February 6th 2023

The Cause of Depression Is Probably Not What You Think

By Joanna Thompson

Contributing Writer

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.

Joanna Moncrieff of University College London standing in her home.
To evaluate the evidence that imbalances of serotonin cause depression, the psychiatric researcher Joanna Moncrieff of University College London organized a review that looked at hundreds of papers in six areas of research.Courtesy of Joanna Moncrieff

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.

An illustration of how SSRI drugs affect serotonin in neural synapses.
Merrill Sherman/Quanta Magazine

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.

John Krystal standing in front of a laboratory at Yale University.
John Krystal, the chair of the psychiatry department at Yale University, called the effort to understand the clinical effects of SSRI drugs “a work in progress.”Nicole Mele

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.

Genetic Answers

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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A cross section of human brain that shows the distinct “gray matter” and “white matter” areas.
Research suggests that in the brains of people with chronic depression, the “white matter” areas that are rich in nerve fibers have fewer connections. The cause for this difference is uncertain, however.Ralph T. Hutchins/Science Source


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.

Jonathan Repple and Susanne Meinert of Goethe University sitting in front of a desk and a computer monitor displaying brain mapping data.
Jonathan Repple and Susanne Meinert of Goethe University and their colleagues are exploring why chronically depressed people have fewer connections in their brains. Possible explanations include neuroplasticity and inflammation.Roberto Schirdewahn; WWU/R


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.

Chronic Inflammation

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.

Charles Nemeroff in a white lab coat.
Charles Nemeroff, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Texas, Austin, thinks that in the future, treatments for depression will be tailored to individual patients by a more nuanced understanding of their risk factors.UT Austin Health

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.


  1. The Epigenetic Secrets Behind Dopamine, Drug Addiction and Depression
  2. Mitochondria May Hold Keys to Anxiety and Mental Health
  3. 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.

The Conversation

  • Elliot Berkman
  • Jordan Miller-Ziegler

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

More from The Conversation



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.

Nir Eyal

Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Nir Eyal

More from Nir Eyal



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 (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 and (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.



More from Stylist


drawing of two people about to kiss

Photos by Getty Images/iStock

Eliciting sympathy and demanding attention are pretty common tactics in the course of your average relationship – but they become especially problematic when a narcissist is involved. 

“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.

drawing of a couple about to kiss

“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.

a person holding a mirror

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. 

drawing of two figures

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.

For more help and support in a difficult relationship, seek support with Relate or contact Refuge for help and guidance with control issues.

In today’s newsletter, the fall of men, and then:
The Democrats’ gift to Ron DeSantis
Remembering David Crosby
The best books we read this week
What’s the Matter with Men?They’re floundering at school and in the workplace. Some conservatives blame a crisis of masculinity, but the problems—and their solutions—are far more complex. A girl leap-frogging over a boy in a superhero costume. Illustration by Golden Cosmos Lately, the guys haven’t been doing so well. In South Korea, girls have been outperforming boys in school; in Sweden, researchers say they are facing a pojkkrisen, or “boy crisis”; and, in the United States, the sex ratio at colleges is nearing two female undergraduates for every one male. “Is the second sex becoming the better half?” Idrees Kahloon asks, in a probing piece in this week’s issue. Kahloon reviews “Of Boys and Men,” the latest book by the inequality scholar Richard V. Reeves, who writes that, in our modern age, “working for gender equality means focusing on boys rather than girls.” Kahloon explores various ideas in Reeves’s book, including why blue-collar pay has stagnated, how the prevalence of opioids and video games may have contributed to a drop in work among men, and how the political right is using the so-called crisis of masculinity to power their rhetoric and swing voters. Kahloon asks, “Women had to endure centuries of subjugation and discrimination; should we really be alarmed that they are just now managing to overshoot gender parity in a few domains?” Read the storySupport The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »
An illustration of a book with leggings that are running. From the News Desk
Dispatch The Democratic Party’s Political Gift to Ron DeSantisRepublicans’ sustained and successful courting of Latino voters in South Florida could be a road map for the G.O.P. in 2024. By Stephania Taladrid
Q. & A. Two Supreme Court Cases That Could Break the InternetA cornerstone of life online has been that platforms are not responsible for content posted by users. What happens if that immunity goes away? By Isaac Chotiner
An illustration of a book with a knife sliced through the spine, with fallen paper shavings. Editor’s Pick
Under Review The Best Books We Read This WeekOur editors and critics review notable new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. By The New Yorker
An illustration of three books on a windowsill with an eye and a cloud appearing through the window. Culture Dept.
Notes on Hollywood The Best Actress Race at the Oscars Is Crowded, Unpredictable, and WeirdAndrea Riseborough came out of nowhere to earn a nomination, while Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett appear to be the front-runners. By Michael Schulman
Postscript David Crosby Understood the Sharpness of Despair The musician was gifted, irascible, often disliked by his bandmates, free-flowing on Twitter, and possessed of a singular voice. By Amanda Petrusich Daily Comment “Argentina, 1985” Gets an Oscar Nod The film tells the improbable—and history-making—story of how a military dictatorship was brought to justice. By Graciela Mochkofsky
The Bartender Behind the Blue HawaiiIllustrated portrait of Harry Yee relaxing inside of a giant Blue Hawaiian cocktail. Illustration by Dror Cohen

Hypnic jerks: why you sometimes feel a weird jolting sensation when you’re falling asleep

Posted by Lauren Geall for Sleep


Strong Women

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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.

Other factors that researchers believe could contribute to hypnic jerks include stress and anxiety, intense exercise before bedtime and overconsumption of caffeine

How to fall asleep after a hypnic jerk

A woman struggling to sleep, lying awake in bed
Hypnic jerks can be disruptive to your sleep.

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.

I have many regrets including going to two universities when they were not dumbed down and renamed ‘unis.’ They were worth the name. I took it all way too seriously,over educated but unable to play their game. I regret waiting so long to become a truck driver like my late father. It was the only job I ever enjoyed..Education helped me understand how the corrupt world works and the greedy bullies it is designed to favour. Only real life experience taught me that there was nothing I or anyone else could do to make it better.
R J Cook pictured at Bristol old docks Christmas 2016.


  • 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:… …

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.



MemoirCreativityThe self

9 January 2023

It’s a fraught choice: come out, or conceal yourself? | Psyche

Stigma an

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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Lucie Elven is the author of the novel “The Weak Spot.”



The mindset that brings unlimited willpower

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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)

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)

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.

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How we think

The crucial link between motivation and self-awareness

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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)

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.

They are: 

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)

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.

How we think

The smart way to learn from failure

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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)

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)

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)

Failing constructively

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

7 Essential Skills That Separate Successful People From Everyone Else (A Short, Practical Guide)

Writing, public speaking, negotiating, and 4 other essential skills.

By Bill Murphy Jr.,

7 Essential Skills That Separate Successful People From Everyone Else (A Short, Practical Guide)
Photo: Getty Images

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.

1. Writing

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.)

3. Problem-solving

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.

5. Negotiating

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.

By Bill Murphy Jr.,

People With High Emotional Intelligence Ask 3 Key Questions to Become More Likable and Give Better Advice
Photo: Getty Images

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.

The Conversation

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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

Autobiographical memories (memories about our selves and our lives) are kept in our long-term memory. This is an enormous memory store with no known limits on size or capacity.

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.

Of course, we do often develop nostalgia for our earlier lives: a bittersweet longing for the past. The core memory trend likely picks up on this nostalgia.

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.

  • Penny Van Bergen and