eyelids. Then, they might flash the red light or play the electronic sound. An alternative is to buy a fancy lucid dreaming mask that detects when you’re in REM sleep and flashes the light and/or plays a beeping sound.
‘The idea is that these sounds and visual stimuli get incorporated into the dream,’ Blagrove explains. ‘You’re never quite sure how they’ll be incorporated … it may be that there’s a red object there or that the whole scene turns red, or the electronic tune might come into the dream. But the aim is that it causes the person to ask themselves the question: Am I asleep?’
So, there you have it: a few different ways to begin taking more control of your dreams. You might even be able to start using your dreams to benefit your waking life, such as by practising something you will be doing the next day.
As you get started, bear in mind that lucidity is not all or nothing. A recent survey found that control of your dream body is more common than complete control of the dream environment. The same study found that having more frequent lucid dreams was associated with having greater dream control – implying that practice makes perfect – and that being more mindful during the day could help, too. Good luck and sweet dreams!
June 20th 2023
byAmber DanceandKnowable Magazine
June 3, 2023
CSA Images/CSA Images/Getty Images
Maybe it starts with a low-energy feeling, or maybe you’re getting a little cranky. You might have a headache or difficulty concentrating. Your brain is sending you a message: You’re hungry. Find food.
Studies in mice have pinpointed a cluster of cells called AgRP neurons near the underside of the brain that may create this unpleasant hungry, even “hangry,” feeling. They sit near the brain’s blood supply, giving them access to hormones arriving from the stomach and fat tissue that indicate energy levels. When energy is low, they act on a variety of other brain areas to promote feeding.
By eavesdropping on AgRP neurons in mice, scientists have begun to untangle how these cells switch on and encourage animals to seek food when they’re low on nutrients and how they sense food landing in the gut to turn back off. Researchers have also found that the activity of AgRP neurons goes awry in mice with symptoms akin to those of anorexia and that activating these neurons can help to restore normal eating patterns in those animals.
Understanding and manipulating AgRP neurons might lead to new treatments for both anorexia and overeating. “If we could control this hangry feeling, we might be better able to control our diets,” says Amber Alhadeff, a neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
To eat or not to eat
AgRP neurons appear to be key players in appetite: Deactivating them in adult mice causes the animals to stop eating — they may even die of starvation. Conversely, if researchers activate the neurons, mice hop into their food dishes and gorge themselves.
Experiments at several labs in 2015 helped to illustrate what AgRP neurons do. Researchers found that when mice hadn’t had enough to eat, AgRP neurons fired more frequently. But just the sight or smell of food — especially something yummy like peanut butter or a Hershey’s Kiss — was enough to dampen this activity within seconds. From this, the scientists concluded that AgRP neurons cause animals to seek out food. Once food has been found, they stop firing as robustly.
One research team, led by neuroscientist Scott Sternson at the Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, also showed that AgRP neuron activity appears to make mice feel bad. To demonstrate this, the scientists engineered mice so that the AgRP neurons would start firing when the light was shone into the brain with an optical fiber (the fiber still allowed the mice to move around freely). They placed these engineered mice in a box with two distinct areas: one colored black with a plastic grid floor, the other white with a soft, tissue paper floor. If the researchers activated AgRP neurons whenever the mice went into one of the two areas, the mice started avoiding that region.
Sternson, now at the University of California San Diego, concluded that AgRP activation felt “mildly unpleasant.” That makes sense in nature; he says: Any time a mouse leaves its nest, it’s at risk from predators, but it must overcome this fear in order to forage and eat. “These AgRP neurons are kind of the push that, in a dangerous environment, you’re going to go out and seek food to stay alive.”
Sternson’s 2015 study showed that while the sight or smell of food quiets AgRP neurons, it’s only temporary: Activity goes right back up if the mouse can’t follow through and eat the snack. Through additional experiments, Alhadeff and colleagues discovered that what turns the AgRP neurons off more reliably is calories landing in the gut.
The sleeping mouse in this video has been engineered so that when blue light shines into its brain, AgRP neurons are activated. The mouse is resting after a night in which it had plenty to eat. When researchers turn on the blue light, the mouse awakens and eats more, even though it’s sated.
First, Alhadeff’s team fed mice a calorie-free treat: a gel with artificial sweetener. When mice ate the gel, AgRP neuron activity dropped, as expected — but only temporarily. As the mice learned there were no nutrients to be gained from this snack, their AgRP neurons responded less and less to each bite. Thus, as animals learn whether a treat really nourishes them, the neurons adjust the hunger dial accordingly.
Next, the team used a catheter implanted through the abdomen to deliver calories, in the form of the nutritional drink Ensure, directly to the stomach. This bypassed any sensory cues that food was coming. And it resulted in a longer dip in AgRP activity. In other words, it’s the nutrients in food that shut off AgRP neurons for an extended time after a meal, Alhadeff concluded.
Alhadeff has since begun to decode the messages that the stomach sends to the AgRP neurons and found that it depends on the nutrient. Fat in the gut triggers a signal via the vagus nerve, which reaches from the digestive tract to the brain. The simple sugar glucose signals the brain via nerves in the spinal cord.
Her team is now investigating why these multiple paths exist. She hopes that by better understanding how AgRP neurons drive food-seeking, scientists can eventually come up with ways to help people keep off unhealthy pounds. Though scientists and dieters have been seeking such treatments for more than a century, it’s been difficult to identify easy, safe, and effective treatments. The latest class of weight-loss medications, such as Wegovy, act in part on AgRP neurons but have unpleasant side effects such as nausea and diarrhea.
Therapies targeting AgRP neurons alone would likely fail to fully solve the weight problem because food-seeking is only one component of appetite control, says Sternson, who reviewed the main controllers of appetite in the Annual Review of Physiology in 2017. Other brain areas that sense satiety and make high-calorie food pleasurable also play important roles, he says. That’s why, for example, you eat that slice of pumpkin pie at the end of the Thanksgiving meal, even though you’re already full of turkey and mashed potatoes.
The flip side of overeating is anorexia, and there, too, researchers think that investigating AgRP neurons could lead to new treatment strategies. People with anorexia avoid food to the point of dangerous weight loss. “Eating food is actually aversive,” says Ames Sutton Hickey, a neuroscientist at Temple University in Philadelphia. There is no medication specific for anorexia; treatment may include psychotherapy, general medications such as antidepressants, and, in the most severe cases, force-feeding via a tube threaded through the nose. People with anorexia are also often restless or hyperactive and may exercise excessively.
Researchers can study the condition using a mouse model of the disease known as activity-based anorexia, or ABA. When scientists limit the food available to the mice and provide them with a wheel to run on, some mice enter an anorexia-like state, eating less than they’re offered and running on the wheel even during daylight, when mice are normally inactive. “It’s a remarkably addictive thing that happens to these animals,” says Tamas Horvath, a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine. “They basically get a kick out of not eating and exercising.”
It’s not a perfect model for anorexia. Mice, presumably, face none of the social pressures to stay thin that humans do; conversely, people with anorexia usually don’t have limits on their access to food. But it’s one of the best anorexia mimics out there, says Alhadeff: “I think it’s as good as we get.”
To find out how AgRP neurons might be involved in anorexia, Sutton Hickey carefully monitored the food intake of ABA mice. She compared them to mice that were given a restricted diet but had a locked exercise wheel and didn’t develop ABA. The ABA mice, she found, ate fewer meals than the other mice. And when they did eat, their AgRP activity didn’t decrease like it should have after they filled their tummies. Something was wrong with the way the neurons responded to hunger and food cues.
Sutton Hickey also found that she could fix the problem when she engineered ABA mice so that AgRP neurons would spring into action when researchers injected a certain chemical. These mice, when treated with the chemical, ate more meals and gained weight. “That speaks very much to the importance of these neurons,” says Horvath, who wasn’t involved in the work. “It shows that these neurons are good guys, not the bad guys.”
Sutton Hickey says the next step is to figure out why the AgRP neurons respond abnormally in ABA mice. She hopes there might be some key molecule she could target with a drug to help people with anorexia.
All in all, the work on AgRP neurons is giving scientists a much better picture of why we eat when we do — as well as new leads, perhaps, to medications that might help people change disordered eating, be it consuming too much or too little, into healthy habits.
This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.
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May 27th 2023
How To Get People To Actually Listen To You
Master these expert techniques and you’ll break through more often.
Updated: May 17, 2023
Originally Published: April 5, 2022
It’s the universal wish when we open our mouths. We just want to be heard. And really, it shouldn’t be that complicated, although it gets that way, usually by our own doing. We pick the wrong time or place, forgetting other people have lives and busy schedules.
Still, we proceed, trying to force our message on unreceptive ears. We start raising our voices, interrupting, and finishing other people’s sentences, none of which has ever been taught in Effective Communications 101.
While saying something as simple as, “Is now okay to talk?” can solve some problems, the larger issue centers on expectations. It’s not solely men, but a lot of men certainly believe that when they have something to say, it must be said immediately.
“By default, men get the stage. They demand to be listened to,” says Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa.
That attitude doesn’t set a welcoming stage. While there are practical things to do to effectively communicate, the bigger shift comes in adjusting your approach. Rather than see an interaction as being listened to, it’s better to view it as an exchange between two people, either of whom can influence the direction. With that mindset, the pressure to get everything out dissipates.
How do you get to that place? Paying close attention to the following can help.
1. Be Willing to Listen
This shouldn’t be surprising. If you want someone to hear you, you have to do the same. Sure, it’s polite, but you’re not merely reciting words and then leaving. The other person is part of it. They need to feel like a part of it, and even if you’re already close, there needs to be a connection for that moment.
And it’s not easy, because you really, really, really want to say something. There’s no secret about what to do. It’s discipline and reminding yourself to not speak and catching yourself when you start.
“It’s always a dedication,” Rawlins says.
2. Watch Out For “Kitchen Sinking”
Sometimes you’re not making your point because you haven’t figured it out, so you just say everything in a rambling mess. Mikucki-Enyart calls this “kitchen sinking.” But when you practice out loud, you’ll hear the words that matter and the ones that can be cut. If you’re heated, repetition gets you used to the emotion and lowers the intensity so the first time you say something is not the first time you say something.
And if it helps, have notes about issues you want to hit and reminders to stay calm or not interrupt. Be upfront and let the person know that you don’t want to forget anything. You’d do all of this prep for a business meeting and no one would question it.
“I don’t know why we expect our relational communications to fly by the seat of our pants,” she says.
3. Learn to Pause
Part of effective talking is not talking. Yes, you want to give the other person the floor, but even before that, it’s allowing the other person to take in your words and gauge what your message means to them. Again, it’s a kind of listening and involves “not trying to formulate your next sterling moment in the conversation,” Rawlins says.
But you can use the pause as well. It’s your chance to consider what’s being said, which can reshape what you share. Just let the person know that you’re thinking. Silence can make people feel uneasy and an inhale can come off as frustration or boredom when it’s just taking in air. If you see the same from the other person, just ask, let them clarify and remove unnecessary wonder.
“It’s perception checking,” says Mikucki-Enyart.
4. Embrace the “Vivid Present”
Men tend to be definitive. Michael Jordan is the best. The Godfather is the greatest movie ever. But conversations are live and involve you and the other person. Practicing helps gets you comfortable, but it’s not a scripted event. More than acknowledging and accepting that, embrace what the two of you share.
Rawlins says that Austrian philosopher Alfred Schutz called that space the “vivid present”. Make a comment about the weather, wall colors, or traffic, whatever is connecting the two of you right then and there, and then the conversation is no longer about fighting for time or to be heard.
“It’s neither mine nor yours,” Rawlins says. “It’s between us.”
What helps is to ask questions along the way. What do you think about what just happened? How do you feel about what I just said? People usually like to get questions. They allow them to talk, and these, which can’t be shut down with a “yes” or “no” answer, are an invitation to stay involved.
5. Treat Each Conversation As Its Own
Communicating skills aren’t inherent. “It’s not a trait,” Mikucki-Enyart says. They can be learned and bolstered, but each time you go into a conversation, you’re going into that specific conversation. It takes a brand new focus and attention to detail. You may need to vent. You might want advice. The same goes for the other person. It’s like how you’d approach sports or music. It means bringing the effort while reading what the environment is like because what worked yesterday might not work today.
“You need to re-consecrate yourself,” Rawlins says. “You have to show up. A lot of it is will. Every moment has a possibility of showing something to us.”
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May 15th 2023
How to Make Your Anxiety Work for You Instead of Against You
Anxiety is energy, and you can strike the right balance if you know what to look for.
- Stephanie Vozza
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
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Photo by Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images.
While some cases of anxiety are serious enough to require medical treatment, everyday anxiety is a fact of life and can actually be helpful, says psychologist Bob Rosen, author of Conscious: The Power of Awareness in Business and Life.
“How you use it makes all the difference,” he says. “As the world gets faster and more uncertain, it’s easy to let [anxiety] overwhelm you. People get hijacked by their reptilian brain survival instincts and fear. On the flip side, denying or running from anxiety causes you to become complacent. You can use anxiety in a positive way and turn it into a powerful force in your life if you strike a balance.”
The first hurdle to get over is viewing anxiety through a negative lens. “We see anxiety as something to fear and avoid,” says Rosen. “That thinking is self-defeating and makes it worse. In a sense, we need to see anxiety as a wake-up call; a message inside of our mind telling us to pay attention. We need to accept it as a natural part of the human experience.”
Another problem is our faulty thinking around change, says Rosen. “For centuries, it was viewed as dangerous or life threatening,” he says. “But stability is an illusion, and uncertainty is reality. Uncertainty makes you anxious and vulnerable, and anxiety leads you to worry or run away because you’re not in control of life anymore and you feel worse.”
People often move back and forth between too much, just enough, and too little anxiety, and anxiety is contagious, says Rosen: “We communicate our level of anxiety to others because we’re connected to each other,” he says. “Studies show that your blood pressure can go up when you deal with a manger who is disrespectful, unfair, or overly anxious. People are hijacked more and more because of too much anxiety.”
Anxiety is energy, and you can strike the right balance if you know what to look for:
Too Much Anxiety
Some people naturally have too much anxiety, and that’s a problem. “These are the people who need to be right, powerful, in control, and successful,” says Rosen. “They orchestrate everything around them, and are mistrustful or suspicious. They’re scared of inadequacy, failure, being insignificant, or being taken advantage of.”
You have too much anxiety if you tend to expect respect and admiration, are frustrated a lot, question the motives of others, and are overly impatient, says Rosen.
Too Little Anxiety
Too little anxiety isn’t good either. “You put your head in the sand in the face of change,” says Rosen. “You don’t want to take risks. You value status quo and live in a bubble.”
You have too little anxiety if you’re too idealistic and cautious, detaching from all of the change around you. “The world is changing faster than our ability to adapt. We need to learn new things, and can’t stay complacent for long,” he says. “It’s important to allow yourself to stretch and to feel just the right amount of anxiety.”
Living with the right amount of anxiety provides just enough tension to drive you forward without causing you to resist, give up, or try to control what happens. “It’s a productive energy,” says Rosen.
The first step is getting comfortable being uncomfortable. “A lot of people think the goal of life is to be happy, but it’s not,” says Rosen. “The goal is to live a full life, and sometimes you’ll have good days and sometimes bad days. Develop the skill of being uncomfortable. Knowing you can and will get through it is important.”
Listen to your body; it speaks to you, says Rosen. “Whether it’s stomach pain or heart palpitations or a stiff neck or back, these are ways the body tells you that you are anxious,” he says.
Ask yourself why you’re anxious. Is it because you’re excited? How you interpret anxiety could be good or bad. If you’re about to give a speech, for example, anxiety is good. Instead of trying to avoid it, understand it. “If you’re not anxious, you’re probably not going to give a great speech,” says Rosen. “And if you’re too anxious, that won’t be a great speech, either.”
When you have too much anxiety, it’s often because you’re telling yourself a story. “For example, ‘If I don’t do a good job I’ll get fired,’ ‘My boss hates me,’ or ‘I’m going to embarrass myself,’” says Rosen. It’s often not the event that causes anxiety; it’s the story we tell ourselves about it.”
When this happens, take a long walk or breathe deeply if you have too much anxiety. Meditation is a force that helps you live in the present moment. “When you meditate, you get a better sense of how your body and mind are reacting,” he says. “Deep breathing creates a direct connection between your breath and reducing stress. You can get a sense of the source of the anxiety, peel back the onion, and find the cause.”
All change happens in the gap between our current reality and desired future, says Rosen. “We have a problem we want to solve or have a goal we want to accomplish,” he says. “In the gap sits our motivation, our engagement, and our anxiety. Anxiety is the energy that moves us across the gap. We need to have enough energy to change. You can’t change or transform yourself unless you allow yourself to feel uncertainty and vulnerability.”
April 25th 2023
How Bad Is It Really to Procrastinate?
By Apr 8, 2023 Medically Reviewed by
There are a lot of reasons people procrastinate, including boredom, frustration, overwhelm and anxiety.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative
How Bad Is It Really? sets the record straight on all the habits and behaviors you’ve heard might be unhealthy.
In This Article
If somebody were to ask whether you’d rather finish a task you’ve been putting off or get a colonoscopy and you hesitate to answer, chances are you’re no stranger to procrastination and the effect it can have on your overall wellbeing.
“Procrastination is an avoidant behavior that involves putting off completing a certain task — usually, because we find it uncomfortable, overwhelming, boring or have other negative associations with the task,” says Victoria Smith, LCSW, a California-based licensed clinical social worker. “By procrastinating, we’re avoiding feeling the discomfort of these negative associations.”
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It’s a habit that can have a range of consequences, including poorly done tasks, lots of stress and an array of negative health outcomes. But when approached from a place of curiosity instead of judgment, getting to know your particular procrastination style can unlock the data you need to break the cycle — and maybe even use procrastinating to your advantage.
Why You Procrastinate in the First Place
“As with many behaviors, the psyche isn’t to blame as much as the brain,” says Taish Malone, PhD, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. “The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex have been seen as the areas responsible for procrastination.”
The limbic system is a set of brain structures that oversee our behavioral and emotional responses (motivation, reward, responsivity, habits), while the prefrontal cortex acts as our executive assistant, taking care of things like planning, organization and impulse control.
The brains of procrastinators have a larger amygdala than non-procrastinators (the part of the limbic system known for fight-or-flight), according to a small August 2018 study in Psychological Science.
This suggests that when you’re presented with an unappealing task or a flood of new tasks, the amygdala reacts as if they’re a threat, overruling your prefrontal cortex and ordering you to escape the negative emotions you’re feeling. Cue procrastination.
“If we’re in a situation where we already have a lot on our plate and are perpetually overwhelmed, the brain and body are primed to resist change and newness,” says Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, board-certified psychiatrist, neuroscientist and founder of Apollo Neurosciences.
Procrastination becomes a distorted form of self-preservation where the brain mistakes the instant feeling of relief as a reward. Your brain hits the jackpot each time you put off a task, releasing feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, and reinforcing the belief that avoidance is an adequate and acceptable response to discomfort.
Over time, this feedback loop can become chronic and destructive.
The Emotional Underpinnings of Procrastination
Procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or poor time management, but rather relates to emotion regulation — usually, you want to complete the task you’re avoiding but there are underlying feelings that are holding you back.
These underlying feelings might include:
Boredom. When we’re not mentally stimulated, we’re not receiving any dopamine for beginning or working on a task.
“This means we’re not feeling any immediate reward for the work we’re doing,” Smith says, which can peer pressure us to do something more interesting instead.
Perfectionism. Perfectionism usually comes with subconscious messaging related to not being good enough or a fear of failure, so tasks can feel daunting by default because you’re fighting through feelings of self-doubt on top of the mental load required to complete the task itself.
“It can also feel somewhat protecting to not engage with a task we feel could ultimately prove our fear right — that if we don’t do a perfect job we’re not good enough and other people will see that,” Smith says.
Overwhelm and frustration. “When we’re mentally or physically overloaded, our logical thinking task-oriented brain goes offline and our survival brain kicks in to try and get our basic needs met so our nervous system can recalibrate,” Smith says.
Instead of fight or flight, you freeze, unable to think in a clear, structured manner.
Fear, anxiety and depression. “Fear and anxiety are very powerful emotions that reinforce avoidance because they’re a survival mechanism,” Smith says. “Even though we know a certain task can’t harm us, our bodies may perceive the task as dangerous.”
Meanwhile, depression can trap you in rumination mode (a preoccupation with painful thoughts about the past), the feelings of shame from which may put your social- and self-image into question and encourage task-avoidant behaviors, such as procrastionation, suggests a small July 2022 study published in the Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy.
Sensory overload. If you have autism or ADHD, you might experience attention dysregulation that can make it incredibly challenging to follow through or stay on task. “This may look like procrastination from the outside, but may not be about intentional avoidance at all,” says Peggy Loo, PhD, New York-based licensed psychologist and director of Manhattan Therapy Collective.
The Consequences of Procrastination
One force that powers procrastination is wanting to avoid the feelings, such as boredom or stress, that accompany the task. But this avoidance gives these feelings free reign to collect interest on your insides and make things worse — typically in one or both of these forms:
- Negative emotional consequences — think: feeling more stressed out by the task you’re avoiding
- Situational consequences — the task does not turn out as well as it could have
1. Procrastination Can Become Cyclical
The feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression that typically follow avoidance further strengthen the negative associations attached to certain tasks. So the next time there’s a to-do on your list that makes a colonoscopy appealing, you’re even more likely to put it off rather than get it over with.
“This long-term procrastination cycle becomes greater and more encompassing than merely the behavior itself,” Malone says.
But it’s not procrastination itself that’s the problem, so much as our tendency to condemn ourselves for doing it (say, with classic lectures like “suck it up” or “just do it”), the pressure from which only leads to more procrastinating.
2. It May Be Hard on Your Health
Once procrastination becomes a habit, the cumulative effect of the constant turmoil can lead to negative outcomes.
Procrastinating is associated with higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety, along with “reduced satisfaction across life domains, especially regarding work and income,” per a February 2016 study in PLOS One, which looked at several thousand German people, ages 14 to 95. That is, procrastinating has a professional, emotional and financial effect.
And, it can lead to both short- and long-term health issues, including insomnia and digestive concerns. It’s also a “vulnerability factor” with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, per research published in March 2016 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. These types of health outcomes could be due to procrastinators being more likely to put off self-care and regular checkups.
Another study followed university students in Sweden, sharing several web-based surveys over the course of a year, looking for associations between procrastination and negative health outcomes. The results, published in January 2023 date in JAMA Network Open, found that “higher levels of procrastination were associated with worse subsequent mental health.” The study also noted that procrastination is associated with poor sleep quality, a lack of physical activity and pain in upper extremities, as well as worse levels of loneliness.
Procrastination vs. Purposeful Delay
Back in 2005, researchers theorized that procrastination comes in two forms: passive (postponing tasks despite the knowledge that doing so will bring on negative consequences) and active (purposefully putting tasks off because you work better under pressure), according to an article in the Journal of Social Psychology.
But procrastinating on a task and deliberately delaying it aren’t the same thing: Procrastination is considered a self-regulation deficit; a voluntary, irrational postponement of tasks despite the blowback postponing them will bring.
“Procrastination isn’t positive for most because it’s not a decision that inherently comes from a place of empowerment, self-control or joy,” Loo says.
Even if a task works out despite leaving it until the last minute, it’s usually a hollow win filled with relief, not pride or satisfaction. This ultimately reinforces the negative beliefs we have about ourselves and our abilities and causes us to engage in the same thought cycle each time we need to complete something important.
“Your identity can even begin to build around the idea that you’re a procrastinator who never gets things done on time and is always stressed out by deadlines — a thought pattern that can become self-fulfilling,” Smith says.
On the flipside, deliberately delaying certain tasks is considered a proactive and thoughtful form of self-regulation.
“The emotional and psychological tone is completely different from procrastination because these actions come from a place of autonomy and thoughtful choice,” Loo says.
Deliberate or purposeful delay isn’t based on an internal need to postpone tasks, but external situational factors requiring you to make rational decisions on how best to prioritize your time according to those demands, per a January 2018 article in Personality and Individual Differences.
“When you don’t need a whole week to do something and put it off until later or decide to call it quits early to clear your mind and reset, yes, you’re technically delaying tasks, but it’s not motivated by avoidance at all,” Loo says. “It’s simply a strategy you know works for you and will aid the overall process.”
Say you’ve hit a wall with your creative project and find yourself deep-cleaning your home. Are you scrubbing away because the thought of facing your project is making you feel angsty? Then you’re probably procrastinating. Or is cleaning your go-to strategy when you know an idea needs to incubate a little longer? That’s purposeful delay in real-time.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Procrastinate?
When you put off tasks out of avoidance and coping-by-not-coping becomes your autopilot, this self-destructive loop can seriously mess with your quality of life, not to mention your long-term health.
But your knee-jerk urge to procrastinate doesn’t come from a bad place: It’s your brain’s attempt at protecting you from the emotional pain and discomfort you’ve attached to certain projects or tasks, such as boredom, perfectionism or overwhelm.
Keeping this in mind the next time you’re tempted to procrastinate can help you work through the uncomfortable feelings that are holding you back instead of avoiding them.
By getting to know your particular procrastination style, you stand a better chance at not only finding effective workarounds, but using putting things off to your advantage in the form of purposeful delay.
Procrastination isn’t the enemy, so much as our not digging deeper into why we’re doing it. So, what’s your need to procrastinate trying to tell you?
Lithium – Brand names: Priadel, Camcolit, Liskonium, Li-Liquid
On this page
- About lithium
- Key facts
- Who can and cannot take lithium
- How and when to take lithium
- Side effects
- How to cope with side effects
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Cautions with other medicines
- Common questions
1. About lithium
Lithium is a type of medicine known as a mood stabiliser.
It’s used to treat mood disorders such as:
- mania (feeling highly excited, overactive or distracted)
- hypo-mania (similar to mania, but less severe)
- regular periods of depression, where treatment with other medicines has not worked
- bipolar disorder, where your mood changes between feeling very high (mania) and very low (depression)
Lithium can also help reduce aggressive or self-harming behaviour.
It comes as regular tablets or slow-release tablets (lithium carbonate). It also comes as a liquid that you swallow (lithium citrate).
Lithium is available on prescription.
2. Key facts
- The most common side effects of lithium are feeling or being sick, diarrhoea, a dry mouth and a metallic taste in the mouth.
- Your doctor will carry out regular blood tests to check how much lithium is in your blood. The results will be recorded in your lithium record book.
- Lithium carbonate is available as regular tablets and modified release (brand names include Priadel, Camcolit and Liskonium).
- Lithium citrate comes as a liquid and common brands include Priadel and Li-Liquid.
3. Who can and cannot take lithium
Lithium can be taken by adults and children over the age of 12 years.
Lithium may not be suitable for some people. Tell your doctor if:
- you have ever had an allergic reaction to lithium or other medicines in the past
- you have heart disease
- you have severe kidney problems
- have an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) that is not being treated
- you have low levels of sodium in your body – this can happen if you’re dehydrated or if you’re on a low-sodium (low-salt) diet
- you have Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands
- you have, or someone in your family has, a rare condition called Brugada syndrome – a condition that affects your heart
- you need to have surgery in hospital
- you are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant or breastfeeding
Before prescribing lithium, your doctor will do some blood tests to check your kidney and thyroid are OK. The doctor will also check your weight (and check this throughout your treatment).
If you have a heart condition, the doctor may also do a test that measures the electrical activity of your heart (electrocardiogram).
4. How and when to take lithium
It’s important to take lithium as recommended by your doctor.
There are 2 different types of lithium – lithium carbonate and lithium citrate. It’s important not to change to a different type unless your doctor has recommended it. This is because different types are absorbed differently in the body.
Lithium carbonate comes as regular tablets and slow-release tablets – where the medicine is released slowly over time.
Lithium citrate comes as a liquid. This is usually only prescribed for people who have trouble swallowing tablets .
Doses vary from person to person. Your starting dose will depend on your age, what you’re being treated for and the type of lithium your doctor recommends.
If you have kidney problems your doctor will monitor the level of lithium in your blood even more closely and change your dose if necessary.
You will usually take your lithium once a day, at night. This is because when you have your regular blood test, you need to have it 12 hours after taking your medicine. You can choose when you take your lithium – just try to keep to the same time every day.
How to take it
Swallow tablets whole with a drink of water or juice. Do not chew them. You can take lithium with or without food.
If you’re taking liquid, use the plastic syringe or spoon that comes with your medicine to measure the correct dose. If you do not have one, ask your pharmacist. Do not use a kitchen teaspoon as you will not get the right amount.
Information about your lithium treatment
When you start taking lithium, you will get a lithium treatment pack (usually a purple folder or book) with a record booklet. You need to show your record booklet every time you see your doctor, go to hospital, or collect your prescription.
When you go to the doctor for blood tests, you or your doctor will write in the record booklet:
- your dose of lithium
- your lithium blood levels
- any other blood test results
- your weight
The treatment pack also has a lithium alert card. You’ll need to carry this card with you all the time. It tells healthcare professionals that you’re taking lithium. This can be useful for them to know in an emergency.
Tell your doctor or pharmacist if you’ve lost your treatment pack or did not get one.
Will my dose go up or down?
When you start your treatment you’ll need to have a blood test every week to make sure the level of lithium in your blood is not too high or too low. Your doctor may change your dose depending on the results of your blood test.
Once the doctor is happy you’ll have a blood test every 3 to 6 months to check the level remains steady.
Once you find a dose that suits you, it will usually stay the same – unless your condition changes, or your doctor prescribes another medicine that may interfere with lithium.
Do not stop taking lithium suddenly or change your dose without speaking to your doctor first. It’s important you keep taking it, even if you feel better. If you stop taking it suddenly you could become unwell again very quickly.
What if I’m ill while taking lithium?
Infections and illnesses like colds and flu can make you dehydrated, this can affect the level of lithium in your blood.
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you:
- have an illness that causes severe diarrhoea, vomiting, a high temperature or sweating
- have a urinary tract infection (UTI)
- are not eating and drinking much
What if I forget to take it?
If you usually take:
- tablets or slow-release tablets – if it’s less than 6 hours since you were supposed to take your lithium, take it as soon as you remember. If it is more than 6 hours, just skip the missed dose and take your next one at the usual time
- liquid – if you forget to take a dose, just skip the missed dose and take your next one at the usual time
Never take 2 doses at the same time. Never take an extra dose to make up for a forgotten one.
If you forget doses often, it may help to set an alarm to remind you. You could also ask your pharmacist for advice on other ways to help you remember to take your medicine.
What if I take too much?
Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if:
- you take too much lithium, even if you do not feel any different
This is because very high amounts of lithium can cause problems with your kidneys and other organs. It can cause symptoms such as:
- feeling or being sick
- problems with your eyesight (blurred vision)
- increased need to pee, lack of control over pee or poo
- feeling faint, lightheaded or sleepy
- confusion and blackouts
- shaking or muscle weakness, muscle twitches, jerks or spasms affecting the face, tongue, eyes or neck
If you need to go to A&E, take the lithium packet or the leaflet inside it, plus any remaining medicine, with you.
5. Side effects
If you’re on the right dose and the level of lithium in your blood is right, you may not have any problems taking this medicine.
However, some people find lithium slows down their thinking or makes them feel a bit “numb”.
Common side effects
These are usually mild and go away by themselves. They are more likely to happen when you start taking lithium.
Keep taking the medicine but talk to your doctor or pharmacist if any of the following side effects get worse or do not go away after a few days:
- feeling sick (nausea)
- a dry mouth and/or a metallic taste in the mouth
- feeling thirsty and needing to drink more and pee more than usual
- slight shaking of the hands (mild tremor)
- feeling tired or sleepy
- weight gain (this is likely to be very gradual)
Serious side effects:
The level of lithium in your blood is checked regularly. But rarely, you may get side effects because there’s too much lithium in your blood.
Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E now if:
You have 1 or more of these symptoms:
- loss of appetite, feeling or being sick (vomiting)
- problems with your eyesight (blurred vision)
- feeling very thirsty, needing to pee more than normal, and lack of control over pee or poo
- feeling lightheaded or drowsy
- confusion and blackouts
- shaking, muscle weakness, muscle twitches, jerks or spasms affecting the face, tongue, eyes or neck
- difficulty speaking
These are signs of lithium toxicity. Lithium toxicity is an emergency. Stop taking lithium straight away.
How to avoid high lithium levels in your blood
Make sure that you go for the blood tests arranged by your doctor.
It’s important not to reduce your salt intake suddenly. Talk to your doctor if you want to reduce the amount of salt in your diet.
Drink plenty of fluids, especially if you are doing intense exercise or in hot weather when you will sweat more.
Drinking alcohol causes your body to lose water. It’s best not to drink too much as it’s likely to make you dehydrated, especially in hot weather when you will sweat more.
Always tell any doctor or pharmacist that you are taking lithium before you take any new medicines.
Serious allergic reaction:
In rare cases, lithium may cause a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).
Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if:
- you get a skin rash that may include itchy, red, swollen, blistered or peeling skin
- you’re wheezing
- you get tightness in the chest or throat
- you have trouble breathing or talking
- your mouth, face, lips, tongue or throat start swelling
You could be having a serious allergic reaction and may need immediate treatment in hospital.
These are not all the side effects of lithium. For a full list, see the leaflet inside your medicine packet.
You can report any suspected side effect to the UK safety scheme.
6. How to cope with side effects
What to do about:
- feeling or being sick – take lithium with or after a meal or snack. It may also help if you do not eat rich or spicy food. If you are being sick, take sips of water to avoid dehydration.
- diarrhoea – drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Signs of dehydration include peeing less than usual or having dark, strong-smelling pee. Do not take any other medicines to treat diarrhoea without speaking to a pharmacist or doctor.
- a dry mouth and/or a metallic taste in the mouth – try sugar-free gum or sweets, or sipping cold drinks. If this does not help, talk to your pharmacist or doctor. Try not to have drinks with a lot of calories in as this might also mean you put on weight.
- slight shaking of the hands (mild tremor) – talk to your doctor if this is bothering you or does not go away after a few days. These symptoms can be a sign that the dose is too high for you. Your doctor may change your dose or recommend taking your medicine at a different time of day.
- feeling tired or sleepy – as your body gets used to lithium, these side effects should wear off. If these symptoms do not get better within a week or two, your doctor may either reduce your dose or increase it more slowly. If that does not work you may need to switch to a different medicine.
- weight gain – try to eat well without increasing your portion sizes so you do not gain too much weight. Regular exercise will help to keep your weight stable and help you feel better.
7. Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Lithium and pregnancy
Lithium is not usually recommended in pregnancy, especially during the first 12 weeks (first trimester) where the risk of problems to the baby is highest. However, you may need to take lithium during pregnancy to remain well. Your doctor may advise you to take it in pregnancy if the benefits of the medicine outweigh the risks.
If you become pregnant while taking lithium, speak to your doctor. It could be dangerous to you and your unborn baby if you stop taking it suddenly. Do not stop taking it or make any change to your dose unless your doctor tells you to.
Talk to your doctor before taking this medicine if you plan to get pregnant, or think you may be pregnant. Your doctor can explain the risks and the benefits and will help you decide which treatment is best for you and your baby.
Lithium and breastfeeding
If your doctor or health visitor says your baby is healthy, you can take lithium while breastfeeding.
Lithium passes into breast milk in small amounts. However, it has been linked with side effects in very few breastfed babies.
It’s important to continue taking lithium to keep you well. Breastfeeding will also benefit both you and your baby.
If you notice that your baby is not feeding as well as usual, or seems unusually sleepy, or if you have any other concerns about your baby, talk to your health visitor or doctor as soon as possible.
Non-urgent advice: Talk to your doctor if you:
- are trying to get pregnant
- are already pregnant
- would like to breastfeed
For more information about how lithium can affect you and your baby during pregnancy, read this leaflet on the Best Use of Medicines in Pregnancy (BUMPS) website.
8. Cautions with other medicines
This are some medicines that may interfere with how lithium works and this can affect the levels of lithium in your blood.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you’re taking (or before you start taking):
- tablets that make you pee (diuretics) such as furosemide or bendroflumethiazide
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – used for pain relief and swelling such as aspirin, ibuprofen, celecoxib or diclofenac
- medicines used for heart problems or high blood pressure such as enalapril, lisinopril or ramipril (ACE inhibitors)
- some medicines used for depression such as fluvoxamine, paroxetine or fluoxetine
- antibiotics such as oxytetracycline, metronidazole, co-trimoxazole, trimethoprim
- medicines for epilepsy such as carbamazepine or phenytoin
These are not all the medicines that can affect the way lithium works. Always check with your doctor before you start or stop taking any medicine.
Mixing lithium with herbal remedies or supplements
It’s not possible to say whether complementary medicines and herbal supplements are safe to take with lithium.
They’re not tested in the same way as pharmacy and prescription medicines. They’re generally not tested for the effect they have on other medicines.
For safety, tell your doctor or pharmacist if you’re taking any other medicines, including herbal remedies, vitamins or supplements.
9. Common questions
How does lithium work? How long does it take to work? How will it make me feel? How long will I take it for? What will happen if I stop taking it? Can I take lithium for a long time? Is lithium an antipsychotic? How well does lithium treat depression? Can I drink alcohol with it? Will it affect my contraception? Will it affect my fertility? Is there any food or drink I need to avoid? Can I drive or ride a bike? Can I take lithium with recreational drugs?
Page last reviewed: 18 August 2020
Next review due: 18 August 2023
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April 25th 2023
Eliminating the Human
We are beset by—and immersed in—apps and devices that are quietly reducing the amount of meaningful interaction we have with each other.
- David Byrne
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
More from MIT Technology Review
- Is this AI? We drew you a flowchart to work it out
- A debate between AI experts shows a battle over the technology’s future
- Quantum computing has a hype problem
Illustration by Andy Friedman.
I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has an unspoken overarching agenda. It has been about creating the possibility of a world with less human interaction. This tendency is, I suspect, not a bug—it’s a feature. We might think Amazon was about making books available to us that we couldn’t find locally—and it was, and what a brilliant idea—but maybe it was also just as much about eliminating human contact.
The consumer technology I am talking about doesn’t claim or acknowledge that eliminating the need to deal with humans directly is its primary goal, but it is the outcome in a surprising number of cases. I’m sort of thinking maybe it is the primary goal, even if it was not aimed at consciously. Judging by the evidence, that conclusion seems inescapable.
This then, is the new norm. Most of the tech news we get barraged with is about algorithms, AI, robots, and self-driving cars, all of which fit this pattern. I am not saying that such developments are not efficient and convenient; this is not a judgment. I am simply noticing a pattern and wondering if, in recognizing that pattern, we might realize that it is only one trajectory of many. There are other possible roads we could be going down, and the one we’re on is not inevitable or the only one; it has been (possibly unconsciously) chosen.
I realize I’m making some wild and crazy assumptions and generalizations with this proposal—but I can claim to be, or to have been, in the camp that would identify with the unacknowledged desire to limit human interaction. I grew up happy but also found many social interactions extremely uncomfortable. I often asked myself if there were rules somewhere that I hadn’t been told, rules that would explain it all to me. I still sometimes have social niceties “explained” to me. I’m often happy going to a restaurant alone and reading. I wouldn’t want to have to do that all the time, but I have no problem with it—though I am sometimes aware of looks that say “Poor man, he has no friends.” So I believe I can claim some insight into where this unspoken urge might come from.
Human interaction is often perceived, from an engineer’s mind-set, as complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow. Part of making something “frictionless” is getting the human part out of the way. The point is not that making a world to accommodate this mind-set is bad, but that when one has as much power over the rest of the world as the tech sector does over folks who might not share that worldview, there is the risk of a strange imbalance. The tech world is predominantly male—very much so. Testosterone combined with a drive to eliminate as much interaction with real humans as possible for the sake of “simplicity and efficiency”—do the math, and there’s the future.
Here are some examples of fairly ubiquitous consumer technologies that allow for less human interaction.
Online ordering and home delivery: Online ordering is hugely convenient. Amazon, FreshDirect, Instacart, etc. have not just cut out interactions at bookstores and checkout lines; they have eliminated all human interaction from these transactions, barring the (often paid) online recommendations.
Digital music: Downloads and streaming—there is no physical store, of course, so there are no snobby, know-it-all clerks to deal with. Whew, you might say. Some services offer algorithmic recommendations, so you don’t even have to discuss music with your friends to know what they like. The service knows what they like, and you can know, too, without actually talking to them. Is the function of music as a kind of social glue and lubricant also being eliminated?
Ride-hailing apps: There is minimal interaction—one doesn’t have to tell the driver the address or the preferred route, or interact at all if one doesn’t want to.
Driverless cars: In one sense, if you’re out with your friends, not having one of you drive means more time to chat. Or drink. Very nice. But driverless tech is also very much aimed at eliminating taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers, and many others. There are huge advantages to eliminating humans here—theoretically, machines should drive more safely than humans, so there might be fewer accidents and fatalities. The disadvantages include massive job loss. But that’s another subject. What I’m seeing here is the consistent “eliminating the human” pattern.
Automated checkout:Eatsa is a new version of the Automat, a once-popular “restaurant” with no visible staff. My local CVS has been training staff to help us learn to use the checkout machines that will replace them. At the same time, they are training their customers to do the work of the cashiers.
Amazon has been testing stores—even grocery stores!—with automated shopping. They’re called Amazon Go. The idea is that sensors will know what you’ve picked up. You can simply walk out with purchases that will be charged to your account, without any human contact.
AI: AI is often (though not always) better at decision-making than humans. In some areas, we might expect this. For example, AI will suggest the fastest route on a map, accounting for traffic and distance, while we as humans would be prone to taking our tried-and-true route. But some less-expected areas where AI is better than humans are also opening up. It is getting better at spotting melanomas than many doctors, for example. Much routine legal work will soon be done by computer programs, and financial assessments are now being done by machines.
Robot workforce: Factories increasingly have fewer and fewer human workers, which means no personalities to deal with, no agitating for overtime, and no illnesses. Using robots avoids an employer’s need to think about worker’s comp, health care, Social Security, Medicare taxes, and unemployment benefits.
Personal assistants: With improved speech recognition, one can increasingly talk to a machine like Google Home or Amazon Echo rather than a person. Amusing stories abound as the bugs get worked out. A child says, “Alexa, I want a dollhouse” … and lo and behold, the parents find one in their cart.
Big data: Improvements and innovations in crunching massive amounts of data mean that patterns can be recognized in our behavior where they weren’t seen previously. Data seems objective, so we tend to trust it, and we may very well come to trust the gleanings from data crunching more than we do ourselves and our human colleagues and friends.
Video games (and virtual reality): Yes, some online games are interactive. But most are played in a room by one person jacked into the game. The interaction is virtual.
Automated high-speed stock buying and selling: A machine crunching huge amounts of data can spot trends and patterns quickly and act on them faster than a person can.
MOOCS: Online education with no direct teacher interaction.
“Social” media: This is social interaction that isn’t really social. While Facebook and others frequently claim to offer connection, and do offer the appearance of it, the fact is a lot of social media is a simulation of real connection.
What are the effects of less interaction?
Minimizing interaction has some knock-on effects—some of them good, some not. The externalities of efficiency, one might say.
For us as a society, less contact and interaction—real interaction—would seem to lead to less tolerance and understanding of difference, as well as more envy and antagonism. As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles. We are fed what we already like or what our similarly inclined friends like (or, more likely now, what someone has paid for us to see in an ad that mimics content). In this way, we actually become less connected—except to those in our group.
Social networks are also a source of unhappiness. A study earlier this year by two social scientists, Holly Shakya at UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis at Yale, showed that the more people use Facebook, the worse they feel about their lives. While these technologies claim to connect us, then, the surely unintended effect is that they also drive us apart and make us sad and envious.
I’m not saying that many of these tools, apps, and other technologies are not hugely convenient, clever, and efficient. I use many of them myself. But in a sense, they run counter to who we are as human beings.
We have evolved as social creatures, and our ability to cooperate is one of the big factors in our success. I would argue that social interaction and cooperation, the kind that makes us who we are, is something our tools can augment but not replace.
When interaction becomes a strange and unfamiliar thing, then we will have changed who and what we are as a species. Often our rational thinking convinces us that much of our interaction can be reduced to a series of logical decisions—but we are not even aware of many of the layers and subtleties of those interactions. As behavioral economists will tell us, we don’t behave rationally, even though we think we do. And Bayesians will tell us that interaction is how we revise our picture of what is going on and what will happen next.
I’d argue there is a danger to democracy as well. Less interaction, even casual interaction, means one can live in a tribal bubble—and we know where that leads.
Is it possible that less human interaction might save us?
Humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational, and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. It often seems that our quick-thinking and selfish nature will be our downfall. There are, it would seem, lots of reasons why getting humans out of the equation in many aspects of life might be a good thing.
But I’d argue that while our various irrational tendencies might seem like liabilities, many of those attributes actually work in our favor. Many of our emotional responses have evolved over millennia, and they are based on the probability that they will, more likely than not, offer the best way to deal with a situation.
What are we?
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at USC wrote about a patient he called Elliot, who had damage to his frontal lobe that made him unemotional. In all other respects he was fine—intelligent, healthy—but emotionally he was Spock. Elliot couldn’t make decisions. He’d waffle endlessly over details. Damasio concluded that although we think decision-making is rational and machinelike, it’s our emotions that enable us to actually decide.
With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the benefit of surprises, happy accidents, and unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction, cooperation, and collaboration with others multiplies those opportunities.
We’re a social species—we benefit from passing discoveries on, and we benefit from our tendency to cooperate to achieve what we cannot alone. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari claims this is what allowed us to be so successful. He also claims that this cooperation was often facilitated by an ability to believe in “fictions” such as nations, money, religions, and legal institutions. Machines don’t believe in fictions—or not yet, anyway. That’s not to say they won’t surpass us, but if machines are designed to be mainly self-interested, they may hit a roadblock. And in the meantime, if less human interaction enables us to forget how to cooperate, then we lose our advantage.
Our random accidents and odd behaviors are fun—they make life enjoyable. I’m wondering what we’re left with when there are fewer and fewer human interactions. Remove humans from the equation, and we are less complete as people and as a society.
“We” do not exist as isolated individuals. We, as individuals, are inhabitants of networks; we are relationships. That is how we prosper and thrive.
David Byrne is a musician and artist who lives in New York City. His most recent book is called How Music Works. A version of this piece originally appeared on his website, davidbyrne.com.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved MIT Technology Review; www.technologyreview.com.
April 22nd 2023
The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream
“And it is so simple… You will instantly find how to live.”
- Maria Popova
One November night in the 1870s, legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) discovered the meaning of life in a dream — or, at least, the protagonist in his final short story did. The piece, which first appeared in the altogether revelatory A Writer’s Diary (public library) under the title “The Dream of a Queer Fellow” and was later published separately as The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, explores themes similar to those in Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novel Notes from the Underground, considered the first true existential novel. True to Stephen King’s assertion that “good fiction is the truth inside the lie,” the story sheds light on Dostoyevsky’s personal spiritual and philosophical bents with extraordinary clarity — perhaps more so than any of his other published works. The contemplation at its heart falls somewhere between Tolstoy’s tussle with the meaning of life and Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory exegesis.
The story begins with the narrator wandering the streets of St. Petersburg on “a gloomy night, the gloomiest night you can conceive,” dwelling on how others have ridiculed him all his life and slipping into nihilism with the “terrible anguish” of believing that nothing matters. He peers into the glum sky, gazes at a lone little star, and contemplates suicide; two months earlier, despite his destitution, he had bought an “excellent revolver” with the same intention, but the gun had remained in his drawer since. Suddenly, as he is staring at the star, a little girl of about eight, wearing ragged clothes and clearly in distress, grabs him by the arm and inarticulately begs his help. But the protagonist, disenchanted with life, shoos her away and returns to the squalid room he shares with a drunken old captain, furnished with “a sofa covered in American cloth, a table with some books, two chairs and an easy-chair, old, incredibly old, but still an easy-chair.”
As he sinks into the easy-chair to think about ending his life, he finds himself haunted by the image of the little girl, leading him to question his nihilistic disposition. Dostoyevsky writes:
I knew for certain that I would shoot myself that night, but how long I would sit by the table — that I did not know. I should certainly have shot myself, but for that little girl.
You see: though it was all the same to me, I felt pain, for instance. If any one were to strike me, I should feel pain. Exactly the same in the moral sense: if anything very pitiful happened, I would feel pity, just as I did before everything in life became all the same to me. I had felt pity just before: surely, I would have helped a child without fail. Why did I not help the little girl, then? It was because of an idea that came into my mind then. When she was pulling at me and calling to me, suddenly a question arose before me, which I could not answer. The question was an idle one; but it made me angry. I was angry because of my conclusion, that if I had already made up my mind that I would put an end to myself to-night, then now more than ever before everything in the world should be all the same to me. Why was it that I felt it was not all the same to me, and pitied the little girl? I remember I pitied her very much: so much that I felt a pain that was even strange and incredible in my situation…
It seemed clear that if I was a man and not a cipher yet, and until I was changed into a cipher, then I was alive and therefore could suffer, be angry and feel shame for my actions. Very well. But if I were to kill myself, for instance, in two hours from now, what is the girl to me, and what have I to do with shame or with anything on earth? I am going to be a cipher, an absolute zero. Could my consciousness that I would soon absolutely cease to exist, and that therefore nothing would exist, have not the least influence on my feeling of pity for the girl or on my sense of shame for the vileness I had committed?
From the moral, he veers into the existential:
It became clear to me that life and the world, as it were, depended upon me. I might even say that the world had existed for me alone. I should shoot myself, and then there would be no world at all, for me at least. Not to mention that perhaps there will really be nothing for any one after me, and the whole world, as soon as my consciousness is extinguished, will also be extinguished like a phantom, as part of my consciousness only, and be utterly abolished, since perhaps all this world and all these men are myself alone.
Beholding “these new, thronging questions,” he plunges into a contemplation of what free will really means. In a passage that calls to mind John Cage’s famous aphorism on the meaning of life — “No why. Just here.” — and George Lucas’s assertion that “life is beyond reason,” Dostoyevsky suggests through his protagonist that what gives meaning to life is life itself:
One strange consideration suddenly presented itself to me. If I had previously lived on the moon or in Mars, and I had there been dishonored and disgraced so utterly that one can only imagine it sometimes in a dream or a nightmare, and if I afterwards found myself on earth and still preserved a consciousness of what I had done on the other planet, and if I knew besides that I would never by any chance return, then, if I were to look at the moon from the earth — would it be all the same to me or not? Would I feel any shame for my action or not? The questions were idle and useless, for the revolver was already lying before me, and I knew with all my being that this thing would happen for certain: but the questions excited me to rage. I could not die now, without having solved this first. In a word, that little girl saved me, for my questions made me postpone pulling the trigger.
Just as he ponders this, the protagonist slips into sleep in the easy-chair, but it’s a sleep that has the quality of wakeful dreaming. In one of many wonderful semi-asides, Dostoyevsky peers at the eternal question of why we have dreams:
Dreams are extraordinarily strange. One thing appears with terrifying clarity, with the details finely set like jewels, while you leap over another, as though you did not notice it at all — space and time, for instance. It seems that dreams are the work not of mind but of desire, not of the head but of the heart… In a dream things quite incomprehensible come to pass. For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in a dream: he takes part in my affairs, and we are very excited, while I, all the time my dream goes on, know and remember perfectly that my brother is dead and buried. Why am I not surprised that he, though dead, is still near me and busied about me? Why does my mind allow all that?
In this strange state, the protagonist dreams that he takes his revolver and points it at his heart — not his head, where he had originally intended to shoot himself. After waiting a second or two, his dream-self pulls the trigger quickly. Then something remarkable happens:
I felt no pain, but it seemed to me that with the report, everything in me was convulsed, and everything suddenly extinguished. It was terribly black all about me. I became as though blind and numb, and I lay on my back on something hard. I could see nothing, neither could I make any sound. People were walking and making a noise about me: the captain’s bass voice, the landlady’s screams… Suddenly there was a break. I am being carried in a closed coffin. I feel the coffin swinging and I think about that, and suddenly for the first time the idea strikes me that I am dead, quite dead. I know it and do not doubt it; I cannot see nor move, yet at the same time I feel and think. But I am soon reconciled to that, and as usual in a dream I accept the reality without a question.
Now I am being buried in the earth. Every one leaves me and I am alone, quite alone. I do not stir… I lay there and — strange to say — I expected nothing, accepting without question that a dead man has nothing to expect. But it was damp. I do not know how long passed — an hour, a few days, or many days. Suddenly, on my left eye which was closed, a drop of water fell, which had leaked through the top of the grave. In a minute fell another, then a third, and so on, every minute. Suddenly, deep indignation kindled in my heart and suddenly in my heart I felt physical pain. ‘It’s my wound,’ I thought. ‘It’s where I shot myself. The bullet is there.’ And all the while the water dripped straight on to my closed eye. Suddenly, I cried out, not with a voice, for I was motionless, but with all my being, to the arbiter of all that was being done to me.
“Whosoever thou art, if thou art, and if there exists a purpose more intelligent than the things which are now taking place, let it be present here also. But if thou dost take vengeance upon me for my foolish suicide, then know, by the indecency and absurdity of further existence, that no torture whatever that may befall me, can ever be compared to the contempt which I will silently feel, even through millions of years of martyrdom.”
I cried out and was silent. Deep silence lasted a whole minute. One more drop even fell. But I knew and believed, infinitely and steadfastly, that in a moment everything would infallibly change. Suddenly, my grave opened. I do not know whether it had been uncovered and opened, but I was taken by some dark being unknown to me, and we found ourselves in space. Suddenly, I saw. It was deep night; never, never had such darkness been! We were borne through space and were already far from the earth. I asked nothing of him who led me. I was proud and waited. I assured myself that I was not afraid, and my heart melted with rapture at the thought that I was not afraid. I do not remember how long we rushed through space, and I cannot imagine it. It happened as always in a dream when you leap over space and time and the laws of life and mind, and you stop only there where your heart delights.
Through the thick darkness, he sees a star — the same little star he had seen before shooing the girl away. As the dream continues, the protagonist describes a sort of transcendence akin to what is experienced during psychedelic drug trips or in deep meditation states:
Suddenly a familiar yet most overwhelming emotion shook me through. I saw our sun. I knew that it could not be our sun, which had begotten our earth, and that we were an infinite distance away, but somehow all through me I recognized that it was exactly the same sun as ours, its copy and double. A sweet and moving delight echoed rapturously through my soul. The dear power of light, of that same light which had given me birth, touched my heart and revived it, and I felt life, the old life, for the first time since my death.
He finds himself in another world, Earthlike in every respect, except “everything seemed to be bright with holiday, with a great and sacred triumph, finally achieved” — a world populated by “children of the sun,” happy people whose eyes “shone with a bright radiance” and whose faces “gleamed with wisdom, and with a certain consciousness, consummated in tranquility.” The protagonist exclaims:
Oh, instantly, at the first glimpse of their faces I understood everything, everything!
Conceding that “it was only a dream,” he nonetheless asserts that “the sensation of the love of those beautiful and innocent people” was very much real and something he carried into wakeful life on Earth. Awaking in his easy-chair at dawn, he exclaims anew with rekindled gratitude for life:
Oh, now — life, life! I lifted my hands and called upon the eternal truth, not called, but wept. Rapture, ineffable rapture exalted all my being. Yes, to live…
Dostoyevsky concludes with his protagonist’s reflection on the shared essence of life, our common conquest of happiness and kindness:
All are tending to one and the same goal, at least all aspire to the same goal, from the wise man to the lowest murderer, but only by different ways. It is an old truth, but there is this new in it: I cannot go far astray. I saw the truth. I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth. I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men… I saw the truth, I did not invent it with my mind. I saw, saw, and her living image filled my soul for ever. I saw her in such consummate perfection that I cannot possibly believe that she was not among men. How can I then go astray? … The living image of what I saw will be with me always, and will correct and guide me always. Oh, I am strong and fresh, I can go on, go on, even for a thousand years.
And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.
A century later, Jack Kerouac would echo this in his own magnificent meditation on kindness and the “Golden Eternity.”
April 11th 2023
Ageing and the mortality alarm: ‘I started panicking about future me’
The moment you realise you are entering your ageing years is confronting, especially if you still feel young. Might that burst of anxiety be a door into a different kind of old age?
Jane HutcheonSat 1 Apr 2023 21.00 BSTLast modified on Mon 3 Apr 2023 04.18 BST
My mum was due to celebrate a century of life and looking forward to getting her card from the Queen. She’d been living in an aged-care facility which had been through multiple lockdowns due to Covid. Our family started preparations for her birthday party; “hold the date” cards were sent.
On Mum’s behalf, we applied to receive the birthday card from the Queen. But early one night, after another lockdown, my dad rang. “I don’t think she’ll make it to the weekend,” he said. “Come quickly.”
As it happens, she hung on for another 18 days. The palliative nurse explained to my family that this was a time of being, rather than doing. We tried to make Mum feel loved, comfortable and with as little pain as possible as her body prepared to die.
As Prof Ken Hillman says in his book A Good Life to the End, “no matter how much we tinker with the natural ageing and dying process, biology will eventually win … nothing stops the ageing process”.
Losing a parent is a profound moment in life. First there’s shock, then a tumbleweed of grief. The death of a parent can destabilise our identities, make us reassess who we’ve become what we want in life. Sometimes, it can free us. Or not.
When your parents survive into their 90s and you have children of your own, you can’t fail to think about the trajectory life takes. My mum was an older mother. She gave birth to me when she was 40. I had my child in my mid-40s. Generations aren’t as clearcut as they once were.
I began to wonder:am I, too, facing a long life? Was my mum’s longevity due to genetics, environment, lifestyle, good luck, attitude, or a smattering of all of these? And what of her final years of disability and cognitive decline? Was that also an inevitable part of ageing?
‘Now I wasn’t only grieving for my mum; I started panicking about future me,’ … Jane Hutcheon. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
A few weeks after Mum’s funeral, I quietly celebrated my own significant birthday. Not long after that, I was woken up by the feeling of something or someone shaking me. It was about 3am. The house was silent except for my pounding heart. I’d been thinking about Mum’s last morning and how I’d counted her breaths before realising she had drawn her last. Then a voice in my head started.
“So, you’ve turned 60! You’re officially ‘old’. You have more birthdays behind you than ahead of you. Who’s going to die next? Will you outlive your partner, your siblings? Live to see your teenager become an adult, a parent? Who’s going to look afteryou when you are old?”
Now I wasn’t only grieving for my mum; I started panicking about future me. I should have got up and turned on a light. Instead, I lay there in the darkness feeling stunned and helpless. My “problem” felt insurmountable, as if I’d stumbled on an unspeakable secret. I reminded myself to breathe and eventually, the first shard of daylight appeared through the window.
I’d like to propose a new category for pre-old adults, for those beginning their ageing journey
After the mortality alarm (which psychologists call mortality salience, awareness of the inevitability of one’s death) I wondered: at what point is a person considered old? In the 1960s, the famous Beatles song “When I’m 64” described what old age was considered back then. Written now, it should be “When I’m 84”.
In Australia an “adult” is someone aged between 18 and 64. After 65, people are considered “older adults”. For Indigenous Australians, older adults are 50-plus. Despite my personal ageing crisis, I don’t feel I belong in the same category as an octogenarian. But in 2023, how do we redefine and recategorise “late life”? I’d like to propose a new category for pre-old adults, for those beginning their ageing journey:what about “juvenile geriatric”?
The anxiety is real
In the months since my mum’s death, I’ve tried to come to grips with the ageing challenge by speaking with experts, family, friends and strangers. I’ve gauged their views on the denial of ageing, healthy ageing, longevity, disease and death.
The first thing I learned is that, like me, many people experience the mortality alarm in their 50s and 60s. It’s not always triggered by the death of a parent. Sometimes it’s set off by a life-threatening diagnosis or the death or near-death of a close friend, relative or spouse. Others have FOGO (Fear of Growing Old) but haven’t articulated it.
Some people hide their age because they worry about negative judgment in the workplace. And many more are trying to navigate young-older life in ill-heath or with fewer resources than they had hoped for by this stage. It’s a mixed picture, but the anxiety is real.
I struck up a conversation with an Uber driver who mentioned that he was about to turn 60. Apollo Kanakis told me he’d lost more than 20kg last year by cutting out junk food, fizzy drinks and desserts.
What inspired him to lose the weight? A close friend, “Fat John”, had died of a massive heart attack at 59. Six months later, Kanakis was in his garage packing his scooter when the order of service from Fat John’s funeral fell from a shelf. “Out of nowhere, this flyer with John’s picture landed right in front of me. He was staring straight at me, like he was trying to say something.”
Many people experience the mortality alarm in their 50s and 60s
Before his mortality alarm went off, Kanakis, a tennis and swimming coach, ate whatever he liked. “I’d have a bag of chips, a bottle of Coke, and chocolate. Then I’d have dinner. And then I’d have dessert. Before I went to bed I’d eat the leftovers from dinner.”
Tests around that time revealed Kanakis was on the verge of type 2 diabetes. After he’d started losing weight, he got a call from the doctor’s surgery. “They thought that some blood tests I’d just done must have got mixed up at the pathology lab. They asked me whether I’d be doing anything differently. ‘Well, I’ve lost 21 kilos,’” he told them.
It turns out his weight loss had a dramatic impact on his health. “I went from being on the cusp of diabetic medication to being in the middle of [a] normal blood sugar range,” he said. “After that, there was no going backwards. I just didn’t need all that other stuff I was eating.”
Kanakis’ mortality alarm had triggered something powerful.skip past newsletter promotion
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The British public health and ageing expert Prof Sir Muir Gray (aged 78) maintains that biological ageing doesn’t cause major health problems until after 90, or very old age. In his online course Living Longer Better, he argues that much of what we attribute to ageing (stiffness, being out of breath, tiredness, weakness) is actually loss of fitness. It’s why public health campaigns encourage us to get more active and if necessary, reduce weight.
Despite the constant messaging, 55% of Australians don’t meet the physical activity guidelines.The recommendations call for either 2.5–5 hours of moderate intensity activity (like brisk walking), 1.25 – 2.5 hours of vigorous activity (aerobics, cycling) or a combination of the two, as well as two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity a week.
In her mid-80s, my mum began to feel the effects of osteoarthritis after decades as a sportswoman. Walking any distance became painful and slow. Though I didn’t know it then, walking, or “gait-speed”, is a predictor of life expectancy, irrespective of age, race or height. Studies have found that experts can predict the number of years we have remaining by observing the pace we walk at. The slower the pace, studies suggest, the fewer healthy years left.
“We can’t escape old age and dying,” Prof Kathy Eagar, a public health expert and adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology tells me. “Your parents’ longevity means you have excellent prospects of living to a very good age. But then, if you’re lucky to live long enough, you’ll start having problems.
“We call it the ‘geriatric syndrome’. It happened to the Queen in her last few years. You can’t avoid it unless you have a drop-dead heart attack,” she says.
The last 10% of life
Australia has the third-longest life expectancy in the world, after Monaco and Japan, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Figures released in 2022 show life expectancy at birth is 85.4 years for females and 81.3 years for males.
“This is a good news story,” says Eagar. She lists the reasons for our success. “Each year we have increasingly better access to healthy choices. People understand the relationship between lifestyle and health. We’ve got one of the lowest smoking rates in the western world.
“And public policy changes have contributed: vaccination stops people dying of childhood diseases; seatbelt regulations have substantially cut road deaths. Then there’s improved healthcare. There are cancers that 10 years ago were fatal that are now treatable.”
But longevity isn’t equally shared. Life expectancy tends to be higher in capital cities compared with remote regions. Indigenous Australians expect to die earlier than non-Indigenous people. The 2020 Closing The Gap report says life expectancy for First Nations men was 8.6 years below the national Australian figure and 7.8 years lower for Indigenous women.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, probably about 10% of your life would be with some moderate to severe disability.
Prof Richard Lindley, University of Sydney
And then there’s something called the “compression of morbidity”. At the start of the 21st century there was hope – given health improvements over the last 40 or so years – that we could postpone and reduce the period of disease and disability experienced in old age. There have been pockets of success, but overall, on a population level this hasn’t eventuated.
“It’s fair to say that whether you’re a man or a woman, probably about 10% of your life would be with some moderate to severe disability. And for many people, that’s at the end of their lives,” said Prof Richard Lindley, a geriatrician and the deputy head of Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney.
So how should we Juvenile Geriatrics prepare for the decades before the final 10% of life, those years of what might be illness and decline,when we can’t precisely know when that begins?
‘There is no second chance. I have to keep challenging body and mind until I reach the finish line’ … Jane Hutcheon. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
For me, discovering more about ageing has significantly shifted what’s important. There is no second chance. I have to keep challenging body and mind until I reach the finish line. Increasing my fitness has now become a daily fixture. I lift weights to build muscle mass so I can continue to run, walk, lift, swim and climb. I’ve consulted a dietician, given a family history of diabetes, and I carry a lengthening list of questions about all aspects of my health for whenever I see the GP. My journey towards ageing has begun.
Every so often I still get woken by the mortality alarm. But when it happens, I download my thoughts into a notebook, tell Mum I’m OK and remind myself that I’ve got this.
April 2nd 2023
10 Minutes of Mindfulness Changes Your Reactions
It’s a one-second lead over your mind, your emotions, your world.
- Rasmus Hougaard
- Jacqueline Carter
- Gitte Dybkjaer
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Leaders across the globe feel that the unprecedented busyness of modern-day leadership makes them more reactive and less proactive. There is a solution to this hardwired, reactionary leadership approach: mindfulness.
Having trained thousands of leaders in the techniques of this ancient practice, we’ve seen over and over again that a diligent approach to mindfulness can help people create a one-second mental space between an event or stimulus and their response to it. One second may not sound like a lot, but it can be the difference between making a rushed decision that leads to failure and reaching a thoughtful conclusion that leads to increased performance. It’s the difference between acting out of anger and applying due patience. It’s a one-second lead over your mind, your emotions, your world.
Research has found that mindfulness training alters our brains and how we engage with ourselves, others, and our work. When practiced and applied, mindfulness fundamentally alters the operating system of the mind. Through repeated mindfulness practice, brain activity is redirected from ancient, reactionary parts of the brain, including the limbic system, to the newest, rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.
In this way mindfulness practice decreases activity in the parts of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight and knee-jerk reactions while increasing activity in the part of the brain responsible for what’s termed our executive functioning. This part of the brain, and the executive functioning skills it supports, is the control center for our thoughts, words, and actions. It’s the center of logical thought and impulse control. Simply put, relying more on our executive functioning puts us firmly in the driver’s seat of our minds, and by extension our lives.
One second can be the difference between achieving desired results or not. One second is all it takes to become less reactive and more in tune with the moment. In that one second lies the opportunity to improve the way you decide and direct, the way you engage and lead. That’s an enormous advantage for leaders in fast-paced, high-pressure jobs.
Here are five easily implemented tips to help you become more mindful:
- Practice 10 minutes of mindfulness training each day. Most people find mornings the best time to practice mindfulness, but you can do it any time of day. You can find a 10-minute guided mindfulness training program, a short mindfulness training manual, and a link to a free downloadable mindfulness app here. Try it for four weeks.
- Avoid reading email first thing in the morning. Our minds are generally most focused, creative, and expansive in the morning. This is the time to do focused, strategic work and have important conversations. If you read your email as you get up, your mind will get sidetracked and you’ll begin the slide toward reactive leadership. Making email your first task of the day wastes the opportunity to use your mind at its highest potential. Try waiting at least 30 minutes, or even an hour, after you get to work before checking your inbox.
- Turn off all notifications. The notification alarms on your phone, tablet, and laptop are significant contributors to reactive leadership. They keep you mentally busy and put you under pressure, thereby triggering reactionary responses. They cause damage far more than they add value. Try this: For one week turn off all email notifications on all devices. Only check your email once every hour (or as often as responsibly needed for your job), but don’t compulsively check messages as they roll into your inbox.
- Stop multitasking. It keeps your mind full, busy, and under pressure. It makes you reactive. Try to maintain focus on a single task, and then notice when you find your mind drifting off to another task — a sign that your brain wishes to multitask. When this happens, mentally shut down all the superfluous tasks entering your thoughts while maintaining focus on the task at hand.
- Put it on your calendar. Schedule a check-in with yourself every two weeks to assess how well you’re doing with the previous four tips, or as a reminder to revisit this article to refresh your memory. Consider engaging one of your peers to do the same thing. This gives you a chance to assess each other, which can be both helpful and motivating.
We encourage you to give these tips a try. Although mindfulness isn’t a magic pill, it will help you more actively select your responses and make calculated choices instead of succumbing to reactionary decisions.
March 30th 2023
The Curious Case of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
“My body is as if someone had drawn a vertical line separating the two halves. The right half seems to be twice the size of the left half.”
- Moheb Costandi
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Some 40 years after “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was first published in 1866, accounts of hallucinations similar to those described by Lewis Carroll began to appear in the medical literature. In 1904, William Spratling, one of the first American epileptologists, published case studies of several patients for whom “everything looked bigger” just before their seizures; three years later, in 1907, the great British neurologist William Gowers also reported epilepsy patients who perceived objects to look “twice their size” during the aura preceding their seizures; and in 1913, the German neurologist Hermann Oppenheim noted that he had “seen a case of genuine hemicrania [“one-sided headache”] in which there was during an episode of violent migraine an indescribable feeling of detachment of the trunk or extremity after an hour or even a day of spontaneous dizziness.”
This article is adapted from Mohen Costandi’s book “Body Am I: The New Science of Self-Consciousness.”
The American neurologist Caro Lippman noted, in a 1952 paper published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, that “the great variety” of hallucinations experienced during the migraine aura were still “little known to the medical profession.” He incorrectly claimed that “there is no description in the migraine literature of hallucinations of the sense of body image,” adding that “over a period of eighteen years of intensive migraine studies I have collected many histories of such hallucinations from both men and women,” and he then went on to describe seven cases.
One case is that of a 38-year-old housewife whose headaches began during, and had recurred ever since, her second pregnancy, at the age of 19. “Some hours before the attack of one-sided headache and vomiting, and often during and after attack she may teeter or reel as though drunk,” Lippman reports. “With these symptoms often occurs a sensation of the neck extending out on one side for a foot or more; at other times her hip or flank balloons out before, with, or after the headache. Very occasionally she has an attack where she feels small — ‘about one foot high,’ [but] she says she knows the distortion isn’t real because she looks in the mirror to see.”
Another is that of a woman in her 90s who “stated that she had had classic migraine headache with nausea and vomiting . . . from childhood,” who “complains frequently of her left ear “ballooning out 6 inches or more” a few hours before onset of a mild migraine headache. This feeling of ear distortion did not bother the patient, however, because she, too, “could see in the mirror that it did not exist.”
In a third case, a 23-year-old secretary described her hallucinations in a letter to Lippman:
About every six months I would have a major attack that lasted for weeks and required hospitalization. It was at these times that I experienced the sensation that my head has grown to tremendous proportions and was so light that it floated up to the ceiling, although I was sure it was still attached to my neck. . . . This sensation would pass with the migraine but would leave me with a feeling that I was very tall. When walking down the street I would think I would be able to look down on the tops of others’ heads, and it was very frightening and annoying not to see as I was feeling. The sensation was so real that when I would see myself in a window or full-length mirror, it was quite a shock to realize that I was still my normal height of under five feet.
Another case is that of a 38-year-old woman whose hallucinations gave her “a very peculiar feeling of being very close to the ground as I walk along . . . as though I were short and wide, as the reflection in one of those broadening mirrors one sees in carnivals.” Lippman adds that “if this attack occurs while [this patient] is returning from the grocery store which is at the bottom of the hill on which she lives, the top of the hill seems ‘very far away.’”
“I wonder how I am going to get my hat on when one side of my head is so much bigger than the other.”
Another patient described to Lippman “this same feeling of being short and wide” with explicit reference to Lewis Carroll, calling it “her ‘Tweedle-Dum or Tweedle-Dee feeling,’” because it reminded her of the barrel-shaped twin creatures in “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,” the sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The remaining case reports likewise include descriptions that sound remarkably like those in Carroll’s Wonderland book: “the illusion of being taller than I actually am in relation to ordinary objects. . . . My head would seem far above my hands [or] much larger than the rest of my body”; “my neck stretches and my head goes to the ceiling”; “my body is as if someone had drawn a vertical line separating the two halves. The right half seems to be twice the size of the left half. I wonder how I am going to get my hat on when one side of my head is so much bigger than the other. After a few minutes of feeling large, the right half seems to shrink until it is smaller than the left.”
Patients who reported such hallucinations had hitherto often been dismissed as delusional, but Lippman astutely noted the similarity of their experiences to Alice’s as described by Carroll: “I would hesitate to report these hallucinations which I have recorded in my notes on migraine had not, more than 80 years ago a great and famous writer set them down in immortal fiction form,” he wrote in concluding his 1952 paper. “‘Alice in Wonderland’ contains a record of these and many other migraine hallucinations. Lewis Carroll . . . was himself a sufferer from classic migraine headaches.”
Subsequently, in 1955, the English psychiatrist John Todd notes the similarity of “bizarre disturbances of the body image” in the hallucinations of epilepsy patients and patients having migraine headaches and “proposes to describe the experiences of these patients under the general heading ‘the syndrome of Alice in Wonderland.’” Some have suggested that Carroll experienced such body image distortions himself, and that they inspired “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but this claim was challenged by an examination of his diaries, which found no entries referring to migraine until 20 years after he wrote the Alice books. A drawing and diary entry predating the books have since been discovered, however; both describe migraine symptoms, albeit not the ones described so vividly in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
Despite this long history, Alice in Wonderland syndrome remained obscure until relatively recently. In the past two decades or so, scientists and clinicians have started to pay more attention to it, due partly to advances in functional neuroimaging technology, which enable them to investigate the relationship between symptoms and brain activity. The early reports typically described the syndrome symptoms as “hallucinations,” but today they are more accurately described as “distortions of visual perception and body representations” arising from a “perceptual disorder.” Another defining characteristic of this disorder is a distorted perception of time, which Carroll also described: “The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, then dipped suddenly down . . . [and Alice] found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well. Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.”
Alice in Wonderland syndrome is thought to be very rare — fewer than 200 case descriptions have been published in the medical literature since Todd named it as such in 1955. The vast majority of these cases involve children, the average age of them being nine. In children, the syndrome is most often associated with encephalitis caused by infection with the Epstein-Barr virus; in adults, migraine is the most common cause, with the syndrome occurring in approximately 15 percent of those with migraines. Other causes include brain tumor, brain hemorrhage, scarlet fever, stroke, depression, and schizophrenia; and in 2011, doctors in Israel reported the case of an 11-year-old who developed Alice in Wonderland syndrome after being infected with swine flu (“H1N1 influenza”). The syndrome has also been reported during sensory deprivation, as well as during hypnotherapy and the altered states of consciousness that occur just before falling asleep and just before waking (the “hypnagogic” and “hypnopompic” states).
Lewis Carroll accurately depicted some of the most common symptoms of the syndrome, namely, the feeling that one’s body is larger or smaller than it actually is (“macro-” or “microsomatognosia”) and objects appearing larger or smaller than they actually are (“macro- or micropsia”). But patients have reported myriad other symptoms, including the inability to perceive color or motion, enhanced depth perception, illusory movement, the illusion that objects have been split vertically, objects appearing flattened and elongated, objects appearing rotated by 90 or 180 degrees, and seeing multiple images as if looking through an insect’s compound eye. Usually, such symptoms are not long-lasting, disappearing within a few minutes or days, either spontaneously or after treatment of the underlying cause; in cases of migraine and epilepsy, however, they may persist for years, or even throughout the patient’s lifetime. One or more of these individual symptoms are experienced more commonly in the general population, with one 1999 study showing that over one-third of the 297 adults sampled had experienced two such symptoms over the course of their lifetime.
We do not perceive the world as it really is; rather, our perception of the world is our brain’s best guess at reality, a neural construct built from the limited information it receives through our senses.
The distortions of body image experienced in Alice in Wonderland syndrome are usually consequences of some other affliction and can be disorienting, or perhaps a little frightening, but are otherwise harmless. They can, however, be a root cause, rather than a consequence, of other conditions, and, in some cases, they may be damaging, or even life-threatening — a prime example being anorexia nervosa.
As I write in “Body Am I,” we do not perceive the world as it really is; rather, our perception of the world is our brain’s best guess at reality, a neural construct built from the limited information it receives through our senses. This is also true of our body. To a large extent, we perceive our body in the same way that we perceive an object in the outside world, through multiple channels of sensory information that enter our brain: the sight of our body as it moves, the sounds it makes, the touch and pain signals that arise from our skin, our muscle sense, and our internal sensations. Consequently, interruptions in the stream of sensory information or disturbances in how the brain processes that information can alter our perception of the body, Alice in Wonderland syndrome being just one example of many. Indeed, we do not perceive our body objectively; we perceive it subjectively, from the inside, and the end result of our bodily perception is what each of us calls “me.”
Moheb Costandi, trained as a neuroscientist, is a science writer based in London whose work has appeared in publications including Nature, Science, New Scientist, and Scientific American. He is the author of “Neuroplasticity,” “50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know,” and “Body Am I,” from which this article is adapted.
March 26th 2023
This Is Why You Wake Up at the Same Time Every Single Night
It’s 3am and you’re wide awake. Again. What’s the deal? Stylist explains how to tackle this frustrating sleep issue – depending on what time you tend to wake up during the night.
- Kayleigh Dray
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
More from Stylist
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Images by Getty Images
Everyone knows by this point that a good night’s sleep is vital for our wellbeing. We know this. And so, when we find ourselves waking up inexplicably in the middle of the night, it’s easy to start worrying how our interrupted sleep will impact us.
Unfortunately, though, stressing out about a lack of sleep is unlikely to make the situation better. In fact, we have a tendency to over-monitor how much rest we’re getting; and this vigilance gets in the way of the kind of relaxation that is central to winding down.
Essentially, it’s a vicious circle. Go figure.
By all accounts, then, trying not to get anxious about not sleeping is almost as important – and as potentially difficult as – the issues caused by lack of sleep itself. So how can we go about doing this?
Well, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and assessing your sleep habits, including if (and when)you wake up during the night.
Now, first things first, some reassurance: it’s not at all unusual to wake up in the night. In fact, Dr Jose Colon, author of The Sleep Diet, says that waking up four to six times per night is typical.
“Nobody sleeps through the night,” he says. “This goes back to our caveman days where one would wake up, scan the environment, make sure there are no tigers, and then go back to sleep.”
But while waking up in the night is common enough, you should be able to get to sleep again within a few minutes. Often, people don’t even remember it happening.
If you don’t nod back off, there could be a larger underlying issue at play. And it’s here that you should pay attention to the time you wake up each night – if it remains consistent, it can reveal a lot about you, and your body.
Waking up between 9pm and 11pm
As this is typically most people’s bedtime, this would presumably occur shortly after falling asleep. If you find yourself affected, it could be a sign that you are stressed, worried, or anxious. As a result, your body has subconsciously entered flight or fight mode.
Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Time.com: “A general rule of thumb is that if you’re struggling to fall asleep at the start of the night, that’s due to anxiety or stressful life events.”
He adds that environmental issues – such as screen devices, a too-bright room, or noisy surroundings – can also trigger sleeplessness early in the night.
The solution: Try meditation, a relaxing yoga routine, or adopt a regular night time ritual to help calm and soothe you before bed. And ditch the screens for an hour before bed; try reading a book instead.
Waking up between 11pm and 1am
According to the Chinese Body Clock, the energy meridian that services your gall bladder is activated during these hours. As your gall bladder works to break down all the fats you’ve consumed during the day, waking up between these hours could suggest that you need to review what you’re eating before bed – or that you need to have your dinner earlier in the evening.
“Try to eat your last big meal of the day at least two to three hours before going to sleep,” says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. “And, if you are awake until late in the night and four or five hours have passed since you ate your last big meal, then you can have a little snack of something easily digestible – I suggest fruit – before bedtime.”
Waking up in this time frame is also associated with emotional disappointment, bitterness, and resentment; some suggest that you practice self-acceptance, let go of the mistakes that you or others have made, and focus on feelings of forgiveness before trying to get back to sleep.
The solution: Try having your dinner earlier in the evening, and avoid late-night snacking wherever possible.
Waking up between 1am and 3am
Your liver is being refreshed during these hours, according to the Chinese Body Clock, which means that, if you wake up during this time, your liver could have too much to do. Tweaking your diet and reducing late-night alcohol consumption could be the key to solving this issue.
Dr. Damien Stevens, a doctor of sleep and pulmonary medicine at the University of Kansas Hospital, backs the idea that drinking late at night is bad for your sleep cycle.
Speaking to Time.com, he says: “Depending on your metabolism, alcohol going to leave your system after a few hours.
“When that happens, you wake up.”
Timothy Roehrs, director of sleep disorders research at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, adds that many people do feel sleepy after a glass of wine or bourbon – but that the effects never last for long.
“The sleep alcohol induces is associated with intense slow-wave brain activity, which is considered to be the deepest, most restorative kind of sleep,” he says.
Once your body has broken down and metabolised the alcohol, the deep sleep phase of your cycle is over; instead, your sleep becomes fitful, as your brain waves are stimulated.
The solution: Say no to that night-cap.
Waking up between 3 and 5am
According to the Chinese Body Clock, this is when the meridian that services your lungs is strongest, replenishing them and giving them a boost of energy for the day ahead.
Waking up and coughing during this time could be a sign that you need to consume healthier food or breathe cleaner air.
The solution: Try to engage in some outdoor exercise at some point in the day. However, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan advises that we try to avoid any vigorous activity in the three hours before bed, as it releases the stress hormones in the body.
Waking up between 5am and 7am
This time is for the renewal and cleansing of your large intestine, according to the Chinese Body Clock. As this organ is responsible for clearing the body of toxic waste from our digestive system, waking up during this time could indicate a weakness in this area.
To help with the process, it’s recommended that you make sure you’re drinking enough water throughout the day. In fact, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan says we should all increase hydration to two litres of water per day if we want to sleep better each night.
You may also wake at this time if you are feeling emotionally blocked or restricted in your life in some way. It may also be a sign that you need to release and let go of guilt or burdening emotions.
The solution: Drink more water throughout the day, and spend some time addressing your emotions.
5 other factors that could be causing you to wake up in the night:
You need to use the toilet
Waking up in the night to go to toilet is a common issue – but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. To help combat it, many doctors suggest cutting out diuretics, such as caffeine and alcohol, in the afternoon and evening, as they can trigger overactive bladders into needing to pee during the day and night.
They also suggest cutting back on your fluid intake after 6pm, and working on strengthening your pelvic floor muscles with kegel exercises.
However, if you still find yourself waking up in the night to go to the loo, it’s worth keeping a ‘voiding diary’ for 48 hours, and booking an appointment with your GP.
They may be able to determine what the matter is with a simple exam and blood test – and, if not, they can always refer you to an urologist.
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), many people have trouble sleeping because they are too hot.
“Research has shown that there seems to be an ideal temperature for sleep and when this temperature is very high, it takes longer to fall asleep, and once sleep is achieved, it is broken up or fragmented and there is less dreaming,” they explain.
The ideal bedroom temperature sits between 15.5 and 18 degrees, so try to make sure your boudoir doesn’t get much hotter than this.
Marc Leavey, MD, a primary care specialist with Mercy Medical Centre in Baltimore, also suggests having a bath or shower before bed to help regulate your temperature.
“Taking a warm bath raises your temperature in the tub slightly, while exiting the tub triggers a slight drop in temperature—a signal that your brain associates with sleep,” he explains to Prevention.com.
You’re drinking alcohol shortly before bed
As previously mentioned, late-night food and alcohol wreaks havoc with our sleep cycles, so it’s best to avoid that nightcap and quit drinking a few hours before you go to bed.
This should give your body time to metabolise the alcohol before you fall asleep.
You’re stressed or anxious
Stress and anxiety are often linked to sleeplessness; it’s a good idea to take stock of your feelings and emotions, and to engage in stress-reduction activities, such as meditation, yoga, or progressive relaxation.
Focusing on your breathing can also help to soothe you and lull you to sleep – and the 4-7-8 breathing trick, devised by Dr Andrew Weill, is said to help people fall asleep in 60 seconds by acting as a “natural tranquilliser for the nervous system”.
So how do you do it?
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your front teeth
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Dr Andrew Weil insists that you should “always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth” – and, most importantly, make sure that your “exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation”.
You spend too much time on your phone
From your smartphone to your television screen, electronic devices are light sources that people tend to hold close to their faces.
Exposing your eyes to backlighting during the evening stops the body from making melatonin, the sleep hormone, and robs you of a sweet night’s slumber.
As Dr Nerina Ramlakhan explains: “Using electronics late at night means you are soaking in blue light, which can mess with the quality of your sleep by suppressing production of melatonin (the hormone that keeps your sleep/wake cycle in check), and it can delay sleep onset (the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep).”
She advises that you dim your room lights, make your last hour before bed a screen-less one, and make sure that your bedroom is a screen-free zone all together – yes, this includes the television.
Meet the Men Paying to Have Their Jaws Broken in the Name of “Manliness”
A growing number of men—often motivated by the darkest corners of the web—are paying vast sums to have their jaws broken and reshaped in the hope that a manlier mandible might transform them into “alphas” or “Chads.” Are they biting off more than they can chew?
Photography by Matthew Shave
March 2, 2023
Ali—all I can tell you about him is that he’s a young man in his twenties who lives in Western Europe—is pacing up and down the streets of Rome, killing time. The last time he was in the city, Ali managed to fit in some sightseeing: visiting the Vatican, checking out the Colosseum. But on this occasion he’s feeling too nervous for gladiators or crucifixions. You would feel nervous, though, the night before paying someone $21,000 (€20,000) to break your jaw.
Until then, Ali’s killing time. That’s why he’s talking to me. It’s lonely out there, away from home, edging towards anaesthesia. We’re on video call, but his camera is switched off so I can’t see his face. I figure he’s not ready to share it yet. Besides, this is the “before” phase. With any luck, he’ll emerge from the operating theater tomorrow looking like an entirely different person. A man with a strong jaw.
The medical terms for his procedures are a bilateral sagittal split osteotomy, a Le Fort 1 osteotomy, and a genioplasty. After splitting Ali’s lower jaw, upper jaw and chin respectively, surgeons will bolt the pieces of bone back together, restructuring—and advancing—Ali’s jawline.
Ali (not his real name) has been waiting for this day since 2020, when, amid the stasis of the pandemic, he began reaching out to cosmetic surgeons. But the seed was sown much earlier, in his teens, when Ali first felt himself fall behind his “better-looking” friends. As he saw it, they had no problem getting girlfriends, whereas he struggled. He didn’t consider himself ugly, but the guys around him seemed to channel a different sort of energy. It was crushing to see the genetic lottery at play; even more so when some of his friends were scouted as models. Online dating—the cold, hard stats of a low match count – only put the feeling into numbers.
Ali considers himself a deep thinker, “philosophical.” As a teenager he was a smart kid, albeit a little lazy, with a good memory and an eye for detail, which helped him start a career in engineering. Professionally, he applied that skill to technical drawings, construction blueprints. Privately, that instinct lazered in on the building blocks of his face.
In 2019, Ali started hanging out on Looksmax.org, an online forum in which men strive to achieve their “aesthetic potential”. Looksmaxing is a facet of the manosphere, that swamp of online communities that’s often a potent mix of toxic masculinity, men’s rights and misogyny. There, one can encounter a whole array of influencers, from pickup artists and provocateurs like Jordan Peterson to self-proclaimed misogynists like Andrew Tate. The manosphere is dominated by “red pill” ideology, which references the scene in The Matrix when Neo chooses to take a red capsule instead of a blue one and, in so doing, see the world as it truly is. To be “redpilled” can refer to any unsettling awakening; in this particular context, it describes an understanding of society in which modern men have become disadvantaged by a feminist power shift that leaves them unable to find sexual partners. Women, meanwhile—or so the distorted logic goes—can take their pick.
Deeper and more dangerous than the red pill is a worldview known as the “black pill.” Blackpillers believe almost every element of life can be determined by your physical appearance and the genetic hand you’ve been dealt. According to their brand of biological essentialism, relationships are largely a primal transaction. While Redpillers believe that they can attract a partner by triggering women’s supposed subconscious desire for an “alpha” mate—through money or so-called “game”—blackpillers believe those who don’t meet a certain threshold of attractiveness don’t stand a chance.
As you would expect for a forum with these ideas pulsing through it, Looksmax.org is home to pages of sexist and racist vitriol, but also detailed skin care tips and in-depth advice about gut health (although the site’s disclaimer specifies that it is not an alternative to medical advice). Ali didn’t identify with the incels; they were too despairing, he says, “the true troubled souls.” But he found the discussions about “lookism”—prejudice on the basis of appearance—convincing. He began to contribute in earnest, helping to compile guides and offering advice. Working on himself felt optimistic. In its own murky way, it was empowering. “It’s a community of people trying to look better and help each other,” he says.
The forum became a testing ground for Ali’s theories about personal appearance. A place to scour images of male models and find the common denominators in their appearances. He noticed that they have “certain shapes, certain facial structures… you start to get a database in your head.” Ali liked to look good: he went to the gym; he wasn’t overweight; he had a skin care regimen. But this mental database illuminated what—to him—now seemed to be his biggest flaws, which were confirmed bluntly when he posted a photo to the forum. His profile? Unsatisfactory. Jawline? Lacking definition. Chin? “Too close to my neck.”
Over time, Ali came to believe that it wasn’t just dating where a man’s appearance was an unspoken decider, but all the trappings of an aspirational lifestyle. “Generally we all want success in life,” he says. “And I came to the conclusion that if you are better looking—and better looking can be a really broad spectrum group—then you have better chances.”
It seemed that everything from his love life to his career could be boosted with an adjustment to this part of his face. Those “few millimetres of bone,” as incels often wail, between being hot or not. He booked the surgery, and boarded his flight.
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Henry Cavill. George Clooney. Robert Pattinson. (Any Batman, in fact.) Watch any Hollywood movie, flick through any fashion magazine, turn on Love Island and you’ll find the male faces you encounter are all carved in the same, angular form—a solid block of bone hanging below the face, prepped to block punches like a stubbly brick wall.
It wasn’t always this way. (Check out some classical frescos.) Nor is it a globally unified ideal: in China and Korea, men flock for surgery to have their jawlines softened, and feel no less manly for it. According to facial surgeon Hermann Sailer, it wasn’t until the 1930s and 40s that the desirability of the so-called “anteface”—a face with forward protrusion of features—began to take hold in the West. But amplified by Hollywood and ever-more-visual media, that —zero buccal fat, cheese-wire mandible, dimpled chin—has become a stereotype, and shorthand for a certain dominant masculinity.
Roll back the clock a hundred years and there wasn’t much you could do; your jawline, or lack of it, was up to genetics. Then, in the late 20th century, commercial plastic surgery arrived and—for good or ill—suddenly anyone with enough money could buy the face they wanted. As technology has advanced, bringing with it cheaper, and less invasive procedures like injectable fillers and Botox, the “superhero jawline,” or the “GI Jaw,” as one surgeon has marketed it, is increasingly available to all.
Jaw surgery has typically been a corrective measure—used to address medical issues, or among men transitioning. But men seeking cosmetic alterations, by either surgery or syringe, have snowballed since the pandemic, when the so-called “Zoom effect”—staring at yourself from unflattering angles all day—prompted a spike in requests for consultations. (According to The Aesthetics Society, the Zoom effect explains the 55 percent increase in men and women getting facial procedures in 2021.) Writing in Newsweek last year, plastic surgeon Dr Richard Westreich said that chin implants are his second most common male procedure, frequently alongside “submentoplasty; a surgical tightening of the jawline that creates more definition.” The result is youthful, slimming, ‘grammable.
It is precisely this effect that has led some men to start using injectable cosmetics. “Masculinisation fillers” are now being marketed by clinics as a lunch-break indulgence. TikTok teems with clips depicting jawline sculpting and “male model makeovers.” On YouTube and Instagram, videos drill into the “rule of facial thirds” and the science of the ideal profile, explaining the likes of the Golden Ratio (supposedly the perfect face should be 1.618 times longer than it is wide). Startups like Qoves Studio have begun to offer facial “aesthetics assessments” using AI. On Reddit, men post before and after pics for public scrutiny. As one poster wrote on r/JawSurgery in July 2022: “I don’t know what’s causing it, or where people keep getting the idea that they need jaw surgery, but it is out of control.”
Within the looksmaxing community, this fixation on mandibular aesthetics has generated a vast rabbit hole of content to tumble into. Ali sends me a link to one video, “How to rate the attractiveness of the eyes—part 3 (blackpill analysis)”, which discusses the importance of the angle of the lateral canthus (where the upper and lower eyelids meet) in relation to the medial canthus. One of the first comments is an essay-length response in which someone argues that the “jaw is law” and a weak jaw and chin is a “deadly combo”. (The ideal gonial angle—that’s the corner of your jawline where it curves up to your ear—is 112–118 degrees, if you were wondering.)
In other threads, celebrities such as Brad Pitt, David Gandy and Jeremy Meeks (the model formerly known as the “hot convict”) are idolized for their maxed-out masseters (jaw muscles) and the contours of their lower third. Incels in particular obsess over the “Chad” bone structure: “alpha” men with broad, angular jaws and “hunter eyes”. Many spend time “mewing”—a scientifically contentious set of tongue exercises developed by a British orthodontist, Jonathan Mew, which purportedly sharpens your jawline; on TikTok, #mewing videos now have over two billion views. Companies like Jawzrsize have also capitalised on the trend, marketing a silicon training ball with which to chew your way to alpha-dom.
This sort of content can have a powerful effect, particularly on younger and more insecure men. Men like Ted. Ted (also not his real name) always thought something was a little “atypical” about his face. Nothing to cause any particular agitation, just a fact that he would occasionally observe. The first time we speak, also over video call, he flashes onto the screen—fair hair and glasses combined for a geeky, cherubic charm—then makes an excuse to turn his camera off. Ted grew up in the suburbs in the American Midwest, then moved to Silicon Valley via Stanford. If he were to describe himself, it would be “eccentric and entrepreneurial.” At least, that’s what he puts on his dating profile. To his friends, he’s a “tech bro in denial.”
Ted, 27, was researching jaw surgery to fix his sleep apnea, and was excited to discover the visual improvement it could deliver. But as he researched the surgery, he fell into the “dark, macabre internet rabbit hole of aesthetics.” He posted a photo of his face on one forum, “just to be like, ‘hey, am I recessed?’” The criticisms came thick and fast. “It didn’t ruin my day or anything, but it definitely stung for a week or so,” he tells me. “And I imagine that would really hurt to a 15-year-old boy who stumbled across this.”
Ted had his surgery in May 2021, with Derek Steinbacher, a leading maxillofacial surgeon based in Connecticut. He is still pretty excited about it. The first time he saw his face afterwards was when he got up to use the bathroom, looked in the mirror and saw “an alien” looking back at him. Then he realized he was pissing blood everywhere as a result of a catheter inserted during the operation, and he was in agonizing pain because, well, his face had been cut open five hours earlier.
Now, Ted says, “jaw surgery is my special subject at parties.” Although he is yet to experience any meaningful changes to his life—it hasn’t actually affected his career or relationships, at least, not yet—he certainly feels more confident. He’s already noticed a subtle difference in the way people treat him. His friends call him “Chad” now, for starters. “You can quote me on this,” he says: “the incels were right.”
Then there’s Miguel (also not his real name), who is in his mid-30s, lives in Spain and works in tourism. Miguel discovered the looksmaxing community in 2020, and between the “trolls and sexless teens” he found himself impressed by the technical discussion of aesthetics: facial ratios, surgeries, anatomy, how the jaw “makes or breaks a face.” Like Ted, Miguel always thought something was “off” about his appearance, but until then, couldn’t tell what it was. “Unfortunately, knowing my flaws made me more aware of them,” he says. “I also learned about jaw surgery, which I didn’t even know existed before. I immediately knew I needed to have it.”
There are a number of specialist maxillofacial surgeons around the world with a reputation as masters of jaw surgery. Professor Hermann Sailer, who is based in Switzerland; Professor Mirco Raffaini, in Italy; Dr Paul Coceancig in Australia. The names bounce around the forums and roll off the tongues of the people I speak to. Miguel knew he wanted to go with one of the best, and aesthetics were top of his list, so he booked a consultation with Dr Federico Hernández Alfaro at the Instituto Maxilofacial in Barcelona.
The Teknon Medical Centre is a palatial private hospital in one of Barcelona’s upmarket neighborhoods, surrounded by a maze of hedges and palm trees that leads up to the entrance. The office of Dr Federico Hernández Alfaro, the director of the Instituto Maxilofacial, is on the top floor. It’s the best in the hospital, he tells me, a glass corner room that looks over the skyline, trees and sun-drenched rooftops that tumble down to the Mediterranean. On the rear wall is a bookcase decorated with pieces of cranium and jawbones among brightly painted ceramic calaveras—decorative skulls—from Alfaro’s regular holidays to Mexico.
If cosmetic surgeons are a type, then Alfaro is it: glowing skin, white teeth, a Rolex glinting on his wrist. He’s charming, confident, athletic—the sort of man that many men aspire to be. In his spare time he likes to kitesurf, a habit he picked up after going through a divorce (“Some people choose therapy,” he says). Some days he whizzes from the hospital down to the coast on his scooter to catch the breeze.
Alfaro has performed around 5,000 surgeries in his career. In the past, he says, most were remedial—to fix serious problems with the bite, or to address breathing problems such as sleep apnea. But Alfaro would find patients asking him, “I know you can fix my bite, but can you make my face look better?” Over the years, Alfaro has developed his own “orthofacial” approach. (There’s even an Alfaro-brand reference point, “the Barcelona line”, which is used to determine the optimal advancement of the mandible.) The way he sees it, the tweaks that other people pursue with Botox, fillers, implants and lifts can all be resolved with artful engineering of the skull. Repositioning the jaw, he explains, can “harmonise” the face. Moving it forward can balance out a large nose; it can plump the lips; vanish a double chin.
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Alfaro currently conducts 200 orthofacial surgeries a year. His rate of patients has doubled in the past five years, largely thanks to an influx of international patients. The majority of these used to be women; now it’s a 50/50 split. “Just like men are now more concerned about their skincare, how they dress, I think the same pattern is followed with facial aesthetics,” he says.
Most of his male patients, Alfaro says, are lawyers, engineers, and doctors. But tech workers make up a substantial proportion of his international clientele. “They spend their lives in front of the computer and are very easily able to search for resources,” he says. “They show up saying, ‘Yeah doc, I need a maxillomandibular advancement with a counter-clockwise rotation and a six-, seven-millimetre genioplasty…’ They are able to study their faces to a degree that scares me sometimes.”
The pandemic further accelerated this effect. Alfaro tells me about one patient who was unaware of having a problem until they had to spend hours in front of the computer staring at their weak mandible, their double chin. “More and more patients come to me saying they can’t upload a photo of themselves to Instagram without manipulating it,” he says.
Until recently, most people wouldn’t seek such a serious surgery unless they had medical reasons. Patients would spend hours in theatre, probably need a blood transfusion and take weeks—months—to recover. But Alfaro can reposition the upper and lower jaw in 90 minutes; patients are usually discharged the following morning. He’s proud of his work, and invites me along to watch.
For Alfaro, surgery day starts with a cold shower and a gym session. Today is no different. He arrives at the theatre clear-headed, places his phone and Rolex on a desk, mounts a head torch and bows his head for a moment of meditation. A young man is wheeled in on a bed, and the anaesthetist places a mask over his face. A photo of his smiling face is visible on a monitor, alongside 3D scans of his skull. This particular gentleman is here to have his jaw advanced. “For aesthetic reasons, he also needs a rhinoplasty,” says Alfaro, “but he’s going to see the results of this first.” The team set to work, pirouetting around each other as they administer lidocaine and adrenaline injections. A table of unsettling instruments is rolled close. “Have you had breakfast?” Alfaro asks, and reaches for the ultrasonic scalpel.
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The surgery is done through the mouth. First, the wisdom teeth are removed. Then more buzzing, as the mandible is cut. Alfaro asks for the music to be turned up—Britpop and indie—and then reaches for the hammer and chisel. “I think of myself as a sophisticated carpenter,” he says. There’s a crack, like the splintering of a lobster shell, and the front section of the man’s mandible, the lower jaw, is completely detached. Alfaro moves it forward into position using a splint to match it with the top jaw and fixes it into place with titanium plates that can remain in the body. The same process is conducted with the maxilla, the upper jaw, which Alfaro is able to detach via a small incision in the gum, part of a set of “minimally invasive” techniques that speed up recovery. Whirr. Tap, tap. Crack. “Shark Smile” by Big Thief plays in the background. The top jaw is positioned with another splint and locked into place.
To the tune of “Common People”, by Pulp, Alfaro shaves down a block of artificial bone to plug the gap in the jaw, and we’re done. He looks at the clock. One hour 32 minutes. “See how his nose doesn’t look so big now?” Alfaro says, admiring his work. “And his lips are projected.” A cold water mask is wrapped around the patient’s face, and he is wheeled off to recovery. In 30 minutes or so it will be time for the next one.
Alfaro always has an appetite after surgery (he actually loses weight, he says, from the concentration), so afterwards we head next door to a private health club for lunch. I ask Alfaro if he’s encountered the looksmaxing community, or incels. “I think we’ve heard from some of those”, he says. Some people show up with 20 photos of celebrities on their phone and want to look exactly like them. Or want to change their racial appearance. Or want radical changes that are just impossible to achieve. Alfaro’s marketing assistant, Maya Martinez, tells me they try to spot any red flags and direct those people to a psychologist. But picking up on mental health issues, or people with body dysmorphia, is one of the biggest challenges for cosmetic surgeons. I’m told the Instituto turns away around 15 per cent of prospective patients.
What about those who believe that surgery will improve their life? “It happens that some patients, when they achieve a normal or attractive face, they perform better in life,” says Alfaro. “But if that’s your main objective, I cannot guarantee it. I can place your bones in the optimal position to maximize your facial aesthetics, but there are some things in your face that cannot be changed. And nothing in your brain can be changed with my surgery.” He elegantly carves a piece of roast chicken from his plate and takes a bite. “We often see patients who expect too much out of surgery,” he says. “I cannot change your personality.”
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Six hours after signing the paperwork, Ali emerged from the operating theatre in Rome. He regained consciousness and felt surprisingly energetic, but was unable to walk, use the toilet, or eat. He shares some photos of himself post-surgery, his swollen face wrapped up in bandages. A mop of disheveled hair. Dark blood around his nose. He also shares some of his “before” photos, portraits he’s used for his dating profile. He’s well-groomed, donning a patterned shirt, striking poses in a park. He looks sweet, earnest, albeit a little uncomfortable in his own skin. It’s a vulnerable juxtaposition.
Ali spent that first day video-calling his friends and family, then was discharged to recover for a few more days in his Airbnb. There, he told me, he spent time looking in the mirror. Seeing his swollen face wrapped up in bandages staring back at him, he started to feel his anxiety rising. “I took a big gamble,” he says. “I started to struggle mentally, thinking, ‘What have I done? I’ve broken my entire face to look better and I don’t even look better now.’” All he could do, he said, was sip liquids and wait for the swelling to go down.
Love, and the pursuit of it, has never felt more like a marketplace. On dating apps from Tinder to Feeld, and even on more everyday social media, we now view ourselves as brands, vying for investment from potential matches. “You’ve got almost infinite choice,” says Ruth Holliday, a professor of gender and culture at the University of Leeds. “Then, at the same time, everybody’s trying to maximise their own possibilities.”
“And some men are just excluded from that,” she continues. “They fall off the bottom because they haven’t got a good job or stable income. They’re not particularly good-looking either, and then they withdraw and become incels and get angry with women from the sidelines.”
The red pill and black pill ideologies can harness this resentment, immolate it, and drive people to despair. For those that identify as “incels” (the term originally meant ‘involuntarily celibate’), the black pill is a particularly nihilistic truth to swallow. It can lead to suicidal ideation, violence and even acts of terror: in 2014, a gunman killed six students at the University of California before killing himself, after posting about his inability to form a relationship and calling for further violence against women. The call was taken up by another gunman, who killed 10 people in Toronto in 2018. In 2021, a self-identified incel killed five people in Plymouth. Fixation on a vision of masculinity that leads some men to choose jaw surgery can lead others to hatred.
Manosphere communities are often rooted in loneliness, insecurity and a feeling of being disempowered. It’s the same anxiety that is driving a record number of men to pay for hair transplants, Botox, and even leg-lengthening surgery; the desire to look healthy, youthful, competitive. Prejudice on the basis of appearance is real (though it is undoubtedly most acutely felt in the form of racism, or by those with disabilities or deformities). But even Daniel Hamermesh, an economist who quantified this effect in his book, Beauty Pays, concluded that investment in looks, whether through surgery, fashion or cosmetics, was usually limited in its returns. “Bad looks,” he wrote, “are not a crucial disadvantage, not something that our own actions cannot at least partly overcome, and not something whose burden should be so overwhelming as to crush our spirit.” As Kjerstin Gruys, author of Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall, has said, while those at the extreme ends of the beauty scale may have vastly different experiences in life, most of us are (sadly… or happily) pretty average.
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“I hope you see the moral dilemma,” Ali wrote in an email full of links to related videos and articles, “Looks affects our life that is for sure, but to what degree? Is it worth to change it? [sic] And in what circumstances not?”
That men are increasingly sensitive to – and compelled to act on – anxieties long felt by women is a sign of shifting ideas around masculinity. And although the manosphere sells jaw surgery as a chance to reclaim an “alpha” manhood under threat, the motivations for men to receive cosmetic procedures are as varied as men themselves.
For Sam Batterbury, 23, an animator from Canada, the choice to get chin and nose surgery was an empowered one. “I like to live outrageously and I guess, in our culture, getting a bunch of silicon in your chin is outrageous,” he says. Sam is bisexual; the icons he looks up to—Prince and Bowie— challenged the normative image of men and are a far cry from the likes of Andrew Tate (who, as many looksmaxers point out, actually has a receding jaw). Besides, he tells me, “I think you should be allowed to feel better about yourself for the sake of feeling better about yourself.”
Michéll Miodek, 35, from Sweden, underwent jaw surgery in response to crippling insecurity about his appearance that had impacted his mental health throughout his life. He remembers being taunted in the street, and would get anxious talking to people in the car, because they could see his profile. He chose the procedure after stumbling across an Instagram ad for Alfaro’s clinic. He was still wearing braces, he tells me, when he went on his first date after the operation, but felt confident enough to explain what he’d been through. They hit it off; they are now married and expecting their first child.
When I mentioned looksmaxing to Michéll, he looks at me blankly; he’d never heard of it. But most of the men I spoke to had encountered the gravitational pull of online communities bubbling with misogyny. Women (who remain by far the dominant consumer of cosmetic procedures) are constantly pressured into body dysmorphia and self-loathing, but it is uniquely troubling that so many men are seeking solace in communities lacking in empathy for the very people they seek to attract. It’s not always clear where Ali really stands on gender dynamics, having spent so much time immersed in those spaces. I ask if his experience has led him to empathise more with women and the stresses they experience. “I can understand the struggles,” he says. “I have a lot of empathy for people who are not good-looking.”
A couple of weeks later, I check in with Ali again. He’s at his mum’s house, recovering well and feeling more comfortable—and confident—in his new face. He’s wearing a gray hoodie and a beard, which he apologizes for; he’s still feeling too sensitive around his chin to shave. He looks a little swollen, but the change is evident: the contours of his lower third are more clearly pronounced. I ask if he’s happy with the results. “Well, it could have gone further,” he says, rubbing his bristles. “My surgeon was more conservative.” But he wouldn’t go back, even if it would deliver enhanced results. He underestimated the psychological impact of surgery, he tells me. It has been a challenging few weeks.
I ask if the forums have some responsibility for that: normalizing invasive medical procedures. He nods. “People talk way too easily about surgery,” he says. “People say, ‘Just do it, you’ll look better.’” Often, that blasé approach masks deeper problems. Ali was recently contacted by a young man asking about his surgery. He said he was worried about the cost, but was so depressed that if he didn’t have surgery soon he’d kill himself. “What do you say to that?”
Ali is feeling optimistic, though. Another couple of weeks pass and his mental health has begun to improve. He feels like people are being a little nicer to him, strangers offering compliments, which didn’t happen before. He reckons he’s getting checked out too. Recently an older woman kept staring at him at the gym. It actually creeped him out. “I felt sexualized, in a way.”
Lately he’s spending less time on the looksmaxing forums. “I don’t like half the stuff on the forum really,” he says. “I was listening to a podcast where the host made an interesting point about how on these forums you have to be like a thief—you steal all the information then leave the community so you don’t get the toxicity…you need to go in and extract the tiny amount that’s useful and get away.” He’s got plans to start a consultancy to help men who want to look better, drawing on everything he’s learned.
Yes, ‘Smiling Depression’ Is a Thing—Here’s How to Know if You Have It
Depression doesn’t look the same for everyone.
- Sarah Bradley
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Symptoms of depression seem pretty easy to spot: disinterest in things you used to love, an attitude that can change at the drop of a hat, a desire to eat all of the things (or none of the things).
But here’s the thing: Sometimes you can’t see that stuff—not because it’s not there, but because it’s hidden (yes, even to yourself). You can feel all of those depressed feelings, but still show up for work (and your family and your friends) with a smile on our face.
That’s what’s known as “smiling depression,” which, tbh, sounds counterintuitive, but according to Heidi McKenzie, PsyD, a clinical psychologist practicing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, depression and smiling are not mutually exclusive. Here’s what you need to know about “smiling depression,” including what to do if you think you have it, and how to get help.
What Exactly is “Smiling Depression”?
“People with smiling depression often mask the symptoms they are experiencing,” says McKenzie. “They can get up each day, get dressed, show up for work, and continue to interact with others in a way that belies how badly they are feeling inside.”
McKenzie says that smiling depression is essentially another name for high-functioning depression or persistent depressive disorder(PDD), a chronic level of sadness that can include sleep or appetite changes, feelings of hopelessness or fatigue, panic attacks, and loss of interest in favorite activities. So it’s a totally real thing, and it can leave you in serious pain.
Okay But Why Haven’t I Ever Heard of “Smiling Depression”?
If you’re looking for “smiling depression” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), you won’t find it, but experts are fairly comfortable using the term as a stand-in for mild to moderate categories of depression, especially if it prompts someone to seek help for their symptoms when they might not otherwise realize they have a problem.
“I think it’s important to use terms that people can relate to, that can destigmatize depression, and that can encourage people to say they need help,” says Karen Stewart, M.D., a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta, Georgia. “People may not know otherwise that what they’ve been experiencing can be attributed to depression.”
McKenzie agrees, explaining that the idea of “smiling depression” can go a long way toward busting the myth of the depressed person as someone who only stays in bed all day with the blinds drawn.
While some people with depression become bedridden (it can happen with major depressive disorder), many others are able to do their jobs, take care of their families, and even smile, laugh, or maintain their sense of humor, says McKenzie. Assuming you must be fine because you don’t fit the stereotypical picture of mental illness could do long-term harm to your health and well-being.
How Do I Know If I Have “Smiling Depression”?
There’s no single answer here, but there are plenty of signs and symptoms to watch for. If you’re feeling totally drained at the end of every day and have no idea why, McKenzie says you may be doing a lot of emotional legwork to fight through your depression. Here’s a few physical examples of how that might look, according to McKenzie:
- It takes serious effort for you to get up in the morning, do your hair and makeup, and get yourself to work. Once there, you can play the role of happy employee (asking your co-workers about their weekend plans or accepting lunch invites) but you might feel empty and disconnected while participating.
- You can power through your work day, successfully balancing a budget or managing a classroom of kindergarteners, but you struggle to maintain your focus; when you finally get home, you’re so exhausted you neglect all your personal responsibilities and fall into bed (or asleep on the couch) before dinner.
- Your self-care has totally dropped off the charts. You spend so much energy keeping up with the bare minimum that you’re skipping workouts, making unhealthy food choices, and dodging invites to hang with your friends.
- You’re constantly experiencing a cycle of negative emotions, by either feeling guilt or shame for feeling down, or by berating yourself for being lazy when you can’t find the energy to do something.
- You dabble in something called “passive suicidal ideation,” which means you aren’t actively planning to take your own life, but you don’t feel upset or distressed by the thought of dying suddenly (like in a car accident, for example).
I Think I Might Have “Smiling Depression.” What do I do Now?
First off, try to dismiss any thoughts of shame, blame, or guilt associated with the idea of depression. About 7 percent of Americans of all ages suffer from it every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is zero reason to feel embarrassed about saying you have it—or that you need help.
Secondly, Stewart recommends making an appointment with your PCP or a mental health professional ASAP for a thorough evaluation if you’ve noticed symptoms lasting most of the day for a minimum of two weeks. Being officially diagnosed with depression—and knowing which category of it you have—is important to finding the right treatment.
Speaking of treatment, that’s your third step. Thankfully, you have several options: lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication, says Stewart.”You can pick and choose from those three or do a combination of all of them.”
According to Stewart, lifestyle changes involve paying attention to your diet, sleep, and exercise habits, while medication usually involves taking a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), like Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil, which can give you a much-needed boost of mood-improving serotonin. And as far as therapy goes, cognitive behavioral therapy is a solid choice that Dr. Stewart says will teach you how to manage your thoughts and behaviors to improve your overall mood.
Whatever treatments you choose, the key is to get help—both professionally and from trusted friends or family members. Like any other health condition, it will take time to feel better, but relief can be found.
“Working on a day-to-day basis on developing a sense of self-compassion for not being at your best is an important step toward feeling better,” says McKenzie. “Know that the condition is highly treatable and take the steps to reach out for help.”
February 13th 2023
The Best Ways to Handle Teen Anger, According to Psychologists
Here’s what to do when the eye-rolls and outbursts start (because there are going to be eye-rolls and outbursts).
- Tamekia Reece
You probably expected to get some attitude once your kid hit the teen years. However, the constant eye-rolling, lip-smacking, and “You make me sick!” outbursts may be harder to handle than you imagined. It’s like your teen can skyrocket from calm to furious within the blink of an eye. If you’re being honest with yourself, the perpetual outrage concerns you, and likely pisses you off, too. But before you lose your cool, take a breather. How you deal with your teen’s anger can either bring the two of you closer — or push you further apart.
First off: What’s the difference between angst and anger?
The term “teen angst” gets thrown around so much that you probably assume your kid’s anger issues are all a part of that. However, angst and anger are different. “In general, angst entails anxiety, dread, or apprehension regarding the future,” says Bernard Golden, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Healthy Anger: How to Help Children and Teens Make Sense of and Manage Anger in Everyday Life. Anger, on the other hand, is about what happened or what your teen believes should or should have happened, he says. So, for example, if your teen feels apprehensive about taking the SAT practice test, she may be moody or pessimistic. That’s teenage angst. But if she already took the test and bombed it, she may be angry at herself and express it by snapping at people or ripping up her test results. Dr. Golden says increased anxiety can make teens more vulnerable to anger. Therefore, it’s possible that angst and anger can occur together, or that your teen’s anger may be a result of angst.
Why are teens so full of angst, anyway?
The adolescent years are filled with anxiety, frustration, fear, and other things that fall under the umbrella of teenage angst. Many teens don’t know how to process those feelings, so it can all come bubbling out as anger.
Part of it is physiology: “The hormonal changes that occur during adolescence make teens more volatile and more likely to be expressive rather than reflective,” says Dr. Bernard. Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, and decision-making, is still not fully developed in teens, so their emotions tend to override rational thoughts, he adds.
Teens also have a lot of stuff they’re trying to manage: school, homework, extracurricular activities, changing dynamics in friendships and relationships, social media, possibly a part-time job, and pressure to make huge life decisions like what college to attend. It can be overwhelming.
Other reasons for a teen’s hair-trigger temper are they’re feeling misunderstood, they’re cranky because they’re not getting enough sleep, or — a big one — they want more independence. As teens get older, they seek more autonomy and want more input in decision-making, says Mitch Abblett, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Helping Your Angry Teen: How to Reduce Anger and Build Connection Using Mindfulness and Positive Psychology. If you’re constantly telling your teen what to do, offering up unwanted advice, or getting after him if he makes a decision you don’t agree with, it’s probably infuriating him.
Anger itself isn’t bad.
Even though it may not feel like it when your teen is lashing out, her anger is normal. “Anger is a natural human emotion; it’s a message that your teen feels a need of hers is being threatened,” says Dr. Abblett. It could be she’s feeling hurt, frustrated, powerless, or her sense of security or safety or the need for connection isn’t being met.
Anger isn’t the problem; it’s the way it is expressed. “Anger is an emotion; aggression is behavior,“ says Dr. Golden. “There’s a big difference between feeling angry and talking about what you’re feeling, being able to work through it, and just acting it out by yelling, screaming, or breaking things,” he says. The goal is to get your teen to do more of the former than the latter.
If anger is out of control, it may be a mental health issue.
If your teen is engaging in unsafe or illegal behavior like substance abuse, self-harm, or getting in physical altercations; the anger is pervasive and happening with many people (not just one person); or the emotional tenor in your home is always negative and stressful, it’s time to seek help from a professional, Dr. Abblett says. Cognitive behavioral therapy (also known as talk therapy) can be helpful in these situations.
Sometimes anger could be associated with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, and substance abuse, says Christine B. L. Adams, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and co-author of Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships. “Psychiatrists can dispense any necessary medications like antidepressants or mood stabilizers, and both psychologists and psychiatrists can refer teens for substance abuse treatment,” she says.
Some ways of handling your teen’s emotions are better than others.
If your high schooler is displaying more of the typical variety of teen anger, there are ways to minimize the number of blow-ups the two of you have by following these guidelines.
- Don’t snap. Yes, it’s difficult not to flip out when your teen yells or says something crazy. “But if you respond by raising your voice, you’re going to cause an escalation of anger,” Dr. Bernard says. Instead, if you lower your voice and speak more slowly, your teen may do the same because emotions are contagious.
- Press pause. If things get too heated, walk away. Say, “It seems like our brains are too hot. Let’s continue this discussion when things cool down some,” Dr. Abblett says. Allow your teen to tell you if she needs a breather.
- Listen. We know you’re busy and don’t always have the time to hear about the latest school drama. However, saying, “It’s not that serious,” “Just get over it,” or worse, tuning your teen out — makes her feel unheard and disrespected, Dr. Abblett says. As much as possible, listen to your teen. Then, validate her feelings. “That doesn’t mean you agree with what she’s saying, but it shows you understand this particular thing matters to her,” he adds. If you can’t listen to your teen at the moment, let her know when you’re available.
- Model healthy emotions. “As a parent, you can tell your teen how you think they should behave and give them all kinds of strategies, but if you’re mishandling your own anger — yelling, screaming or doing something else that’s not constructive — your behavior is going to override whatever you’re telling your teen to do,” Dr. Bernard says. First, you must learn to manage your outbursts. Then allow your teen to see you work through it sometimes so she has an example to follow.
- Stop babying your teen. Treating your teen like a young adult and less like a young child may help reduce some of her anger. First, drop the bossy tone and authoritative stance. “Speak to your teen almost as you would to a coworker or other adult,” Dr. Abblett says. That’s not to say you’re going to let your teen walk all over you or you won’t set limits. “You’re saying to your teen, ‘I’m going to talk to you like a human being who has a degree of judgment and maturity because you do,’” he explains. Also, allow your teen opportunities to do age-appropriate things, such as meeting up with friends at a movie theater or making more decisions about her school activities and schedules. Not only will this help tame the anger, it’ll help her hone the decision-making and problem-solving skills she’ll need in adulthood.
- Set anger limits. Your teen needs to know it’s not okay to throw things, berate or curse at others, or get physically aggressive when upset, Dr. Abblett says. If she does, she needs to be held accountable, by repairing or paying for any damages, for example, or apologizing if she offended or hurt someone.
- Offer constructive options. Many teens lash out because they don’t know other ways to express what they’re feeling. Offer some suggestions for better outlets (when your teen is calm and not in the throes of a screaming fit). Deep breathing, writing in a journal, physical activity like walking or boxing, or listening to music can help ease frustration.
Tamekia Reece is a freelance writer in Houston, Texas specializing in women’s health, parenting and finances.
A Belief in Meritocracy Is Not Only False: It’s Bad for You
It encourages selfishness and discrimination yet it continues to be instilled in the minds of many.
- Clifton Mark
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
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‘We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else …’
—Barack Obama, inaugural address, 2013
‘We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.’
—Donald Trump, inaugural address, 2017
Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal. Politicians across the ideological spectrum continually return to the theme that the rewards of life – money, power, jobs, university admission – should be distributed according to skill and effort. The most common metaphor is the ‘even playing field’ upon which players can rise to the position that fits their merit. Conceptually and morally, meritocracy is presented as the opposite of systems such as hereditary aristocracy, in which one’s social position is determined by the lottery of birth. Under meritocracy, wealth and advantage are merit’s rightful compensation, not the fortuitous windfall of external events.
Most people don’t just think the world should be run meritocratically, they think it is meritocratic. In the UK, 84 per cent of respondents to the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey stated that hard work is either ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ when it comes to getting ahead, and in 2016 the Brookings Institute found that 69 per cent of Americans believe that people are rewarded for intelligence and skill. Respondents in both countries believe that external factors, such as luck and coming from a wealthy family, are much less important. While these ideas are most pronounced in these two countries, they are popular across the globe.
Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing.
This is to say nothing of the fortuitous circumstances that figure into every success story. In his book Success and Luck (2016), the US economist Robert Frank recounts the long-shots and coincidences that led to Bill Gates’s stellar rise as Microsoft’s founder, as well as to Frank’s own success as an academic. Luck intervenes by granting people merit, and again by furnishing circumstances in which merit can translate into success. This is not to deny the industry and talent of successful people. However, it does demonstrate that the link between merit and outcome is tenuous and indirect at best.
According to Frank, this is especially true where the success in question is great, and where the context in which it is achieved is competitive. There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth. In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.
* * *
In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.
The ‘ultimatum game’ is an experiment, common in psychological labs, in which one player (the proposer) is given a sum of money and told to propose a division between him and another player (the responder), who may accept the offer or reject it. If the responder rejects the offer, neither player gets anything. The experiment has been replicated thousands of times, and usually the proposer offers a relatively even split. If the amount to be shared is $100, most offers fall between $40-$50.
One variation on this game shows that believing one is more skilled leads to more selfish behaviour. In research at Beijing Normal University, participants played a fake game of skill before making offers in the ultimatum game. Players who were (falsely) led to believe they had ‘won’ claimed more for themselves than those who did not play the skill game. Other studies confirm this finding. The economists Aldo Rustichini at the University of Minnesota and Alexander Vostroknutov at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that subjects who first engaged in a game of skill were much less likely to support the redistribution of prizes than those who engaged in games of chance. Just having the idea of skill in mind makes people more tolerant of unequal outcomes. While this was found to be true of all participants, the effect was much more pronounced among the ‘winners’.
By contrast, research on gratitude indicates that remembering the role of luck increases generosity. Frank cites a study in which simply asking subjects to recall the external factors (luck, help from others) that had contributed to their successes in life made them much more likely to give to charity than those who were asked to remember the internal factors (effort, skill).
Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.
This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal. The ‘even playing field’ is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race and the like. Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. They suggest that this ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.
Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.
However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses. While this effect is most spectacular among the elite, nearly any accomplishment can be viewed through meritocratic eyes. Graduating from high school, artistic success or simply having money can all be seen as evidence of talent and effort. By the same token, worldly failures becomes signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.
This is why debates over the extent to which particular individuals are ‘self-made’ and over the effects of various forms of ‘privilege’ can get so hot-tempered. These arguments are not just about who gets to have what; it’s about how much ‘credit’ people can take for what they have, about what their successes allow them to believe about their inner qualities. That is why, under the assumption of meritocracy, the very notion that personal success is the result of ‘luck’ can be insulting. To acknowledge the influence of external factors seems to downplay or deny the existence of individual merit.
Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.
Clifton Mark writes about political theory, psychology, and other lifestyle-related topics. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
February 11th 2023
Road Rage Is Up. How to Deal With an Angry Driver — Even if It’s You.
Experts offer tips for calming yourself down or dealing with another driver.
- Angela Haupt
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
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Anecdotal reports suggest belligerent behavior on the road has generally increased during the pandemic. (iStock)
2021 was the worst on record for road rage shootings in the United States, according to data released by Everytown for Gun Safety, which found that more than 500 people were shot and wounded or killed in more than 700 incidents. The monthly average of 44 people killed or wounded by gunfire on the roads was double the 2019 average.
There are probably two main factors driving the increase in shootings on the road, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, research director for Everytown. “One is that Covid-19 has brought all kinds of new stressors into our lives, and that’s playing out in terms of health behaviors that are quite frightening,” she said. The other, she added, is a spike in gun sales.
Experts say the rise in road-rage-related shootings is a quantifiable slice of an alarming problem. While it is difficult to determine the frequency of other kinds of road rage incidents — such as making obscene gestures, throwing objects or sideswiping or forcing a fellow driver off the street — anecdotal reports suggest that belligerent behavior on the road has generally increased during the pandemic.
“It’s like the Wild Wild West out there, and it’s just unacceptable,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, senior director of external engagement with the Governors Highway Safety Association. The group manages the National Law Enforcement Liaison Program and frequently hears from officers about “angry drivers, road rage aggressiveness, people going incredibly high rates of speed and people being really unpleasant to each other,” she said. “It is very concerning.”
Retired police captain Greg Fremin, an adjunct criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, agrees. “Unfortunately, there’s been a serious increase,” he said. In the case of shootings, he said, “it’s a very hard crime to solve because it happens very quickly, unless there are witnesses that saw the license plate or vehicle. People say, ‘Oh, we heard the shot, but we didn’t know where it came from.’”
Below, experts help us understand the reasons people erupt into road rage and offer strategies for keeping yourself and others calm, and for responding to angry drivers.
Why we experience road rage
Humans have evolved to have a fight-or-flight response — a physical reaction to stressful events, said Ziv Cohen, a New York City-based forensic psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. “We have a brain that’s acutely wired for things that might provoke us into anger or fear or survival,” he said. “And we have very, very well-preserved neural mechanisms that are millions of years old to activate us very rapidly into a state of action — to either flee or to attack.”
That’s why, when we feel provoked on the road — say, someone cuts in front of us or has been tailgating us for 10 minutes — we sometimes respond in extreme ways that might seem irrational, Cohen said.
A research article published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass in February 2021 about how to regulate road rage outlined the factors that go into generating it. In some cases, a person’s threshold for getting angry might simply be lower than other people’s, said co-author James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, where he directs the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory. “These are people who just have an angry temperament — you might say they’re very prone to getting angry, and it doesn’t take much to make them angry.”
The degree to which people experience a range of negative affective states, including anxiety and anger, is partially genetic, Gross added. Still, not all people with irritable temperaments will display road rage, he said. And others, who don’t have any predisposition to anger, will end up in a stressful situation that provokes them so much, they’re suddenly raging.
During the pandemic, road rage probably worsened for a variety of reasons, Cohen theorized. People have experienced tremendous stress and economic hardship, and there’s been an increase in depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Combine all that, and it’s easy to see why some people have “less of an inner buffer for dealing with things that provoke them” on the road, he said.
How to calm down
If you’re prone to road rage, Gross and other experts suggest these steps to control your intense emotions:
Don’t drive if you’re worked up. The first step to preventing road rage, Cohen said, is to stay home if you’re not emotionally equipped to drive safely. “Don’t get behind the wheel if you’re very upset or irritable or hung over,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen during the course of your drive — it could be uneventful, but there could be things that provoke you that you’re going to be less able to cope with.”
Maintain comfort. If your car is too hot, or you’re listening to an upsetting podcast, you might be more likely to get agitated. Gross suggested making yourself as calm and comfortable as possible: Keep the car at a temperature you like and listen to soothing music, perhaps. It can also be helpful to practice deep breathing, especially if you feel yourself starting to get annoyed.
Give other drivers the benefit of the doubt. Reframe how you’re thinking about the situation, Gross advised: Tell yourself that maybe the black Durango that cut you off was rushing to the hospital or late for a make-or-break job interview. “Thinking differently, or reappraisal, is a big one,” he said.
It can sometimes be difficult to extend such grace to other drivers because the stakes are so high — and “mistakes can mean death,” said Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay who studies anger. That’s why it’s so easy, when you see someone being careless, to become “livid with rage.” But, as he points out, we can probably all remember a time when we didn’t look carefully when we changed lanes and accidentally cut someone off. He implores drivers to let these incidents roll the same way they hope others would do for them.
Have a plan in place. Road rage often demonstrates a lack of impulse control, said Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, Calif. One strategy is to have a carefully thought-out strategy for responding to someone who, say, cuts you off or honks at you repeatedly. “Know your trigger points,” she said. For example, decide in advance that if someone wrongs you, you’re going to “count to 10 and not put the pedal to the metal.”
If it happens repeatedly, seek professional help. “Road rage is a reflection of someone’s mental health overall,” Cohen said. If you’re having extreme reactions that you didn’t used to have, or if they’re putting you in dangerous situations, consider talking to a therapist. “You shouldn’t just normalize it and say, ‘This is how I am on the road,’” Cohen said. “It’s definitely an indication that something is going on.”
What to do if you’re the passenger
If you’re driving with someone who flies into a fit of road rage, don’t criticize them or yell at them to relax or calm down — those tactics will inevitably backfire. Instead, strive to stay calm and speak with a soft voice. “We can influence people a lot more by getting them to model our behavior than by actually telling them what to do,” Martin said. He suggests starting with something like: “Hey, I know you’re frustrated. Let’s take a couple deep breaths.”
Then, Martin recommends framing the conversation around how you’re feeling. You might say, “Hey, I’m feeling really scared right now.” That approach will “let them know in a passive way that what they’re doing is leading you to feel a bit anxious,” he said.
You could also offer to take over driving and give your companion a chance to collect herself while riding as a passenger, Cohen suggested.
How to respond if you’re being targeted
If you’re being pursued by a rageful driver, resist engaging in any way. “You don’t want to respond to their aggression with your own aggression,” Fischer said. “Absolutely don’t make eye contact, and refrain from gesturing. If you show your frustration, it’s going to escalate even more.”
If you’re on a multilane road, move out of the angry driver’s way. You could turn off the road to get away, said Fremin, the retired Houston police captain, but you shouldn’t pull over. “If you pull over and stop, they’re going to pull over and stop,” he said. “That’s what they’re wanting you to do.” (If you do end up in a scenario where someone approaches your car, lock the doors, lay on the horn and call 911. Don’t get out of the car, Fischer said.)
You should also call 911 if you’re being followed. “Tell the dispatcher you have an aggressive road rage driver that’s following you, and the dispatcher is going to start quickly relaying that information” to an officer, Fremin said. Don’t hesitate to involve the authorities, he added. “It’s just a very dangerous issue we have happening right now,” and it’s best not to take any chances.
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and full-time health editor in D.C. Her pieces have appeared in publications including Express, various Washington Post sections, Women’s Health magazine, USA Today and Vice.
Bonhoeffer’s “theory of stupidity”: We have more to fear from stupid people than evil ones
Evil is easy to identify and fight against; not so with stupidity.
- When we know something or someone is evil, we can take steps to fight it. With stupidity, it is much more difficult.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that stupidity is worse than evil because stupidity can be manipulated and used by evil.
- He also argues that stupidity tends to go hand-in-hand with acquiring power — that is, being in power means we surrender our individual critical faculties.
There’s an internet adage that goes, “Debating an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.” It’s funny and astute. It’s also deeply, depressingly worrying. Although we’d never say so, we all have people in our lives we think of as a bit dim — not necessarily about everything, but certainly about some things.
Most of the time, we laugh this off. After all, stupidity can be pretty funny. When my friend asked a group of us recently what Hitler’s last name was, we laughed. When my brother learned only last month that reindeer are real animals — well, that’s funny. Good-natured ribbing about a person’s ignorance is an everyday part of life.
Stupidity, though, has its dark side. For theologian and philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the stupid person is often more dangerous than the evil one.
The enemy within
In comic books and action movies, we know who the villain is. They wear dark clothes, kill on a whim, and cackle madly at their diabolical scheme. In life, too, we have obvious villains — the dictators who violate human rights or serial killers and violent criminals. As evil as these people are, they are not the biggest threat, since they are known. Once something is a known evil, the good of the world can rally to defend and fight against it. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion.”
Stupidity, though, is a different problem altogether. We cannot so easily fight stupidity for two reasons. First, we are collectively much more tolerant of it. Unlike evil, stupidity is not a vice most of us take seriously. We do not lambast others for ignorance. We do not scream down people for not knowing things. Second, the stupid person is a slippery opponent. They will not be beaten by debate or open to reason. What’s more, when the stupid person has their back against the wall — when they’re confronted with facts that cannot be refuted — they snap and lash out. Bonhoeffer puts it like this:
“Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed — in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical — and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.”
With great power comes great stupidity
Stupidity, like evil, is no threat as long as it hasn’t got power. We laugh at things when they are harmless — such as my brother’s ignorance of reindeer. This won’t cause me any pain. Therefore it’s funny.
The problem with stupidity, though, is that it often goes hand-in-hand with power. Bonhoeffer writes, “Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity.”
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This works in two ways. The first is that stupidity does not disbar you from holding office or authority. History and politics are swimming with examples of when the stupid have risen to the top (and where the smart are excluded or killed). Second, the nature of power requires that people surrender certain faculties necessary for intelligent thought — faculties like independence, critical thinking, and reflection.
Bonhoeffer’s argument is that the more someone becomes part of the establishment, the less an individual they become. A charismatic, exciting outsider, bursting with intelligence and sensible policies, becomes imbecilic the moment he takes office. It’s as if, “slogans, catchwords and the like… have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being.”
Power turns people into automatons. Intelligent, critical thinkers now have a script to read. They’ll engage their smiles rather than their brains. When people join a political party, it seems like most choose to follow suit rather than think things through. Power drains the intelligence from a person, leaving them akin to an animated mannequin.
Theory of stupidity
Bonhoeffer’s argument, then, is that stupidity should be viewed as worse than evil. Stupidity has far greater potential to damage our lives. More harm is done by one powerful idiot than a gang of Machiavellian schemers. We know when there’s evil, and we can deny it power. With the corrupt, oppressive, and sadistic, we know where we stand. You know how to take a stand.
But stupidity is much harder to weed out. That’s why it’s a dangerous weapon: Because evil people find it hard to take power, they need stupid people to do their work. Like sheep in a field, a stupid person can be guided, steered, and manipulated to do any number of things. Evil is a puppet master, and it loves nothing so much as the mindless puppets who enable it — be they in the general public or inside the corridors of power.
The lesson from Bonhoeffer is to laugh at those daft, silly moments when in close company. But, we should get angry and scared when stupidity takes reign.
Comment Does a person need to know anymore about how politcians get their jobs and how they work to divide , rule andruin the planet for their own short term ends and pleasure? R J Cook
February 8th 2023
Neuropsych — January 28, 2023
How you breathe affects your brain
Your breathing rhythm influences a wide range of behaviors, cognition, and emotion.
If you’re lucky enough to live to 80, you’ll take up to a billion breaths in the course of your life, inhaling and exhaling enough air to fill about 50 Goodyear blimps or more. We take about 20,000 breaths a day, sucking in oxygen to fuel our cells and tissues, and ridding the body of carbon dioxide that builds up as a result of cellular metabolism. Breathing is so essential to life that people generally die within minutes if it stops.
It’s a behavior so automatic that we tend to take it for granted. But breathing is a physiological marvel — both extremely reliable and incredibly flexible. Our breathing rate can change almost instantaneously in response to stress or arousal and even before an increase in physical activity. And breathing is so seamlessly coordinated with other behaviors like eating, talking, laughing and sighing that you may have never even noticed how your breathing changes to accommodate them. Breathing can also influence your state of mind, as evidenced by the controlled breathing practices of yoga and other ancient meditative traditions.
In recent years, researchers have begun to unravel some of the underlying neural mechanisms of breathing and its many influences on body and mind. In the late 1980s, neuroscientists identified a network of neurons in the brainstem that sets the rhythm for respiration. That discovery has been a springboard for investigations into how the brain integrates breathing with other behaviors. At the same time, researchers have been finding evidence that breathing may influence activity across wide swaths of the brain, including ones with important roles in emotion and cognition.
“Breathing has a lot of jobs,” says Jack L. Feldman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coauthor of a recent article on the interplay of breathing and emotion in the Annual Review of Neuroscience. “It’s very complicated because we’re constantly changing our posture and our metabolism, and it has to be coordinated with all these other behaviors.”
Each breath a symphony of lung, muscle, brain
Every time you inhale, your lungs fill with oxygen-rich air that then diffuses into your bloodstream to be distributed throughout your body. A typical pair of human lungs contains about 500 million tiny sacs called alveoli, the walls of which are where gases pass between the airway and bloodstream. The total surface area of this interface is about 750 square feet — a bit more than the square footage of a typical one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, and a bit less than that of a racquetball court.
“The remarkable thing about mammals, including humans, is that we pack an enormous amount of surface area into our chests,” says Feldman. More surface area means more gas is exchanged per second.
But the lungs can’t do it alone. They’re essentially limp sacks of tissue. “In order for this to work, the lungs have to be pumped like a bellows,” Feldman says. And they are — with each inhalation, the diaphragm muscle at the bottom of the chest cavity contracts, moving downward about half an inch. At the same time, the intercostal muscles between the ribs move the rib cage up and out — all of which expands the lungs and draws in air. (If you’ve ever had the wind knocked out of you by a blow to the stomach, you know all about the diaphragm; and if you’ve eaten barbecued ribs, you have encountered intercostal muscles.)
At rest, these muscles contract only during inhalation. Exhalation occurs passively when the muscles relax and the lungs deflate. During exercise, different sets of muscles contract to actively force out air and speed up respiration.
Unlike the heart muscle, which has pacemaker cells that set its rhythm, the muscles that control breathing take their orders from the brain. Given the life-enabling importance of those brain signals, it took a surprisingly long time to track them down. One of the first to ponder their source was Galen, the Greek physician who noticed that gladiators whose necks were broken above a certain level were unable to breathe normally. Later experiments pointed to the brainstem, and in the 1930s, the British physiologist Edgar Adrian demonstrated that the dissected brainstem of a goldfish continues to produce rhythmic electrical activity, which he believed to be the pattern-generating signal underlying respiration.
But the exact location of the brainstem respiratory-pattern generator remained unknown until the late 1980s, when Feldman and colleagues narrowed it down to a network of about 3,000 neurons in the rodent brainstem (in humans it contains about 10,000 neurons). It’s now called the preBötzinger Complex (preBötC). Neurons there spontaneously exhibit rhythmic bursts of electrical activity that, relayed through intermediate neurons, direct the muscles that control breathing.
Over the years, some people have assumed Bötzinger must have been a famous anatomist, Feldman says, perhaps a German or Austrian. But in fact the name came to him in a flash during a dinner at a scientific conference where he suspected a colleague was inappropriately about to claim the discovery for himself. Feldman clinked his glass to propose a toast and suggested naming the brain region after the wine being served, which came from the area around Bötzingen, Germany. Perhaps lubricated by said wine, the others agreed, and the name stuck. “Scientists are just as weird as anyone else,” Feldman says. “We have fun doing things like this.”
Pinpointing breath’s rhythm setters
Much of Feldman’s subsequent research has focused on understanding exactly how neurons in the preBötC generate the breathing rhythm. This work has also laid a foundation for his lab and others to investigate how the brain orchestrates the interplay between breathing and other behaviors that require alterations in breathing.
Sighing is one interesting example. A long, deep breath can express many things: sadness, relief, resignation, yearning, exhaustion. But we humans aren’t the only ones who sigh — it’s thought that all mammals do — and it may be because sighing has an important biological function in addition to its expressive qualities. Humans sigh every few minutes, and each sigh begins with an inhale that takes in about twice as much air as a normal breath. Scientists suspect this helps pop open collapsed alveoli, the tiny chambers in the lung where gas exchange occurs, much as blowing into a latex glove pops open the fingers. Several lines of evidence support this idea: Hospital ventilators programmed to incorporate periodic sighing, for example, have been shown to improve lung function and maintain patients’ blood oxygen levels.
In a study published in 2016 in Nature, Feldman and colleagues identified four small populations of neurons that appear to be responsible for generating sighs in rodents. Two of these groups of neurons reside in a brainstem region near the preBötC, and they send signals to the other two groups, which reside inside the preBötC. When the researchers killed these preBötC neurons with a highly selective toxin, the rats ceased to sigh, but their breathing remained robust. On the other hand, when scientists injected neuropeptides that activate the neurons, the rats sighed 10 times more frequently. In essence, the researchers conclude, these four groups of neurons form a circuit that tells preBötC to interrupt its regular program of normal-sized breaths and order up a deeper breath.
The preBötC also has a role in coordinating other behaviors with breathing. One of Feldman’s collaborators on the sighing paper, neuroscientist Kevin Yackle, and colleagues recently used mice to investigate interactions between breathing and vocalizations. When separated from their nest, newborn mice make ultrasonic cries, too high-pitched for humans to hear. There are typically several cries at regular intervals within a single breath, not unlike the syllables in human speech, says Yackle, who’s now at the University of California, San Francisco. “You have this slower breathing rhythm and then nested within it you have this faster vocalization rhythm,” he says.
To figure out how this works, the researchers worked their way backwards from the larynx, the part of the throat involved in producing sound. They used anatomical tracers to identify the neurons that control the larynx and follow their connections back to a cluster of cells in the brainstem, in an area they named the intermediate reticular oscillator (iRO). Using a variety of techniques, the researchers found that killing or inhibiting iRO neurons removes the ability to vocalize a cry, and stimulating them increases the number of cries per breath.
When the researchers dissected out slices of brain tissue with iRO neurons, the cells kept firing in a regular pattern. “These neurons produce a rhythm that’s exactly like the cries in the animal, where it’s faster than but nested within the preBötC breathing rhythm,” Yackle says.
Additional experiments suggested that iRO neurons help integrate vocalizations with breathing by telling the preBötC to make tiny inhalations that interrupt exhalation — enabling a series of brief cries to fit neatly within a single exhaled breath. That is, rhythmic crying isn’t produced by a series of exhalations, but rather from one long exhalation with several interruptions.
The findings, reported earlier this year in Neuron, may have implications for understanding human language. The number of syllables per second falls within a relatively narrow range across all human languages, Yackle says. Perhaps, he suggests, that’s due to constraints imposed by the need to coordinate vocalizations with breathing.
Setting the pace in the brain
Recent studies have suggested that breathing can influence people’s performance on a surprisingly wide range of lab tests. Where someone is in the cycle of inhalation and exhalation can influence abilities as diverse as detecting a faint touch and distinguishing three-dimensional objects. One study found that people tend to inhale just before a cognitive task — and that doing so tends to improve performance. Several have found that it is only breathing through the nose that has these effects; breathing through the mouth does not.
One emerging idea about how this might work focuses on well-documented rhythmic oscillations of electrical activity in the brain. These waves, often measured with electrodes on the scalp, capture the cumulative activity of thousands of neurons, and for decades some neuroscientists have argued that they reflect communication between far-flung brain regions that could underlie important aspects of cognition. They could be, for example, how the brain integrates sensory information processed separately in auditory and visual parts of the brain to produce what we experience as a seamless perception of a scene’s sounds and sights. Some scientists have even proposed that such synchronized activity could be the basis of consciousness itself (needless to say, this has been hard to prove).
Growing evidence suggests breathing may set the pace for some of these oscillations. In experiments with rodents, several research teams have found that the breathing rhythm influences waves of activity in the hippocampus, a region critical for learning and memory. During wakefulness, the collective electrical activity of neurons in the hippocampus rises and falls at a consistent rate — typically between six and 10 times per second. This theta rhythm, as it’s called, occurs in all animals that have been studied, including humans.
In a 2016 study, neuroscientist Adriano Tort at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil and colleagues set out to study theta oscillations but noticed that their electrodes were also picking up another rhythm, a slower one with about three peaks per second, roughly the same as a resting mouse’s respiration rate. At first they worried it was an artifact, Tort says, perhaps caused by an unstable electrode or the animal’s movements. But additional experiments convinced them that not only was the rhythmic activity real and synched with respiration, but also that it acted like a metronome to set the pace for the faster theta oscillations in the hippocampus.
Around the same time, neuroscientist Christina Zelano and colleagues reported similar findings in humans. Using data from electrodes placed by surgeons on the brains of epilepsy patients to monitor their seizures, the researchers found that natural breathing synchronizes oscillations within several brain regions, including the hippocampus and the amygdala, an important player in emotional processing. This synchronizing effect diminished when the researchers asked subjects to breathe through their mouth, suggesting that sensory feedback from nasal airflow plays a key role.
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Not only does the respiration rhythm synchronize activity in brain regions involved in emotion and memory, it can also affect people’s performance on tasks involving emotion and memory, Zelano and colleagues found. In one experiment they monitored subjects’ respiration and asked them to identify the emotion expressed by people in a set of photos developed by psychologists to test emotion recognition. Subjects were quicker to identify fearful faces when the photo appeared as they were taking a breath compared to during exhalation. In a different test, subjects more accurately remembered whether they’d seen a photo previously when it was presented as they inhaled. Again, the effects were strongest when subjects breathed through the nose.
More recent work suggests the respiratory rhythm could synchronize activity not just within but also between brain regions. In one study, neuroscientists Nikolaos Karalis and Anton Sirota found that the respiration rate synchronizes activity between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex in sleeping mice. This synchronization could play a role in making long-term memories, Karalis and Sirota suggest in a paper published earlier this year in Nature Communications. Many neuroscientists think memories initially form in the hippocampus before being transferred during sleep to the cortex for long-term storage — a process thought to require synchronized activity between the hippocampus and cortex.
For Tort, such findings suggest there may be important links between respiration and brain function, but he says more work is needed to connect the dots. The evidence that breathing influences brain oscillations is strong, he says. The challenge now is figuring out what that means for behavior, cognition and emotion.
Controlled breath, calm mind?
For millennia, practitioners of yoga and other ancient meditation traditions have practiced controlled breathing as a means of influencing their state of mind. In recent years, researchers have become increasingly interested in the biological mechanisms of these effects and how they might be applied to help people with anxiety and mood disorders.
One challenge has been separating the effects of breathing from other aspects of these practices, says Helen Lavretsky, a psychiatrist at UCLA. “It’s really hard to distinguish what’s most effective when you’re doing this multicomponent intervention where there’s stretching and movement and visualization and chanting,” she says. Not to mention the cultural and spiritual components many people attach to the practice.
For many years, Lavretsky has collaborated with neuroscientists and others to investigate how different types of meditation affect the brain and biological markers of stress and immune function. She has found, among other things, that meditation can improve performance on lab tests of memory and alter brain connectivity in older people with mild cognitive impairment, a potential precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. In more recent studies, which have yet to be published, she’s moved toward investigating whether the breath control methods alone can help.
“Even though I’m a psychiatrist, my research is on how to avoid [prescribing] drugs,” says Lavretsky, who is also a certified yoga instructor. She thinks breathing exercises might be a good alternative for many people, especially with more research on which breathing techniques work best for which conditions and how they might be tailored to individuals. “We all have this tool, we just have to learn how to use it,” she says.
February 7th 2023
Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence
“Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does.”
By Maria Popova
“Intelligence supposes good will,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.” Yet our efforts to define and measure intelligence have been pocked with insensitivity to nuance, to diversity, to the myriad possible ways of paying attention to the world. Within the human realm, there is the dark cultural history of IQ. Beyond the human realm, there is the growing abashed understanding that other forms of intelligence exist, capable of comprehending and navigating the world in ways wildly different from ours, no less successful and no less poetic. One measure of our own intelligence may be the degree of our openness to these other ways of being — the breadth of mind and generosity of spirit with which we recognize and regard otherness.
The science-reverent English artist James Bridle invites such a broadening of mind in Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (public library). He writes:
The tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flowered everywhere.
There are many ways of “doing” intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially… Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does; it is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act. We have already learned — from the gibbons, gorillas and macaques — that intelligence is relational: it matters how and where you do it, what form your body gives it, and with whom it connects. Intelligence is not something which exists just in the head — literally, in the case of the octopus, who does intelligence with its whole body. Intelligence is one among many ways of being in the world: it is an interface to it; it makes the world manifest.
Borrowing ecological philosopher David Abram’s notion of “the more-than-human world,” he adds:
Intelligence, then, is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized, in all the multiple forms that it takes. The task is to figure out how to become aware of it, to associate with it, to make it manifest. This process is itself one of entanglement, of opening ourselves to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more-than-human world, much deeper and more extensive than those which can be performed in the artificial constraints of the laboratory. It involves changing ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours, rather than altering the conditions of our non-human communicants.
To think of intelligence in this way is not to reduce its definition, but to enlarge it. Anthropocentric science has argued for centuries that redefining intelligence in this way is to make it meaningless, but this is not the case. To define intelligence simply as what humans do is the narrowest way we could possibly think about it — and it is ultimately to narrow ourselves, and lessen its possible meaning. Rather, by expanding our definition of intelligence, and the chorus of minds which manifest it, we might allow our own intelligence to flower into new forms and new emergent ways of being and relating. The admittance of general, universal, active intelligence is a necessary part of our vital re-entanglement with the more-than-human world.
A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the emergence of a new branch on the tree of life — a “mechanical kingdom” of our own making, comprising our machines governed by a “self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race” — Bridle offers an optimistic implication of this redefinition for the future of what we now call “artificial intelligence”:
If intelligence, rather than being an innate, restrictive set of behaviours, is in fact something which arises from interrelationships, from thinking and working together, there need be nothing artificial about it all. If all intelligence is ecological — that is, entangled, relational, and of the world — then artificial intelligence provides a very real way for us to come to terms with all the other intelligences which populate and manifest through the planet.
What if, instead of being the thing that separates us from the world and ultimately supplants us, artificial intelligence is another flowering, wholly its own invention, but one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a greater accommodation with the world? Rather than being a tool to further exploit the planet and one another, artificial intelligence is an opening to other minds, a chance to fully recognize a truth that has been hidden from us for so long. Everything is intelligent, and therefore — along with many other reasons — is worthy of our care and conscious attention.
Complement with Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, Ursula K. Le Guin on the poetry of penguins, and Marilyn Nelson’s spare, splendid poem about octopus intelligence, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI.
February 6th 2023
The Cause of Depression Is Probably Not What You Think
January 26, 2023
Depression has often been blamed on low levels of serotonin in the brain. That answer is insufficient, but alternatives are coming into view and changing our understanding of the disease.
eople often think they know what causes chronic depression. Surveys indicate that more than 80% of the public blames a “chemical imbalance” in the brain. That idea is widespread in pop psychology and cited in research papers and medical textbooks. Listening to Prozac, a book that describes the life-changing value of treating depression with medications that aim to correct this imbalance, spent months on the New York Times bestseller list.
The unbalanced brain chemical in question is serotonin, an important neurotransmitter with fabled “feel-good” effects. Serotonin helps regulate systems in the brain that control everything from body temperature and sleep to sex drive and hunger. For decades, it has also been touted as the pharmaceutical MVP for fighting depression. Widely prescribed medications like Prozac (fluoxetine) are designed to treat chronic depression by raising serotonin levels.
Yet the causes of depression go far beyond serotonin deficiency. Clinical studies have repeatedly concluded that the role of serotonin in depression has been overstated. Indeed, the entire premise of the chemical-imbalance theory may be wrong, despite the relief that Prozac seems to bring to many patients.
If you were still of the opinion that it was simply a chemical imbalance of serotonin, then yeah, it’s pretty damning.
Taylor Braund, Black Dog Institute
A literature review that appeared in Molecular Psychiatry in July was the latest and perhaps loudest death knell for the serotonin hypothesis, at least in its simplest form. An international team of scientists led by Joanna Moncrieff of University College London screened 361 papers from six areas of research and carefully evaluated 17 of them. They found no convincing evidence that lower levels of serotonin caused or were even associated with depression. People with depression didn’t reliably seem to have less serotonin activity than people without the disorder. Experiments in which researchers artificially lowered the serotonin levels of volunteers didn’t consistently cause depression. Genetic studies also seemed to rule out any connection between genes affecting serotonin levels and depression, even when the researchers tried to consider stress as a possible cofactor.
“If you were still of the opinion that it was simply a chemical imbalance of serotonin, then yeah, it’s pretty damning,” said Taylor Braund, a clinical neuroscientist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Black Dog Institute in Australia who was not involved in the new study. (“The black dog” was Winston Churchill’s term for his own dark moods, which some historians speculate were depression.)
The realization that serotonin deficits by themselves probably don’t cause depression has left scientists wondering what does. The evidence suggests that there may not be a simple answer. In fact, it’s leading neuropsychiatric researchers to rethink what depression might be.
Treating the Wrong Disease
The focus on serotonin in depression began with a tuberculosis drug. In the 1950s, doctors started prescribing iproniazid, a compound developed to target lung-dwelling Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. The drug wasn’t particularly good for treating tuberculosis infections — but it did bless some patients with an unexpected and pleasant side effect. “Their lung function and everything wasn’t getting much better, but their mood tended to improve,” said Gerard Sanacora, a clinical psychiatrist and the director of the depression research program at Yale University.
Perplexed by this outcome, researchers began studying how iproniazid and related drugs worked in the brains of rats and rabbits. They discovered that the drugs blocked the animals’ body from absorbing compounds called amines — which include serotonin, a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain.
Several prominent psychologists, among them the late clinicians Alec Coppen and Joseph Schildkraut, seized on the idea that depression could be caused by a chronic deficiency of serotonin in the brain. The serotonin hypothesis of depression went on to inform decades of drug development and neuroscientific research. During the late 1980s, it led to the introduction of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs, like Prozac. (The drugs raise levels of serotonin activity by slowing down the neurotransmitter’s absorption by neurons.) Today, the serotonin hypothesis is still the explanation most often given to patients with depression when they’re prescribed SSRIs.
But doubts about the serotonin model were circulating by the mid-1990s. Some researchers noticed that SSRIs often fell short of expectations and didn’t improve significantly on the performance of older drugs like lithium. “The studies didn’t really stack up,” Moncrieff said.
By the early 2000s, few experts believed that depression is caused solely by lack of serotonin, but no one ever attempted a comprehensive evaluation of the evidence. That eventually prompted Moncrieff to organize such a study, “so that we could get a view as to whether this theory was supported or not,” she said.
She and her colleagues found that it wasn’t, but the serotonin hypothesis still has adherents. Last October — just a few months after their review appeared — a paper published online in Biological Psychiatry claimed to offer a concrete validation of the serotonin theory. Other researchers remain skeptical, however, because the study looked at only 17 volunteers. Moncrieff dismissed the results as statistically insignificant.
A Different Chemical Imbalance
Although serotonin levels don’t seem to be the primary driver of depression, SSRIs show a modest improvement over placebos in clinical trials. But the mechanism behind that improvement remains elusive. “Just because aspirin relieves a headache, [it] doesn’t mean that aspirin deficits in the body are causing headaches,” said John Krystal, a neuropharmacologist and chair of the psychiatry department at Yale University. “Fully understanding how SSRIs produce clinical change is still a work in progress.”
Speculation about the source of that benefit has spawned alternative theories about the origins of depression.
Despite the “selective” in their name, some SSRIs change the relative concentrations of chemicals other than serotonin. Some clinical psychiatrists believe that one of the other compounds may be the true force inducing or relieving depression. For example, SSRIs increase the circulating levels of the amino acid tryptophan, a serotonin precursor which helps regulate sleep cycles. Over the last 15 years or so, this chemical has emerged as a strong candidate in its own right for staving off depression. “There’s quite good evidence from tryptophan depletion studies,” said Michael Browning, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of Oxford.
A number of tryptophan depletion studies found that about two-thirds of people who have recently recovered from a depressive episode will relapse when given diets artificially low in tryptophan. People with a family history of depression also appear vulnerable to tryptophan depletion. And tryptophan has a secondary effect of raising serotonin levels in the brain.
Recent evidence also suggests that both tryptophan and serotonin may contribute to the regulation of bacteria and other microbes growing in the gut, and chemical signals from these microbiota could affect mood. While the exact mechanisms linking the brain and gut are still poorly understood, the connection seems to influence how the brain develops. However, because most tryptophan depletion studies so far have been small, the matter is far from settled.
Other neurotransmitters like glutamate, which plays an essential role in memory formation, and GABA, which inhibits cells from sending messages to one another, may be involved in depression as well, according to Browning. It’s possible that SSRIs work by tweaking the amounts of these compounds in the brain.
Moncrieff sees the hunt for other chemical imbalances at the root of depression as akin to rebranding rather than a truly novel line of research. “I would suggest that they are still subscribing to something like the serotonin hypothesis,” she said — the idea that antidepressants work by reversing some chemical abnormality in the brain. She thinks instead that serotonin has such widespread effects in the brain that we may have trouble disentangling their direct antidepressant effect from other changes in our emotions or sensations that temporarily override feelings of anxiety and despair.
Not all theories of depression hinge on neurotransmitter deficiencies. Some look for culprits at the genetic level.
When the first roughly complete draft sequence of the human genome was announced in 2003, it was widely hailed as the foundation of a new era in medicine. In the two decades since then, researchers have identified genes that underlie a huge spectrum of disorders, including about 200 genes that have been linked to a risk of depression. (Several hundred more genes have been identified as possibly raising the risk.)
Just because aspirin relieves a headache, [it] doesn’t mean that aspirin deficits in the body are causing headaches.
John Krystal, Yale University
“It’s really important that people understand that there is a genetics of depression,” Krystal said. “Until very recently, only psychological and environmental factors were considered.”
Our knowledge of the genetics, however, is incomplete. Krystal noted that studies of twins suggest that genetics may account for 40% of the risk of depression. Yet the currently identified genes seem to explain only about 5%.
Moreover, simply having the genes for depression doesn’t necessarily guarantee that someone will become depressed. The genes also need to be activated in some way, by either internal or external conditions.
“There’s a false distinction that is sometimes drawn between environmental factors and genetic factors,” said Srijan Sen, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan. “For most common traits of interest, both genetic and environmental factors play a critical role.”
Sen’s lab studies the genetic basis of depression by mapping subjects’ genomes and carefully observing how individuals with different genetic profiles respond to changes in their environment. (Recently, they have looked at stress brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.) Different genetic variations can affect whether individuals respond to certain types of stress, such as sleep deprivation, physical or emotional abuse, and lack of social contact, by becoming depressed.
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Environmental influences like stress can also sometimes give rise to “epigenetic” changes to a genome that affect subsequent gene expression. For example, Sen’s laboratory studies epigenetic changes in the caps on the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres, which affect cell division. Other labs look at changes in chemical tags called methylation groups that can turn genes on or off. Epigenetic changes can sometimes even be passed down through generations. “The effects of the environment are just as biological as the effects of genes,” Sen said. “Just the source is different.”
Studies of these genes may someday help identify the form of treatment a patient would respond to best. Some genes may predispose an individual to better results from cognitive behavioral therapy, while other patients might fare better with an SSRI or therapeutic ketamine. However, it’s far too early to say which genes respond to which treatment, Sen said.
A Product of Neural Wiring
Differences in a person’s genes may predispose them to depression; so, too, may differences in the neural wiring and structure of their brain. Numerous studies have shown that individuals differ in how the neurons in their brains interconnect to form functional pathways, and that those pathways influence mental health.
In a recent conference presentation, a team led by Jonathan Repple, a psychiatry researcher at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, described how they scanned the brains of acutely depressed volunteers and found that they differed structurally from those of a non-depressed control group. For example, people experiencing depression showed fewer connections within the “white matter” of the nerve fibers in their brains. (However, there is no white-matter threshold for poor mental health: Repple notes that you can’t diagnose depression by scanning someone’s brain.)
After the depressed group underwent six weeks of treatment, Repple’s team ran another round of brain scans. This time, they found that the general level of neural connectivity in the depressed patients’ brains had increased as their symptoms lessened. To get the increase, it didn’t seem to matter what kind of treatment the patients received, so long as their mood improved.
A possible explanation for this change is the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. “Neuroplasticity means that the brain actually is able to create new connections, to change its wiring,” Repple said. If depression occurs when a brain has too few interconnections or loses some, then harnessing neuroplastic effects to increase interconnectedness might help lift a person’s mood.
Repple warns, however, that another explanation for the effects his team observed is also possible: Perhaps the depressed patients’ brain connections were impaired by inflammation. Chronic inflammation impedes the body’s ability to heal, and in neural tissue it can gradually degrade synaptic connections. The loss of such connections is thought to contribute to mood disorders.
Good evidence supports this theory. When psychiatrists have evaluated populations of patients who have chronic inflammatory diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, they’ve found that “all of them have higher-than-average rates of depression,” said Charles Nemeroff, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Texas, Austin. Of course, knowing that they have an incurable, degenerative condition may contribute to a patient’s depressed feelings, but the researchers suspect that the inflammation itself is also a factor.
Medical researchers have found that inducing inflammation in certain patients can trigger depression. Interferon alpha, which is sometimes used to treat chronic hepatitis C and other conditions, causes a major inflammatory response throughout the body by flooding the immune system with proteins known as cytokines — molecules that facilitate reactions ranging from mild swelling to septic shock. The sudden influx of inflammatory cytokines leads to appetite loss, fatigue and a slowdown in mental and physical activity — all symptoms of major depression. Patients taking interferon often report feeling suddenly, sometimes severely, depressed.
If overlooked chronic inflammation is causing many people’s depression, researchers still need to determine the source of that inflammation. Autoimmune disorders, bacterial infections, high stress and certain viruses, including the virus that causes Covid-19, can all induce persistent inflammatory responses. Viral inflammation can extend directly to tissues in the brain. Devising an effective anti-inflammatory treatment for depression may depend on knowing which of these causes is at work.
It’s also unclear whether simply treating inflammation could be enough to alleviate depression. Clinicians are still trying to parse whether depression causes inflammation or inflammation leads to depression. “It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg phenomenon,” Nemeroff said.
The Umbrella Theory
Increasingly, some scientists are pushing to reframe “depression” as an umbrella term for a suite of related conditions, much as oncologists now think of “cancer” as referring to a legion of distinct but similar malignancies. And just as each cancer needs to be prevented or treated in ways relevant to its origin, treatments for depression may need to be tailored to the individual.
- The Epigenetic Secrets Behind Dopamine, Drug Addiction and Depression
- Mitochondria May Hold Keys to Anxiety and Mental Health
- Why Is Inflammation a Dangerous Necessity?
If there are different types of depression, they may present similar symptoms — such as fatigue, apathy, appetite changes, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia or oversleeping — but they might emerge from completely different mixes of environmental and biological factors. Chemical imbalances, genes, brain structure and inflammation could all play a role to varying degrees. “In five or 10 years, we won’t be talking about depression as a unitary thing,” Sen said.
To treat depression effectively, medical researchers may therefore need to develop a nuanced understanding of the ways it can arise. Nemeroff expects that someday the gold standard for care won’t be just one treatment — it will be a set of diagnostic tools that can determine the best therapeutic approach to an individual patient’s depression, be it cognitive behavioral therapy, lifestyle changes, neuromodulation, avoiding genetic triggers, talk therapy, medication or some combination thereof.
That prediction may frustrate some physicians and drug developers, since it’s much easier to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. But “appreciating the true, real complexity of depression takes us down a path that is ultimately going to be most impactful,” Krystal said. In the past, he said, clinical psychiatrists were like explorers who landed on a tiny unknown island, set up camp, and got comfortable. “And then we discovered that there’s this whole, enormous continent.”
February 2nd 2023
The Psychological Origins of Procrastination – and How We Can Stop Putting Things Off
Don’t delay. Here’s the science behind why we procrastinate, and some tricks to overcome it.
- Elliot Berkman
- Jordan Miller-Ziegler
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
More from The Conversation
- How to avoid ‘toxic positivity’ and take the less direct route to happiness
- IQ tests can’t measure it, but ‘cognitive flexibility’ is key to learning and creativity
- Writing can improve mental health – here’s how
Now or later? Photo by Jay Malone / flickr, CC BY.
“I love deadlines,” English author Douglas Adams once wrote. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
We’ve all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don’t care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot – and still end up doing something else. I, for one, end up cleaning my house when I have a lot of papers to grade, even though I know I need to grade them.
So why do we procrastinate? Are we built to operate this way at some times? Or is there something wrong with the way we’re approaching work?
These questions are central to my research on goal pursuit, which could offer some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate – and how to overcome this tendency.
To Do, Or Not To Do
It all starts with a simple choice between working now on a given project and doing anything else: working on a different project, doing something fun or doing nothing at all.
The decision to work on something is driven by how much we value accomplishing the project in that moment – what psychologists call its subjective value. And procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now.
This way of thinking suggests a simple trick to defeat procrastination: find a way to boost the subjective value of working now, relative to the value of other things. You could increase the value of the project, decrease the value of the distraction, or some combination of the two.
For example, instead of cleaning my house, I might try to focus on why grading is personally important to me. Or I could think about how unpleasant cleaning can actually be – especially when sharing a house with a toddler.
It’s simple advice, but adhering to this strategy can be quite difficult, mainly because there are so many forces that diminish the value of working in the present.
The Distant Deadline
People are not entirely rational in the way they value things. For example, a dollar bill is worth exactly the same today as it is a week from now, but its subjective value – roughly how good it would feel to own a dollar – depends on other factors besides its face value, such as when we receive it.
The tendency for people to devalue money and other goods based on time is called delay discounting. For example, one study showed that, on average, receiving $100 three months from now is worth the same to people as receiving $83 right now. People would rather lose $17 than wait a few months to get a larger reward.
Other factors also influence subjective value, such as how much money someone has recently gained or lost. The key point is that there is not a perfect match between objective value and subjective value.
Delay discounting is a factor in procrastination because the completion of the project happens in the future. Getting something done is a delayed reward, so its value in the present is reduced: the further away the deadline is, the less attractive it seems to work on the project right now.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the tendency to procrastinate closely follows economic models of delay discounting. Furthermore, people who characterize themselves as procrastinators show an exaggerated effect. They discount the value of getting something done ahead of time even more than other people.
One way to increase the value of completing a task is to make the finish line seem closer. For example, vividly imagining a future reward reduces delay discounting.
No Work is ‘Effortless’
Not only can completing a project be devalued because it happens in the future, but working on a project can also be unattractive due to the simple fact that work takes effort.
New research supports the idea that mental effort is intrinsically costly; for this reason, people generally choose to work on an easier task rather than a harder task. Furthermore, there are greater subjective costs for work that feels harder (though these costs can be offset by experience with the task at hand).
This leads to the interesting prediction that people would procrastinate more the harder they expect the work to be. That’s because the more effort a task requires, the more someone stands to gain by putting the same amount of effort into something else (a phenomenon economists call opportunity costs). Opportunity costs make working on something that seems hard feels like a loss.
Sure enough, a group of studies shows that people procrastinate more on unpleasant tasks. These results suggest that reducing the pain of working on a project, for example by breaking it down into more familiar and manageable pieces, would be an effective way to reduce procrastination.
Your Work, Your Identity
When we write that procrastination is a side effect of the way we value things, it frames task completion as a product of motivation, rather than ability.
In other words, you can be really good at something, whether it’s cooking a gourmet meal or writing a story, but if you don’t possess the motivation, or sense of importance, to complete the task, it’ll likely be put off.
It was for this reason that the writer Robert Hanks, in an essay for the London Review of Books, described procrastination as “a failure of appetites.”
The source of this “appetite” can be a bit tricky. But one could argue that, like our (real) appetite for food, it’s something that’s closely intertwined with our daily lives, our culture and our sense of who we are.
So how does one increase the subjective value of a project? A powerful way – one that my graduate students and I have written about in detail – is to connect the project to your self-concept. Our hypothesis is that projects seen as important to a person’s self-concept will hold more subjective value for that person.
It’s for this reason that Hanks also wrote that procrastination seems to stem from a failure to “identify sufficiently with your future self” – in other words, the self for whom the goal is most relevant.
Because people are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, goals connected closely to one’s sense of self or identity take on much more value.
Connecting the project to more immediate sources of value, such as life goals or core values, can fill the deficit in subjective value that underlies procrastination.
Elliot Berkman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.
Jordan Miller-Ziegler is a PhD Candidate in Psychology at the University of Oregon.
January 30th 2023
How to (Finally) Put an End to Pointless Arguments
Conflict need not be unpleasant, if it is done right.
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
More from Nir Eyal
- How to Tame Your Wandering Mind and Actually Get Some Work Done
- How a Morning Brain Dump Helps You Stay on Track All Day
- The Real Reason Why You Sabotage Your Own Goals
Photo by Malte Mueller/Getty Images
Count me as a Buster Benson fan. His 2016 Cognitive bias cheat sheet is legendary among behavioral designers. I have a framed print out of his codex in my home and I’ve enjoyed his writing on various topics for years. He has extensive experience building products that move people at Slack, Twitter, and Habit Labs.
With the release of his 2019 book, Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement, I suspect many more people are about to become Buster Benson fans. His book is a beautifully written and illuminating look into why we so often fight with the people we love. It’s a guide for productive disagreement. Benson argues that conflict need not be unpleasant and if done right, can lead to greater understanding and cooperation.
Could there be a more timely and needed book for our disagreeable times?
Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?
Buster Benson: TLDR; I wrote this book to learn how to survive today’s world without going insane.
I’ve been working in tech at places like Amazon, Twitter, and Slack, as well as a few of my own startups, for over 20 years. I’ve always been drawn to this question of how can we change ourselves for the better, because I sincerely believe that the only way to change the world for the better is to start with ourselves.
2016 was a big turning point for me, and for a lot of people. I had always suspected that the world’s steady march towards progress was a bit bumpy, but was at least guaranteed to trend upward. It was easy to cite high level stats like literacy rates, poverty rates, unemployment, having basic needs met, etc, to show that the world was getting better even if it kept feeling worse. But it’s now becoming obvious to more and more of us that there are some other pretty dark threads weaving into our timeline that we would be unwise to ignore (I also feel ashamed about not spotting some of these much earlier, as a willfully blind member of the privileged class).
Problems like income inequality, mental health, gender and race-based harassment, climate change, and anxiety are all well past boiling over and are even bringing our average life expectancy down in the US. Our political discourse is completely dysfunctional, both in the US and beyond. Our media, broadcast, and social networks are falling on their faces as they attempt to stay ahead of our shifting expectations of them. Things just feel extremely unright on so many levels.
Like many product managers and entrepreneurs in our industry, I’m a fan of looking for root causes of problems rather than settling for the naive answers. The naive answer here is that people are just idiots, and everything is doomed. I can’t resign myself to hatred, cynicism, and futility. I’ve always been interested in taking on the discomfort of learning difficult truths and acknowledging when a blind spot has been hiding something from me. We’re all complicit in the problems around us. The least we can do is to try to use our energy to make things a tiny bit better, rather than worse.
How we argue and how we communicate with people who hold perspectives we find to be deeply wrong seems to me to be at the very heart of many of these problems. We’re arguing at the starting line of so many debates, when we should be racing to fix problems despite differences of opinion. What are we missing in the formula to having more fruitful disagreements?
Most people tell you to write a book about what you know. I’ve had a career that has put me in the middle of resolving disagreements for several decades now, but I have to admit that when I came to this book it wasn’t because I had all the answers, but exactly the opposite: I deeply needed these answers, and didn’t know how or where to find them.
I’ve spent several years reading and trying to understand what many of the experts on the subject had already learned. Pulling from my own past. Running myself through the crucible of disagreements in my own life trying to find the practical tips we can apply to our everyday disagreements across all domains of life. We don’t need new theories, we need new practices that help us have more productive political disagreements, personal disagreements, professional disagreements, and everything in between.
NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?
BB: There was a quick cascade of “aha moments” early in my exploration of this topic. I thought my goal was to help people make their unproductive disagreements more productive. But time and again I found that the real problem was that people everywhere are avoiding disagreements entirely.
Many of us have already given up on the idea of the productive disagreement, and think anyone trying to have one is really just trying to trap us in some kind of sales pitch or false promise that will end up being a waste of time. Early on I tried forming a few groups that would discuss topics with lots of moderation to prevent them from going off the rails. Nobody wanted to do this. In hindsight it makes sense… we’re burned out, tired of ranting, and out of ideas.
So much of the book is really an argument against conflict avoidance, rather than an argument against yelling, despite the title. If anything we should be yelling more, because there are very important things to discuss with one another, and our emotions should be invited to the table.
NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?
BB: I don’t have any “secret keys” in this book, but I do have 8 “things to try” which are the result of pulling together all kinds of experts from a bunch of different fields: cognitive psychology, game theory, communication, behavior change, mindfulness, and more.
Each of these is about a small change we can bring to our everyday arguments and doesn’t require you to become fully in control of your emotions, or to become a perfect persuader. In fact, those skills can get in the way.
The real lesson I hope people take away is that we have everything we need to have more productive disagreements… we just need to practice the art more deliberately, and give ourselves and others forgiveness when we fail, and new opportunities to grow. That’s the only way we’ll get a true felt understanding of what a productive disagreement is, and it’s only then that we can begin to expect it of our leaders and elected officials as well.
NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?
BB: I follow the tips in Indistractable of course! I’m not just trying to flatter here. True story: when I read your book, I found more than a few parallels between improving our ability to stay on track with the art of productive disagreement.
The first step is always to notice the first trigger — perhaps this comes from our shared background in behavior change, but both of us talk a lot about that initial spark of anxiety that causes us to run a habitual program in our brains. It’s not always possible to notice when this happens, but when I find myself particularly distractable I know that there’s some part of my brain that is trying to do something it considers important.
I start most days with a long walk (from my house to the desk I rent about 2 miles from my house) and this is one of the times when all those distracting thoughts can have space to speak their mind. If that’s not enough I also run 750words.com (turning 10 next month!) which is place to do morning pages and brain dump everything that needs to be dumped out. I’ve found that trying to just shut up those thoughts rarely works. I do what I can to just get them all out, do all those 2-minute tasks that I’ll spend way more time delaying than just doing, and then move on to what I really want to focus on.
NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?
BB: I have a beliefs file that I’ve kept for 7ish years: There are all kinds of things in there that I’m sure most people would disagree with. If I trotted all of them out here, people would seriously reconsider buying a book from a complete crazy person, but I’ve tried to defend a couple in various venues like changeaview.com and letter.wiki (two of my favorite sites on the internet). Here’s a fun one: We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than as having only one mind per body.
NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?
BB: I have a bunch that I feel have helped me tremendously throughout life, like private journaling, having a very low bar for reading self-help books (and not feeling bad if I don’t finish them), and being okay with drinking lots of coffee and staying up too late.
The one I feel has contributed most to my well-being in the long term is gonna sound weird, but it’s “talking to myself kindly and directly”. The habit of viewing self-critical thoughts as “feedback” rather than “truth” has (at least in my confabulated narrative of the self) improved my ability to learn from every mistake and misfortune in a way that has had pretty solid compound effects over time. I consider this skill to be different from plain overconfidence.
The difference is that I don’t have a louder voice in my head saying that everything I do is always good and right, but rather have some way to hear my thoughts as you might hear an untrustworthy narrator during a movie. It’s always worthwhile to get a second opinion (usually from someone else’s head).
NE: Are you working changing any bad habits?
BB: Yeah, always. Right now I’m trying to avoid eating too many hamburgers, because I love them so much, and yet tend to gain an extra 10-15 pounds if I do this too often. I recently took up intermittent fasting (with a 12pm-8pm eating window) and it has helped a lot. When noon comes around, I’m just as hungry for a giant salad as I am for a hamburger.
NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?
BB: Zero, for the intermittent fasting angle.
NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?
BB: Once you’re introduced to the art of productive disagreement, start practicing. Don’t start with the hardest disagreement first… think of it like the onboarding to a new game or sport, find some easy ones to calibrate your comfort level, then as they get easier stretch to more difficult ones. Conversation and disagreement is one of the oldest social skills we have… we’re remarkably equipped to find flow in a conversation once you start to look for it and notice it.
To find flow, get to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and when you find an opportunity to hop into a conversation that will push you a little past your comfort zone, that’s your opportunity to grow. Be kind to yourself if it takes a little longer, or feels a little harder than you thought at first. Learn what you can from the interaction and try again.
It won’t always work out. That’s the reality we have to accept, and the sooner we do the sooner we’ll be able to get 1% or 5% or 10% better at having productive disagreements. The fruit of productive disagreement compounds faster than almost any other investment we can make.
January 27th 2023
Micromanipulation: The Covert Tactic That Narcissists Use in Arguments to Reassert Control
Here’s how to recognize its damaging effects.
- Anna Brech
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
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Photos by Getty Images/iStock
“Micromanipulation” is one in an armoury of emotional tools that narcissists typically use to regain control over their partners during arguments or a trial separation, according to an eye-opening new article on the topic.
Writing in Psychology Today, Professor Kristy Lee Hochenberger explains that “narcissists cannot accept the fact that another person does not want to be with them”. So, if they sense their partner is pulling away, they will go to extreme lengths to wrestle them back.
Often this will involve direct manipulation – for example, threatening self-harm, which Hochenberger describes as a common and very scary response to someone wanting to regain control in a relationship that’s heading south.
But if that fails to have an impact, Hochenberger says, narcissists may turn to “micromanipulation”. If anything, this is a more dangerous ploy, because it’s so subtle and hard to spot.
“Micromanipulations are more geared towards sympathy and empathy of their partner and their own self-perceived victim status,” writes Hochenberger.
“Micromanipulations are intentional ways of redirecting the narrative and regaining control over the other person’s thoughts and feelings. These brief comments are made in passing or casual conversation, meant to hit heavy and unexpectedly, and require the victim to go back to the manipulator for clarification.”
An example of this might be if your ex talks about going through a tough time in a post on Facebook, in a way that is clearly meant to grab your attention and sympathy. But when you ask them about it, they say something along the lines of, “you weren’t supposed to see that”. Or they may send you a message about how they are struggling on WhatsApp “by mistake” that they subsequently delete, because it was “meant for someone else”.
Another example might be if they drop into conversation that they have a doctor’s appointment coming up because of some unknown, but deeply concerning, medical issue. In all these instances, you may be angry with your partner (or ex/ soon-to-be ex) but their micromanipulations reawaken your empathy, meaning you turn instead to worry or regret. The focus is all back on them.
Most of us display narcissist traits at one point or another; it’s a condition that exists on a continuum, which can change according to personality type but also due to specific circumstances and life events.
Research suggests that, at the extreme end of the scale, Narcissist Personality Disorder is rare, and more prevalent in men.
Scientists believe it likely to surface in the form of someone who “engages in risky behaviour, holds an unrealistic superior view of themselves, is over-confident, shows little empathy for others, and has little shame or guilt”.
These traits are likely to show themselves in different ways, but in a relationship, they may appear within a need for constant attention or affirmation, a sense of entitlement and controlling tendencies.
To make the situation more confusing, narcissism can also have positive effects in relationships.
A 2018 report from the University of Louisiana found that all kinds of narcissists, along with manipulators and psychopaths, (the so-called “dark triad” of personality traits) are capable of being caring towards others; as long as they see benefit to themselves in doing so.
Similarly, experts believe that, on a sliding scale of narcissism, more “prosocial narcissists” are driven by their overriding desire to be liked, meaning they are fun to be around, and take a lot of satisfaction in your positive reaction to them.
The key amid this maze of manipulation is to step back and recognise your partner’s behaviour for what it is – to separate your own emotional responses from what’s really going on. If someone you love has narcissistic traits and it’s beginning to feel like they’re manipulating you, take distance and start a record of their behaviour.
That way, you can build a picture of toxic “micromanipulations” for what they are – a controlling tactic – and break free to healthier ground.
Hypnic jerks: why you sometimes feel a weird jolting sensation when you’re falling asleep
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That weird jolting or falling sensation you sometimes feel when you’re falling asleep is called a hypnic jerk. Here’s why they happen.
When you really think about it, falling asleep is a pretty strange process. Most of us do it at least once a day, but we’re often completely unaware it’s happening until we wake up the next morning.
That is, unless you experience a hypnic jerk – also known as that weird falling or jolting sensation that sometimes happens when you’re in the middle of drifting off.
They’re not dangerous, but they can be pretty frustrating, especially if it’s taken you ages to achieve a relaxed state of mind.
But what actually are hypnic jerks? Why do they happen? And what’s the secret to falling asleep after you’ve had one? Keep reading to find out.
What are hypnic jerks? And why do they happen?
If you’ve ever jerked out of a sleepy state due to a sudden jolting or falling sensation, you’ve probably experienced a hypnic jerk. These involuntary movements can range from small muscle twitches to bigger spasms in the legs, arm or neck.
While they may seem scary, they’re actually pretty common – and although researchers aren’t quite sure why hypnic jerks happen, some believe they are caused by signals sent by the brain during the early stages of the sleep cycle, as the body enters REM sleep.
Martin Seeley, a sleep expert and CEO of Mattress Next Day, explains: “During REM sleep (the phase of sleep when dreaming occurs), your body is paralysed except for your eyes and the muscles involved in breathing. This paralysis keeps you from acting out your dreams while you’re sleeping.”
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He continues: “In order to enter into deeper stages of sleep without waking up fully, your brain sends signals down through your spinal cord to relax muscles throughout your body — including those that would normally be active during wakefulness but aren’t needed at this time (such as muscles used for speech). This process allows your body to enter into a deeper state of sleep.”
In this way, hypnic jerks are possibly believed to be instances of this system malfunctioning – when signals are sent incorrectly in the nerves and end up causing a jerking motion.
How to fall asleep after a hypnic jerk
Hypnic jerks aren’t just surprising – they can also be disruptive to your sleep, especially if you get them frequently. So how can you help yourself drift off properly after you’ve had one? Below, Seeley shares four top tips for doing just that.
1. Take some deep breaths
“When your body is stressed out, it’s harder for it to relax completely and fall asleep quickly,” Seeley says. “So if you’re feeling a bit startled about being woken up abruptly, take some deep breaths to help calm down your mind and body.”
2. Stay off your phone
“While you may be tempted to go on your phone to distract your mind, this is the worst thing you can do in the middle of the night,” Seeley explains. “This is because the blue light emitted from your phone can interfere with your body’s production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. In turn, this makes you feel more awake, making it harder for you to fall asleep. Plus, seeing the time on your phone may stress you out if you need to be awake in a couple of hours.”
3. Make yourself more comfortable
“It may seem obvious, but make sure that you’re lying in a position that makes you feel comfortable before attempting to drift off again — especially if you’re used to sleeping on your side or stomach,” Seeley says.
4. Carry out a full body scan
“If you’re still struggling to sleep, try this meditative technique,” Seeley suggests. “Simply close your eyes and breathe slowly. Next, focus on your face and think about relaxing each of the muscles in your face. After 30 seconds to a minute, move onto your neck and do the same thing for 30 seconds. Then your shoulders, and then your arms. Essentially, you want to relax every muscle until you make your way down to your feet.”
January 24th 2023
The 5 Most Common Regrets of the Dying—and What We Can Learn From Them
Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse and bestselling author, shares the five most common regrets of the dying—and her advice on how to live a life full of happiness and joy.
- Bronnie Ware
- Life has sped up. A never-ending stream of stimuli is vying for your attention every minute of the day. Some of it is fabulous and some of it is time-wasting.
- So how do you decipher how to spend your time?
- The answer: you face the fact that you are actually going to die one day and that your time is sacred.
- The more awareness you can bring to this, the more it will support you to live well, by being true to the life that makes the most sense to your heart, not the life dictated by society or others.
- To understand the sacredness of your time and to realise the power that lies in the decisions you make, it helps to learn from those who have gone before you, from those who have not made the right decisions and have spent their deathbed days in the anguish and pain of regret.
- By looking at the most common regrets of the dying, as shared with me during my years as a palliative carer, you might find yourself at a turning point, one where you can recognise the power of your choice from this moment onwards.
- Regrets of the Dying: I Wish I’d Lived a Life True to Myself, Not the Life Others Expected of Me
- As a child, it was natural to mirror your primary caregivers. It was how you learnt. There was no real choice but to adapt to whatever their beliefs and lifestyles were. Your parents or caregivers may have made plenty of mistakes or done a lot of things right, but either way, they were living from their own life experiences and reactions, doing their best as who they were at the time.
- Then the individual calling becomes more prominent, your heart awakens, and you realise that your own beliefs and preferences may not actually be aligned to those you have been raised with. And so begins the healing of realising you are not living a life true to yourself, but rather the life that is expected of you.
- Dying people realised they had not found enough courage to live true to their own heart’s voice and it left them in depths of grief for a life not lived honestly to themselves.
- Life is calling you now to find that courage and step into your own joy. Realise the sacredness of your time.
- Regrets of the Dying: I Wish I Hadn’t Worked so Hard
- There is nothing wrong with loving your work, and it’s brilliant if you do. But whether you do or don’t, it is easy to get caught up in never switching off from it properly. This is even more true in a society whose very lifeblood is supported by technology.
- Dying people learnt too late that there needed to be more in their lives than work. When it was taken away from them, there was nothing left: no identity to support them, no stimulus to inspire them, no joy.
- They realised they needed more work life balance in their lives, and a commitment to other areas of their lives. Most admitted it was fear that had kept them glued to their career: fear of lack with money, fear of judgment from work peers, and fear of failure.
- By creating space and also honouring other areas of life, you can bring more efficiency to your working life anyway. And of course, you then bring more joy.
- Regrets of the Dying: I Wish I’d Had the Courage to Express My Feelings
- When children are sad, they cry. When they’re angry, they vent. When they’re scared, they say so. When they’re happy, they dance.
- Expressing your feelings was once a natural part of who you were. As you mature you learn how to be less scared, for example. You learn life skills to help you navigate through various emotions and see things from different perspectives.
- A lot of these skills support you. But some of them hinder your natural expressions, until over time, you think it is normal to never be vulnerable or express yourself honestly. Of course, this feels even more normal since most of those around you are doing the same.
- It can take immense courage to express yourself, whether that is by being vulnerable and sharing your love, or being strong and sticking up for yourself. But it is absolutely vital to do so if you are going to live your fullest life – the one that makes the most sense to your heart, and the one that will ensure you don’t join the ranks of dying people living their last days with the heart-wrenching anguish of regret.
- By facing your fear and expressing yourself one piece at a time, you can develop the habit of speaking honestly with emotional maturity. You can set yourself free and inspire others to do the same.
- Regrets of the Dying: I Wish I Had Stayed in Touch With My Friends
- In a world where it is almost impossible to lose contact with friends, thanks to the likes of social media, this regret may seem irrelevant. You can send someone a text to say you’re thinking of them, comment on their Facebook feed or Instagram photo, or chat via Messenger. But how long is it since you’ve really connected with these people in real life? How long since you’ve laughed together, cried together, eaten together or just hung out?
- Real life connection is the essence of wellbeing. It is natural that some friends may fall away as your lifestyles and tastes change. New friends can come into your life through various channels like work, technology, sport, or shared interests such as book clubs or meet-up groups.
- Dying people regretted not staying in touch with their old friends, though, because during their last weeks they wanted to reminisce, laugh about the old days, feel understood, and remember they once belonged in an easier world.
- Text messages and brief contact is better than none. But making the effort for real-life time together is some of the best medicine you can give yourself for a regret-free life.
- Regrets of the Dying: I Wish I Had Allowed Myself to Be Happier
- Happiness is a choice – it doesn’t come from being lucky. It is not a denial of the hard times. Without the contrast you can never know how strong you really are, what you can rise to, or what your potential truly is. The hard times have their purpose, to help you discover all that. But how long you choose to stay focused on the hard times and their associated stories is your own choice.
- You can choose happiness in many ways. Choose to find the blessings rather than allowing others to dictate your sense of worth. Don’t stay stuck in old stories. And always find things to be grateful for, regardless of your circumstances.
- Every time you take ownership of your focus and steer it towards something that leaves you feeling a little better, you are opening your heart and life up to more happiness. Life is not a penance. It is a precious gift of time.
- The realisation that dying people had around this, and seeing how they had allowed other people to determine their worthiness for happiness, brought incredible insights to them, and heart-wrenching regret.
- It is your life. Choose your own focus.
- Every single decision you can make and every single snippet of courage you can find, to ensure you are living true to your own heart, takes you further away from the anguish and heartbreak of regret. And the more courageous you are, the more the world also benefits. After all, we are all in this together.
- The Top Five Regrets of The Dying by Bronnie Ware is available to buy now.
January 16th 2023
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January 15th 2023
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The Neuroscience of Consciousness – with Anil Seth
The Royal Institution 1.32M subscribers 1.7M views 5 years ago
Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience Anil Seth looks at the neuroscience of consciousness and how our biology gives rise to the unique experience of being you. You can also download this talk on our podcast: https://soundcloud.com/royal-institut… …
January 14th 2023
Learn the art of journaling and archive your life
Susan Sontag at her desk in 1971. Photo by Jim Cartier/Photo Researchers History/Getty
Sarah Boonis a freelance science writer and editor whose work has appeared in Nature, Science and the LA Review of Books, among others. She lives in British Columbia, Canada.
Edited by Pam Weintraub
When researching other people’s lives, authors often visit archives to dig into the ephemera that made that person who they were. But when exploring our own lives, we seem to forget that we have our own personal archives, including old journals, email, text threads and voice memos.
Lately, I’ve been dipping into my personal archives – specifically, my old journals – to reacquaint myself with the person I was 20 years ago, doing remote fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic for eight weeks each summer. I’m writing a book, you see, about my experiences as a field scientist, and though my memories of that time seem strong, I’m still surprised by some of what appears in my journals. For example, I didn’t remember arriving in the field as early as I did one year, or the level of frustration I had when some of my equipment didn’t work. My journals bring these events back to me, in full colour and precise detail, allowing me to add lyrical descriptions and scenes to my book.
Research shows that keeping a journal is a way to be more mindful, to really think about what you’re experiencing and how it affects you and others. More specifically, journaling can also improve your communication skills and sharpen your memory. Studies suggest that if, when ill, you write about stressful events and reflect on them (reflection is key), you can improve your health outcomes. Writing in a journal is also a way to get better sleep and boost your self-confidence.
I agree with the American writer Joan Didion, who said in ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ (1966):
We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption … we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.
And as another American writer, Susan Sontag, said in ‘On Keeping a Journal’ (1957):
In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.
Didion and Sontag saw journals as a respite from the everyday world, a place to revel in and reveal oneself – on the page, instead of in public.
Some of Kafka’s entries are remarkably short: ‘July 1, 1914: “Too tired.” ‘September 22, 1917: “Nothing.”’
For some reason, I’m often reluctant to dig into my personal archive. The themes are often repetitive: the joys of pond hockey, the importance of being myself, the admonition to exercise more or to make a schedule and stick to it. But in between are gems: short stories begun but not finished. Essay fragments replete with stunning detail and vivid characters, waiting to be brought to life. Insights into life that I forgot I ever had, that help me with my current life situations in ways I never thought possible. For example, my journals warned me regularly against becoming a science professor, but I ignored them and ended up falling out of academia due to illness. What if I had heeded my own advice?
Though they weren’t originally intended to be read by others, some writers’ journals have been published posthumously for public consumption, including those of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka and others. Readers snap up these books eagerly, hoping to find insights into the writing life, a sort of how-to manual for becoming a good writer. Though, as Didion wrote, ‘your notebook will never help me, nor mine you’. In many cases, however, published diaries show an obvious through-line of how the author became the writer we know. For example, Woolf started journaling at the age of 14, and wrote 38 notebooks from 1897 to 1941. Her journals are considered not just a window inside her mind, but also ‘a remarkable social document’. They feed directly into Woolf’s writing; in 1919, she herself said that ‘the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.’
Plath’s diaries cover the 13 years before she died, and are filled with musings on writing and the details of her everyday life. One Goodreads reviewer said they have to take a break from reading them because Plath’s ‘feelings were so vivid you feel like an intruder’. Kafka kept a diary from 1910 to 1923, ending just a year before his death. There is a Twitter account called @Franz_K_Diaries that Tweets daily excerpts from his journals, giving readers insight into the depressed and ill writer’s life. Some of his entries are remarkably short, reading: ‘July 1, 1914: “Too tired.”… September 22, 1917: “Nothing.”’
Other writers have published their journals as part of their oeuvre, like May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude (1973) and Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist (2020). In these cases, the author has the ability to edit out details they don’t want to share with readers, something Leonard Woolf took offence to in his foreword to his wife’s journals. He argued that taking out specific details could unbalance the document: ‘The omissions almost always distort or conceal the true character of the diarist or letter-writer …’ Sarton writes about gardening, the weather, writing, and living alone, all of which documents the evolution of her art and spirituality. An example of her insights relates to small talk, which she can’t abide, as ‘Time wasted is poison.’ McAnulty, on the other hand, writes about the natural world and his relation to it, as well as his autism and how it sets him apart from others. His book in particular focuses on ideas and big events – the mundane, everyday aspects of life are much less prominent than they are in diaries published posthumously.
Even the vessel you choose to hold your thoughts is significant
So how do you start writing a diary? First, consider your goal in doing so. Do you want to compile daily events, or do you want to analyse those events through a personal lens? Do you want to practise writing, or do you want to clear your mind before you sit down to write something more polished? Do you want to publish your journal, or is it solely for your own consumption? Do you want something that you can return to and remember your thoughts about specific events? Figuring out what you want out of your journal is a critical first step in driving the rest of your journal decisions.
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Think about the length of time you can allot to journaling, and at what time of day. Can you fit in 15 minutes, or do you have an entire hour free? Does morning or evening work best, both with your schedule and your mindset? Do you have to get up early and journal for half an hour before the house comes to life around you? Or do you need to go to a busy coffee shop and write for an hour? Some writers advise that you write at the same time and place every day; for example, Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (1992), suggests writing ‘morning pages’, which are three pages done every morning as soon as you get up. But we all have our own schedules and can’t always find the ‘ideal’ time to journal – we just have to pick a time that works, and stick with it. Alternatively, you may find that you can only snatch small moments during the day to journal, moments that change as your schedule changes. But every little bit counts.
Now consider what you’ll write about. If you’ve decided that you want to practise writing, maybe you’ll give yourself writing prompts that free you to write in your journal, for no one’s eyes but your own. If you want a compilation of daily events, you may sit down after dinner or before bed and list off what happened that day. If you want to clear your mind, you can let the words flow from your pen or keyboard like a stream-of-consciousness document, that breathes out all of the competing narratives in your head and allows you to breathe in the clarity required to do your ‘real’ writing. Or perhaps, like Kafka, you might write a few words that sum up the zeitgeist of the day that has just passed, a two-sentence summary of what that day brought you and made you think about.
Some argue that even the vessel you choose to hold your thoughts is significant. Will you write on the computer, with a new document for each day or a running document for the year? Or will you write in a cheap, lined, spiral notebook that can be found at your nearest dollar store, or in a more dashing Moleskine notebook? Perhaps you prefer a notebook bound in leather, or one in diary format with dates on each page.
In the end, however, all these questions are incidental to the main goal: to journal, write in a notebook, or keep a diary. Select your favourite writing tools, sit down and write, and see what comes out. You may surprise yourself, writing yourself into being like Sontag, or finding meaning in your life like Didion. Or recording memories for a later, more formal work, like me. All that matters is that you take time on the page to sort out the strands that make life interesting, that hold your place in that life. To figure out who you are, and what matters to you. To make your way in the world, one sentence at a time.
9 January 2023
January 8th 2023
Wealth of lying.
I once knew a man whose remarkable lying caused me to overlook him. When we met, I was nineteen and world-weary, and he fit a mold I thought I knew: rich (he’d attended Harrow, a particularly expensive private school), clever (then Oxford, early), seemingly conservative (a link to the army). A few years later, I crossed paths with him again when I was thinking of moving into a cheap room in a house in London occupied by a woman he was dating. The room was in the eaves, and I took it, even though it didn’t have a door—just a permanently open trap with a ladder leading in.
At that time, the man worked for the civil service. He was writing a satire about it, he said. He would come to our house with a big army bag slung over his shoulders, and through the square hole in my floor I’d hear him talking about the Grenadier Guards, Afghanistan, P.T.S.D. I paid him little attention, but I knew that class was a constant source of stress in his relationship with my housemate, whom I’ll call Sophie. He had a string of names and well-known relations; he introduced himself as the son of a lord. She was middle class. Sometimes, the liar would go to extravagant parties and not invite her, and she would feel insufficiently impressive.
When Sophie, who had become dissatisfied with her job, applied for a position with the intelligence services, he encouraged her. But then she told him that she’d listed his name on a questionnaire—the sort designed to reveal anything in her private life that might compromise her, Queen, or country—and he said that there was no need to mention him. Days later, he broke things off. Sophie was shocked and upset, and grew more so when, shortly after that, she received a text message from the interviewer to whom she had spoken, meant for someone else. “It’s all a tissue of lies,” it read. “No Grenadier Guards. No Harrow. Nothing.”
The phrase “tissue of lies,” like “web” and “fabrication,” evokes the warp and weft of a narrative woven largely from threads of untruth—its sometimes animal vitality. Since then, I’ve thought often about how to retell the story of the liar. Relating it to friends as an anecdote was to submit to its surreal quality. It didn’t feel entirely right when I told it that way, given the license for exaggeration that the anecdote form allows. Doing so seemed to enact a kind of indulgent dynamic that I associate with ghost tours and urban myths of baby alligators living in sewers, or viral videos of shrouded figures walking across doorways. When I began to write fiction, I considered using the story but felt that it was unsuitable—both implausible and, somehow, too obvious. The parts that were most shocking in real life—the secret services, the texted tricolon, the degree to which he inflated his imaginary aristocratic heritage—would read as clichéd plot devices. But, over the years, the story kept hopping into my mind. When I encountered lies in my own life or in the news—reading about British undercover officers infiltrating the climate movement, for example, using the identities of dead babies and fathering children with activists—I would find the story of Sophie’s liar sitting there underneath, a toad under a pile of leaves.
Perhaps the reason that the liar has stayed with me has something to do with his simultaneous brazenness and banality—though the revelation was shocking, he himself had registered so little with me, and the fact of being lied to seemed, in the end, almost pedestrian. Lies are ubiquitous; in a certain light, to be shocked by them seems precious.
Such is the posture assumed by the Spanish novelist Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel in “A History of Lying,” a book-length essay in which he declares that “the history of humankind is nothing other than the history of making it up.” Best known for a parodic crime novel titled “The Hypochondriac Hitman” and other postmodern experiments with literary convention, Muñoz-Rengel sets out from a brief summary of Cartesian doubt (which, he says, none of the philosophical solutions that have been proposed properly resolve) to argue that lying is not, as conventional morality might have us assume, a practice to be avoided whenever possible but, rather, an innate and inevitable element of language and life.
Muñoz-Rengel marshals a wide range of examples to this end, beginning with that of the Cretan seer Epimenides, who rose from a deep sleep in the sixth century B.C. to declare that “all Cretans are liars,” and stretching to the present day, when Spotify’s sharing function allows people to “stop listening to the things they want to and begin prioritising instead the image of themselves.” Skimming the surface of philosophy (Nietzsche, Freud, Ferdinand de Saussure, and post-structuralists are all praised for their skepticism), Muñoz-Rengel also attempts to give his polemic a scientific varnish by referring to the natural world. The book is laced with nuggets of evolutionary biology and examples of animals with the ability to disguise themselves. Consider the cuttlefish, he writes, for whom deception is a biological strategy. It can not only change color but is also “capable of modifying its texture, the entirety of its external structure, and even of generating patterns similar to the shifting seabed, which it can then set in motion along its body in the opposite direction to that in which it is actually moving.”
The example does much to illustrate the breadth of Muñoz-Rengel’s definition of a lie, as well as his subsequent tendency to blur concrete details, as well as historical fact, in service of his theory. So broad is his lens that people captured and enslaved by the Phoenicians are described as “overly trusting foreigners—the more credulous kind, who probably hung around the bait, rather than withdrawing somewhere safe.” Even his less extreme conflations are absurd. “Having dealings with other people means staying in a constant state of dissimulation,” he writes—in other words, you lie whenever you are polite. Gone are the important distinctions—based on their scale and severity, their effects and their motivations—between individual lies. And who would hold a single cuttlefish to be an example of deceitful behavior, when its aptitude for concealment is helpful to its survival?
Some of the most exaggerated portions of Muñoz-Rengel’s book are those in which he claims that, because language uses signs to represent real things, it, too, is a sort of deception, and that all understandings reached through metaphors are therefore “based on speculation, projection, lies.” This, again, seems to elide crucial nuances. While metaphors can sometimes be misleading, they can also illuminate the speaker’s personal response to a subject. In neither case do they impart knowledge that is empirically falsifiable, as lies do. When I compared the story of the liar to a toad buried in leaf litter, I was not claiming that the story had literally been hibernating for the winter—grayish, warty—then sprung out when it was unexpectedly disturbed, an unwelcome, grotesque, vaguely comic creature. I was trying to convey something of the particular way the story had lodged itself in my mind and, even when I forgot about it, seemed to be leading a life of its own.
Sometimes, among all Muñoz-Rengel’s vague tracings of unreality, I detect something sincere. His fierce allegiance to the idea that the origins of lying reside in any detachment from reality brings to mind the idea of not lying as an active pursuit, which takes the form of a constant sifting through the details of life, and a simultaneous attempt to articulate them as clearly as possible—something akin to producing art. But when he writes off representation with such little regard for the distinction between it and intentional lying, it comes—gradually, frustratingly—to seem as if he is not so much making a case about the inevitability of epistemological carelessness as providing a demonstration of it.
I can’t pretend his lying hasn’t made the liar I knew more interesting, but more interesting still was how, around him, the world behaved in unlikely ways. Like Boris Johnson—who was described by one former Tory M.P., himself often denying having been in the intelligence services, as “the best liar we’ve ever had”—the liar told stories that were superficially entertaining but predictable, and used them to garner power.
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The propulsive force of people who know how to gain trust by knitting improbable tales is Muñoz-Rengel’s most generative subject. He recounts the story of the Catalan man Joan Pujol, who, in 1941, approached the British authorities to offer his services as a spy. By his own account, Pujol—whose family suffered during the Spanish Civil War, and who consequently hated Fascism and Communism both—came to spying in a roundabout way:
I was managing a poultry farm. . . . The poultry farm was not a success. . . . I decided to “exit” from the stage, as they say in the theatre. . . . My life in Madrid as a hotel manager began peacefully enough. . . . On 3 September 1939 England had declared war on Germany. . . . My humanist convictions would not allow me to turn a blind eye to the enormous suffering that was being unleashed by this psychopath Hitler.
When the English rejected him, Pujol instead applied to work for the Germans, who, unsuspecting, took him on and assigned him a mission to Britain. Pujol, who had no intention of spying for them (he later claimed that he planned to work as a double agent), told his handlers that he was moving to Lake Windermere. Instead, he and his wife, whom he married in Madrid, had moved to Lisbon, where he bought a British guidebook, railway timetable, and map, and began to send made-up reports to his employer, accompanied by expense invoices. In April, 1942, the Allies signed Pujol on as a double agent, code-named Garbo. Over the next two years, he wove “a network of completely fictitious sub-agents”—twenty-seven in total—who all needed paying. His inventions included a Brit of Swiss-German descent named William Gerbers, a Welsh nationalist named Dagobert, a Gibraltarian waiter living in Chislehurst, and a Venezuelan student in Glasgow (and his brother, whom Pujol named Moonbeam). Their invented efforts led to Pujol charging the Nazis a fortune. Sometimes, when the Germans wondered why Pujol’s sources failed to file reports until after the fact, he made up stories of illness or told them that the source had died, leaving behind a fictional widow who needed the money.
In 1943, Pujol was enlisted to convince the Germans that the Allies were planning an invasion of the Pas-de-Calais, rather than Normandy. He kept up the lie until the last moment, when it was too late for the Germans to stop the D Day landings. By then, he and his wife and first child had been relocated to London, where the couple had a second baby. Declassified M.I.5 files show that, at the time, his wife was so homesick (she especially missed her mother) that she threatened to expose Pujol to the Germans. To keep her silent, Pujol and his British handler tricked her into believing that her behavior had led to his imprisonment, and arranged for her to visit a detention center, where Pujol pretended to be incarcerated. The Allies helped him maintain his cover throughout the war (and even after); he was both awarded an Iron Cross by Hitler and made an M.B.E. by King George VI—after which he faked a bout of malaria, and sloped off to Venezuela, where he opened a bookshop.
Pujol’s story only became known publicly in 1984, when an author named Nigel West went on a mission to uncover Garbo’s true identity: the result was a book, “Operation Garbo,” co-written with Pujol and published in 1985. (Although Pujol used his real name, “Nigel West” is a pseudonym for Rupert Allason, a former Conservative M.P. who has written about espionage, and has published several crime novels.) In “Operation Garbo,” Pujol is a lavish narrator, alert to the possibilities of storytelling even in his everyday life. When meeting his Nazi handler, he wonders whether he was taken on because this handler was “intoxicated by my verbosity.”
Muñoz-Rengel approves of Pujol for his “capacity for artifice,” which he used to fight against injustice “without firing a single bullet.” (None of Pujol’s wife’s role or treatment appears in the book, and one has the sense that Muñoz-Rengel is captivated by Pujol’s madcap behavior, rather than curious about its roots or its implications for the people who knew him.) Muñoz-Rengel attributes West’s success at tracking down Pujol in part to his vocation, writing that “novelists understand better than anyone the fictional nature of reality.” If there is an optimistic proposition in Muñoz-Rengel’s book, it is the idea that such an awareness grants you a special kind of agency. Once one knows that “everything” is a lie, one is no longer “some unsuspecting sap” but instead becomes “an actor who has chosen to act.” What this agency grants the person who wields it is not clear, but Muñoz-Rengel emphasizes that it is through art—“a sublime kind of deceit”—that one can obtain it. Cubists, for example, ditched the “fleeting lie” of classical beauty, and Dadaists broke with “the dominion of logic.” Conceptual art draws the viewer “into a game of reinterpretation and construction about what is real.”
It’s a shame that Muñoz-Rengel doesn’t connect these musings to his own work as a fiction writer. His account suggests a unidirectional process of unsettling that emanates from the artist into the world. But invention can also lead artists to unearth experience that was unadmitted to themselves. I write fiction partly to work out what I skate over and keep secret from myself; it’s difficult to start without something that feels real, a solid platform on which to stand. After that, it’s stimulating to stitch artifice and reality into a performance—a lie that lets someone in. Sketching out the relationship of truth and falsehood in Muñoz-Rengel’s own process might have offered the reader a foothold in the shifting sands of his argument, and an example of the kind of liberation and agency that he claims to value.
After Sophie learned that her boyfriend wasn’t the person he claimed to be—he had cribbed aristocratic middle names from fiction and an adopted forebear, had not obtained his undergraduate education early at Oxford, and so on—I did not see him for years. I drifted away from our shared friends, whom I hadn’t told what I knew. In our post-university social universe, personal and professional connections were difficult to disentangle, and there seemed to be a violence in puncturing their relationships and confronting them—him, too—with the truth. I had the opportunity to expose him to them, and I decided not to take it.
Still, I heard things about him from this or that person from time to time. One said that his age was different depending on whom you asked. Another maintained that he had tried to warn Sophie by recommending Graham Greene’s novel “England Made Me,” in which the protagonist pretends to have gone to Harrow and goes on lying from there. One night, I saw him at a bachelorette party. At the end of the evening, he was met by a willowy blond woman, a celebrity whose face I knew from science-fiction and period dramas—another notch in the story that seemed to me, in the days and years after, so implausible it was like a narrative contagion.
I sometimes wonder whether, in the end, not telling friends about the liar wasn’t so much an act of gentleness but an avenue to power. If the liar felt that he had a nice view over the people in his life—knowing more, seeing more—then I was there, watching them all, from a little higher up. It can be intoxicating to watch someone turn themselves into a character when you can see the color and the construction of the work. Nowadays, the liar works in tech, occasionally writes articles, and appears in front of governmental bodies.
Whenever I see her, Sophie and I add something that we’ve heard to the story of the liar, reframing the tale with new information, joking darkly about the latest development—it doesn’t look like the story is about to end. It’s not that Sophie hasn’t moved on. It’s not that the liar was particularly magnetic or charismatic. It’s that his lies made her marginal, and reduced their relationship to petrol fumes, and we want to make it solid again. Perhaps in using words carefully, placing the events in relation to other facts, and admitting how much we don’t know, Sophie and I run the risk of being overly literal, but I don’t think so. When the truth is strange, telling the story to each other—a version of it that incorporates both the plotline he wanted us to inhabit and our own experiences—is a way of showing how much life is driven by fiction, and then of weaving that fiction back into the real world, where it belongs. ♦
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The mindset that brings unlimited willpower
(Image credit: Getty Images)
By David Robson3rd January 2023
Many people believe willpower is fixed and finite. Yet powerful strategies exist that can help us increase it.
We all face demanding days that seem designed to test our self-control. Perhaps you are a barista, and you have some particularly rude and demanding customers, but you manage to keep your poise throughout. Or maybe you are finishing an important project and you have to remain in quiet concentration, without letting your attention slip to other distractions. If you are on a diet, you might have spent the past few hours resisting the cookie jar while the sweet treats silently whisper “eat me”.
In each case, you would have relied on your willpower, which psychologists define as the ability to avoid short-term temptations and override unwanted thoughts, feelings or impulses. And some people seem to have much greater reserves of it than others: they find it easier to control their emotions, avoid procrastination and stick to their goals, without ever seeming to lose their iron grip on their behaviour. Indeed, you may know some lucky people who, after a hard day at work, have the resolve to do something productive like a workout – while you give up on your fitness goals and fall for the temptations of junk food and trash TV.
Our reserves of self-control and mental focus appear to be shaped by mindsets. And new studies suggest powerful strategies for anyone to build greater willpower – with huge benefits for your health, productivity and happiness.
The depleted ego
Until recently, the prevailing psychological theory proposed that willpower resembled a kind of battery. You might start the day with full strength, but each time you have to control your thoughts, feelings or behaviour, you zap that battery’s energy. Without the chance to rest and recharge, those resources run dangerously low, making it far harder to maintain your patience and concentration, and to resist temptation.
Laboratory tests appeared to provide evidence for this process; if participants were asked to resist eating cookies left temptingly on a table, for example, they subsequently showed less persistence when solving a mathematical problem, because their reserves of willpower had been exhausted. Drawing on the Freudian term for the part of the mind that is responsible for reining in our impulses, this process was known as “ego depletion”. People who had high self-control might have bigger reserves of willpower initially, but even they would be worn down when placed under pressure.
Research shows that even if you’re able to harness willpower to resist temptation, you may have less willpower for a task in the future (Credit: Getty Images)
In 2010, however, the psychologist Veronika Job published a study that questioned the foundations of this theory, with some intriguing evidence that ego depletion depended on people’s underlying beliefs.
Job, who is a professor of motivation psychology at the University of Vienna, first designed a questionnaire, which asked participants to rate a series of statements on a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 6 (strongly disagree). They included:
- When situations accumulate that challenge you with temptations, it gets more and more difficult to resist temptations
- Strenuous mental activity exhausts your resources, which you need to refuel afterwards
- If you have just resisted a strong temptation, you feel strengthened and you can withstand new temptations
- Your mental stamina fuels itself. Even after strenuous mental exertion, you can continue doing more of it
If you agree more with the first two statements, you are considered to have a “limited” view of willpower, and if you agree more with the second two statements, you are considered to have a “non-limited” view of willpower.
Job next gave the participants some standard laboratory tests examining mental focus, which is considered to depend on our reserves of willpower. Job found that people with the limited mindset tended to perform exactly as ego depletion theory would predict. After performing one task that required intense concentration – such as applying fiddly corrections to a boring text – they found it much harder to pay attention to a subsequent activity than if they had been resting beforehand. The people with the non-limited view, however, did not show any signs of ego depletion, however: they showed no decline in their mental focus after performing a mentally taxing activity.
The participants’ mindsets about willpower, it seemed, were self-fulfilling prophecies. If they believed that their willpower was easily depleted, then their ability to resist temptation and distraction quickly dissolved; but if they believed that “mental stamina fuels itself”, then that is what occurred.
People with the non-limited view on willpower did not show any signs of ego depletion: they showed no decline in their mental focus after performing a mentally taxing activity
Job soon replicated these results in other contexts. Working with Krishna Savani at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, for example, she has shown willpower beliefs seem to vary by country. They found that the non-limited mindsets were more common in Indian students than those in the USA – and that this was reflected in tests of their mental stamina.
In recent years, some scientists have debated the reliability of the laboratory tests of ego depletion, but Job has also shown that people’s willpower mindsets are linked to many real-life outcomes. She asked university students to complete twice-daily questionnaires about their activities over two non-consecutive weekly periods. As you might expect, some days had much higher demands than others, leading to feelings of exhaustion. Most of the participants recovered to some degree overnight, but those with the non-limited mindsets actually experienced an increase in their productivity the following day, as if they had been energised by the extra pressure. Once again, it seemed that their belief that “mental stamina fuels itself” had become their reality.
Further studies showed that the willpower mindsets could predict students’ procrastination levels in the run-up to exams – those with the non-limited views showed less time-wasting – and their ultimate grades. When facing high-pressure from their courses, the students with the non-limited views were also better able to maintain their self-control in other areas of life; they were less likely to eat fast food or go on an impulsive spending spree, for example. Those who believed that their willpower was easily depleted by their work, in contrast, were more likely to indulge in those vices – presumably because they felt that their reserves of self-control had already been depleted by their academic work.
The influence of willpower mindsets may also stretch to many domains, such as fitness. For example, Navin Kaushal, an assistant professor in health sciences at Indiana University, US, and colleagues, have shown that they can influence people’s exercise habits; people with non-limited beliefs about willpower find it easier to summon up the motivation to work out.
A study by Zoë Francis, a professor of psychology at the University of Fraser Valley, found strikingly similar results. Following more than 300 participants over three weeks, she found that people with non-limited mindsets are more likely to exercise, and less likely to snack, than those with the limited mindsets. Tellingly, the differences are especially pronounced in the evenings, when the demands of the day’s tasks have started to take their toll on those who believe that self-control can easily run down.
Research shows people with non-limited beliefs about willpower find it easier to summon up the motivation to work out (Credit: Getty Images)
Galvanising your willpower
If you already have the non-limited mindset about willpower, these findings might be a cause for self-satisfaction. But what can we do if we have been living under the assumption that our reserves of self-control are easily depleted?
Job’s studies suggest that simply learning about this cutting-edge science – through short, accessible texts – can help shift people’s beliefs, at least in the short term. Knowledge, it seems, is power; if so, simply reading this article might have already started to galvanise your mental stamina. You might even enhance this by telling others about what you have learnt; the research suggests that sharing information helps to consolidate your own shift in mindset, a phenomenon known as the “saying-is-believing effect”, while also helping to spread the positive attitudes to others.
Lessons in the non-limited nature of willpower can come at a young age. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania recently designed a storybook to teach pre-schoolers the idea that exercising willpower can be energising, rather than exhausting, and that self-control can grow the more we practice it. Children who had heard this story showed greater self-control in a test of “delayed gratification”, in which they were given the chance to forgo a small treat to receive a bigger treat later on, compared to their classmates who had heard another tale.
One useful strategy to change your mindset may be to remember a time when you worked on a mentally demanding task for the pure enjoyment of the activity. There might be a job at work, for example, that others appear to find difficult but you find satisfying. Or maybe it’s a hobby – such as learning a new piece on the piano – that demands intense concentration, yet feels effortless for you. A recent study found that engaging in this kind of recollection naturally shifts people’s beliefs to the non-limited mindset, as they see proof of their own mental stamina.
To provide yourself with further evidence, you might begin with small tests of self-control that will bring about a desired change in your life – such as avoiding snacking for a couple of weeks, disconnecting from social media as you work, or showing greater patience with an irritating loved one. Once you have proved to yourself that your willpower can grow, you may find it easier to then resist other kinds of temptation or distraction.
You mustn’t expect miracles immediately. But with perseverance, you should see your mindset changing, and with it a greater capacity to master your thoughts, feelings and behaviour so that your actions propel you towards your goals.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA). He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
- The best motivation to reach your goals
- Why people don’t learn from failure
- The thinking trap that dupes you
The crucial link between motivation and self-awareness
(Image credit: Getty Images)
By David Robson2nd January 2023
To achieve a goal, a drive to do so is key. Yet not all motivation is created equal – and some factors driving a desire to succeed can even be harmful.
At the start of a new year, many of us are naturally thinking of our goals for the months ahead. And as we do so, it’s worth paying attention not just about the challenges themselves, but also the reasons we are taking them on.
If you plan to write a novel, for example, are you doing it for the sheer pleasure of creating a fictional world inhabited by curious characters? Or are you doing it because you love literature, and want to make a valuable contribution to your culture? Perhaps you simply want to prove to yourself that you are capable of being published, or maybe you yearn for fame, and writing a best-seller feels like a great path to recognition?
According to “self-determination theory”, each of these questions represents a different source of motivation with distinct consequences – good and bad – for our performance and wellbeing. This research suggests that by picking the right goals, for the right reasons, you will be more engaged and more determined, while deriving greater satisfaction from your success.
A reward in itself
Like many scientific ideas, self-determination theory has been years in the making. It has its roots in a few studies from the 1970s, but only started receiving serious interest following the publication of a seminal paper in the year 2000 that outlined some of its core concepts regarding motivation, performance and wellbeing.
At the heart of the theory lies the optimistic notion that most humans have a natural desire to learn and develop. “It’s based on the assumption that people are growth oriented,” says Anja Van den Broeck, a professor in the faculty of economics and business at KU Leuven, Belgium.
Are you writing a novel to fulfil a passion or because you want the notariety? (Credit: Getty Images)
A growth orientation is most visible in young children’s insatiable interest in the world around them – but adults, too, can feel an inherent fascination and curiosity in certain activities, which makes completing a task becomes its own reward. (Just think of a time when you have been so absorbed in an activity that you haven’t noticed time passing.) This is known as “intrinsic” motivation.
Often, however, we may lack sufficient intrinsic motivation to do a task that is necessary to meet our goals, and so we need to encourage ourselves – or be encouraged – by different forms of “extrinsic” motivation.
Identification: While you may not enjoy the activity itself, it may appeal to your broader values and goals – providing another form of motivation. For a teacher, it could be a recognition of the importance of education and their role in improving students’ futures that motivates them to spend extra hours marking homework; for the aspiring novelist, it could be the sense that they are creating a meaningful work of literature that keeps them revising their manuscript, even if the act of writing itself may feel laborious at times.
Introjection: Sometimes we put pressure on ourselves to preserve our ego and self-image. “Your self-esteem may depend on the activity,” explains Van den Broeck. You are worried that if you don’t meet your goal, you will feel shame and a sense of failure.
External regulation: Sometimes, motivation comes purely from external rewards – such as fame and fortune. In some workplaces, external regulation may come as performance-related bonuses and salary increases. You continue to put in the work to get the money, even if you find the tasks themselves to be rather dull and meaningless.
If people experience very little of these, then they have amotivation. As you might expect, people with amotivation are expected to have low productivity and engagement. This might be most evident in the education, with students who will miss class at any opportunity, and who have no intention of putting effort into their studies.
Research suggests that by picking the right goals, for the right reasons, you will be more engaged and more determined, while deriving greater satisfaction from your success
Psychologists who study self-determination theory have designed various questionnaires to measure each of these types of motivation in many different contexts – and throughout the past two decades of research, some very clear patterns have emerged.
Van den Broeck, for example, recently analysed 104 papers examining motivation in the workplace. As expected, intrinsic motivation – inherent interest or pleasure sparked by the job itself – predicted better job satisfaction, engagement and proactivity, and it was highly protective against burnout. Identification – the sense that a job is important or meaningful – was also extremely good for wellbeing, and it proved to be even more important for job performance.
The effects of the other types of motivation tend to be more ambiguous. Introjection (linking your work to your self-esteem) does seem to ensure better job performance, but it also increases stress and comes at a heightened risk of burnout, which is a high price to pay for professional success. External regulation – purely financial incentives to perform well – proved to have the worst effects. As someone’s primary form of motivation, its effects on things like engagement and performance were limited, while also leading to worse wellbeing. There is even some evidence that people who are motivated purely by extrinsic rewards are more likely to act dishonestly, such as lying about their performance in order to get the recognition they desire.
What do you actually want?
It is important to take these conclusions with an important caveat, says Ian MacRae, a work psychologist and author whose books include Motivation and Performance (co-written with Adrian Furnham). While he sees value in distinguishing the different kinds of motivation, he points out that their relative importance will depend on their broader circumstances. If someone is struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, for example, then ‘external’ motivations such as the promise of an increased pay packet could make a real difference. “You do have to be careful about drawing conclusions for all sectors of the workforce,” he says.
Once your basic needs have been met, however, then intrinsic motivation becomes far more significant, says MacRae. So, if you are in a relatively stable financial position, you might re-think starting a new project or position solely for the extra cash, unless you think that it would also incite your curiosity or give you a sense of meaning and purpose.
Are you learning a new language because of your genuine curiosity about another culture, or because you want your CV to be impressive? (Credit: Getty Images)
MacRae suggests that interrogating your sources of motivation might improve your experience of your existing job. “Self-awareness is fundamentally important,” he says. “One of the key things is to understand what you actually want from the work – if it’s about your working relationships with other people, or if it’s about learning and development, for example.” You can then look for opportunities to capitalise on those elements.
On the management end, it is essential that leaders listen carefully when their employees express these motivations, he says – and they should make a genuine effort to provide the necessary resources that will allow the employees to pursue those interests. That may be far more effective at energising the workforce than offering an end-of-year bonus to the most productive team member.
Van den Broeck agrees. She points out that offering employees a sense of autonomy is linked to the intrinsic and identification forms of motivation. This doesn’t mean giving employees completely free rein to do whatever they want, but it might involve giving them some choice in the activities they perform, and explaining the purpose of the unavoidable tasks they have been assigned, so they can at least understand how their work fits with the team’s mission.
The pleasure principle
Self-determination theory isn’t all about work; it can also inform our hobbies, too.
Do you aim to learn a language, for instance, simply because you think it would sound impressive? Or does it derive from a genuine interest in the culture or a specific need to communicate with the language’s speakers? If you are inspired by the latter, you will find the inevitable hard work much less of an ordeal than someone who is looking to learn the language for the social cachet of being multilingual.
With your fitness, meanwhile, you might put pressure on yourself on do the hardest activity you can manage, simple because you want to prove your abilities to yourself or others, and you may feel that you’re somehow failing if you don’t push yourself to the absolute maximum. None of these reasons reflect much intrinsic motivation, however, so why not choose an activity that is slightly less strenuous but far more pleasurable? Recent research shows that people who select their exercise regimes in this way show greater persistence than those who did not consider their interest or enjoyment of the activities. Even if each session is slightly less gruelling, if you are more likely to stick with the activity, the long-term commitment will pay greater dividends.
Life is short, after all, and there is only so much that we can achieve with the time we are given. Self-determination theory reminds us we need to be selective about the activities that we pursue. If you focus on the goals that are most personally meaningful and pleasurable, and ignore those that have been inspired or imposed by others, self-improvement does not have to be a chore, but a source of joy.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
The smart way to learn from failure
(Image credit: Getty Images)
By David Robson21st October 2022
Many of us make mistakes on endless repeat – but new insights can help us to learn valuable lessons from our failures.
In today’s motivational literature, failure is often viewed as something to be celebrated. Disappointments are an essential stepping stone to success; a turning point in our life story that will ultimately end in triumph. Rather than falling into despair, we are encouraged to “fail forward”.
If only it were so simple. In the past decade, a wealth of psychological research has shown that most people struggle to handle failure constructively. Instead, we find ways to devalue the task at which we failed, meaning that we may be less motivated to persevere and reach our goal. This phenomenon is known as the “sour-grape effect”. Alternatively, we may simply fail to notice our errors and blithely continue as if nothing has happened, something that prevents us from learning a better strategy to improve our performance in the future.
Inspirational speakers are fond of quoting the words of the novelist Samuel Beckett: “Fail again. Fail better”. But the truth is that most of us fail again and fail the same.
Recent research shows there are ways to avoid these traps. These solutions are often counterintuitive: one of the best ways of learning from your mistakes, for example, is to offer advice to another person who may be encountering similar challenges. By helping others avoid failure, it turns out, you can also enhance your own prospects of success.
The ‘sour-grape effect’
Let’s first examine the sour-grape effect, discovered by Hallgeir Sjåstad, a professor of psychology and leadership at the Norwegian School of Economics, and colleagues.
He says he was intrigued by people’s tendency to abandon their dreams prematurely. “The research was an attempt to understand why we sometimes give up too early, even though we could have succeeded if we had been a bit more patient and willing to give it a second try,” he says.
In his first experiment, Sjåstad asked participants to take a practice trial of a test said to measure the precision of their intuition. They were asked to estimate how much 20 apples would weigh, for example – and they were told that a guess falling within 10% of the real answer would be considered a sign of strong intuition. High performance on several questions, they were told, correlated strongly to “positive outcomes in life, such as extraordinary achievements in work and a well-functioning social life” – a message that was designed to increase their desire to succeed.
After answering a couple of practice questions, the participants were given sham feedback – either very positive or very negative. They were then asked to predict how difficult it would be to perform well in the real test, and how happy they would feel if they scored 100%.
Sjåstad hypothesised that the people who were given negative feedback about their practice answers would underestimate the importance of their future performance for their emotional state. And this was exactly what happened. The people who felt they’d failed on the practice run predicted that a perfect score would do little to increase their immediate happiness. Crucially, this did not turn out to be true; when they took a second test and were told they received top marks, the good news really did make them happy. They had been completely wrong in assuming that the result would not make them proud.
Sjåstad says this is self-protective. “Most of us want to think of ourselves as competent and capable people, so when external feedback suggests otherwise, it poses a serious threat to that self-image,” he says. “The easiest way out is to deny or explain away the external signal, so we can reduce the inconsistency and preserve a positive sense of self. I think we do this all time, even without noticing.” (It’s worth noting that after each of these experiments, Sjåstad debriefed his participants, so they did not leave with a false impression of their intuitive abilities.)
The ‘sour-grape effect’ means we find ways to devalue the task at which we failed, meaning we may be less motivated to persevere and reach goals (Credit: Getty Images)
In a subsequent experiment, Sjåstad explored how failure in the practice questions influenced participants’ other judgements of the test results’ importance to their lives. Once again, he saw clear signs of sour grapes: after participants had received the negative feedback, they were much less likely to say that the test results reflected “who [they] were, as a person”, or believe that their intuitive intelligence would determine their future success in life.
He has also tested the sour-grape effect in real life, among students at a Norwegian university. He found that simply reminding students of a currently low grade-point average led the students to significantly devalue the predicted benefits of graduating with an A average.
Sjåstad suspects that the sour-grape effect could influence motivation in many areas of life. If you have one bad interview for your dream job, you might decide you don’t really want to work in that field after all, and so you stop applying for similar positions. The same goes if you fail to impress at a sports trial, or if a publisher rejects the first submission of your manuscript.
“It might be tempting to explain away our shortcomings and blame someone or something else, trying to convince ourselves that our ‘Plan C’ was actually our ‘Plan A’ all along,” he says.
Sjåstad isn’t claiming that we should persevere in all our goals all the time; it can be healthy to put ambitions in perspective and change course if the process is no longer making us happy. But the sour-grape effect may lead us to come to this decision prematurely, he says, rather than seeing whether we might learn and improve.
The ‘ostrich effect’
Devaluing the source of your disappointment is just one way your mind may avoid coping constructively with failure; another coping mechanism is to hide your head in the sand, shifting your attention away from the upsetting situation so that you don’t have to process it.
Researchers have long known that we often turn a blind eye to incoming bad news. Economists, for instance, have found that investors are less likely to check their financial status when their fortunes are falling rather than rising.
This phenomenon has been called the “ostrich effect”, and it may be an example of a far wider tendency to overlook negative information, according to a series of recent studies by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organisations at Northwestern University, US, and Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioural science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The satisfaction of helping another person provides a personal ego boost, so that people feel more confident to confront their own failures
Much of their research has centred around an experimental set-up called the “Facing Failure game”, in which participants were presented with a series of either-or questions. They were presented with pairs of symbols resembling hieroglyphs, for example, and asked to guess which one represented an animal, for example.
After giving their answers, they were told whether they were right or wrong. Since there were only two choices, either form of feedback – positive or negative – should have helped them to learn the correct answer, so that they could perform better on a subsequent test. And there was a small financial incentive to do so: they would receive $1.50 for each symbol that they remembered in the next round.
Most people successfully remembered their correct answers. Quite astonishingly, however, they failed to learn from mistaken answers, and performed no better than chance on these items. “People often didn’t learn anything,” says Fishbach.
To investigate the reasons for this phenomenon, the researchers asked a further group of participants to view someone else’s answers to a round of the Facing Failure game. In these cases, the “observers” seemed perfectly able to infer the correct responses from the other player’s wrong answers and to remember them later. “This suggests that the task is not so hard, cognitively,” says Fishbach. Instead, it seems to be the hurt feelings of being wrong themselves that acted as the barrier to learning for the people actually playing the game. Rather than confronting the mistake, participants who had got the answer wrong let their attention slip away, without encoding the correct answer in their memory.
Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach have now rolled out the Facing Failure game in many different contexts, including to groups of telemarketers, who were given the chance to learn useful information about their profession. In each case, the participants were perfectly capable of remembering their successes, but learnt almost nothing from their mistakes.
Fishbach has a light-hearted tone when she discusses these results, but she believes that they represent a serious challenge for our personal growth. “I laugh because I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it is quite depressing,” she admits.
The ‘ostrich effect’ coping mechanism is hiding your head in the sand, shifting attention away from the upsetting situation so you don’t have to process it (Credit: Getty Images)
Fortunately, Fishbach’s research with Eskreis-Winkler suggests that there are some strategies to overcome the emotional barriers to confronting failure.
The first is a process called ‘self-distancing’, in which you adopt a third-person perspective. Instead of asking “Why did I fail?” I might ask “Why did David fail?”, for example. Multiple studies by psychologist Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan show that self-distancing helps to soften our negative emotional reactions, allowing us to view upsetting events more objectively. In this case, it should mean that the failure feels less threatening to the ego, so that we can better analyse the reasons for the disappointment – without having sour grapes or defensively hiding our heads in the sand.
A second strategy involves offering advice to others who may be in the same position as you, which Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach tested with Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. They found that the satisfaction of helping another person provides a personal ego boost, so that people feel more confident to confront their own failures. “It forces people to engage with their experience and what they have learned,” says Fishbach.
People who were struggling with weight loss, for example, wrote out tips based on their own failures for other people trying to stick to a diet. Afterwards, they felt more motivated to continue pursuing their own weight goal. Middle-school students, meanwhile, were asked to describe ways to overcome a lack of academic motivation to another, younger student; over the next four weeks, they overcame their own procrastination and completed significantly more homework, compared to students who had instead received a letter giving advice.
Sjåstad points out that failures are an inevitable part of life. “If you never fail, you’re probably aiming too low,” he says. And by learning to confront the disappointment and learn from their lessons, you may find the road to success a little easier to navigate.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
January 10th 2023
Writing, public speaking, negotiating, and 4 other essential skills.
Think of the most successful people you know.
Perhaps you’re thinking of someone you grew up with or went to school with. Maybe the people you imagine include someone you’ve worked with, or been fortunate to recruit as a mentor.
Maybe — although you’d never admit this out loud — they include you.
Regardless, no matter whom we’re talking about here, I’ll bet I can identify seven skills these people never stop trying to improve. Let me know how far I am from the mark.
I’m a writer, so perhaps it’s inevitable that I’m going to put this one first. But there’s more to writing than communicating.
Writing is the key to thinking things through. It’s why people can sit through a brief presentation and feel as though they’ve mastered a subject, only to realize when they’re really challenged to explain it, they don’t know it at all.
The more you write, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the better armed you are for what comes next.
2. Public speaking
One-on-one communication is vital, but so is one-to-many. Yet so often people’s mediocre presentation abilities get in the way of excellent ideas. So, the most successful people among us seek out opportunities to present, to speak, and to share ideas.
(Not sure where to begin to improve your public speaking abilities? Maybe start here.)
This skill is often a mash-up of other skills, of course. But the most successful people train themselves to see the opportunity in every problem, instead of the problem inside every opportunity. Among the crucial skills is the ability to break down seemingly insurmountable problems into much more manageable tasks.
Related realization: The second-most challenging problems in the world are the ones without obvious solutions, but the most challenging problems are the ones that most people take for granted — to the point that they don’t even realize they are problems.
4. Practicing generosity
People don’t remember what you say or do so much as they remember how you make them feel. (H/t, Maya Angelou among many others.) One thing people do remember: when people treat them with generosity. So, the most successful people grapple with this concept, learn its many definitions, and seek to incorporate it in their interactions.
Also: Generosity is the first cousin of gratitude, which is the key to happiness and contentment.
Everything in life can be a negotiation. That can sound a bit aggressive, but taken as a simple statement of fact it’s a lot less fraught.
The key is a recognition that in almost every interaction — from a big business deal to a simple conversation between friends or romantic partners — you’re trying to work together to achieve things you couldn’t achieve as effectively on your own.
(I’ve written a lot more about this, for example here.)
6. Keeping their ego in check
The most successful people on the planet often describe themselves as lifelong learners. One of the obstacles that stops less successful people from following this goal is that they let themselves be threatened by the mere fact that other people and experiences have something to teach them.
But if you can train yourself not to be threatened — to keep your ego in check, and seek out the lessons around you — you wind up gaining advantages beyond your ability to dream.
7. Building emotional intelligence
I’ll end on this one, since I’ve written an entire free e-book on the subject: 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, which includes some of my favorite tricks about choosing the right language to inspire helpful emotional responses.
In short, once you recognize that people communicate on multiple emotional dimensions, and that there are ways to leverage emotions — both your own and other people’s — to achieve your goals, it becomes almost impossible to ignore. And, frankly, a lot of fun to get better at.
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People With High Emotional Intelligence Ask 3 Key Questions to Become More Likable and Give Better Advice
No matter what, keep asking questions.
People like to be liked. It’s human nature: We crave connection and relationships, and we enjoy the affirmation and ego boost that results from knowing that other people enjoy being around us.
What if I told you that there’s a golden opportunity that most of us are presented with quite often that allows people to become more likable?
And what if we added that people with high emotional intelligence learn to use certain phrases in these situations that have the effect of making them more charismatic?
It all has to do with seizing the chance to help people think through problems, and giving truly helpful advice. Let’s jump right into three of the phrases, why they work, and why people with high emotional intelligence know to use them.
1. “What do you think you should do?”
Honestly, if you read no further, and you simply start asking this question when other people ask you for advice, your charisma will grow, your advice will be better, and I will have done my job.
I don’t know if we can generalize every single advice-asking situation, but there are two commonalities in enough of them that they’re worth mentioning:
- First, the person asking for the advice probably has a lot more information and experience with whatever they’re asking about. You’re the one running the company. Or else, you’re the one in the relationship, or the one who will have to execute the decision. I’m just the interested outsider whose perspective you hope might help.
- Second, giving advice can be like navigating a minefield. Sometimes you’re not sure the other person really wants to hear what you’d suggest. Sometimes, you suspect there’s something they hope you will advise them to do, that you’re not really sure about.
Either way, asking “what do you think you should do?” in almost any advice-giving situation puts the focus on the other person, and establishes your role as more of a sounding board than an ultimately responsible problem-solver.
The question works because people with high emotional intelligence realize that if you do wind up helping the other person come up with an interesting thing to try, they’ll remember the feeling of communicating with you, maybe even more than the specific result.
And that leads to greater likability.
2. “What other facts would help you to make a decision?”
People make decisions for emotional reasons all the time.
- Why did you go to graduate school? Mainly because I wanted my parents to be proud of me.
- Why did you date that “bad match” for so long? I didn’t realize I deserved better, and I didn’t want to cause hurt feelings.
- Why do you continue producing that one product with a limited profit margin? Because we’ve put so much into developing it, it would feel like defeat if we quit.
Asking “What other facts would help you to make a decision?” encourages people to separate information from emotion, and it does so in a way that doesn’t sound accusatory.
Maybe they’ll come up with questions they should ask. Or, maybe they’ll find that their thought-process is stymied, and you might eventually help them realize that if a lack of facts isn’t blocking their decision-making process, then some kind of non-fact-based issue likely is.
Regardless, this question puts the focus on their experience — not yours, at least not at first — and has a good likelihood of leading them toward a compelling decision. Later, they’ll likely remember how helpful your questions were in reaching that point.
3. “How do you think you would feel if you decided to do X?”
This question explicitly recognizes our shared human condition: intelligent, emotional beings who are driven by many factors and have complex needs.
Asking “How do you think you’ll feel?” is a softer, gentler, more personal way of asking, “What do you think will happen?”
- If I get my advanced degree, I’ll have mixed feelings. (Why?) Because I’ll be proud, but I still won’t know what to do next.
- If I break up with my significant other, I’ll be sad but maybe hopeful. (Why?) Because I’ll be alone, but I also think maybe we’re both better off with someone else.
- If we stop producing that product, I’ll be a bit nervous, but I think I’ll also feel free and invigorated to try something new.
If you’re the person who can help someone plan a path to achieve positive emotions, they’ll likely remember you positively for it. And, people with high emotional intelligence also understand that this question’s bonus punch is that it communicates that you do in fact care about their feelings.
And so on …
These questions are just a starting point. They’re fantastic if you’re not sure what to say next, and as a reminder to keep the focus on the other person’s situation; not to overwhelm the conversation with opinions. But of course there are more than just three variations.
As I write in my free e-book, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, the real trick is to make sure that when you’re in this situation, your default becomes to ask questions, and to make it easier for the other person to figure out his or her own solution.
You’ll give better advice, and you’ll become more charismatic in the process.
Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind
Are ‘Core Memories’ Real? The Science Behind 5 Common Myths
While “core memory” is a made-up term, the core memory trend is helpful in showing how valuable our memories are.
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
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What are your core memories from childhood? Can you lock in a core memory by choice? What do your core memories say about you?
The notion of “core memories” has become well known in popular culture. First seen in the 2015 movie Inside Out, core memories are thought to be your five or so most important memories. The idea is that some specific events are so important, experiencing them instantly shapes your personality, behaviours and sense of self.
Thousands of TikTok users have made “core memory” posts about salient memories (often from childhood), with more than 880 million views worldwide. Typically these posts have a strong element of nostalgia and focus on small moments: watching Saturday morning cartoons, holding hands with a schoolyard crush, or splashing through the rain.
So, do core memories actually exist? While we do use memories to construct a sense of self, and these memories support our psychological wellbeing, memory science suggests the notion of a “core memory” is faulty in five key ways.
1: We don’t have just five core memories
For this reason, we are not limited to just five (or 50) important life memories. And different memories might be relevant to us in different contexts, meaning we might bring to mind a different set of self-defining memories on different occasions.
2: Core memories don’t drive our personality
While our memory is critically important to us, individual memories do not drive our personality.
Psychologists and cognitive scientists often talk about autobiographical memory as having (at least) three key functions. According to the self function, we know who we are because of our past experiences. According to the social function, telling memory stories helps us to socialise and bond with others. Finally, according to the directive function, our memories help us learn lessons from the past and solve problems into the future.
Some salient memories may be particularly important for our identity. For example, winning the state volleyball championship may be critical for how we view ourselves as an athlete. Underlying personality traits, however, are relatively stable.
3: Our childhood memories are not always our strongest
Contrary to popular media portrayals, our most salient autobiographical memories are not always from our childhoods. Indeed, we tend to have relatively poor memories from our early years. Although our earliest memories often date from three or four years of age, the number of events we remember remains low across the primary school years.
In contrast, most of our salient and important memories tend to cluster in our early adulthood. This phenomenon is known as a “reminiscence bump”.
One explanation for this finding is that our earliest childhood memories are often mundane. What interested us as a child may not be as interesting as an adult, and vice versa. Instead, our most formative experiences happen in late adolescence and early adulthood as our sense of self stabilises.
4: We can’t predict what will become a core memory
Across social media, “new core memory” has become shorthand for highlighting an exciting new experience as soon as it occurs. These include snowfights, hugs, holidays, and more.
Although we do remember emotional events more easily than neutral events, we don’t get to choose our memories. This means it isn’t possible to predict what events we will recall later and what we will forget – our memories can take us by surprise!
The events that become important to us over the long term might be ones that seemed entirely ordinary at the time, and different memories may come to have different meaning at different stages of our lives.
Even for highly salient events, we are likely to forget many of the details we thought important at the time.
5: Core memories are no more accurate than others
Core memories are sometimes portrayed as literal snapshots of the past, like pressing play on a camcorder and watching the event unfold.
Similar arguments have previously been made about so-called “ flashbulb memories”. These are the highly vivid memories that form when learning about dramatic events for the first time (such as the September 11 attacks or the death of Princess Diana).
In reality, every memory we have is prone to change, forgetting, and errors in minor details – even when it refers to an important event.
This capacity for error is because of the way memory works. When we encode a memory, we typically recall the broad gist of the event and some detail.
When we retrieve the event, we reconstruct it. This means piecing back together the gist and the fragments of detail as best we can, and filling in the gaps for any detail we might have forgotten.
Every time we recall the event, we have the potential to change details, introduce new emotion, and to reinterpret an event’s meaning. Consider the joyful memory one might have after becoming engaged to a beloved partner. If that relationship were to fail, the reconstructive memory process allows new negative emotions to be introduced into the memory itself.
What core memories get right
While “core memory” is a made-up term, the core memory trend is helpful in showing how valuable our memories are.
Memory allows us a window to our former lives: rich with emotion and tied to identity. By reminiscing about our experiences with others, we also share parts of ourselves.
Penny Van Bergen is a Professor in Educational Psychology, University of Wollongong.
Celia Harris is a Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Western Sydney University.v
- Penny Van Bergen and