What do financial bubbles and the human mind have in common?
Before I studied psychology, I also had a chance of working for an investment bank. One thing that the two areas have in common is inherent instability of the ‘systems’ that they deal with: financial markets and the mind. George Soros claims that this insight into workings of markets allowed him to become a billionaire. He calls it reflexivity. Luckily, unlike with markets, there is a practical solution how to deal with this conundrum of the mind.
In financial markets this reflexivity manifests in on-going volatility of prices and even in bubbles and crashes. Financial bubbles will keep expanding as long as most people believe prices will keep going up. Thinking about stock prices affects prices and prices affect what we think about them. These price levels inevitably affect companies and economies. It’s a self-reinforcing inherently unstable system that again and again will spiral up and down depending on the prevalent ‘thinking’ of the time. Hence, bull or bear markets.
Another loop of reflexivity is inside the mind. Nobel Prize winning psychologist D. Kahneman in his latest book describes how thinking affects how we feel and vice versa. If you are in a low mood, thoughts reminding about the failures of your day and of your life will keep coming back much more often. Searching for evidence that your life is better than your mood suggests is will be an uphill battle. In fact, the thinking mind is not a good tool in such case because it has been affected by the very unpleasant feeling you are trying to think your way out of. This inherent self-reinforcing capacity makes the ‘system’ inherently unstable. Just like in financial markets, spirals are bound to form.
Interestingly, even though depressions do not occur very often, both in the mind and in economies they occur mainly due to this reflexive mechanism that allows negative spirals to form. Very sadly, in today’s increasingly fast and complex world human depression is on the rise. The WHO predicts it will be the 2nd most common global burden of disease by 2020. I would also argue that the on-going likelihood of economic depressions is also on the rise too, mainly due to continuously increasing complexity and pace in the system.
Helping the economy sounds like too daunting of a task but luckily we can help our minds. What’s a potential solution here? Rational, left brain thinking is not well-designed to jump out of the spiral because it is a part of the spiral. What can be done is training the habit of mindfulness. Mindfulness includes training attention, not the rational left brain thinking but rather general awareness, to jump out of vicious circles as soon as a spiral has been spotted.
If it is true that the mind is an inherently unstable system, then it would be affecting almost all aspects of our lives, including our moods, relationships with spouses and children, and our performance at work. Is there any evidence that these areas are improved by mindfulness?
In fact, yes. A 2010 report by Mental Health Foundation building on a rapidly expanding body of literature suggests that mindfulness improves all of the above. The evidence is strongest for the effectiveness of reducing mood swings, anxiety, stress, preventing depression, improving attention, and a sense of well-being. Moreover, mindfulness not only changes brain activity but seems to physically change the wiring of the brain.
Although mindfulness can be learned in many ways, one increasingly popular approach in the UK is taking an 8-week MBCT course. It various forms are gaining popularity mostly thanks to the University of Oxford. I am doing one such course myself now and can only highly recommend it.