Due to excessive consumption of internet, video gaming and pornography boys are increasingly developing arousal addictions, according to research. They are becoming so used to constant stimulation provided by IT that their attention spans are withering away. Analog teachers in classrooms pose no serious competition to digital Facebook in the marketplace for children’s attention. This is particularly relevant to boys who tend to be keener on video games and pornography (which I have never watched myself).
In this short and entertaining speech acclaimed psychologist Philip Zimbardo shares that:
- An average boy watches 50 porn clips a week
- By the time a man is 21, he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games
- Boys are 5 times more likely to have ADHD than girls
- Boys’ brains are being rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. They are totally out of sync with traditional classes at school and in romantic relationships
This time I will spare you from discussing my own romantic relationships but I can share that I can totally relate to the addictions bit. When I surf the web for my own pleasure, I notice that I don’t have much patience for anything. Almost always there is this nagging feeling that there is something more interesting out there. Something more interesting than what I am reading now. More interesting than this clumsy blog, perhaps. And I click, and I click, and I click… This never ending craving for novelty… In fact, internet, and especially checking my email, can be so addictive to me, that I had to set rules for myself. I have rules for when I allow myself to check my mail and when I can surf the web. Otherwise, before I know it, I get sucked into this black hole with ever intensifying gravitational pull. And even when I know I am being sucked in there I keep telling myself “one more article” or “well, this will be the last one”. And it rarely is the last one. In the same way I have also struggled with quite serious video gaming addictions when I was in my teens.
I consider myself to be a recovered IT addict. I am clean now. Hopefully I will stay that way a bit longer. As much as I love the freedom provided by IT, I am convinced that any pleasurable freedom can turn into a prison if not handled carefully. Thanks for checking this blog and by all means please enjoy your next Twitter read.
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it” (1)
One may think that this may be a quote by a self-help guru, a Buddhist monk or a philosopher. Actually, I came across it yesterday reading Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s latest book. What he means by this is that “any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation” (1).
Daniel Gilbert provides examples how terribly inaccurate people are guessing what will bring them happiness and what will bring misery. Apparently, winning in lottery or getting married brings much less happiness than most people are absolutely certain they will. Also, becoming paraplegic by far does not bring as much misery as we think (2).
It seems that our intuitions constantly magnify the importance of specific aspects of our lives that we are paying attention to. Attention is a bit like magnifying glass: whatever we bring our attention to seems bigger than it actually is.
It is my common experience that when I do a mistake or do not meet some sort of criteria I have set for myself, often I get a feeling suggesting that this is really bad. It feels like this will have a big negative impact on my life even in the total context of my life they are pretty minor things. However, as I continue deepening my practice of mindfulness and as I become more observant of the patterns of my mind, I start noticing things I was not noticing before. I start seeing my own blindness. I notice myself developing an intuitive feeling that tells me when I am blowing things out of proportion again. It’s like a little voice inside me going ‘here you are doing the same again’. After becoming aware of this intuitive impulse, usually I discount whatever my initial reactions of fear or frustration suggest. More often than not, this leads to being more level-headed and making better decisions.
Also, it’s a very humbling experience to see how flawed my perceptions are. This makes it into a lifelong quest of learning more and more when my perceptions can and cannot be trusted.
- Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast & Slow, p. 402
- Gilbert, Daniel (2006). Stumbling on Happiness
Here are a couple of ideas how to help our struggling economy by introducing more competition. One option is to remove legal requirements for paid annual leave. This would make people work more days thus increasing the GDP. Also, if we lifted a ban on child labour, we would have an increase of supply of cheap labour, which would make our economy more cost-effective and more competitive in the global market.
competing in the global economy creates some sort of race to the bottom where rooting out harmful forms of competition becomes very difficult
Now, as a couple of you may have already guessed, I am not being serious. What I am trying to show by these examples is that we intuitively accept that competition is bad in some areas and good in others. I think we need a wider debate around the idea that competing in the global economy creates some sort of race to the bottom where rooting out harmful forms of competition becomes very difficult.
Of course, child labour and harsh working conditions may not be politically acceptable anymore in most Western countries but it is the norm in a number of developing countries. In fact, this makes them more competitive by keeping labour costs down. If a government in some developing country tries to improve labour standards, capital starts leaving in search of ‘freer markets’.
Even though many of us love environment, what we probably love even more is having a job that pays our bills. Many of us would probably be supportive of environmental laws but we are worried that this would make us less competitive. If you as a government are voluntary taxing your companies on carbon and most other countries don’t, you are pushing your own companies out of work. This creates a need for a global agreement on most environmental questions but experience shows getting more than 200 countries to agree on things is usually next to impossible.
Effective tax rate in high incomes countries has decreased from 34% in 1985 to 24.5% in 2005
Economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that global competition by making states compete for capital has led to governments continuously lowering taxes in order to be more attractive for investors. Effective tax rate in high incomes countries has decreased from 34% in 1985 to 24.5% in 2005(1). This may sound like a good thing to many of us but it also means that there is less money for long-term investment in infrastructure and public institutions. National debt levels have also ballooned since 1985 and current austerity measures are one consequence of such global pressure to keep taxes low. The existence of tax havens worldwide is an extension of the same problem.
Cambridge University’s economist Ha-Joon Chang argues that reduction of welfare state also makes economies less dynamic because workers become less willing to go into new and risky industries if there is no cushion provided by the state(2).
Slipping control over national economies
Another really worrying aspect of globalization is that it significantly reduces the extent to which we are in control of our national economies and our jobs. If you live a country where most of the trade is within its own boundaries and a recession hits, you can ask your government to stimulate the economy. In such case most of the money spent by the government keeps circulating within the economy adding more demand and jobs. Nowadays, when much of the trade is international, if the British government stimulates its economy, a large share of the pounds spent go on buying gadgets made in China, clothing sown in India and food produced in The Commonwealth. These pounds usually are not lost since they stimulate other economies. However, some of these countries may already be close to overheating and may find this stimulation harmful. Also, this also means that effective fiscal stimulation must be coordinated with a huge number of counties, which makes it extremely difficult.
What really worries me is that to a degree we are trapped in the system of global competition. If we tried to shift back to being more closed economies again, countries would stop buying as much from each other thus leaving millions out of work. This would push the global economy into a recession or maybe even a depression. Because of the same reasons protectionary protectionist measures during the Great Depression made the crisis even worse.
More balanced view on staying competitive
we need to be more critical, examining where competition starts hurting us rather than helping us
Now, I am not arguing all against globalization. Global trade has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and allows me to get great gadgets from eBay! What I am arguing is that while acknowledging benefits of globalization and competition we need to be more critical, examining where competition starts hurting us rather than helping us.
The example of banning child labour shows how harmful competition can be. In fact, if children compete in labour market within a country, at least you have a central government to put a ban on it. Now we have created an unwieldy global system with no global authority to put a ban on various unhealthy forms of competition, such existence of tax havens, and poor labour and environmental standards. Thus, in many ways, the race to the bottom continues while problems such as climate change keep accelerating.
- Sachs, Jeffrey (2011). The Price of Civilization, p. 99
- Chang, Ha-Joon (2010). 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, p. 221
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better.” This ‘brilliant insight’ by Sophie Tucker is one thing that came to my mind reading Jonathan Rowson’s blog about a major economic/environmental conundrum. We are running out of planet due to our exploding consumption but we don’t yet have an economic model that would be stable without this on-going explosion. Yet, I believe, the real challenge here is not a technical one but an adaptive one. Most likely we will have to go to being somewhat poor again eventually.
The technical challenge
As Tim Jackson put it, in our quest to save the planet we do have a major technical problem – finding an economic model which is stable without economic growth. However, it strikes me how little effort has been made to find it. After I read his brilliant book Prosperity Without Growth in 2010 I was hoping that after a respected economist had dared to voice such a ‘heresy’ against economic growth, at least some governments would start throwing money at finding a sustainable economic model. The reason why so little effort has been made to solve it probably lies in the fact we collectively are reluctant to accept the implications of ‘de-growth’ on our everyday lives. It’s not easy to get excited about buying less or traveling less. Thus, the real challenge seems to be an adaptive one. If we can’t adapt to becoming comfortable with reducing our consumption levels, then there won’t be enough political support to give money to those who believe in economic ‘de-growth’.
The adaptive challenge
That is why I am so interested in finding ways to encourage people to be more adaptable. Mindfulness is one thing has allowed me to cut my own consumption dramatically and yet live an even richer life. General research on mindfulness supports the notion that it allows people to become more comfortable with challenges such as that of reducing consumption. This however, is not enough to appeal to the majority of the population and we need to keep looking for ways to face various adaptive challenges.
Return to poverty
You may very well hate me for saying this but I am almost convinced that the currently high living standards in the West are just a temporary anomaly in world history. The Western world has been able to enjoy this period of enormous economic prosperity mostly because it has mostly been alone in such prosperity. Westerners have been able to use their wealth to buy disproportionate amounts of natural resources while they have still been in abundance. Now that much of the developing world is catching up and is joining us in the bidding game for natural resources, prices will inevitably continue rising. This will make things we buy more expensive squeezing our current living standards. Also, if the trend of the developing world catching up continues, there will be fewer and fewer people willing to produce iPhones and other goods for meagre wages, which will push prices up even more.
So coming back to Sophie Tucker’s ‘insight’ I believe most of us will have to shift to becoming somewhat poorer eventually. This will be a very difficult transition period. The higher we rise economically, the more painful that fall will be.
Return to prosperity
However, as Tim Jackson explains it, prosperity does not need to be limited to economic terms. There is an abundance of psychological research showing that economic prosperity is one among many things that correlates with a sense of wellbeing. Other sources of prosperity include the quality of our relationships, safety and vibrancy of our communities, a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence, and mental health. My hope is that once we become more adaptive and flexible we may be able to turn some our attention away from material prosperity to wider prosperity.
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.
I find the metaphor of an elephant and a rider, which has been used by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and embraced by Mathew Taylor, to be especially useful in thinking about the mind. This is how J. Haidt describes it:
The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.
I would like to extend Haidt’s proposition by suggesting that since the rider is the one who has to train the elephant, the rider needs to be trained first on how to train the elephant. First, he needs to be taught how to become attuned to his elephant, how to become increasingly aware what is boiling inside its head and what can be anticipated from the powerful animal. Cultivating awareness through mindfulness is cultivating this attunement.
It is also crucial for the rider to learn how to become the ‘whisperer’ of the elephant. The rider will never be in full control of the animal but can learn to befriend it, and to expand its influence over it. As this process of befriending develops, the relationship between rider and elephant gradually shifts from one of misunderstanding, frustration and even antagonism, to one of patience and gentleness. Even when the elephant throws a tantrum sometimes, the rider will not react to this frantically but will calmly and skilfully do what is best. The experienced rider becomes skilled at knowing when to opt for firm discipline, and when simple, calm patience is required.
As time goes on and as one’s practice of mindfulness improves the ‘elephant’ (i.e. the automatic/implicit processes) starts gradually changing. The elephant becomes less frantic, more predictable, more willing to be ‘whispered’ by the rider. It throws its tantrums less and less often. The rider does not need as much willpower to control the animal now since the big creature is more willing to be led by the rider.
Limitations of relying on theory
Teaching people what the latest scientific findings reveal about the mind is definitely a desirable thing to do, but in my understanding it has its limitations. Using the same analogy, I would compare it to teaching the rider the theory of riding. He would be given a PowerPoint presentation about elephants and riding: what the elephants are like, what mistakes there are likely to make, what can be done, when they can and cannot be trusted, etc.
This lecturing would be good to learn more about elephants in general but would tell very little or nothing about the particular elephant that you are riding. – We all have unique personalities, don’t we? But even more importantly, it would not teach the practical skills that are gained through experience of actually riding an elephant. The deep learning needed to tune in to your own elephant and to befriend it can only be achieved through deep listening and deep practice. Mindfulness is the only deep practice that I am aware of. As with teaching people how to drive cars, we don’t expect them to become skilled drivers after only having taught them the theory.
For these reasons I believe mindfulness – which enables us to gradually achieve the attunement and ‘whispering’ that I’ve described – is an essential tool for changing our automatic processes and closing the gap between who we are who we want to become.
Before I launch my series on how, in my view, mindfulness is a very powerful tool for closing what the RSA calls the ‘social aspiration gap’, I want to bring some perspective. I want to list the main reasons why mindfulness – if it is actually as great as I will argue it is – is not so popular yet:
It can be difficult, especially initially. It draws you out of your comfort zone.
It is terribly boring. – Again initially, and especially for people who are accustomed to constant stimulation.
It requires discipline, which eventually will be attained through getting established in the practice, so it’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation.
It can be quite frustrating to find out how little one is in control of one’s attention. The mind will wonder off again and again. This is particularly frustrating if one has incorrect expectations, such as relaxing or eliminating all thought. Such expectations are likely to engender the opposite result, since frustration with the inevitability of thinking will kick in.
It can be a disorienting experience. In his Divided Brain speech at the RSA Iain McGilchrist described how in the Western world people commonly base their sense of identity on the ‘voice’ in the brain’s left hemisphere, the ‘speaker’ of thoughts. During meditation this voice will keep chattering. – Yet meditation invites us to cease identifying ourselves with this voice and its thoughts. So naturally, the question “If am not my thoughts, who am I?” will arise, and this can be an unsettling experience.
Also, uncomfortable thoughts which are normally buried under our day to day ‘busy-ness’ will rise to the surface and this can be quite unsettling too.
It will not work if one aims to get somewhere, to achieve some special state. It is a very paradoxical thing. With mindfulness, you can only get somewhere by not striving to get somewhere, so the usual framework of ‘doing’ and ‘striving’ must be dropped. It feels unnatural and like a really ‘productive’ waste of time for the ‘doers’ among us.
We generally do not have a culture that supports or reinforces it. To the contrary, following our usual reactions, ‘moaning’ and lack of acceptance of the inevitable provides so much to share with other fellow beings. We also tend to be less comfortable with practices of religious origins. There is no easy way around it. Yes, mindfulness – even though it is secular in nature – was ‘invented’ within Buddhism, and possibly by Buddha himself.
With mindfulness, you can’t measure your progress in numbers. It is quite a problem in a culture that seeks to measure almost everything. There is some real truth in the saying ‘what gets measured, gets done.’
It’s not a quick fix. For substantial results to start appearing, it may take 8 weeks of around 30 minutes a day.
It requires slowing down. The busier and the more frantic we are, the more we react out of habit in the same automatic ways and not out of choice. This franticness is the opposite of mindfulness.
It does not really work if you use just ‘a bit’ of mindfulness. We like to put things into our schedules moving from one thing to another. Mindfulness is a way of being in the world, not a way of spending a 30 minute slot reserved in your busy schedule.
I have struggled with all of the above myself and still do to a certain extent after two years of practice. Probably most of us will in similar ways.
Recently I attended a mindfulness training day and instead of actually doing the practice, which is much about spending less time in our heads and more time in the real world, I found myself analysing the training itself. I was sitting on a meditation cushion and doing old-fashioned left-brain-type analysis. I found myself making different connections between mindfulness and brain-related sciences. I thought I had found some interesting links between mindfulness and Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s ‘fast and slow thinking’. This led to me to believe that one way of looking at mindfulness is as a skilful engagement of Kahneman’s both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking. Also, sitting on that cushion I came to believe that mindfulness is an important part of closing the RSA’s ‘social aspiration gap’ to become more of a person one wants to be.
According to Kahneman, we can think about our brains as having two systems – super fast, automatic, intuition-based ‘system 1’ (S1) and effortful, reasoning-based, and much slower ‘system 2’ (S2). Most of our daily decisions are produced by S1, are automatic and are based on habits. They require little attention or effort. Through experience S1 allows us to become experts who can make fast, intuitive and mostly good decisions. For example, it allows driving a car in heavy traffic while maintaining a conversation. You can try to imagine the chances of you being able to do that by having only read lots of books about driving (i.e. by having only engaged reasoning-based S2). What S1 is great at is tapping into our vast experience and packaging a multitude of calculations into a sense of intuition.
This sense is an integral part of making good decisions informed by our experience. It has been found that people who don’t feel emotions struggle to make even the simplest decisions. This intuition bit is where mindfulness training becomes very useful. From time to time I find myself for various reasons becoming stressed and caught up in all sorts of unhelpful thinking. I may think ‘I really screwed up this one’ or ‘I am just not good enough at that’. This not only distracts me from focusing on the real problem (disturbs reason-based S2 thinking) but also obscures my ability to ‘read’ my intuition.
What mindfulness allows me to do is to see through the forest of emotions and maintain connection to this intuition, leading to better decisions. What it also allows is to become aware of unhelpful thinking patterns in S2 and not to take them at face value. Another dimension of mindfulness is openness to experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant experience. This openness stops vicious circles in their tracks, the circles of getting stressed about getting stressed, about getting stressed…
For these and many other reasons I hold mindfulness to be an integral part of the RSA’s neurological reflexivity that allows closing the ‘social aspiration gap’. One must be aware of one’s conditions manifesting moment-by-moment in order to allow one’s awareness to transform the effect of these conditions. This moment-by-moment attention paves way for different decisions, which in the long run have the power to change habits.
Sitting on that cushion and having made such links for a while I felt a bit too excited to meditate properly. I had to use some mindfulness to calm my analytical mind down and to come back to the cushion. This also served as good exercise on the long path of becoming more of a ‘skilled user’, a master if you will, of my own mind and less of a slave of its unhelpful patterns.