The Taylor Study Method has just posted an article I wrote on using gratitude to detox your brain. I pointed out that when you pay attention to negativity, you actually create toxins in your brain. This includes simply thinking negative thoughts. However, by cultivating an attitude of gratitude, you can starve all thinking that is negative, disordered or toxic. Just as fire can’t survive in an environment of water, so toxic thinking can’t survive in a neurological environment characterized by constant gratitude.
I’ve just published two articles at the Taylor Study Method on the power of positive breathing. Part 1 looks at how stress and anxiety are deeply rooted in primitive survival instincts. Although directed at psychology students preparing for their licensure exam, the techniques I’ve shared can be applied by anyone wanting to better manage stress or reduce anxiety. There’s nothing particularly complicated about these techniques, which basically involve mindful breathing. Part 2 explores the science of mindful breathing, including research showing that mindful meditative breathing can increase the size of the brain, improve social skills, make it easier to achieve mental clarity and focus, in addition to increasing emotional intelligence, self-regulation and resilience. To read my articles, click on the links below:
The following is from Robert Roberts’ essay ‘The Blessings of Gratitude’ in the volume The Psychology of Gratitude:
“The constitutionally grateful person has a shield against such debilitating regrets because he or she is inclined to dwell on the favorable, rather than the regrettable. As noted earlier, as an emotion, gratitude is a perception of benefits and benevolence; a person with gratitude-readiness will tend to see what is good in situations and to notice less what is bad. The kind of unfortunate actions and events that make the constitutionally regretful person miserable may have occurred in the grateful one’s life as well, but the grateful person can move on from them, because his or her mind is tuned to happier things….
Grateful people tend to be satisfied with what they have and so are less susceptible to such emotions as disappointment, regret, and frustration. People who believe in God as He is conceived in Christianity have an even more powerful resource for transcending many of the circumstances that disappoint, frustrate, and anger most of us. In consequence, grateful people, whether religious or not, will be less prone to emotions such as anger, resentment, envy, and bitterness, that tend to undermine happy social relations. But the virtue of gratitude is not only a prophylactic against such corruption of relationships; it also contributes positively to friendship and civility, because it is both benevolent (wishing the benefactor well) and just (giving the benefactor his or her due, in a certain special way). The justice of gratitude can be plausible argued to be metaphysical–a kind of attunement to one’s basic human nature and the nature of the universe–because we are in fact dependent recipients of good things, both from some of our fellow human beings and from God. Such attunement is a realization of human nature and thus maturity, fulfillment, well-being.
We’ve probably all seen people who have an ability to learn information quickly, perhaps when studying for a test, but then they forget it afterwards, and then we know other people who are able to achieve content mastery. What’s the difference? The difference is that in order for content mastery to occur, let alone understanding and wisdom, the brain has to move beyond massed practice and even memorizing; rather, the brain needs to start schematizing. This is because schemas serve as hooks on which to fasten new information. Without our brain’s ability to create schemas, without a sense of the connectedness of things, everything we learn would be simply a random collection of disconnected facts and there would never be any true understanding.
Nicholas Carr puts it like this in his book The Shallows: “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas.”“…brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just facts but complex concepts, or ‘schemas.’ By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richenss to our thinking. ‘Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,’ says Sweller. ‘We are able to understand concepts in our areas of expertise because we have schemas associated with those concepts.’”
Carr points out that although the mental skill of schema formation is needed today more than ever, it is in jeopardy from technologies that orient us towards a state of continuous partial attention. As concentrated attention spans and focus become replaced by broad attention ranges and multitasking, what is lost is the type of slow, methodical, systematic and linear cognition that favors the formation of schemas in the long-term memory. In order for the brain to build up schemas effectively, a person has to reflect deeply about her life and what she has learned, and this reflection needs to occur in a slow and undistracted manner. When this is not the case, or when we form schemas badly, then the brain easily falls prey to oversimplifications. We see this all the time in our public political discourse, where issues are deliberated upon in isolated compartments that are often dominated by ideology, resulting in gross oversimplifications.
Also, the brain has to be nimble and flexible enough to adjust our schemas in light of new information we receive through knowledge, experience and personal growth. Sometimes we learn or experience things that do not fit within our existing neurological schemas, and so the brain has to alter existing schemas or create new neuro pathways, a process known as accommodation. That’s where intellectual humility, mental flexibility and open-mindedness become really important. But when our thinking is dominated by impressions, by emotional reasoning or ideology, then we become closed-minded and stuck in schemas that can actually detach us from reality.
The solution is to constantly engage in deep intellectual reflection, to eschew what Socrates called “the unexamined life.” Deep intellectual reflection is to a healthy brain like water is to a healthy plant. People knew that since before Socrates, but now we have the brain science to go with it.
I’m the sort of person who gets big ideas and sets big goals. The only problem with big goals is that they’re incredibly hard to reach. Well, that’s not actually true. Big goals are hard to reach using conventional means.
The normal way of reaching big goals goes something like this. You get excited about a goal that you want to reach. It might be learning a foreign language, implementing a new exercise routine, breaking a bad habit, meditating every day, learning a new skill, whatever. In the excitement of the end-result, you promise to take regular big steps towards reaching the goal.
I know from experience. About five years ago I decided that I wanted to become fit and strong, so I started getting up at 5:00 AM to drive to a friend’s house to do weight-lifting. Of course, with a family and a job, I obviously couldn’t sustain that type of training. When the excitement died down, I realized that I just couldn’t do it. And of course I felt guilty.
When we still lived in England I once decided that I wanted to learn Latin. I got some textbooks and faithfully studied Latin for an hour a day…until I couldn’t keep it up anymore. Then I not only didn’t know Latin, but I was also a failure, having overestimated by ability to persevere.
There have been times when I decided that I was going to become a really good piano player and start practicing with the dedication I had when I was young. Somehow, despite my good intentions, life has a way of taking over and never allowing me to get momentum.
I could go on and on. We all could. I’ve come to realize that the problem is not in the goals we set, but in our method of reaching those goals. What if I told you that there was an unconventional method for reaching goals that is a hundred times more effective and much much easier?
The method I’m talking about is called the Kaisen Technique. The method basically says that the way to reach our goals is to make the steps towards those goals as small as possible. For example, if you want to learn a language, focus on learning just one word a day. If you want to start exercising, just walk in place for a minute in front of the television. If you want to start meditating every day, do it for just give minutes a day. If you are overwhelmed with the amount of dirty dishes in kitchen, just do it for five minutes.
The reason this works is because the human brain is in a state of constant tension between two impulses. On the one hand, our brain constantly longs for innovation, for the excitement of newness. This is why we promise ourselves big things and try to reach new goals. But we also have a part of the brain that longs for stability, for the security of the status quo. Scientists who have studied the human brain have discovered that when we commit to change something in our life, it is the impulse for newness and innovation that is operative. However, over the long term, all our best intentions are sabotaged by the part of our brain that longs to keep things normal and which fears change. All this occurs on a subconscious level that we’re not even aware of. But here’s the point: by introducing change through tiny steps, we can overcome our brain’s natural resistance to change. This is because small steps allow change to occur within a context that is not significantly threatening to the status quo, that feels safe. Then, after our brain has acclimatized to the change, we can increase the size of the steps.
I’ve been exploring the Kaisen technique in a series of articles for the Taylor Study Method. Below are the links to my first two posts about this. Although these posts have been focused on psychology students preparing for their licensure exams, the principles apply to anyone:
From my recent TSM post ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain‘:
Unwanted toxic thoughts can be a bit like dealing with monsters. Suppose your house happens to get overrun by monsters in the near future. In that case, you have three choices. Either you can feed the monsters, in which case they will stick around. Or you can fight the monsters, in which case you may get clobbered and defeated while the monsters only become stronger. Or you can do your best to simply ignore the monsters. If you choose to ignore the monsters, maybe they will go away or maybe they won’t, but even if they stick around, you will have learned to treat them with the contempt they deserve and they will have lost their hold over you.
Similarly, if we fight unwanted thoughts head-on, then we are focusing on the very thing we want to rid ourselves of, leading to a phenomenon that psychologists call the “Ironic process theory” or “the white bear problem.” Researchers have found that trying to directly suppress unwanted thoughts is about as successful as telling someone not to imagine a polar bear. The very act of trying not to imagine a white bear inevitably recalls the white bear to mind; similarly, the very act of struggling not to think toxic unwanted thoughts is sure to bring the thought to mind, creating a wearying cycle of mental exhaustion and frustration. What tends to work much better is to treat unwanted thoughts with the contempt they deserve, and that means that we don’t feed them and we don’t fight them; instead we focus on what is important to us—our values, our goals, our core beliefs—and do our best to simply ignore the toxic thoughts.
Learning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.
As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?
Today I added the following section to my earlier post, ‘How Trump is Normalizing Relativism‘, looking at some disturbing trends in the Republican Party that throw into question the normal operations of the human mind.
When we pan out to see the big picture of what has been happening in the Republican Party since Trump took the reigns (which, by the way, is a departure from true conservatism), we see a troubling trend towards epistemological relativism. As Paul Waldman observed in his Washington Post article, ‘Republicans are trying to destroy the very idea of neutral judgment‘, GOP lawmakers have been acting as if “there’s no such thing as a neutral authority on anything.” We see this even on a popular level with Trump’s supporters, in which the new modus operandi is to delegitimize critique, not through appeals to objective truth, but through creating suspicion that we are even able to appeal to an objective rational order. On this way of thinking, we all have our own personal truth, the only difference is that some of us are winners and some of us are losers.
When this relativistic modus operandi trickles down to the larger populace, we see it beginning to influence the character of political discussion on the street. In an article I wrote last October about how to discuss politics without alienating your friends, I pointed out that a conclusion is only as good as the premises leading up to that conclusion. Consequently, the way to dispute someone’s conclusion is either to show that it doesn’t follow logically from the preceding premises or to show that the premises from which the conclusion follows are actually false. Not so in the world of Trump. For the votaries of the President, the come-back is no longer, “That’s false – prove it!”, or even “I disagree, and here’s why”, but “What newspaper did you read that in?” The narrative is: everyone has their spin, their biases, so what is more important than what someone says is where that person is coming from. “Did you hear that on CNN or Fox?”
Trapped in our own subjective tribes and ideological micro-cultures, the possibility of objective analysis of facts becomes impossible (according to this narrative). In practice this means that unless you are a Trump supporter, anything you or your newspaper might say is discredited a priori, without actually requiring proper analytical engagement. “Of course they would say that because that paper is liberal.” It’s the standard ad hominem combined with the genetic fallacy, with a twist of postmodern cynicism thrown in the mix. As all of us are trapped in our language games, biases, and ideologies, there is no objective point of reference where we can meet to have a meaningful conversation, according to this narrative. In colluding with this subjectivist epistemology, Republicans are casting doubt on the normal operations of the mind. They do not intend to do that because they are not philosophers, but that is still what they are doing. What is at stake is the very idea of truth, the very idea that there can be an objective rational order to which we can make appeals and which remains independent of the speaker, independent of bias, and independent of who happens to be more powerful.
Increasingly, the political order is treated as so much raw material waiting for the imposition of raw will. As questions of ultimate meaning become relativized, naked authority rushes to fill the vacuum. This can be seen at both ends of the political spectrum. On the one hand, we see the autonomous individual being given unprecedented authority over matters that would once have been a matter of politics (see my comments about Planned Parenthood v. Casey here). Simultaneous with this, we see the state adopting an increasingly authoritative posture in which the rule of law becomes an obstacle to the type of change we expect our lawmakers to implement.
Both these mindsets (inflated individual authority and inflated government authority) easily orient us towards anti-intellectualism, not in the sense that those who embody these polarities are unthinking, but in the sense that political questions become questions of authority rather than questions of teleology, questions of power rather than questions of meaning. Out of this milieu there can only emerge different reconfigurations of tribalism, including tribalist conceptions of national identity.