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The Science of Poetry and the Poetry of Science


The Science of Poetry and the Poetry of Science

Good poetry punches us right in the gut. It combines the immediate visceral beauty of musical patterns with the more cerebral pleasures of language, making it one of the few art forms that has endured across human history. Although similar to lyrical song, poetry takes more of its allure from language rather than music. It’s not necessarily easy to see why poetry should affect us quite so deeply. It is just a string of words after all. But language gives us the means to throw thoughts and feelings from our own mind across into someone else’s mind. Organize your words in the right order, and you can make someone feel like they’ve never felt before. As an adult, that is a rare experience.

In one of my recent articles, I described the chills that that music can give us. Poetry can do the same thing, but it targets different areas of the brain, especially those further towards the back of your head like the precuneus and supramarginal gyrus. Activity in a cluster of cells deeper within the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, also set the scene for that moment of ecstasy. As a poem gets particularly powerful, these cells ramp up their activity in the seconds leading up to peak emotional intensity, and then settle back down as cortical areas like the precuneus hit us with the chills.

Poetry chills come with all the consequences you’d expect, notably including the goosebumps that sprout over the surface of your body. These intense physiological responses are a signal that whatever is happening right now is deeply relevant to us and we should take note. Information that directly affects us on a personal level has priority in the brain. The precuneus, which ups its brain activity when we experience chills, has been associated with exactly this kind of self-referential processing.

The most enjoyable goosebumps, as opposed to say shivers from the cold, are driven by feelings of awe and surprise. So when a poem says something unexpected that connects deeply with our own personal experiences, you can expect chills to take the stage. The right poem proves to us that our experiences are in good company, no matter how alone we feel. It helps us to realize that we are part of something bigger. Our existence comes from an unbroken chain of life on Earth and a flourishing universe across billions of years. It’s harder to feel isolated when you have the whole universe behind you, right?

* * *

Poetic techniques help to make messages more memorable and meaningful. For example, when aphorisms rhyme, we are more likely to believe that they are accurate in their meaning, because rhyme allows us to process a sentence more fluently. You may remember the infamous line from the defense attorney in the O.J. Simpson trial, after the courtroom watched the alleged murderer trying on the glove used in the killing: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”. Perhaps the line owes some of its success to its effective use of rhyme.

Alliteration also helps us to remember information better, not only the alliterated information itself, but also the messages surrounding it. The patterns and rhythms within poems are a sensory bonus in perception. They drive us to pay attention and connect with a message on a deeper level. Often, the best poems are not necessarily saying anything extraordinary or special. They are simply expressing it in a unique way that allows us to see a familiar scene from a new perspective. New perspectives are powerful because they stimulate our imagination and add vivid clarity to important messages that haven’t yet matured within our own minds.

In stimulating new perspectives, poems also make use of another great device: metaphor. Metaphors often adopt basic concepts to aid us in comprehending more complicated concepts. This may lie behind much of human progress in intelligence. It can be tricky for us to grasp many of the universe’s abstract mysteries, but our ability to represent those mysteries in the form of concrete intuitions helps us to break them down into manageable insights. Of course, there may be limits to this. For example, to this day, we struggle to wrap our minds around concepts such as consciousness or quantum mechanics, even with heroic attempts at metaphors. As the physicist Richard Feynman put it, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. And as Niels Bohr, another physicist, put it, “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry”. Poetry is often our first and final salvation for making sense of the things that make no sense to us.

To put it simply, poetry nudges us to revisit and reinterpret our own memories. Even the least ambiguous experiences from our past can be brought back to life with a new twist. My favorite example of this comes from the British poet Ross Sutherland. I won’t spoil the poem by describing it, but it’s a great example of what can happen in your mind when you bring together old memories, new words, and emotional meaning. Here is the video.

“Standby for Tape Backup” by Ross Sutherland —

* * *

Language is, of course, our most important social tool. When we interact with others, the level of overlap in the styles of our conversational language predicts the quality of our relationship. When researchers analyzed the language used by people on speed dates, they found that greater similarity in language styles predicted a greater desire to see each other again. They saw similar outcomes when looking at instant messages sent between couples: a stronger match in language style predicted better relationship stability 3 months later.

Poetry is no exception to this rule in communication. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were romantically intertwined poets in the Victorian era. The language styles within their poems fluctuated in agreement with the quality of their relationship. The language in their respective poems was most synchronized during the happiest and healthiest period of their relationship. The same pattern can be found in the writings of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, another pair of poets with an emotionally turbulent relationship and the poetic styles to match.

As humans, we do not particularly enjoy uncertainty, but we also want to avoid boredom. Poems may occupy a goldilocks zone between our hesitance to take risks and our search for some hint of novelty. They help us reconstruct our memories in the service of finding meaning, and they help us understand the perplexing world we live in. When our language becomes too repetitive, or our mental life get a little stale, there is no better cure than a dose of poetry.


Damn It, It’s on the Tip of My Tongue


Damn It, It’s on the Tip of My Tongue

Photo by  Juliet Furst  on  Unsplash

There is a very specific feeling of frustration that comes with trying to recall a word that you know is sitting in your brain somewhere but failing to drop into your mouth. We refer to it as having a word on the “tip of your tongue”. We might fall into this trap once a week or so in normal life (although it becomes more frequent with age), and around 50% of the time, we manage to get ourselves out of the mess within a minute. We often experience it when a friend asks a question with a familiar answer that we have not heard or used recently, or when we try to find a specific but uncommon word that describes a feeling we are trying to communicate.

Questions with uncommon single-word answers are particularly likely to elicit a tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon. Let’s see if any of these questions, which have previously been used to elicit TOT feelings in lab studies, do a good job of getting you into the dreaded TOT mental state (the answers will be at the end of the article):

  • What do you call a word or sentence that reads the same backward and forward such as, “Madam, I’m Adam”?

  • What is the name of the islands off the coast of Ecuador that Darwin visited to study unique species of animal life?

  • What is the order of lower mammals including kangaroos and opossums which carry their young in an abdominal pouch?

  • What is the word meaning favoritism in hiring based on family relationships?

  • What do you call a person who appeals to people’s prejudices, making false claims and promises in order to gain power?

  • What are people who make maps called?

What exactly is our brain up to when we experience a TOT feeling? Brain scans suggest that two key brain areas are particularly active: the anterior cingulate cortex and the right prefrontal cortex. Our anterior cingulate cortex is typically involved in detecting and monitoring mental conflicts. It is a core part of the inner battle between competing options when we encounter a problem. The right prefrontal cortex is involved in working through our memories as we retrieve them, especially when we are not particularly confident that they are correct. It underpins the sense of familiarity but lack of certainty about the solution to a problem when we desperately peruse the contents of our mind in search of the answer.

These brain functions are reminiscent of what happens when a word is on the tip of our tongue. In our mind, we work through multiple conflicting possibilities with similar sounds or meanings as we try to zero in on the target: “is it despotism? Neapolitan… nativism… NEPOTISM!”. There goes the answer to one of the TOT questions I listed above, if you didn’t already think of the word.

We are more likely to find ourselves in a TOT state with emotional words than neutral words. This suggests that emotions are a significant part of our memory recollection process, as we retrieve different clues to what the word may be. Perhaps the emotions themselves are a definitive signal that the word we seek is sitting in our mind somewhere. We know that we know the word, we just can’t quite bring it to the front of our mind. This relates to what scientists call “metacognition”: thinking about thinking.

The metacognitive account of TOT phenomena explains that when we fail to recall a word, we activate our metacognitive processes to estimate whether the word would come to mind if we just thought hard enough. In addition to retrieving any emotional clues, we hunt down related or half-baked bits of information that somehow connect to our target. For example, clues could include syntactic (sentence structure), semantic (meaning), or phonemic (sound) information. As we accumulate some clues, we may cross a threshold that initiates a TOT feeling and encourages us to keep searching rather than give up. Then, if we continue accumulating more clues, we may be lucky enough to cross another threshold that activates the complete target concept and allows us to spit out the word.

To prove that phonemic information is one of the major clues that we use in recalling words, researchers put participants in a TOT state and then tested how well they could eventually recall the correct word. They showed that a list of similar sounding words helped participants to retrieve the correct target word, rather than interfering with their thought process. TOT states make us extra curious to find out the answer to our problem. Reeling off words that sound like they connect to the camouflaged target may be one good way to pull the word out of the bushes.

When we are trying to carefully count objects, perhaps the number of people in a room, our more annoying friends might whisper distracting asynchronous numbers into our ear to force us into furiously starting again. But when it comes to TOT states, a list of similar words can be helpful. As we play detective and attempt to solve a “what is that word?” mystery, any related information that pops into our head becomes a clue. Our brain activity bounces around these clues in trying to resolve the conflict, and with enough information, it eventually settles upon the solution and gives us a feeling of relief that is difficult to rival.

Answers to the list of TOT questions at the top of the article

  • Palindrome

  • Galapagos

  • Marsupials

  • Nepotism

  • Demagogue

  • Cartographers


The Science of Hypocrisy


The Science of Hypocrisy

This article was a front-page feature on Medium

Photo by  Rishabh Butola  on  Unsplash

For many of us, a huge part of daily conversation revolves around gossip. We love to talk about the blunders and missteps of friends, family, and celebrities. On top of that, news organizations and social networks are like outrage amplifiers because that’s what gets the clicks. We are all used to name-calling in the news, especially when it’s directed at politicians or performers. But there’s one particular name that really gets our attention.

If you want to destroy someone, call them a “hypocrite.”

Hypocrisy typically involves criticizing or condemning the immoral acts of others while engaging in those acts ourselves. This can make us look worse than if we engaged in those immoral acts but didn’t criticize them at all, which might sound odd. But would you rather someone engaged in immoral behavior and criticized it or engaged in immoral behavior and didn’t criticize it? Diving into the psychology of hypocrisy can make how we feel about it make more sense.

Testing for hypocrisy

An experiment in 2001 aimed to turn people into hypocrites in the lab. Participants were to assign a set of tasks to themselves and an unknown second participant. One type of task was exciting and offered rewards while the other was neutral with no rewards. A coin placed next to the participants had a written instruction explaining that most people believed flipping the coin would be a fair way to distribute the tasks. Indeed, practically all of the participants agreed that flipping the coin to assign tasks would be the most moral thing.

But when it came down to it, only half of them actually flipped the coin, with practically everybody in the non-coin-flipping half giving themselves the exciting tasks. Among the people who did flip the coin — which was labeled “self” on one side and “other” on the other — 85% to 90% still managed to assign the exciting task to themselves. Clearly, either the coin was a magical sycophant or the participants pretended the coin had landed in their favor when it really hadn’t.

People wanted to look fair by using a coin to make their decision, but behind the scenes, they were just as selfish as the people who did not use the coin at all (most of whom had agreed using the coin would be the most fair but didn’t do it). It’s all a perfect example of moral hypocrisy at work.

The drive behind hypocrisy

Self-interest is the most obvious reason for any of us to act like hypocrites. When people are questioned about why they act in conflict with their own stated moral standards, many will say that the personal costs are enough to outweigh the intention to act morally. Essentially, we all want to act fairly until we are put on the spot and facing our own personal consequences. For example, it’s easy to justify many of our unfulfilled wishes to donate to charities and failed inclinations to help a stranger in need by telling ourselves that we just can’t afford to do it right now.

We all want to act fairly until we are put on the spot and facing our own personal consequences.

Our hypocrisy helps us out, that’s for sure. But we also use it in our relationships. Often, when we rate the fairness or morality of other people’s actions, we judge them more harshly than we judge ourselves doing the same actions. In a 2007 report on a modification of the exciting task/boring task paradigm described earlier, participants afterward were told to judge their and others’ fairness on a scale from 1 (extremely unfair) to 7 (extremely fair). People scored themselves a 4 on average but rated others’ fairness at only a 3 on average.

Interestingly, our judgments of other people tend to be far more favorable if those others fall within our in-group (even if it’s a purely arbitrary in-group characterized by a random trait). We often judge an in-group member’s misbehavior to be just as fair as our own. We only have a greater distaste for other people’s bad behaviors when those people fall outside a social circle that we ourselves have drawn.

But why is hypocrisy so distasteful?

We’ve covered what hypocrisy looks like and what motivates it, but we haven’t tackled why we seem to hate it so much. One strong explanation relates to false signaling. In essence, hypocrites employ a double layer of deception in their immoral acts — one more layer than the basic liars who simply say they’ve acted morally when they haven’t. When we hypocritically condemn someone’s immoral behavior, we disguise our personal misbehavior with a veil of persuasiveness or manipulation. It’s easier to see through an outright lie than a hypocrite’s condemnation. On top of that, a hypocrite has brought another person into the game. Instead of directly denying their immorality, the hypocrite sneakily implies they are good by attempting to shame someone else. This is a recipe for hatred when caught out.

Hypocrites employ a double layer of deception in their immoral acts — one more layer than the basic liars who simply say they’ve acted morally when they haven’t.

A set of recent experiments had Yale faculty testing this false signaling theory by giving people stories about different kinds of liars and hypocrites and then studying how people judged the characters within those stories. Four important results came out of these trials:

  1. When a person condemns other people’s behavior and we know nothing else about that person, we typically believe it comes from their moral goodness.

  2. Condemnation of bad behavior is a stronger signal of a person’s moral goodness than claims of personally avoiding bad behavior.

  3. When a person condemns a behavior that they themselves commit (hypocrite), we rate them as significantly worse than a person who says they don’t commit a behavior when they do (liar).

  4. We perceive hypocrites better if they admit to sometimes engaging in the bad behavior than if they make no such admission.

Overall, it backs up the idea that we have a greater tolerance for liars than we have for hypocrites. Hypocrites are like a special type of liar who puts extra effort into disguising their misbehavior and sending us false signals of moral superiority. Those false signals drive our contempt. If a hypocrite is honest about their hypocrisy — if they get rid of false signals by admitting to what they condemn — our view of them can become significantly more favorable.

Perhaps there’s a lesson we can learn here. If we’re going to lie, that’s bad enough; let’s try not to fool and distract other people by pointing the finger. Sometimes, it’s okay to be transparent about our flaws. Nobody is perfect, but honest self-criticism and the ability to admit when we fail to live up to our own standards may be a good foundation for integrity. Hypocrites are terrible people. And occasionally, I’m one of them.


The Day I Embarrassed Myself


The Day I Embarrassed Myself

Photo by  Louis Hansel  on  Unsplash

The biggest turning points in our lives come from moments when we need to make a decision. We make decisions ranging from the most trivial to the most important every single day. We pick and choose the friends who are right for us, the directions in which to travel, the careers to develop, and the cities to build. Anatomically speaking, we humans are all basically the same. It is our decisions that set us apart.

Decisions are not always easy, and the modern world often asks a lot from our poor ape brains. Sometimes it seems like we can’t win. We can have both too little and too much choice. Our conscious minds can overthink a problem while our unconscious minds miss too much. And we are expected to make reasonable sense of what is around us now, while also predicting the future consequences of the possible decisions available to us.

Predicting the future is no easy feat for non-clairvoyants (i.e. everyone). Many people and events can depend on what we decide to do, and I’m not just talking about the decisions of war generals. Deciding whether or not to buy a coffee right now can impact what we hear and say in a later work meeting and might affect our reputations and careers. Deciding whether to take this crowded train or the next quiet one to university can determine whether we make it to an exam on time or fail. And the most recent pressing decision on my mind while I lived in the UK: deciding whether or not to attend a wedding can impact how particular people feel about us.

As I hinted at when I referred to our poor ape brains, our reasoning and decision-making is not optimally set up for modern day in civilized society. There are plenty of processes and mechanisms that made sense in our evolutionary history, but now are misaligned with the ideals and demands of modern life. We call them cognitive biases and our brain is littered with them. I will talk through just a few of these in the context of my decision-making on the day I had to attend a wedding, because it’s easy to see how often I make these mistakes. It might seem like a dire situation for human psychology, but far from it. When I notice a cognitive bias appear in my head and remain aware of it, it is less likely to force me into making poor decisions that turn my molehills into mountains.

Keep in mind this important note as I tell you the story: I hate weddings. I absolutely hate weddings. And I argued with my wife every day for one month about why I had to go to this specific wedding, and why I couldn’t just stay at home (just like I argued for my own wedding). This was how my morning went on that day. I will italicize my cognitive mistakes to make them extra embarrassing. I hope you can relate to at least a couple of them. Here goes…

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

7am — My alarm rings and I slowly open my eyes. It dawns upon me. It is the day of that wedding, and I need to leave the house within the next hour for a long journey from London to Codsall. Codsall for goodness sake. Codsall! What a daft name for a place.

7.15am — I’m still lying in bed, and putting off the day ahead by reading the news on my phone. I get a message from my wife who is flying in from Washington DC and meeting me at the wedding. Her flight was cancelled during the night while I was failing to sleep but avoiding looking at my phone, and she had to get on a new one. She will now be at the wedding 6 hours after I arrive in Codsall. I will need to spend 6 hours in a dingy little depressing village cafe, waiting for my wife, so that I don’t need to spend any time alone at the wedding. This is an abomination.

  • Cognitive bias 1 — Overgeneralizing learned rules: I have been to many small English villages in my time, and I would estimate something like 40% of them had cafes that I did not enjoy sitting or working in. In cities, this value is close to 0%. So I have detected what I believe is a reasonable pattern in the world in terms of my preferences, but I am over-applying the rule to places I have never visited before. Yes, I have encountered far more beastly cafes in small villages than I have in cities. But it is nowhere near 100% of those villages. So I should be giving completely new places a good chance of impressing me with their cafe selection. Some evidence suggests overgeneralization may be relevant in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, where patients’ perceptions of danger spread too far.

7.31am — I’ve made it into the shower.

8am — After sulkily putting on my clothes and throwing my suit in a bag, I am prepared to leave. I look out of the window and it is pissing it down out there (translation for non-British people: raining heavily). I do not have an umbrella.

8.15am — I’ve walked through the rain and I’m now at my local tube (subway/metro) station in east London. The place is crawling with humans scurrying to get to work in central London. I miss the first train I need because too many people get on ahead of me, so I wait my turn at the front of the queue for the next one. It arrives but I’m pushed out of the way by a small woman with curly hair who was behind me. She takes up the last empty space on the train as the doors slam shut, and she looks at me with contempt as it begins moving. This woman is an arrogant, selfish, devil-worshipper. I am now a misanthrope for the foreseeable future.

  • Cognitive bias 2 — Attributional biases: We can always catch ourselves making mistakes in how we attribute characteristics to the events in our lives. One example is the “curse of knowledge”, in which both adults and children incorrectly assume other people know what they do. This makes communication difficult and can lead to bad decisions. We also make errors in attributing responsibility, especially by ascribing permanence to what is temporary. When we are happy or sad, we often feel it is a defining part of us rather than a fleeting emotional experience that will come and go. Patients with depression have a worse problem: they believe that any negative emotions will stay with them forever and are their own fault, while positive emotions are an accident that will disappear before long. We also tend to assume that other people’s bad behavior is attributable to basic character flaws rather than the possibility that they are just having a bad day. Is the pushy woman I met on the train really a devil-worshipper? Or could she have got some bad news about a relative that morning?

8.22am — I am sitting in a chair on the train platform in despair, with my head in my hands. Everyone has their own thing going on, entirely ignoring each other. A small black Labrador trots up to my leg on its owner’s leash. It stares into my eyes. This dog knows. It is confused about our culture and behavior and is questioning why we insist on standing in these crowded sweaty places rather than running around outside in the park chasing sticks.

  • Cognitive bias 3 — Anthropomorphization: We enjoy imbuing non-humans with human-like characteristics because we feel it helps us to understand them better. This is not always completely unrealistic. After all, a dog probably has some emotional subjective experiences going on, even if we cannot exactly pinpoint their quality relative to humans. The problems with anthropomorphization are a little clearer when we start talking about inanimate objects as though they were alive. We see eyes in the headlights of cars, a Mother figure within nature, and we form emotional attachments to rocks and bits of metal (e.g. jewelry). This might also relate to our visions of Gods and conscious intentions within natural phenomena throughout history. When people anthropomorphize slot machines, they even gamble more.

Photo by  Daniel Cheung  on  Unsplash

8.45am — I finally make it into a train, but on the way I become certain I will miss my train from London Euston station to Codsall. This annoys me and I seriously consider going back home, lying on my wonderful sofa, and ignoring all messages and calls from wedding people. But I have already paid money for the return train tickets. Surely I can’t waste that money by not taking the trip now? If I miss the train, I will just need to pay for another ticket at the station. I have come this far, lost this much money, and now I need to see the trip through to the end no matter what.

  • Cognitive bias 4: Sunk cost fallacy — This is often expressed as ‘throwing good money after bad’. When we have spent money on something, we experience an overwhelming commitment to it, and fight against any urge to drop out of the commitment early. When we buy a ticket to a play or an opera and take our seat, we are more likely to sit through a full 3–4 hours of torment rather than leave if we dislike what we are seeing. This is true even though the most rational decision is to leave if we predict continued disappointment from it. Remaining committed to a decision after we start it is perhaps one of the biggest drains on human time and happiness. And it’s not only monetary investments that affect us in this way. Commitments of effort and time also affect us in similar ways. Once we start, we are hesitant to stop, even if we foresee approaching disaster from continued commitment to our initial decision. We need to be able to stop when the time is right, ignoring past investments that have no real impact on what we do now. When resources have already been committed to a particular course of action, those sunk costs should not brainwash us into continuing with plans that turn out to be ineffective. Quitters are not always weak losers; they are often the strongest and most resilient people in the developed world. The sunk cost fallacy may itself be driven by overgeneralization (see Cognitive bias 1 above) of a “Don’t waste” rule.

9.22am — I ran at speeds that Einstein would be impressed with to catch the departing train at Euston station with about 15 seconds to spare. I drop myself down dramatically in an empty seat, and the air pushed out from under me creates a nice calming breeze. I think about the obstacles I have overcome to get here over the last couple of hours. So many separate bad things have happened on the way to this wedding. Positive and negative events seem to happen fairly randomly, sosurely I am due a pleasant surprise when I actually get to the wedding. Nobody has ever had such an unlucky roll.

  • Cognitive bias 5: The gambler’s fallacy: Have you ever been to a casino? Stand by the roulette table long enough and you’ll see something peculiar but intuitive for most people. When the roulette wheel has landed on red or black repeatedly in a row, customers start betting big on the opposite color for the next spin. They believe that in a random sequence, you are unlikely to see a long series of the same event. People intuitively feel that red, red, red, red, red, is less likely to happen than red, black, red, red, black, even though the probability of getting red or black is always 50%. This is referred to as the gambler’s fallacy. This is not just something that fools us standard everyday specimens of humanity. In my academic research, I analyzed some data that suggested elite soccer goalkeepers may show similar biases when deciding which way to dive in penalty shoot-outs.

12.00pm — I’m sitting in a cafe in Codsall, and against all the irrational odds I set myself, it’s one of the most peaceful and wonderful cafes I’ve ever sat in. I got more writing done than I normally would, had amazing cheap coffee and cake (relative to London where I lived at the time), and talked to random strangers about their lives. My wife ended up arriving around 6 pm and we made it to the wedding just before the curtains closed. I even enjoyed what was left of the wedding. Codsall is great…

Photo by  Gades Photography  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Gades Photography on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

I walked you through my mental mishaps on that wedding day because they are so representative of our general everyday reasoning (feel free to describe your own examples in the comments section to help me look less stupid). But the same biases could just as easily apply in more serious situations, where the basic impulses in our characters guide us towards disastrous beliefs and actions. All of the biases listed above can change our lives by affecting the decisions we make. And there are certainly many more than the ones I mention. By being more aware of them, we can minimize the chance that they blindside us where it hurts.


Learning, the Easy Way


Learning, the Easy Way

Without the ability to learn, we would be a pretty useless species. The most exciting advances in artificial intelligence come from introducing the ability for machines to learn for themselves and apply that knowledge to future problems, because we know that advanced learning is a major turning point in human evolution. Some even worry that if robots learn too well, it could usher an intelligence explosion that signals the end of humanity. But machines and existential catastrophes aside, in our own little way, humans have been learning successfully for hundreds of thousands of years. We teach each other how to use new tools, from the most primitive hammers and knives, to the more remarkable modern tools at our disposal like smartphones. We also teach each other the rules for living in our societies, producing cultures within which we can develop functional laws and economic systems. Effective learning and knowledge-sharing is the ultimate path to prosperity.

The brain treats tasks during learning very differently to how it treats them after mastery. Take the example of learning to drive a car. On your first few lessons, driving a car is quite difficult. It requires you to learn several different motor skills, including adjusting foot pedals at the right time, shifting gears smoothly, keeping the steering accurate, and keeping your eyes on the mirrors. At the most demanding times, you have to do all of this at the same time. When you are unfamiliar with these tasks, you need to pay a lot of attention as you perform them. You may remember the utter exhaustion you felt after each of your early driving lessons as you walked back through the door of your home. This is not because driving a car is a physically strenuous activity. It is because of the draining mental effort you had to put into learning each of the new motor skills required to drive well, under the pressure of other more impatient and experienced drivers behind you.

The prefrontal cortex in your brain, an important area for learning new rules, was highly active when you were learning to drive. It is involved whenever you try to master a new task, and will sit behind much of your conscious effort and mental exhaustion during learning. When you become an experienced driver on the other hand, things are a little different. If you are a regular driver, you do not sit paying attention to the gear stick each time you shift it, or the timing of how you release your foot on the clutch pedal. At this stage of task mastery, your prefrontal cortex and effortful focus are no longer so involved while you perform the activity. Other areas including the striatum (a cluster of cells deeply buried under your cortex) and the deeper cells within your cerebellum (the “little brain” hanging off the rear underside of your big brain), can take over in running the activity “offline” for you (at least for motor learning). The task becomes more automated, and allows you to spend your spared mental energy thinking about how the cloud in the distance looks rather like an elephant, or how you should have phrased something differently during that argument earlier.

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The principle of employing a lot of mental effort when learning something, and gradually reducing that effort as we become experts, is true across many types of learning. But can we make life easier for ourselves during that early stage of high mental effort?

For children learning to read and write, computers can be a hindrance, at least when it comes to recognizing letters. In one study, researchers took a group of 76 children aged 3–5 and trained half of them to copy letters of the alphabet by hand, and the other half to copy the letters by typing on a keyboard. After 3 weeks of learning, only the older children showed progress in recognizing letters in a test, but within that older group, those who learned through handwriting performed significantly better than those who learned through typing. When you write letters by hand, there are specific motor signals and movement-related sensory signals that come into play. Writing the letter X requires a very different manual action to writing the letter S, whereas typing the two letters on a keyboard requires practically identical actions. So when typing, you need to rely solely on the visual difference between the letters in distinguishing them (and perhaps a little on their different locations on a keyboard, but this is still limited compared to the actions required in handwriting).

The richer and more unique signals associated with written letters may therefore assist in learning them. Adults who are taught to handwrite new unseen characters also have a strong advantage in later recognizing those characters, compared to adults who learn the characters through typing. This advantage holds true even when the two groups see the letters for the same amount of time.

Handwriting rather than typing also happens to be good advice for university students. Students frequently take their laptops to class, with the excuse that they can search the internet for class-relevant material during class to aid their learning. However, perhaps surprisingly, class-related internet usage does not correlate with class performance, suggesting there is no real benefit to bringing that laptop to class. What’s more, perhaps unsurprisingly, irrelevant and nonacademic usage of the internet is common when students use their laptop in class. And the more they do this, the worse their class performance gets. So there you have it. Taking your laptop to class likely gives you little to no academic benefit, and the constant temptation to check Facebook, or examine the latest funny cat videos, gets in the way of effective learning.

Photo from Pixabay. Edited by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Edited by yours truly.

There is one other important principle you may want to keep in mind when taking on a new learning challenge: testing works. Our school systems are built around exams at the end of the year that test your progress and potentially set you up for your later life. Although the high-pressure, now-or-never nature of exam grading has its painful downsides, you do learn more effectively by being tested. Imagine the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: I give you a list of words to remember, and give you a couple of seconds per word to study them. 1 minute later, I repeat this exact study session. Finally, 5 minutes later, I run through these same two study sessions again with you.

Scenario 2: This starts the same way as Scenario 1 with a study session. But 1 minute later, instead of a repeat study session, I test you on the words, asking you to recall as many as you can. Finally, 5 minutes later, I run through the same study and test sessions again with you.

If I gave you an exam 2 days after each of the scenarios, testing how many words you could recall from the study list, the second scenario would likely provide you with the best performance. This is referred to as the testing effect in experimental psychology. Testing leads to more effortful processing of study material and stronger elaboration on the meaning of words. These positive benefits outweigh the advantage of seeing material for a longer time with additional study sessions.

So restudying alone seems like a mistake, but students often add to their woe by also cramming their study material into the last couple of days before a big exam. This style of massed study performs worse than spacing out your study sessions. If you really want to remember something over the long term, you should separate your study sessions of the material by days or even weeks. Give yourself a chance to process the material and consolidate your memories before jumping into another revision session. With cramming in quick succession, your brain is likely to habituate to your notes and become less effective at reinforcing existing connections.

Photo by  Aaron Thomas  on  Unsplash . Picture of brain from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Aaron Thomas on Unsplash. Picture of brain from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Learning helps us to succeed and lead happier lives. It drives positive academic and career progress, along with a more fulfilling sense of accomplishment in everyday life. Whether we are trying to learn a new language, a new sport, or something new in history class, there are specific things we can do to make it easier for ourselves. Motivation is undoubtedly a major player in our ability to learn something new, but understanding how our brain facilitates learning can also give us an extra nudge towards success. So go ahead and get learning. But save yourself some pain by doing it the easy way.


Your Brain’s Battle Between Happiness and Greener Grass


Your Brain’s Battle Between Happiness and Greener Grass

Photo by  MI PHAM  on  Unsplash

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

We all do what we can to feel good. When you consider what it means to feel good, you probably think of the immediate pleasures that life has to offer: excitement, laughter, and requited love. But most of us want more diverse experiences, including a sense of calm, gratitude, and purpose. In fact, sometimes the best feelings we ever have come from long or grueling challenges. For me, this includes a backbreaking (almost literally) process of learning to snowboard, and a gruesome mountainous cycling challenge in the Canadian Rockies. It’s almost as though the pain of a difficult challenge makes the pleasure of success feel that much better in comparison.

Our moods hang like a cloud over everything we do. Sometimes they change as an immediate response to a new event, while other times they are more like background feelings without any obvious cause. They have a clear impact on our quality of life, but we are generally bad at understanding exactly how or why we feel the ways that we do. Worst of all, we often fail to see what truly makes us happy in life. Without this knowledge, we’re like a hamster on a treadmill, chasing elusive good feelings but never quite reaching happiness.

If someone asked whether you want to implant an electrode in your brain directly targeting your pleasure centre and leave it switched on, what would you say? We could organize it so that it would be like the best drug in the world, but you would be protected from adapting to it or suffering from withdrawal symptoms or other negative physiological side effects. Even with these reassurances, we might hesitate. We don’t really want constant pleasure. Without life’s downs, the ups lose value. Would we be as productive, motivated, and appreciative of happiness, if we never really knew a life without it? Probably not.

Although negative emotions are practical in life, positive emotions are always the long-term goal. We direct any struggles or pains towards a future positive benefit in our life experiences. We often experience some fear before speaking to large groups or traveling to unfamiliar countries, but we don’t do these things because we want to feel the fear. We want the gifts at the end of the rainbow: enhancing our reputations and careers or broadening our horizons by meeting other cultures. We simply accept that fear is a central part of the journey towards gaining that positive outcome in our experiences.

When we are not afraid or nervous about what we are doing, we are unlikely to gain much at the end of the exercise. That may be because the activity is not scary in the first place, or because we have done it so many times already that we have adapted to it, and it’s no longer scary. Either way, we are unlikely to achieve anything life-changingly positive when we finish. We get nervous about new territories and public speaking precisely because they mean so much to us. We can all agree that we will have a more comfortable and pleasant life with less anxiety and sadness, but it is also true that tackling the occasional short-term drama can help us in the long term. We give ourselves the chance of entering a new realm of potentially greater mental well-being.

The optimal strategy is to find our personally ideal balance of creature comforts and novel excitements. This balance likely depends on our personality, especially on our level of openness, which relates to our desire to search for new experiences over familiar environments. A specific theory of animal behavior describes exactly this balance of explore vs exploit.

Life is full of decisions between sticking with what we know and exploiting the resources we already have, or riskily jumping at a new opportunity to potentially gain something much bigger. Humans and other animals need to deal with this challenge all the time. Antelope: “Do I stay here where it seems safe, and keep munching on this diminishing low quality grass, or do I move on and find some higher quality stuff while trying to avoid cheetahs?”. Human: “Do I go back to that restaurant I quite like tonight, or try this totally new one that I’ve heard about but might hate?”. We are not so different.

Photo on left by  Holger Bartholomä  on  Unsplash . Photo on right by  Zuza Reinhard  on  Unsplash .

Photo on left by Holger Bartholomä on Unsplash. Photo on right by Zuza Reinhard on Unsplash.

The brain is a prediction machine. It has a model of expectations about the world, and this model initially depends on our evolutionary genetics, but it also evolves as we live and learn new things about the environment around us. A human lives in a very different world than a whale, so each brain has its own individual preset models about how the world should look. As we navigate and act on the world, we naturally perceive new things around us, and we compare all of those new perceptions to our model of expectations.

When we find a big difference between them, something needs to change because uncertainty is dangerous. We either need to change what we are seeing, or we need to change our expectations of what we should see. If, as humans, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest or we are stuck outside on a cold night, we will spend all of our energy trying to get away from the darkness or the cold, given their inherent danger. We keep moving until our senses tell us we are in light or warmth again. But what if this is not an option? What if we have gone blind and we remain stuck in darkness for an extended time? Then we only have one other option for remaining sane: we change our expectations about the world, rather than continuing to try and change the sensory inputs themselves. In other words, we adapt so that the new world we find around us is no longer a constant surprise, and we find better ways of negotiating the world with the new model of expectations in our head.

We adapt our expectations in subtler ways in everyday life. For example, we might have a prior belief that raw fish is disgusting, and so we stay away from sushi. But then we might meet someone who encourages us to at least try it. The first time you try it might be a disaster. Your brain enters surprise mode, and kicks back to tell you to throw it away and never look at it again. But you might try a couple more times. The next few times are less surprising, and eventually you might even be quite comfortable with it. This process of becoming comfortable is the brain adjusting its expectations as new sensory experiences repeatedly show you that your predictions might be inaccurate. So your expectations for sushi might develop from ‘sushi = disgusting’ to ‘sushi = not so bad’, and perhaps eventually to‘sushi = awesome’. Because let’s face it, sushi is awesome.

Original pictures from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Original pictures from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

You can see shorter term adaptation happening in the brain during brain scans. When you are repeatedly shown the same image, the parts of your brain responsible for processing that image reduce in their activity over time. For example, when you are shown the same person’s face multiple times, activity in the fusiform gyrus area of your brain (which is important in decoding facial identity) decreases each time. When you are shown the same emotional expression, activity in the anterior superior temporal sulcus (involved in processing emotional expression) reduces over time. So the brain has in-built adaptation functions. New information tends to be more important than old information, so it makes sense to devote less processing power to information as it becomes familiar. In fact, this adaptation mechanism is so deeply ingrained, that it’s one of the few methods we have for measuring the psychology of newborn babies. When newborns are interested in something, they look at it, and when they get bored, they look away. By measuring how long they look at different objects and images before adapting and looking away, we can understand some of the innate preferences that we are born with, like preferring biological motion (walking people) to non-biological motion (random movement).

Adaptation is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing when we are working through an event that makes us fearful or anxious, because eventually we get used to it and calm our nerves. But we also face the same problem when we become especially excited or happy about a new event in our life. We never maintain the high for very long. Our energy and excitement when we start a new job dies down within a couple of months. Our passion and drive for going to the gym starts to fade after the first few workouts. And the romance and butterflies of a new relationship do not last forever either, even when we truly love someone.

It is a great revelation when we learn firsthand that we didn’t fully appreciate something or someone until we lost them. The loss snaps us out of the adaptation that took over, allowing us to more realistically appraise the object’s value and desperately want it back. One great example is good health. We live our lives taking good bodily health for granted and never thinking about it, until we develop an awkward cyst, infection, or goodness forbid, cancer that we need to get fixed. Then we spend our days praying for our good health to return, promising that we’ll better appreciate it this time. And often we do appreciate it more, at least for a week or so…

In one sense, adaptation to the good stuff in our lives also has an advantage. It allows us to develop new motivations and keep moving forward. In a world where we want to earn more, learn more, and experience more, it is not conducive to be fully happy with what we have. A little boredom gives us the push we need to climb up the ladder of life. But it is entirely obvious that most of us do not have this balance right.

This is why it’s important to make the most of what we have while we have it. One great way to do this is to strengthen your sense of awareness. Open monitoring mindfulness is just one technique for helping with this. Instead of getting lost in your thoughts, the aim is to attentively monitor all your thoughts and experiences as they appear, without reacting to them. You don’t necessarily need to sit cross-legged on a pillow to enjoy this mindset. You simply have to become more aware of how you’re thinking and feeling moment-to-moment in your everyday life. This level of internal self-monitoring requires practice, because it’s far from easy to maintain. But there is good evidence for the positive benefits of mindfulness, especially when it comes to emotional and relationship issues. So it’s worth the effort, and the effort can be enjoyable.

Whenever we break out of the ongoing buzz of annoying thoughts in our head, we tend to notice more of what’s going on around us. It might be as simple as noticing the freshness of the air in the park or the reckless abandon of a dog chasing sticks. These sound insignificant but have you ever noticed the experiential difference between walking through a park while paying attention vs walking while lost in thought? When you leave the park at the end of the first scenario, you feel as though you’ve had a full, rich, and meaningful experience. At the end of the second, you don’t have much of an experience at all, and you wonder where the time went. That’s if you don’t continue blindly scurrying all the way home without even noticing that you have left the park and the experience has ended.

These differences are far from trivial. Too many of us appreciate traveling vacations only in hindsight, because on the trip we get distracted by flight delays, baggage problems, too much heat, too much cold, overspending, uncomfortable accommodation, undercooked meat, foreign languages, and goodness knows what else. When we focus on the positives, we savor the best parts of the experience while we are actually there, rather than taking 500 rapid-fire photos to enjoy only once we are home.

Photo by  Jon Flobrant  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Outside of the most extreme hardships, the things that make us happy are usually within our reach. We just need to look for them. Ongoing gratitude and appreciation can be tough to cultivate because we are so inclined to push them away as we chase bigger and better things. But if we try, we can set ambitious goals and make progress, all the while appreciating what we already have.


Creative Sparks and Brainwaves


Creative Sparks and Brainwaves

Photo by  Aziz Acharki  on  Unsplash

Creativity. It’s tough to find another word so widely used yet so difficult to understand. When we think ‘creative’, we think of Beethoven’s symphonies, Picasso’s portraits, and Wren’s architecture, but the exact definition is a little foggy. A common intuition of creativity is that it’s artistic creation, but then we’d have to dismiss the geniuses who find creative workarounds in scientific fields and technological innovation. The dictionary talks more about the ability to create something original, but then throwing a pile of dog excrement at a wall could also be considered creative. Originality is one part of the act of creative ambition, but an equally important part is less acknowledged: problem solving. Believe it or not, good problem solving might be what distinguishes my “Dog Excrement on Wall” from Picasso’s “Guernica”.

It might seem strange to think of the creative process as problem solving. When you paint a pretty picture, have you really solved a problem? A good artist has some purpose in mind when they create their art, and it might be to elicit a particular emotion or experience in their audience. So we can express this kind of problem as “how I do make people feel what I want them to feel?”, or “how do I express this thought in a way that relates to people and helps them overcome their own problem?”. And this is not always an easy problem to solve. People have adapted to photographs, Hollywood films, and social media; all things that can have powerful effects on our emotional experiences, but also things that have generally lost an important sense of subtlety and nuance. Social networks for example have become rage and show-off machines. You either read about news that makes you angry or see the latest selfie from an old friend who seems determined to prove that they have a better life than you. We are left in this position because these are the things that drive the strongest responses from people. But it means that our life gets funneled into simple entertainments that are attractive on a basic level but do not necessarily help us improve on any deeper level. So this has become the artist’s job. The best artists try to solve the problem of providing us with material that makes for better living.

A good way to describe creative work is to say that it provides unique and valuable solutions to complex open-ended problems. There is no single best answer for a good piece of music or art, and no single way to provide an audience with an engaging, memorable, or worthwhile experience. With other more scientific subjects, there may ultimately be a single best answer. But there are many different ways to envision and find that answer, so creativity is required in the process of identifying important problems and developing strategies to solve them. It is the play and exploration within these large spaces of ideas and solutions that we can describe as creative. It is not particularly creative to solve a Rubik’s cube or drive a car because there are specific formulae that we stick to in completing those activities. In fact, when we become experienced enough in these kinds of activities, we can do them almost automatically without any real attention. Creative problems generally do not allow that kind of automaticity, and cannot be solved with step-by-step guides.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Given its complexity and resistance to basic procedural instructions, it might seem a long shot to expect that we could improve our creativity. Scientists have tried to develop simple tasks that require creative thought in an attempt to study it in more detail. One such approach to studying creativity is a divergent thinking test, in which people are asked to provide multiple answers to specific problems, for example “name as many alternative uses as you can for a newspaper” (answers might be swatting a fly or making a paper hat). Tasks like this require you to ‘think outside the box’, going beyond the most immediate answer that pops to mind when you hear a question. A newspaper’s traditional role is to provide you with reading material but once you exhaust that answer to the question, where do you go next? This is creative in the sense that it forces you to think of some strange ways you might be able to use a newspaper, but of course it’s relatively limited in its creative demands. People overlap a great deal in the kinds of answers they come up with, which is not like many other traditional forms of creativity. It’s unlikely that another architect of Christopher Wren’s time would have independently designed a replica of St Paul’s Cathedral by chance. There are too many ways in which highly creative tasks can diverge in their solutions.

Despite its limited creativity, divergent thinking does seem to say something useful about creativity. Musicians perform better in divergent thinking tasks than non-musicians, suggesting that their creative spark within music generalizes to other areas of creative thinking too. They also perform better in a task known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT), where you are asked to find the word that connects three other words (e.g. ‘blue’, ‘cake’, and ‘cottage’ are linked by the word ‘cheese’ which can precede or follow each of them). The RAT requires both convergent and divergent thinking, and you only have to try some examples of the test online to know how tricky it can be. Some evidence suggests that creativity training (for example through lectures and divergent thinking practice) can improve divergent thinking and problem solving. So perhaps improvements in our creative ability are not entirely beyond reach.

If you’re anything like me, some of your best ideas will come to you in the most unexpected places. A particularly fruitful area for me is the shower. I can sit all day at my desk focused on finding a solution to a tricky problem, and the day can easily end in a fit of rage over wasted time and failed productivity. But then I can go to the bathroom, stand under the shower washing away my sorrows, think about what I should buy for dinner as I pick up the soap, and suddenly the most powerful idea of my lifetime will pop into my mind mid-lather. It’ll just come out of nowhere. Why would my maker torture me so? Success should come when you’re trying, not after you give up.

Photo by  Robert Collins  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

To consider whether the torture is justified, we need to look more carefully at what creativity requires and how the brain typically deals with such a challenge. Many explanations of brain function use the concepts of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ processing. These are certainly not strictly defined or independent processes, especially because the brain is a highly bi-directional machine, but it can be helpful to distinguish between the two possible streams of processing. Bottom-up processing refers to activity that starts from the lowest levels of sensation. For example, I happen to see an object on the table, which the visual areas of my brain process and categorize as an apple, and then I imagine the taste and texture of that apple, and then recall the amazing apple pies that my mum used to bake me in my childhood. You start from the most basic principles of perception and work your way up to higher levels of memory and association. Top-down processing on the other hand runs in the opposite direction. I might feel nostalgic one day and think of my happy childhood memories, which brings me to the memory of those delicious apple pies, which then makes me want an apple pie now, and so I do everything I can to drive my low level perceptions towards finding apples and cooking them.

We should keep in mind that top-down vs bottom-up is a convenient conceptualization rather than a definitive law in the biology of the brain. However, you would probably expect that creative activities and divergent thinking involve more of the higher level top-down functions, in which the brain hits upon solutions based on past experiences, memories, feelings, and contexts. So how might the brain actually deal with this kind of process?

Activity in the brain can occur rhythmically as oscillations or brainwaves, and these oscillations are categorized into different frequency bands. Lower frequency oscillations (slower oscillations with longer wavelengths), such as alpha (8–12 Hz) and theta (4–8 Hz), are commonly associated with long range interactions in the brain and top-down processing, while higher frequency oscillations are more associated with directed attention and perception (once again, these are not clear-cut boundaries but patterns that seem to hold true to a meaningful extent). So creativity could benefit more from the low frequency oscillations. One of the most easily visible and reliable signals in the brain is the appearance of alpha waves when you close your eyes or relax your mind. So it’s probably more likely that these signals appear in the shower when you are beginning to relax and let your mind drift, rather than when you are dead focused on a specific problem while staring at your computer. And if these signals are more conducive to creativity, then you are more likely to come up with crazy but useful ideas in the shower.

Photo by  Eric Nopanen  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

A free and relaxed mind is more likely to happen upon unusual perspectives or associations that could help with a problem, while a busy and occupied mind is looking at a problem with something that resembles tunnel vision, and so creative flashes are less likely. Indeed, people also report frequent creative ideas during hypnagogia, which is that slightly disoriented state between waking and sleeping, also associated with lower frequency alpha and theta oscillations. The chemist who discovered the benzene ring structure reportedly had his moment of inspiration in exactly this state.

Researchers have used neurofeedback training to stimulate alpha and theta oscillations in the brain. In these training protocols, oscillations in the brain are recorded and communicated to participants using different sounds (e.g. lower frequency oscillations produce a lower pitched sound). Participants are told to maximize the sounds associated with theta waves, and over time, they implicitly learn how to shift their brain towards lower frequency oscillatory states (although they are not always sure how they do it). Evidence suggests that this kind of training can improve mood and performance in creative activities including music and dancing. While we may not yet have the chance to do this kind of neurofeedback training by ourselves at home, we can certainly do more of the things that engage those kinds of brain states. Meditation, walks, relaxation, naps, and showers, are great examples of things we should take a little more seriously in our work. And they don’t really have much of a downside.

Activities that promote new mental perspectives on problems, and escapes from narrow-minded attention, are a creative’s best friend. These are some of the great benefits that lie in the power of metaphor and poetry, and allow the mind to make distant connections that it would otherwise miss. None of this article is to say that you should avoid focused effort and hard work at your desk because we all know this activity has its own advantages for productivity. But for those moments when we need a creative spark, we often need to take a step back in order to see both the forest and the trees.


The Science of Setting Yourself Up for Success


The Science of Setting Yourself Up for Success

Before making any progress in life, we need to set the best possible goals for ourselves. These are the goals that encourage the most positive development and success. People often attribute their failures to poor effort, execution, or ability, and forget to consider whether the goals they set themselves on Day 1 were appropriate. It seems obvious to say but let’s make sure we are on the same page: if you set the wrong goals, you have prepared the ground for wasted time, wasted effort, and probably a truckload of frustration, all the way up until you realize you need to try something new.

Goals can span multiple levels of human psychology. At the most basic level, they guide our immediate actions as we navigate the world. Let’s call these intentions — they are the urges and desires we have to perform some action in this moment that changes our internal states or changes the environment around us. These changes do not need to be profound; an intention could be as simple as scratching our nose to get rid of an itch. If we step up from our basic intentions, we then have the longer-term goals that are useful for tomorrow or next year. Let’s call these plans — they are the motivations we have that we cannot do much about right now, but we keep them in mind for when the time comes. I will talk through intentions and plans in sequence.


Every time we make an action — when we pick up a cup, do up the buttons on our shirt, insert our key into the lock on the front door — our brain is implicitly setting intentions and making predictions about how the world will behave after we go through with those intentions. Of course, we are not always aware of intending something in these simpler instances. We do not think “ok I will push this button into that hole on my shirt in order to tie the two sides together and avoid revealing my naked torso to the world when I step outside”. It just happens. The brain is good at that.

Photo by  Joanna Nix  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Joanna Nix on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

These basic intentions and actions that we use every day only come to our attention when something goes wrong. While we are doing up the buttons on our shirt, we might be thinking about what we will have for dinner tonight, or what to say at the important work meeting in a few hours. But imagine that the next button on our shirt happens to be missing because the cat chewed it off. As our fingers move down to feel for the next button, and fail to detect anything that feels like a small plastic disc, an error signal cascades around the brain, hitting areas that include specific parts of the parietal lobe and cerebellum. This error signal basically says “something unexpected just happened so we need to recruit more brain resources to work out what is going on”. This is where our conscious mind kicks in to help solve the problem. Our conscious mind is good at keeping us focused on a specific issue but also acts as a major bottleneck on anything else we might want to do at the same time. We can no longer think about what to have for dinner while our unconscious system handles putting the shirt on. We are now too busy trying to work out what on earth happened to the shirt button.

This general intention monitoring mechanism also explains some of the more frivolous facts in life, like why we can’t tickle ourselves. When we intend something to happen, and the outcome matches our predictions for that intention, our brain actually suppresses the perceived intensity of that outcome. It is a sort of “nothing to see here folks” signal. But when we have no intention to do something, and an event surprises us, then we feel the full force of its sensory consequences. This is the difference between tickling ourselves and being tickled by a friend. In one case, we have the intention to tickle ourselves which dampens the experience of feeling tickled because the brain is modeling the exact consequences of our intended action. In the other case, we have no such intention or model for the outcome, so the experience is a squirm-inducing laugh-cry phenomenon. Even if we know that a friend is about to tickle us, we still feel their tickle because we cannot directly model their action as if it was our own. Our implicit motor prediction system is powerful but restricted to when we are planning our own actions.

So our intention setting system for immediate actions is a great machine for keeping us efficient. It whirs away, building specific intentions and predicting their consequences. If what actually happens in the world is strange and does not match the predictions, then we generally pay a little closer attention to what we are doing.

Neurosurgeons like to play around with these intention systems. If you are undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor, you are likely to be awake as the surgeon cuts away a section of your skull and begins work to excise the invader. This allows the surgeon to ask questions about your experience and track what might be going on as they move around the different parts of your brain that they have access to. The best way to confirm the function of a particular brain area is to probe it and ask how the patient feels.

Researchers in 2009 led by Michel Desmurget tested an interesting question: can I use my stimulating electrode to make the patient experience a particular goal or intention to act? They had access to two specific brain areas in patients undergoing surgery: the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal lobe. When they stimulated parts of the inferior parietal lobe with a low intensity current, patients reported desires to move particular body parts, for example “I felt a desire to lick my lips” or “I had a desire to move my right hand”. When they stimulated the same areas at higher currents, patients reported actual movements such as “I moved my mouth, I talked, what did I say?”. But the researchers saw no movements from the patients and detected no change in the muscle recordings. The movements that patients reported were entirely illusory. When researchers stimulated the premotor cortex on the other hand, patients actually moved parts of their body like their fingers or mouth. However, the patients reported no movements and would deny moving even after being questioned. So setting an intention for movement, performing an action, and being aware of that action are separate functions in the brain. In everyday life, the brain works as one tightly integrated unit, but the inferior parietal lobe seems specifically important for setting or monitoring intentions.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Much of what your brain is doing right now is outside your conscious awareness, and that includes many of the processes that set your goals or intentions. Just like the surgeon’s electrode can make you feel “I want to speak now”, your own unconscious brain activity can also produce the intentions you experience in everyday life. In fact, evidence suggests that if I put you in a brain scanner and ask you to freely choose between pressing a button with your right or left hand, your unconscious brain activity will predict which hand you choose 7–10 seconds before you ever realize what you want to do consciously. And don’t think that your intentions to stop an action or change your mind are any more driven by your conscious input. In one of my own studies, we tested whether unconscious fluctuations in brain activity could influence decisions to withhold actions rather than perform them. We measured the levels of activity in people’s motor cortices as they tapped out a rhythm with their finger and skipped a tap in the rhythm whenever they felt like it. We found that before they chose to skip a tap, motor activity in their brain would decrease to predict their upcoming intention to withhold an action. In effect, the spontaneous levels of activity in your motor cortex, which you can never really be aware of, guide your intentions about whether or not to act. They could make the difference between clicking or not clicking ‘send’ on that angry email to your boss, running or not running for that train at the platform, or maybe even pulling or not pulling the trigger on that gun in a moment of anger. Activity that you are not aware of can determine what you think you want to do.

We may often experience urges that come from deep dark places in our biology. Civilized society has largely done, and is still doing, a fantastic job at training us into well-behaved adults who are capable of exercising restraint and considering the moral consequences of our actions. But in extreme situations, things can still go terribly wrong.

A medical report from 2003 describes the life of one particular unfortunate soul. A man leading a relatively normal life began to develop an uncontrollable interest in pornography in his late 30s. This interest began to consume his life and started to advance into its worst possible form: an urge for child pornography. He became less able to control his urges over time, and eventually victimized his young stepdaughter. After being found guilty of child molestation in court, he was committed to a rehabilitation program. His behavior continued to deteriorate as he made sexual advances towards staff at the rehabilitation centre, and he was eventually called to court for a prison sentencing. Before the sentencing could take place, he went to a hospital with severe headaches and explained he wanted to kill himself and feared that he would rape his landlady. A brain scan showed a growing tumor taking over his right orbitofrontal cortex at the front of the head, a brain area known to be important for impulse control and emotional urges. Seven months after removing the tumor and going through strict assessments and behavioral programs, the patient had made significant progress. So much progress in fact that he was no longer believed to be a danger to his stepdaughter and was allowed to return home. Later that year, he began to complain of headaches again and his obsession with pornography returned. Another brain scan revealed that the aggressive tumor had resurfaced with a vengeance. Doctors successfully removed the tumor a second time.

The case above highlights how our urges and intentions in life can dramatically change depending on the state of our biology, and how their source can be very much hidden from us. If activity in the brain shifts in an unhealthy direction, whether due to a visible abnormality or not, our goals in life can shift from finding rewards in family, friends, and careers, to finding rewards in immoral, destructive, and unacceptable actions. We should never take the integrity of our healthy brains for granted. If we are lucky enough to have an intact ability for self-control and productive decision-making, we should consider the intentions we have, and assess whether they will contribute to improving our lives and the world around us. Intentions in your mind often seem to come out of nowhere if you pay attention to them. One moment you are sitting quietly typing up a document at work, and the next, you would do anything to get your hands on churros dipped in chocolate. The frequent randomness and caprice of your intentions should make you all the more wary of them. Not all intentions are sensible, and only attentive consideration will allow you to control whether they should guide your actions or be ignored.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.


With the short term intentions above, we decide whether we want to do something and then we do it. But we also regularly plan for further in the future. A powerful element in human cognition is the ability to look forward and form goals for tomorrow, next week, and next year. These goals can be simple and straightforward like “I need to post that letter in the morning”, where the only real obstacle is our own memory. But they can also be more complex or philosophical like “I want to find the right person to spend my life with by the end of the year”, where the challenges still depend on remembering your plan, but also depend on many other factors outside of your control.

Setting the right plans depends on a reliable capacity for self-reflection. You need to know how good you are at a particular task and how much it truly motivates you. In giving advice about goal-setting, people often lump these two things together with goal difficulty, but it’s important to understand that they are separable. The advice I hear most often is to “make sure that a goal is not too easy and not too hard”. This is generally true but it’s more practical to expound on the statement a little. “Too hard” is a bad thing because it destroys motivation, and “Too easy” is a bad thing because progress is slower than it needs to be given your level of ability. Edwin Locke, an American researcher and pioneer of goal-setting theory, puts it most precisely when writing about the role of difficulty in goal-setting with his co-author: “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance”. In other words, as long as you are aware of the limits of your ability and don’t set goals beyond them, and as long you are fully motivated to commit to your plans, set your goals to be as difficult as possible because that will lead to the greatest success.

Other evidence from experimental psychology can lend a helping hand with what are called ‘implementation plans’ (actually they are called ‘implementation intentions’ but I will use ‘plans’ to avoid conflict with the intention vs plan terminology I defined earlier). A common problem with the way we generally set our goals is that they are far too vague. We tell ourselves “I want to lose weight” and “I want to quit smoking”, and entirely lose track of those thoughts at first sight of a chocolate cake or cigarette.

Well, implementation plans make it more difficult to forget or ignore the goals we set. Instead of a blanket abstract statement like “I want to be healthy”, an implementation plan needs to be formatted with an ‘if-then’ structure. For example, “if I feel a craving for a chocolate cake, then I will eat a stick of celery”. This more concrete formulation is harder to lose track of or find exceptions to. It forces us to consider the future a little more seriously, and builds a stronger connection between cue (the ‘if’ part) and behavior (the ‘then’ part).

Photo by  Alex Hockett  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

In one experiment, researchers tested implementation plans with unemployed opiate addicts in a hospital to see whether their employability behaviors would improve. After showing the participants model resumes, the researchers explained that they could submit their own resume at the end of the day. Those who formed relevant rather than irrelevant implementation plans about completing a resume were far more likely to hand in a resume when the time came. In fact, out of the patients who suffered addiction-related withdrawal symptoms, 8 out of 10 who formed relevant implementation plans submitted their resume, while 0 out of 11 of those who formed irrelevant implementation plans submitted their resume. Strong and specific implementation plans make us more resistant to distraction and counterproductive impulses when we are trying to stick to plans we set.

If the advantage of implementation plans applies to people suffering severe withdrawal symptoms from their heroin addiction, then it should certainly apply to luckier people who are simply distracted by the occasional shortbread while trying to eat healthier. You can even supplement your implementation plans with an added kick up the bottom, by making a public commitment out of your plans amongst friends and family. You’re a lot less likely to give up a goal when loved ones are watching you and judging your integrity.

Another problem with our goal setting is the scope of our plans. We have already seen that formatting a plan with a concrete ‘if-then’ structure helps enormously, but there are simpler helpful strategies that your grandmother taught you. Breaking down goals into small concrete steps with an approach as simple as writing a list can do wonders. When we try to keep multiple tasks and goals in our busy head, they spiral out of control and begin to look like large demons, each more difficult to defeat than the last. The stress makes it harder to think clearly, and we naturally end up delaying any action at all. Seeing the same goals written down on a piece of paper allows you to appraise them more realistically, and relieves the burden of holding the tasks in your working memory. You have something concrete in the world to organize your thoughts around and a piece of paper is far less intimidating than an abstract thought. You can see it clearly so it doesn’t escalate in your anxious head. Something so small could not possibly be unmanageable. And each time you complete a task, you can visually see your number of remaining tasks reduced as you tick one off. It is hard to overstate the value of tangibility.

It helps to be aware of the many external and internal factors that affect our intentions, goals, and decisions. There are hidden depths and secrets to our motivations that we may never be aware of. But considering our intentions a little more carefully, and cutting ourselves some slack when we realize we have stupid intentions, can help to cool down a hot head in the future. It also helps to demystify that feeling we have all experienced at some point when looking through old photos or daydreaming about past mistakes: “what on earth was I thinking!?”. Nobody should expect permanent happiness but we can certainly aim for greater self-efficacy and achievement. We all have our own ideas about what the perfect life looks like, and it’s about time we crafted that vision a little more carefully for ourselves. Then we can move towards it with a stronger sense of pragmatic self-belief and awareness.


Why Feeling Insignificant Can Be Deeply Empowering


Why Feeling Insignificant Can Be Deeply Empowering

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?” - Virginia Woolf (Night and Day)

In the Western world, we are carefully nurtured by those around us until we reach ‘maturity’, and then we are left to face the world alone. We do, of course, improve in our ability to live independently as we get older. As babies and toddlers, our independence is pretty much limited to breathing. Everything else, including feeding, cleaning, and transport, is closely supervised by adults who hopefully know what they are doing. But when we hit our late teens and early twenties, perhaps excluding the occasional error in feeding and hygiene, we are able to do all of these things alone. So we are encouraged to spread our wings and fly.

Independence is important, but if we are honest, there are many moments of fear and uncertainty where we could use guidance, even well into adulthood. We all want help with our minds because we are needy creatures, but asking for it can be a daunting experience because we do not want to seem incompetent or babyish. So we are left with the impression that others are living successful happy lives, while we put on a brave face that masks an insecure internal reality.


Our hesitance to ask for help is part of a collective psychosis, driven by the extreme assumption that adults should be able to take care of their own psychological development, and anything else is a sign of weakness. In fact, we are all wearing the emperor’s new clothes, and it may take someone screaming “But we are all incompetent!” to snap us out of our delusions of suffering alone. It’s about time we all got a little more familiar with each other’s worries and follies, so that we can see just how much overlap there is between us. Sharing our concerns with someone who responds with an acknowledging nod of “I’ve been there my friend” can have a profoundly positive effect on our emotional life.

I remember one particular moment in my own life where this scenario came to pass. It was a chilly Saturday night; the kind that makes your knuckles feel numb within minutes of stepping outside. I was a fairly standard emotionally volatile 17 year old sitting with friends in the local pub in my small town on the outskirts of London. I noticed an on-off girlfriend walk in and sit at the next table with her friends. It was the kind of relationship you might label with “it’s complicated” on an online social network page. We got chatting later in the night, but naturally with the early stages of intoxication looming, a slightly heated debate took to the stage (so important was this debate that I have entirely forgotten what it was about).

After making our way out of the pub into the conveniently cold night that would cut any argument short, we exchanged a few more intense words, then I turned and darted away into a dark and lonely park nearby to feel sorry for myself. I sat down at the nearest and gloomiest bench I could find to complement my mood, and contemplated why the universe wouldn’t let me be happy like everyone else. A drunken gentlemen probably a decade or so my senior at the time — my age now as I write this sentence — walked past at that moment and mumbled something I didn’t quite catch. I blurted out what any British person would at such a time: “Sorry?”. He stopped and smiled and asked a question that I found shocking at the time: “Is it a girl?”. With my current more mature mind, this question seems far less magical, but at the time I thought this man was a prophet so I asked him to surrender his enlightened teachings. He continued in a rather haphazard but comprehensible way to explain that we all go through romantic anguish, and that it blinds us to the clear fact that any time we spend in misery is time that we will later regret. So why waste any of our limited life on emotional pains that will eventually disappear and barely be remembered? I can assure you that his insights that night were not particularly deep, wise, or even fully coherent, but simply meeting someone who could highlight the fundamental non-exclusivity of my feelings was remarkable proof of the power of shared pain and empathetic community. It demonstrates we all go through those kinds of struggles and come out better at the end. I immediately hopped up and went home to happily finish a book I was reading about earthworms.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Your pains and anxieties seem much less significant when you feel part of something bigger. This bigger thing can span from other members of society to the universe as a whole. The larger parts of that range may be difficult to feel any strong connection to because their scale is so vast that our ape brains struggle to comprehend them in any realistic way. But they probably also present a more powerful experience of togetherness or ‘oneness’ if conquered, something that many Buddhists teach (I’m not a Buddhist myself). At a more basic level, connecting properly with others around you allows you to take someone else’s perspective of your own pain, which helps to get you out of your own skin and away from your self-centered perceptual or cognitive biases that distort your view of the world.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Photo from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

A mental disorder known as anosognosia presents a particularly extreme example of the benefits of shifting away from your first person perceptions. Anosognosia refers to an inability to see or understand your illness, even when it is abundantly clear to everyone else. When patients have anosognosia for hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of their body), they will repeatedly and confidently deny that they have a problem, even though they cannot move their limbs. If they are asked to move their limbs, they tend to make irrational excuses for why their limb cannot move at that moment in time. But they are utterly convinced that they are healthy, and are not just making up stories that they know are false. When a group of researchers decided to film a patient denying their symptoms and replay it back to them, they discovered a dramatic change in the patient’s reactions. The patient was effectively cured of their anosognosia, purely through seeing themselves from a third person perspective. This video replay approach has now been used more widely with similar results. Although this is a rare and extreme case, it does illustrate the power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. We all have needs that can benefit from escaping our narrow minded and often robotic first person perspectives.

So what exactly are the needs that we share as humans? Abraham Maslow took on this challenging question in the 1940s. His solution was a famous pyramid, the “hierarchy of needs”. According to Maslow, our most basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid are physiological. We need food to prevent starvation and shelter to protect us from the elements. Without these, we make very little progress in the world. A step up the pyramid brings us to our safety needs; we can only thrive if we manage to avoid war, abuse, and any other violent or dangerous situation that threatens to cut our life short. Only after meeting these most basic needs do we begin to care about our more advanced psychological needs in the upper levels of the pyramid. These are belonging, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization: we need friendship and intimacy, we need self-respect, and then we need to realize our full personal potential.

Maslow’s model makes intuitive sense overall. People in war-torn countries are probably less able to find the time and mental space to care about reaching their full potential when they are worrying about whether the next bomb will drop on their home. If we cannot keep ourselves alive with easy access to food, then we cannot motivate ourselves to find friends or self esteem. However, I cannot help but feel that this conceptualization of human needs adds to the common sentiment that our psychological needs matter less than our physiological needs. It is a sentiment that makes us believe we should feel slightly embarrassed when complaining about being lonely or sad. The truth is, when we fail to meet basic psychological needs, we can be far worse off than a simple step down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A lack of food can kill us, but so can a lack of psychological and emotional stability. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 25–34 after unintentional injuries. In one 2013 survey of 9th-12th grade students in the US (~14–18 years of age), 17% of students had seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months preceding the survey. These are not small numbers.

I believe our human needs in the modern world have a more complicated structure than the hierarchy presented by Maslow (as valuable as that hierarchy has been within the psychological sciences). Food is no less important than it used to be, but we need to take our psychological needs just as seriously, not just as secondary phenomenon worthy of less concern. Intense sadness can feel just as bad as hunger, and looking at the suicide statistics above should at least give us second thought about assuming it is any less fatal. In fact, suicide presents an additional bizarre problem compared to deaths from failures of physiological needs, specifically that people actively want to die, rather than dying unintentionally from bodily failures. Whatever the subtleties of the problem, in the modern developed world, it is relatively uncommon for someone to die of starvation, so we may need to begin accepting our psychological needs within our primary needs.

We are all capable of making progress towards meeting our needs for mental wellbeing . Some of us, due to both genetic and environmental luck during our development, will find this much easier than others, and some of us will naturally be more resistant to psychological challenges and pressures. But most importantly, within our own little fortunate or unfortunate worlds, we can all make the most of the cards we are dealt.