Thursday, February 19, 2015

We take for granted that we know what we like when we taste it.  We take for granted that we are this kind of person or that kind of person, or that we’re athletic or not athletic.  So many of these things are based on a foundation in our minds. If we approach it in the right way, if we actually recognize that, we can take that foundation, belief, and poke at it and change it to our advantage. 

It’s not that we can imagine anything and make it real. But our minds are constantly making these self-fulfilling hypotheses and limiting our own potential.  Why not tap that potential and see what we can create? 

Try the occasional experiment and see what happens. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.

 - Edited, chopped and screwed from an interview with Chris Berdik.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In a 1977 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers gave men a photograph of a woman before a telephone conversation. Some of these photos showed attractive women, others a less attractive woman. When the men had the phone conversations with the women, the men who thought they were talking to an attractive woman spoke differently, and the woman subsequently adapted behaviors stereotypically associated with attractive people. Basically, when the men thought they were talking to someone attractive, they changed speech patterns and conversation type, and the woman did as well.  The women who were thought to be physically attractive came to behave in a friendly, likeable, and sociable manner in comparison with the women who were thought to be unattractive.

In short, how you think other people perceive you (or how they actually do, for that matter), changes how you act as well.  Expectations of others play a role in how we behave.  We don't consciously realize it, but we all tend to conform to the perceived expectations around us. People who are called the "quiet one" or the "adventurer" or the "life of the party," even if that's not what they are, subconsciously conform to those stereotypes. It's obvious how this could apply to race, gender, religion, and plenty of other characteristics.

All this is from the same Lifehacker article I've been quoting over the past couple of days.  You could just go over there and read the entire article for yourself - after all. you're the inquisitive type -  but you'd miss all my pretty pictures of Spanish boats. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Our expectations can alter how we view reality as a whole. One time, at a party, I picked up what I thought was my can of beer and took a sip, and was revolted by the flavor.  It turns out I had picked up a perfectly good can of Coca Cola, but my mind, expecting the taste of beer, was disgusted by the flavor of Coke.  Once I realized what it was, I took another sip and it tasted fine, but my expectation had altered by experience.

More from the interesting Lifehacker article:
The way we anticipate something changes the way we perceive it... It suggests that the way the brain works is to influence our perception. If our perception has been established without the information from the brain, the information of the brain is no longer relevant... 
If you think about it more generally, there's a question about how our preconceived notions color our view of reality... what happens when we view the world with glasses that are strongly tinted by our preconceived notions? What these results suggest is an interesting connection between the body and the mind... it suggests our mind tries to predict the future... by anticipating the future the mind actually changes our physiology... it prepares us for that future. By doing so the mind basically gets us to experience the reality that we anticipate. 
That was from psychology and behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely,  His concept falls in line with the idea of the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. The pursuit of happiness can be compared to a person on a treadmill who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place. 

The concept dates back to such writers as St. Augustine, cited in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy: "A true saying it is, Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill."

Basically, if a B+ made you happy last year, it'll take an A- to register the same satisfaction again. If you think you'll do poorly on a test or in a social situation, you probably will .  You've probably heard the classic phrase "happiness equals reality minus expectations," and it's true. In short: you can theoretically apply the placebo effect to your day-to-day life. 

Science journalist and author Chris Berdik offers up this example of how exactly this works:
Many people worry that they're likely to choke under pressure. They look to coaches and elaborate training techniques to overcome this tendency. Or they just worry and bite their nails before important presentations or competitions. But in one study, researchers told some track athletes that what they thought of as pre-race jitters actually improved performance, while telling another group that this sort of arousal was usually detrimental. The athletes performed accordingly when the pressure was on. In another athletics study, the researchers gave every subject a personality questionnaire and then randomly gave some of them false feedback that their answers indicated they were the sort of person who thrives under pressure. When it came time to compete, the athletes told they would likely do better under pressure did so. 
Of course, this doesn't mean you can change the world around you with your mind. If you're sad, you'll still be sad, and if you're ill, you'll still feel sick.   But what it does suggest is that we're more in control of our present and our future than we think. When we fully realize this, that it's our own mind that causing us to suffer form sadness or from sickness, the sadness and the sickness lose a little of their grip on us, making it that much easier to get better.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Much of what we think of as perceptions of the world are really educated guesses based on past experience, and when we're primed with an idea about something before actually experiencing it. we tend to agree with whatever that initial expectation was and ignore what we're actually thinking. When we're told that something will be good, we tend to believe it's good, especially if we're told by an expert. Whether it's movie reviews, book reviews, or music, our expectations often outweigh the more critical side of our brains. 

This is especially the case with foods. A recent Lifehacker article pointed out there have been plenty of studies showing how our expectations change our perception of taste.  For example, one study tested the role of expectation on taste using a highly novel food, smoked salmon flavored ice cream. The study found that when people read the label "ice cream", they disliked it and found it salty and savory. But when the food was labeled "frozen savory mousse," people liked it more because they weren't expecting the usual sweetness of ice cream. 

In a study published in 1964, researchers looked at how beer brand labels affected taste. Researchers asked brand-loyal college students to rate a bunch of unlabeled beers. In general, participants of the study didn't seem to discern the taste differences among beer brands when they weren't labeled, which suggests the brand name has a pretty big impact on how much we enjoy something. 

Wine is a classic example of how expectations alter our perception of quality.  Coke rates higher when consumed from a cup with the brand logo, the presence of the word "soy" on nutrition bars makes them taste more grainy, and coffee tastes less bitter when we're told it's not bitter.  Researchers found that when people were told a comic was funny, they tended to agree, even when it wasn't. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Writing in The New Yorker, Michel Pollan points out:
The human brain is perhaps the most complex system there is, and the emergence of a conscious self is its highest achievement. By adulthood, the mind has become very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. Much of what we think of as perceptions of the world are really educated guesses based on past experience (“That fractal pattern of little green bits in my visual field must be a tree”), and this kind of conventional thinking serves us well.
But only up to a point. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris notes that a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability," he said, "our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”  The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality.  In The Entropic Brain, a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dr. Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network.  

Dr. Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from depression and other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.

As previously noted here. other research has shown that meditation has much the same effect on the brain's default-mode network as psychedelic drugs.  So at the risk of offending the pharmacology industry, the treatment for disorders such as depression addiction, and OCD may not be the use of drugs, but instead the practice of meditation.

Saturday, February 07, 2015


In an interesting article in the current New Yorker, Michael Pollan writes about current research on the use of psychedelics to treat end-of-life anxiety. 

The part of the article that really grabbed my attention (all of it was interesting, and some parts more than others) discussed a portion of the human brain called the "default-mode network." According to Pollan, the default-mode network comprises a critical and centrally situated hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older structures in the brain, such as the limbic system and the hippocampus.
"The network, which consumes a significant portion of the brain’s energy, appears to be most active when we are least engaged in attending to the world or to a task. It lights up when we are daydreaming, removed from sensory processing, and engaging in higher-level 'meta-cognitive' processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, rumination, and 'theory of mind'—the ability to attribute mental states to others."
The default-mode network has variously been described as the brain’s "orchestra conductor" or "corporate executive" or "capital city," charged with managing and holding the entire system together.  It is thought to be the physical counterpart of the autobiographical self, or ego.  The fact that it is least active when we are concentrating on a task may help explain, in part, the sense of "losing oneself" experienced during concentrated attention on a task, or even reading a book.  I know that when I'm performing intense, complicated calculations, I become extremely withdrawn and asocial, an effect that I once attributed to "left brain/right brain" theory, but might better be ascribed to quieting of the default-mode network.

Pollan goes on to discuss Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who has been using a variety of scanning tools—including fMRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—to observe what happens in the brains of healthy volunteers injected with psilocybin and LSD.  Carhart-Harris discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution. Carhart-Harris published his results in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

At about the same time, Judson Brewer, a researcher at Yale, was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, and noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience, what Zen Master Dogen called "mind and body dropping away."

To connect the dots, the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs for end-of-life patients lies in their ability to free the patient from clinging to the ego-self, increasing the acceptance of death.  But since this effect appears to be achieved by quieting the brain's default-mode network, and the same quieting apparently happens in meditation, perhaps we don't need to inject the dying with psilocybin or LSD, but instead teach them to practice meditation.  Those who can't meditate due to physical or mental ailments might benefit from psychedelic drugs, but those who can don't need to rely on pharmaceutical chemistry to resolve the end of their lives.