Jul 14

Alone with myself

Altered StatesIt wasn’t long ago that I would have done anything to avoid being alone with my own thoughts. The thought of what might bubble up, when I wasn’t trying to look away to everything else, terrified me; if only because I had spent so much time avoiding myself. For years I was sleepwalking through life. If I happened to catch a glance at my doppelgänger self in the mirror, I didn’t linger.

But, my circumstances have changed. Many things that once scared me and drove me, have collapsed down to smaller proportions. The more I ran toward my own fears, the smaller they became, much like my own shadow. I still have fears and worries, but my worries are concrete and I am more grounded. And, after much work devoted to untangling various knots and maybe just making friends with the knots, I started to reconnect.

One of the first things to go, when you disconnect from yourself, is any creativity or sensitivity. When you detach from your own feelings, you develop a state of numbness because you want to avoid anything that might overwhelm, which could be anything when you’re holding it all down with white knuckles.

But, once I started to be more happy, I wanted to find out more about myself. I wanted to build a timeline of my own life, mainly because I could not remember much for long spaces of time. Even if I could remember the facts of my past, it didn’t feel like it belonged to me. I grew interested in knitting together a sense of my own story. I wanted to explore my own inner world that I had boarded up and abandoned. I wanted to move back home, I wanted to clear away the weeds, open up the windows, and dust out the various corners.

I came up with a plan to kickstart this inner exploration: floating in an isolation tank. Floating in complete darkness and silence with nowhere to go and nothing else to do; just alone with my own thoughts. If you’ve seen the William Hurt film, “Altered States“, you’re probably familiar with the concept. Luckily, Austin has a place where you can purchase 60-90 minute sessions of sensory-deprivation, Zero Gravity Institute. I don’t feel like saying much about it, except that you might give it a shot. The first session I had was very rewarding. After adjusting to the novelty of the situation, I had some of the most creative moments in recent memory. That’s where I arrived at the realization that it has been exactly 20 years since I started a small zine with two of my high school friends. It was called the Incredible Flaming Mechanism. We created 7 issues from 1994-1995, when we all went off to college. It was one of the most creative, exciting times in my life. I realized that I was coming full circle… from happy to unhappy to happy again and from creative to uncreative to creative again. So, my current idea is to do 7 more issues… from 2014-2015, so that I can close the loop. What do you think?



Aug 08

Good news – A little crazy is adaptive.

From an article on how nutty “creative types” get laid more often than their normal peers:

The study also included some known schizophrenics. And Nettle’s personality surveys revealed that the artists and poets shared certain traits with schizophrenics. Again, perhaps no big surprise. But these traits are linked with increased sexual activity, Nettle and his colleagues say (though full-blown schizophrenic patients tend to withdraw from society and have less active sex lives).

Insofar as evolution is concerned, maybe teetering on the brink is a good thing, the researchers speculate.

“These personality traits can manifest themselves in negative ways, in that a person with them is likely to be prone to the shadows of full-blown mental illness such as depression and suicidal thoughts,” Nettle said. “This research shows there are positive reasons, such as their role in mate attraction and species survival, for why these characteristics are still around.”


For example, the first of our ancestors to empathize and read facial expressions had a striking advantage. They could confirm their own social status and convince others to share food and shelter. But too much emotional acuity — when individuals overanalyze every grimace — can cause a motivational nervousness about one’s social value to morph into a relentless handicapping anxiety.

Pondering the future

Another cognitive innovation made it possible to compare potential futures. While other animals focus on the present, only humans, said Geary, “sit and worry about what will happen three years from now if I do that or this.” Our ability to think things over, and over, can be counterproductive and lead to obsessive tendencies.

Certain types of depression, however, Geary continued, may be advantageous. The lethargy and disrupted mental state can help us disengage from unattainable goals — whether it is an unrequited love or an exalted social position. Evolution likely favored individuals who pause and reassess ambitions, instead of wasting energy being blindly optimistic.

Natural selection also likely held the door open for disorders such as attention deficit. Quickly abandoning a low stimulus situation was more helpful for male hunters than female gatherers, writes Nesse, which may explain why boys are five times more likely than girls to be hyperactive.

Similarly, in its mildest form, bipolar disorder can increase productivity and creativity. Bipolar individuals (and their relatives) also often have more sex than average people, Geary noted.

Sex, and survival of one’s kids, is the whole point — as far as nature is concerned. Sometimes unpleasant mental states lead to greater reproductive success, said Geary, “so these genes stay in the gene pool.”

Aug 08

Tips for working with procrastinators

We all procrastinate, but why? When I try to boil it down, procrastination is fear and avoidance. It inhibits action but pushes away the gnawing anxiety of starting, the tyranny of the empty page or the empty canvas. Why do we tend to procrastinate more on big things like term papers or design work but not on small things like doing the laundry?

Procrastination does not remove the stress and uncertainty of the thing we want to avoid. But, it does buy time. We try to avoid what needs doing in the hopes that our future self will be better equipped to do it or in the hope that our little problem will resolve itself. If we acted on what we needed to do, even if nowhere near completion, we would cease to procrastinate. Completion is not the opposite of procrastination, action is. Maybe the antidote to procrastination is simply any action toward doing the things we avoid doing.

Anyway, I got the idea for this entry as a result of a clever little trick Jody played on me. She had asked me to do something for her and expecting that I might wait until the last minute to get it done she told me the deadline was actually a day earlier than it really was. So in the event I did wait until the last day and changes had to be made we had some wiggle room. At first I was annoyed since I was so stressed about getting her task done then I realized that she was just being smart; that she knew me enough to work around me. Respect!

It got me thinking. How do you work with procrastinators? How do you work around people who you know get blocked by deadlines and who always wait until the last minute? Maybe the best approach is to enter their world rather than to try to force them to work the way you want?

In considering how to positively engineer the dynamics with procrastinators, I came up with a few tips on how to work with them.

Continue reading →

Aug 08

Trick yourself into writing more

So, despite various resolutions to blog more, I’ve done little to nothing on that front. For a while there I was blogging only about once a month, which has not helped my relationship with Google, my coy mistress. Life has intervened, but I would be lying if I said I could never find time to blog. I can. Truth is, sometimes I just didn’t want to talk publicly about what was on my mind or going on in my little world and many, many other times I was just lazy. Writing publicly (inasmuch as this is public) requires a little vulnerability, a willingness to toss your thoughts and words out there for others to regard. Mentally, it’s a bit like bathing in the street.

Anyway, I may have found a system that works for me, finally. As with everything else I do, I simply need to trick myself. Here’s what I am doing differently:

  1. Think, then immediately write. Set the thought down into a blog entry before you lose interest. Right now in WordPress, I have 14 drafts of various aborted ideas I started to write about. I am unlikely to take them up simply because I no longer care about those particular ideas. However, at the time, I did, so I should have taken advantage of that fleeting moment of enthusiasm. Something interesting might have come of it!
  2. When you’re feeling productive, crank out as much as you can. I think today I wrote 6 blog entries. Other times, I’ll go weeks without writing anything. You won’t see these entries all in one day because I will schedule them to appear once or twice each day rather than all at once. Google likes this and it also makes me appear to be more consistently industrious.
  3. Keep to a schedule. Remove the choice. Right now I’ve got a daily recurring task in Remember the Milk for “Write a blog entry”. It gets created automatically every day and if I don’t complete it, it just sits there in my task list until I close it out. If I go several days without blogging, the tasks just add up like household garbage no one feels like taking out. Deleting the tasks or marking them complete seems cowardly, so after a while I just hunker down and write. Quite honestly, the recurring task thing is the main reason I’ve been blogging more.

Aug 08

Da Vinci on repeating one’s self

Leonardo Da VinciNow that I’ve been blogging for eight years I occasionally worry that I am recycling the same ideas without realizing it. When bothered by this thought, I search through my blog archives to see if I have already written about something, before I write about it again, though I know no one else would notice.

When this happens, I feel as if I should have done something final with that original idea, since it has bubbled up again like a submerged corpse.

Memory is unreliable. Yet, something about who I am dictates that I will re-create the same idea again and again, though I have no memory of it. It calls into question every idea you have, every plan you conceive of, since so many others amounted to nothing without a lasting record of their failure.

Then, as I read the daily dose of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebooks yesterday, I learned that much greater minds ran in similar circles:

Begun at Florence, in the house of Piero di Braccio Martelli, on the 22nd day of March 1508. And this is to be a collection without order, taken from many papers which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they may treat. But I believe that before I am at the end of this [task] I shall have to repeat the same things several times; for which, O reader! do not blame me, for the subjects are many and memory cannot retain them [all] and say: ‘I will not write this because I wrote it before.’ And if I wished to avoid falling into this fault, it would be necessary in every case when I wanted to copy [a passage] that, not to repeat myself, I should read over all that had gone before; and all the more since the intervals are long between one time of writing and the next.

In other words, just keep writing and stop keeping score.

May 08

Later borns and provocation

Birth order theories are interesting, especially with regard to first borns and later borns. Here’s an article from Time Magazine, The Power of Birth Order

Even more impressive is how early younger siblings develop what’s known as the theory of mind. Very small children have a hard time distinguishing the things they know from the things they assume other people know. A toddler who watches an adult hide a toy will expect that anyone who walks into the room afterward will also know where to find it, reckoning that all knowledge is universal knowledge. It usually takes a child until age 3 to learn that that’s not so. For children who have at least one elder sibling, however, the realization typically comes earlier. “When you’re less powerful, it’s advantageous to be able to anticipate what’s going on in someone else’s mind,” says Sulloway.

Later-borns, however, don’t try merely to please other people; they also try to provoke them. Richard Zweigenhaft, a professor of psychology at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., who revealed the overrepresentation of firstborns in Congress, conducted a similar study of picketers at labor demonstrations. On the occasions that the events grew unruly enough to lead to arrests, he would interview the people the police rounded up. Again and again, he found, the majority were later- or last-borns. “It was a statistically significant pattern,” says Zweigenhaft. “A disproportionate number of them were choosing to be arrested.”

May 08

Creativity and sensitivity

Ran across this in a recent NY Times article on memory:

“A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers,” Dr. Hasher said. “We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser.”

In a 2003 study at Harvard, Dr. Carson and other researchers tested students’ ability to tune out irrelevant information when exposed to a barrage of stimuli. The more creative the students were thought to be, determined by a questionnaire on past achievements, the more trouble they had ignoring the unwanted data. A reduced ability to filter and set priorities, the scientists concluded, could contribute to original thinking.

This phenomenon, Dr. Carson said, is often linked to a decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. Studies have found that people who suffered an injury or disease that lowered activity in that region became more interested in creative pursuits.

Pardon the disjointed thoughts here.

Pronounced sensitivity to external and internal stimulus is a hallmark of what we regard as classical creativity or “original thinking”, but which might be better called creative aestheticism. Creative aestheticism is really only one type of creativity.

Continue reading →

Jan 08

Patterns of thought and behavior

I have an on-again, off-again love affair with personality tests and personality types a la Myers-Briggs, Socionics, etc. As dichotomies can be used to define reality (light / dark, true / false, hot / cold) it makes sense to me that certain human qualities can be defined and described as existing along a continuum of possible outcomes. It also makes sense that while every human being is unique and individual, out of 6 billion individuals certain patterns of behavior are likely to emerge.

On a scale where astrology is zero and a DNA test is 100 in terms of usefulness in understanding reality, I would put personality studies at 15-20. As a field of study, it is not scientific at all, but the “soft sciences” (economics, psychology, sociology, etc.) have a difficult time proving anything as they are, ultimately, the study of patterns and behavior. More synthetic in outlook rather than analytic. Yet, we still find the “soft sciences” helpful.

The study of personality types is an extension of Psychology. In differs in that it tries to present personality as a continuum of specific attributes: introversion / extraversion, rationality / emotionality, etc. that can be evaluated and understood in a framework of possible types. The study of personality types has the potential to illuminate many areas of human interest including: market behavior, criminality, public health, addiction, and education. This is what is most compelling…the ability to understand why people behave the way they do and how to know who is likely to think in a certain way.

The biological sciences have been approaching social problems from the opposite direction through neurochemical explanations for human behavior. However, this approach is limited and leads to a chemically deterministic view of human psychology, one that is promoted by the medical sciences. The problem with the analytic approach of medicine is that it is satisfied primarily with results (and commercializing results) rather than understanding. So for a problem like Depression (which has now been defined as a chemical imbalance by the medical establishment), a treatment that reduces symptoms associated with Depression is regarded as successful despite the fact that the neurochemical role in human psychology is not well understood. So, it is unsurprising that unintended consequences have emerged, like suicidal ideation in teens who took anti-depressants or suicidal ideation in patients prescribed Chantix for smoking cessation, for example.

Suffice it to say that we have spent more time trying to understand the physical and neurochemical structure of the brain (the assembly / machine code) than we have the higher level processes, which could benefit from greater attention by researchers and theoreticians.

If you would like to find out your “type” you can use the following short personality test. I would be curious to know what you come out as.

Dec 07

I can’t really explain it

…but there is something fascinating about faux-reality shows like The Hills or Laguna Beach. If I’m ever channel surfing and happen across one of these shows, I’ll get sucked in. It has the approachable mundane-ness of a reality show with the story line of a high-production television drama. I have a hard time watching shows that don’t seem real enough. I just can’t forget that I’m watching something fake. I think this is why I also enjoy shows like Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm (although CYE has become more fake and unreal recently). All of these shows have realistic characters, realistic lighting and environments, realistic dialogue, and realistic wardrobes and makeup. If television taps into some evolved social interest, it stands to reason that the more real the simulation, the more effective it will be in evoking sympathy and interest. Look for the lines between life and entertainment to blur further.

Crucial Minutiae has a good take on it that is worth reading.

Nov 07

Know your nerd

Great and funny piece on how nerds work over at Rands in Repose, The Nerd Handbook:

Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head. It’s the end of the day and you and your nerd are hanging out on the couch. The TV is off. There isn’t a computer anywhere nearby and you’re giving your nerd the daily debrief. “Spent an hour at the post office trying to ship that package to your mom, and then I went down to that bistro — you know — the one next the flower shop, and it’s closed. Can you believe that?”

And your nerd says, “Cool”.

Cool? What’s cool? The business closing? The package? How is any of it cool? None of it’s cool. Actually, all of it might be cool, but your nerd doesn’t believe any of what you’re saying is relevant. This is what he heard, “Spent an hour at the post office blah blah blah…”