Autopilot

From the first moments of our lives we are conditioned through pain (negative reinforcement), reward (positive reinforcement) and habit. Before we say our first words most of us learn to avoid things if they’re too hot or too sharp, and we’ve learned these things so deeply we don’t even have to think about them. When it comes to staying safe, autopilot is a trusted friend that will last a lifetime.

You don’t walk into a room conscious of every facet of the experience. You aren’t necessarily paying attention to your ankles as you turn a corner, or the way the denim over your left knee flexes against your skin. Even if you decide to pay attention to these experiences, there are always other inputs you’re ignoring. You don’t have to be conscious of every little thing because we’ve evolved competencies at a great number of safety maneuvers, like blinking, that automatically keep us protected.

Fortunately, just being alive in the physical world forces us into these good habits, and much of our learning in this capacity is the result of pain. If I rested my hand on a cold burner and then turned it on, it wouldn’t take long for the signals to engage my brain to pull my hand away. In fact, it would take a tremendous effort of will to keep my hand there despite the pain.

Positive reinforcement works too, but it can be difficult to give yourself enough pleasure to make it work. Pain is acute and causes a quick response, but to cause an equally acute pleasure can be a bit dangerous; the pleasant brain state has to be severe enough so the accompanying behaviors are imprinted with pleasurable reinforcement. This is what makes some drugs so dangerously habit-forming.

Mental habits are a bit trickier to pick up, but pain and pleasure can still be used to install programs that seem just as automatic as our physical safety features. You can eliminate a word from your vocabulary very easily: put an elastic band around your wrist and snap yourself so it hurts every time you say the word. It won’t take long until you find yourself speaking more consciously and deliberately, and you’ll quickly gain more control of your vocabulary. (Pick a word you use frequently if you want to see effects quickly.)

If you have an aversion to pain, and don’t have a quick and safe way to administer pleasure, an effective but more difficult way to learn something is by installing a habit. Consciously decide to do something every day, stick with it, and soon the habit will become engrained. Self-programming can be a real pain, but that pain might be the reason it works. You spend extra willpower now so you can use less later.

For example, I meditate every morning on the same cushion in the same part of my home. Those mornings when I wake from a dream or I’m otherwise mentally distracted, I sometimes catch myself unconsciously grabbing the cushion, setting it in place and having a stretch to get ready for my session.

I sometimes appreciate the value of this habit when I can fully remember what I was distracted about while I put the cushion in place. I was working out some story problem or thinking about something for the day’s work, and I sometimes don’t even remember grabbing the cushion because it was so far from my conscious mind. I was just “going through the motions,” and I’ve trained daily to perfect those motions so I can literally do them without thinking.

The goal is to make the habit unconscious, so that all things being equal, when my mind is on autopilot, my unconscious or subconscious mind will simply follow through with the routine and I won’t have to engage consciously in any debate about whether or not I should go through with it.

If you want to pick up a new behavior or habit, grit your teeth and commit to doing it for a week. Keep in mind that if it’s a bit of a pain, if it sucks and you catch yourself trying to talk yourself out of it, it’s probably because you’re body and mind just aren’t used to the behavior. Tell yourself it’s just for a week and get on with it. Odds are that by the end of the week you won’t find it nearly as hard to continue as you previously thought. You’ve begun training your autopilot, and from now on it will take over some of the workload for you.

Fast Forward Programming

Think about how many commercials vie for our attention. 150 years ago there were billboards and weird young kids yelling on street corners to sell papers, but if you chart the amount of advertising in the world you’ll notice an exponential upward swerve so severe it is hard to comprehend where we will be in another 150 years.

Billboards crowd our urban highways and city streets, radios run commercials as often as music, and television programming seems almost to be entirely dictated by advertisers. But an interesting thing has happened to television commercials in recent years.

The PVR, or DVR, has given the audience the ability to skip commercials. Provided one isn’t watching live TV, I see no reason anyone would consciously subject themselves to commercials when they have the opportunity to ignore them.

But I don’t like using the “Skip” function on my remote; I like to come back to a program clean after a commercial break, not accidentally skip twelve seconds into the show and then have to rewind. So I use the fast forward function and zoom through commercials until I know I’m close.

So instead of seeing the commercial narratives and hearing all that noisy advertising, I hear nothing and see a flash of images that usually culminate in some logo or slogan. I sometimes wonder what effect this has on me. After all, these images have been carefully selected by professionals to produce results, and it’s well documented that the subconscious responds to imagery even if we don’t consciously notice it. Could I be accidentally making commercials more effective by circumnavigating my conscious mind?

When I see a commercial normally, my guard is up. Nobody likes to be manipulated, and we all know this is what commercials intend to do. So generally we can watch a commercial and feel like it won’t have any coercive effect on us. Naturally we don’t have any idea what effect the commercial will have on our unconscious, but with the conscious mind mediating the commercial, we at least feel like we’re making our own decisions when we’re shopping.

When I hit fast forward I shut my conscious critic off (unless I notice something hilarious or outrageous, in which case I usually rewind to watch the full commercial, as is often the case for drug commercials). So if a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m cramming my subconscious with millions of words without tempering them by logic or common sense. Because my subconscious was exposed to a pretty, smiling girl eating a Big Mac, I might be more inclined to “spontaneously” feel like one. Plus, I might be more inclined to rationalize that behavior; if I haven’t noticed the external influence I might assume my McWhim came from “me”. (In case you were worried, I haven’t eaten a Big Mac in about fifteen years.)

Social forces like Adbusters or Mad Men have made us hip enough to recognize that advertisers specifically target our unconscious wants. Usually our only conscious want while we’re watching television is to be entertained, so commercials are meant to be entertaining to keep us on our couches. The real intended effect, where the money comes from, is often a combination of images, sounds and specific words meant to embed in our unconscious. They hope when we experience something related, we will correspond it to their specific product. So when we’re hungry we think of a specific burger chain.

Those unconscious desires are insidious because they rarely come with a list of pros and cons. Consciously I can deliberate a cost-benefit analysis and outsmart the charlatans. But the unconscious doesn’t seem to argue with itself like the conscious mind does. The unconscious mind seems to wait until the conscious mind is off guard before it goes after its desire. Otherwise our unconscious desires manipulate our conscious minds into justifying that want.

So when we think about the amount of commercials we see, and the ever-increasing skill with which they manipulate our wants, we should expect our society to consume more and more advertised products, to become more and more conflicted in its wants, and to fall more easily into the consumer lifestyle that is dictated by media images. Does this seem to be happening?

Fortunately we have reason, which gives us higher-order thinking and veto power over urges. I thank reason for the fact that I’m not buying Lunesta sleeping pills or Geico insurance. The other thing I have going for me is that I almost never buy products, outside of the ones I eat and drink while watching television…

“Lunesta is different, it keys into receptors that support sleep. When taking Lunesta, don’t drive or operate machinery until you feel fully awake. Walking, eating, driving, or engaging in other activities while asleep without remembering the next day have been reported. Abnormal behaviors may include aggressiveness, agitation, hallucinations or confusion. In depressed patients, worsening of depression, including risk of suicide may occur. Alcohol may increase these risks. Allergic reactions such as tongue or throat swelling occur rarely and may be fatal. Side effects may include unpleasant taste, headache, dizziness and morning drowsiness.”Lunesta commercial

 

Change Your Brain – Pt. 1

One of the most exciting areas of modern science is the study of neuroplasticity. Neurologists and behaviorists have known for decades that most behaviors are learned through repetition. Synapses fire between neurons when the brain is working, and after enough repetition these neurons form relatively permanent bonds.

In recent years scientists have been showing us that brain training is not just reserved for psychologists, behaviorists, or neurologists. Meaningful change is available for everyone. Neuroplasticity is for the end-user, meaning those of us who have brains.

When we think of changes we would like to make in our lives, few of us choose things that are impossible. I doubt serious people get depressed because they cannot levitate themselves or read minds clearly. Most often the changes we would like to see are practical – we want more money, a change in career, or to be happier.

Real changes like this are achievable, and the answers to our problems are often obvious. Work hard and ask for a raise, find a better job, stop sweating the small stuff. But we are all creatures of habit and often lasting changes like these can seem unattainable. The reason these changes seem unattainable is because our neurons are simply not used to firing in the particular way we want. This means that even conceiving of life as we would like it to be is a challenge to our existing thought patterns.

If we agree that behaviors are learned through training, reiteration, and neurological fortification, why should any realistic change be out of reach? Being unfamiliar with something is a lame excuse not to try it and we all know it. If we want change we should be willing to challenge the things we value, to reassess things we find distasteful, and to search out ideas we haven’t even heard of.

These three books challenged my beliefs and enriched my mind.

"The Sacred and the Profane"1. The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade is a Romanian scholar who takes an academic approach to spiritual problems. He has written profoundly on yoga, shamanism, mythology and philosophy. The Sacred and the Profane is a study of holiness, giving new language to concepts I previously only intuited. With incredible scholarship Eliade relates the idea of the “sacred” with time, space, and psychology in a way that simply makes sense. The approach to the sacerdotal is likened to erecting a pillar in space. This pillar is obviously not literal, but extends away from the world toward our conception of the “holy”. This justifies the idea of holy places and non-temporal states of being while placing them firmly in our secular world. I would recommend this book to atheists and materialists.

 

"The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"2. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

This groundbreaking work posits that early man actually spoke with the gods, as most ancient literature asserts. It asks why early literature is replete with references to the gods, why most theurgic speech comes in metered form, and why this is much less common now. The thesis is that the human brain was different back then – that the right and left hemispheres of the brain were more distantly connected because the corpus callosum had not yet solidified as a bridging structure between the lobes – and that the so-called dialogue with gods was actually the two hemispheres of the brain communicating with each other. This sounds far out, but this long essay puts forward a fascinating argument that sheds new light on ancient history. What this means if true is that our conception of human consciousness as something that has gradually evolved since the time of the neanderthal is wrong, and that human consciousness as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon on earth. This is the kind of book that, while you read it, your eyebrows raise higher and higher. Since I have heard nothing like this theory anywhere else, I recommend this book to anyone.

 

"Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer"3. Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer by Dr. John Lilly

Using computer language, this beautiful, bizarre little manual describes the behavioral patterns of our body-brain complex (the biocomputer), and implies how we might reprogram our software (ideas and behavioral patterns) to achieve personal change. The language can seem tough to wrap one’s head around at first, but there’s nothing quite like learning a new jargon to get those synapses firing in new ways. The book also talks about metaprograms, which are the subconscious routines that set the table for behavioral programs. For example, I will be less likely to appreciate hip-hop (program) if I am subconsciously racist against black people (metaprogram). Once the learning curve of language is mounted this book reads like a slender, elegant volume of instructions on creating new behaviors. Recommended for wordy sad-sacks.

Rewriting the Watched Pot

I made the NaNoWriMo deadline and wrote 50000 words in a month. I’m pretty happy with that feat. My novel Residuum is almost done. With a chapter and a half left to write, it sits at just under 200 pages. I definitely recommend the experience to anyone interested in writing because it forces your fingers to the keys.

A lot of writers will tell you that “writing is rewriting”. It’s not, really. Writing is writing. NaNoWriMo doesn’t allow you the time to rewrite. If you want to make that total, you have to plow through your work without looking back. Rewriting comes later. I plan to do some large-scale editing on my novel before submitting it to anyone.

The phrase “writing is rewriting” speaks to the fact that first drafts are rarely right. Ideas take time to develop and should be considered from a lot of angles, so the adage is implicitly telling us that we need to reread our stories, soak them in, and reconsider them from different perspectives.

In the throes of prose it’s tough to tell if your audience will pick up on everything, or if you’ve overwritten something. When a writer is typing away he or she often isn’t considering the prose from an abstract perspective. But a worthwhile novel should work as both concrete drama and abstract notion. This is why John Grisham novels don’t make sense to me. There is solid storytelling, master craftsmanship, but no substance. The stories don’t elevate me. Once I finish one of his books the only time I ever think of it again is as an example of well-wrought-but-meaningless literature.

But Grisham gets it done and makes a good living at it. He’s successful because he’s productive, and this is the value of NaNoWriMo to me. Writers write every day. And with a deadline like that, you have to write every day, word by word, until it’s done. You can see every day your novel gets that much closer to the goal.

It reminds me of the phrase “a watched pot never boils”. First of all, no pot ever boils; it’s the water that boils. Secondly, a watched pot will definitely boil if you watch it long enough (provided the conditions allow it). So the phrase is patently false. However, it is meaningful.

“A watched pot never boils” describes the plasticity of subjective time. The passage of time is directly related to the amount and quality of stimulation we experience. The stimulation of someone twisting a corkscrew through your leg is apt to make one minute seem like half an hour. When we watch a more or less stationary object, time can stretch out like taffy. When our minds are occupied, time seems to move faster. The adage implies that we have short attention spans.

People less anal than me don’t nitpick at the falsehood of age old phrases. I do it because it amuses me. Falsehood is a fact of life. False but meaningful phrases work because words are tools that can be used in creative ways. Fiction and poetry are the best examples of this. I hope people other than me will find my novel meaningful.

P.S. For a mind-expanding read on language and communication, check out The Structure of Magic, a two-volume set by John Grinder and Richard Bandler on neurolinguistic programming (NLP).