Rambling notes on a Sunday afternoon after a sunny bike ride.
Our brains have roughly one hundred billion (100,000,000,000) neurons.
About thirty billion of them 30,000,000,000 belong in our neocortex, the part of our brain that’s unique to mammals, and that are responsible for our ability to recognize, remember, and predict patterns in the world.
A single pattern recognizer in the brain is hypothesized by Ray Kurzweil to be made up of about 100 neurons, which means we have the potential to store roughly three hundred million 300,000,000 patterns in our brain.
A pattern could be something very low level (for example, a pattern that can detect edges), mid-level (a pattern that can detect words), or high level (a pattern that can detect meaning). There are a lot more levels than that obviously, but the interesting thing is that each level is a new pattern made out of simpler patterns below. Edges turn into lines, lines turn into letters, letters turn into words, words turn into meanings, meanings turn into beliefs, beliefs turn into identities.
You could say that we each carry around in our brains a representation of the universe.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
– Emily Dickenson
The universe in our brains, however, has a few striking differences than the actual universe outside of our brain. The most obvious difference being that the universe in our brain only requires (at most) fourteen million gigabytes (14 petabytes) to store, whereas the real universe is of course much larger (and includes our brains and the representations of itself in them).
This universe in our brain, the full set of patterns, meanings, symbols, histories, stories, and predictions, is referred to by some as our umwelt.
Our umwelt is our internal model of the universe. When we are born, our umwelt doesn’t include much more than the smell of our mother, light and dark, heart beats, and whatever music our parents were listening to when we were in utero.
When we start to understand how we are separate from our parents, and behave independently of one another, the umwelt shifts to allow for such an understanding.
When we see the sun for the first time, a sun gets added to our umwelt and we learn how to recognize it, correlate it with other patterns we already know (light, warmth, day, outside, etc).
When we learn our first words, the notion of sound patterns being correlated with objects and emotions gets added to our umwelt. Those words then get used to recognize other patterns, and to more quickly absorb data from the outside world that is only encoded in words (written and spoken).
Each of our umwelts are a unique interpretation and model of the universe. There are seven billion (7,000,000,000) human umwelts on the planet, seven billion models of the universe.
We spend a lot of time under the assumption that my umwelt is the same as yours. A good chunk of our umwelt is cordoned off as “common sense” be it the differences between day and night, or how to use an iPad, or proper table manners. Much of “growing up” is about creating an umwelt that can consistently predict how other umwelts will react in different circumstances.
In our umwelt, patterns are lists of other patterns, and are indistinguishable from memories and stories. Each of these things has some of the following qualities:
They are a list of other patterns, stories, and memories
When triggered, they increase the likelihood of other patterns, stories, and memories from occurring next, while also decreasing the likelihood of other patterns, stories, and memories.
They occur in a sequence, and can only be reversed by replaying the same sequence over and over, stopping at earlier points each time.
We cannot stop patterns, stories, and memories from occurring once they’ve been triggered. We can only try to smash them with other patterns, stories, and memories.
Patterns, stories, and memories are sequenced patterns that help us better predict the future.
Each time a pattern, story, or memory gets triggered, it changes the patterns, stories, and memories that triggered it… either strengthening the bond or weakening it (depending on how useful it is in the current situation to predict the next pattern in the line).
Because our umwelts are much smaller than the universe they are designed to model, I wonder if it’s more accurate to think of it as a cartoon of the universe.
Most of the data in the universe is invisible to us. Of the tiny tiny fraction that reaches us in some way or another, even that has to be sifted out. Only data that will help us tell better stories, find better patterns, and create more meaning in our existing umwelt will be stored for later use. Of everything that’s stored, only that which is repeatedly re-accessed will be retrievable.
What remains is a poorly drawn stick-figure drawing of the universe in our minds. Which is, to us, dazzling in its complexity, delightful in its intricacy, wonderous in its expansiveness. A poorly drawn stick-figure, but the only one we will ever know.
After going to the Quantified Self conference last month and thinking about it for a few weeks, I’ve decided to start a new self-tracking experiment… or rather to adapt my existing one to new thoughts on what’s worth tracking.
So, tonight I made a list of my four top interests, and I made a list of the four people that matter most to me in the world. “Quality time” with these interests and people is what I plan to track.
I started a new spreadsheet with a column for each interest and each person.
I put “6/4/2013” in the first available row, and for the cells that corresponded to interest columns I asked myself, “Did I spent any quality time focused on this interest today?”
I gave myself a zero if I didn’t. I gave myself a one if I spent time but didn’t feel like it was very high quality. And I gave myself a two if I spent at least some high quality time.
I did the same thing for people. “Did I spent any quality time with this person today?” I gave myself a zero if I didn’t. I gave myself a one if I spent time but didn’t feel like it was very high quality. And I gave myself a two if I spent at least some high quality time.
Then I created a column that had me subjectively rate the day between -2 (toss it in the bin), and 2 (let’s have more of these). I am going to try to use it as a gut check that can verify that there is correlation between my overall day and the quality time I spend with my closest people and top interests.
And finally, a column that totals up the sum of the scores in a crude way, and color codes it.
Oh, and a daily alarm on my phone for 10:59am to “be subjective”. Realistically, this is the only way it ever gets done.
I’ve talked in the past about a different spreadsheet that attempted to correlated objective data (sleep, alcohol, diet, weight, various habits, etc) to the subjective measure of the day. The end result of that experiment was that quality time with Kellianne and Niko, along with “meaningful work” were the only numbers that had any statistical correlation with the quality of my day.
This new spreadsheet is an evolution of the idea that it’s quality time with people and interests that ultimately has the highest correlation with a fulfilled day.
It currently looks something like this.
It’s just another experimental step on the long road to trying to figure out what #quantifiedself means to me, what self-tracking means to me, and what it is gonna take to get to the bottom of my own sense of fulfillment in life.
I definitely could not run 37 miles today. I wonder actually if there was ever a year that I could run the number of miles that matched my age. I think 17 or 18 was probably my best bet, but that’s pretty lame… if I can get back on my running wagon maybe I could aspire to run 40 miles on my 40th.
My primary personal goal this year is to do 1,000 small things to become a marathoner. I registered for the Lake Tahoe marathon at the end of September. My knee is attempting to thwart me, but I am not gonna let that discourage me (too much).
Why do all of this? I’ve found that as I get older, I often forget things that were important to me in the past. By documenting these things, it’s possible to build on a foundation that’s too difficult to keep in my working memory all of the time.
I have this strange hope that one day all of these various beliefs, values, mottos, etc will coalesce into some simple unified understanding about life. But I’m not holding my breath right now.
Our brains evolved to strive for a coherent narrative (as a way to predict long-term dangers with more accuracy than a non-narrative-driven logic could capture). We strive for a single driving plot line that explains all of the myriad convoluting details. But a coherent narrative isn’t a naturally occuring thing, and in a way the tension between real life and coherent narratives creates as exhaust an unending supply of frustrating cognitive dissonance that might be a big chunk of our motivation to get out of bed in the morning. To make things make more sense.
This year’s motto:
My made up word’s definition: 1 unit of work towards a long-term meaningful shift in identity is a “slog”. 1,000 slogs towards the same long-term meaningful shift in identity is a “kiloslog”.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my death bed this year. From creating my own memento mori to reflect on every day:
Despite my morbid tendencies, the goal of the thought train is to continue to reset my perspective on life so as to minimize regret on my death bed.
When I think about the things I will regret on my deathbed, the general character of “regretted things” are things like missed opportunities, an insistence on holding on to local maxima, and a general lack of purpose that results in years or decades of long circuitous routes back to where I started.
The unit of work that leads to “appreciated things” on my death bed seems to be clumps of work that had some artful or meaningful result. For some reason I imagine that the resolution is a minimum of 2-4 years of intentional, focused effort. Approximately a metric kiloslog of meaningful work towards something bigger than myself. Life only has enough room for a dozen-ish kiloslogs.
I want to focus this year on making more of those. More kiloslogs in year 37!
Practically speaking, initially I used Twitter to track each of the slogs towards becoming a marathoner, but usage dropped off when the novelty of the work wore off. I didn’t want to tweet every little thing I did. So I’ve recently switched to using Peabrain to track my slog-tracking, and hope that my velocity starts to pick up again.
I’m currently 49/1,000 slogs into my journey towards becoming a marathoner. Which, I think, might be at least one of the things I appreciate having done on my death bed.
PS. What’s the character of things you’ll regret and things you’ll appreciate on your death bed?
Your birthday is the number of years you’ve been alive (obviously).
But what if we also celebrated the number of years we estimate to have left?
I created a quick script to calculate your next deathday (when your years remaining hits a round number). Because your years remaining go down a little slower than your years so far, presuming you don’t die, it’s going to be different every year. The data comes from the CDC’s latest death report.
If you want me to tell you what your next deathday is, just tweet me your birthday (you have to include the year, month, and day) by replying to the tweet below. I’ll try to respond to most within the next day or so.
My next deathday is December 14th, when I’ll have 44 years left. What’s yours? bit.ly/18Qbj22
Most people are loss averse. Meaning that the pain of losing something is felt about twice as strongly as the pleasure of gaining something.
Most people are also fairly bad at intuitively understanding risk. We understand certainty (0% and 100%) but tend to get everything in between muddled up. Some people err on the downside (thinking things are less likely than they really are) and some people err on the upside (thinking things are more likely than they really are).
If we combine being loss averse with also erring on risk’s downside, we will act extra conservatively.
If we are loss averse and err on the upside with risk, the two might actually manage to cancel themselves out a bit. In other words, even though we continue to be loss averse, we’re also biased to underestimate the chances of losing something and overestimate the chances of gaining something. In this case, two biases make us act, effectively, unbiased.
Important distinction: It would be an error to label people with this double-bias as risk-tolerant. They aren’t necessarily seeing bets and making them, but rather systematically misunderstanding situations to be less risky than they really are.
If this counter-balanced double-bias system does “work” by effectively giving us the “correct” risk analysis of multiple situations, and we notice this, then confidence in our own intuition gets ratcheted up. We believe it’s because we’re good at understanding risk, knowing when to bet and when not to.
Overconfidence will reduce our loss aversion, and make us double down on our intuitive understanding of risk. Thus toppling the perfectly balanced biases.
Then, the biases get out of sync, our hot streak (another cognitive illusion) ends, our confidence falls, loss aversion jumps back up, and maybe we spend a cycle on the side of erring on risk’s downside.
It’s a fragile system where we occasionally reach an optimal state of counter-balanced biases that will only last as long as we don’t acknowledge it as true intuition (aka avoid the illusion of control bias).
The bias against things anyone can have at any time, that nobody can make much money from, because they seem too easy, too obvious, too simple, too cheap. The bias against the following solutions because nobody is marketing or can market them to you for very much profit:
There are many other ways to change, but this is the one that is my current best/favorite theory.
1. Complete the sentence: “I am an aspiring ______.” Try to find the most succinct identity that represents the difference between who you are now and who you want to be. It doesn’t have to explain why, or how, you will get there. Just put a flag down.
Note: I realize that this first step is not very easy to do. That’s intentional. Step #1 will require some thinking to find the right fit for your “lose 5 pounds”, “eat better”, “quit smoking”, “get in shape” goals. Think about the kind of person you want to become that naturally weighs less, eats well, doesn’t smoke, is in shape, etc. Make sure that you really do want to be that person. Use this identity as the anchor to pull all of the entangled habits and behaviors into yourself (assume here that you’re at the bottom of the ocean and it is difficult to pull things towards you).
2. Update your bios on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other favorite social networks with the sentence from #1. You don’t have to announce anything about it, but it needs to be somewhere that random people can see it. (This makes it feel real.)
3. Craft another sentence describing a 1-month resolution which strategically gets you closer to #1, and has the following constraints:
It’s only ONE resolution
Phrase it in such a way that it is either HIT or MISSED for a given month
Make sure that it’s calibrated in such a way that if it ends up being HIT, you will be happy with yourself, and if it turns out to be MISSED for the month you’ll be unhappy with yourself. Do not make it so easy or so difficult that it’s possible to fail at the resolution while still being happy that progress has been made, or succeed at the resolution and still being unhappy.
Include any footnotes you feel are necessary to say what you think “counts” and what you think “doesn’t count” for interpretations of the resolution.
4. Join the Rabbit Rabbit Resolution Accountability Squad mailing list and introduce yourself by stating the answers to #1 and #3. Feel free to ask for help clarifying or zeroing in on what you’re really interested in working on. Prepare for friendly feedback from the group, too. Comment on as many threads from other people working on resolutions as you feel comfortable. (This is your accountability.)
5. Set a reminder on your calendar which repeats on the 1st of every month. Everyone on the mailing list will be expected to report in with progress, revise their resolution if necessary, and recommit to the next month. The three outcomes are HIT, MISS, and (if you neglect to check in within 3 days of the beginning of the month) ABSENT. (This helps you remember to remember, which is often the main culprit for failed resolutions.)
6. Start a public countdown on Twitter, Facebook, or your public venue of choice that starts at 1,000. Any time you do something that gets you a small step towards #1, state what you did along with the current number. I’ve been doing this with my aspiration to be a marathon runner and it’s been quite useful as a tool. 1,000 things is a lot, so I allow myself to include things that have a somewhat loose connection to the identity, and at the same time I am okay with missing a day here and there since getting to 0 is going to take a long time anyway. Also, because of the numbers, there will be plenty of significant milestones to celebrate along the way. (This helps you ignore small setbacks and stay focused on the long-term goal.)
I think they’re huge things, convoluted twisting structures in our brains. Traversing all the way from triggers and automatic responses deep in the subconscious, to routines, to circumstances, to goals and values, and all the way up to our sense of selves and our identity in the neocortex.
These structures can’t just be turned with a light switch, by a new app.
They are structures that need to be built over time. They involve real neurons that need to change, grow, reroute, and sink in over time.
Building a new habit is like deciding to buy a new house and put it in your brain. You have to clear away some space. You have to allocate some resources. You either need a lot of money to buy the house outright, or you have to save enough money to put a down payment on a loan and then rearrange your long-term finances to figure out how you’re going to pay a mortgage for 10-30 years. You have to get lucky, the market needs to be right, you need to have a steady income, you might need to move to a new city or to a new part of the city before finding one you can afford.
Some people say it takes 14/21/30/etc days to start a new habit. They say science proves it. Research show it. Look, testimonials!LIES.
You can’t decide to buy a house today, and move in tomorrow.
Changing a behavior, or starting a new habit, requires perhaps a thousand small, intentional, actions over time. It requires committing to showing up to work for years, putting in the time. It requires getting your credit score in order (a certain level of proof that you are trustworthy when you say that you can do this). It requires that you think on the scale of 30 years rather than 3 weeks. It requires that you move somewhere that fits your current circumstances and yet still provides the lifestyle that you want. It requires that you time it in such a way that the interest rate is favorable (where you’re not having to throw money and time away needlessly). It requires that you are mentally prepared to allow this change in your life and aren’t going to self-sabotage because you don’t actually believe you deserve it.
Want to eat better? Want to exercise more? Want to meditate every day? Want to write every day? Want to floss more? Want to run more?
Don’t look at this want as a tiny thing. It’s not the same as buying a latte, or even a new phone.
Look at it as you would look at wanting to buy a house. Make lots of space for it.
It’s not a tiny thing, it’s a HUGE thing. You’re changing who you are, what you believe, how others will see you. You will need to call on your reputation, you’ll need to change your circumstances to best fit this new huge thing, you’ll need to ask people to trust you, to allow you to change in their eyes, and in your own.
Changing your habits or behaviors doesn’t take 21 days. It takes 1,000 intentional actions, or more. It requires creativity, resourcefulness, persistance, and vigilance.
Some people never have the opportunity to buy a house. Some people squander their opportunities. You are lucky. Take the opportunity seriously. Be rigorous.
Level 1’s boss is the Lizard Brain, level 2’s boss is Coolness, level 3’s boss is The Self, and level 4’s boss is Meaninglessness. If level 5 exists, I have no idea what it’s like or who the boss is. That’ll have to be added in a later release of this game.
The main point is that this is just what the game of life seems like from the level that I’m currently on, and every level has a version that reflects that level’s own constraints and biases.
What do the levels seem like from your spot in the game?
And there’s the new brain, the neocortex, the pattern-finder that some people correlate with rationality.
The old brain is fast, the new brain is slow.
The old brain is cheap, the new brain is expensive (in terms of energy).
The old brain is subconscious, the new brain is sometimes conscious.
The old brain takes over in emergencies, during fight and flight, during times of high stress, during anger, passion, hate.
The new brain takes over in times of low stress, times of calm, in the shower, on walks, during a pleasant conversation and a glass of wine.
In many ways, it seems like there’s a bit of a seesaw, and one brain has the upper hand on the other based on the current environment and circumstances.
When heart rate and breathing speed are up, the old brain has the upper hand, and when heart rate and breathing speed are down, the new brain has the upper hand.
In fact, heart rate variability (the difference in heart rate when you are inhaling versus exhaling – see more here) is often seen as a physiological proxy that can be used to indicate your stress level, your willpower reserves, and maybe even the part of your brain that has the upper hand in the current moment. The more variability, the less stressed you currently are.
I’ve noticed that I seem to like risk and adventure, in general. My personal philosophy and decision making aesthetic has pretty much always been about going with my intuition, my gut, taking big risks for big potential reward.
I’ve never really gotten along with people who are cautious and who plan things too much. I like to travel without hotel arrangements ahead of time most of the time. And it doesn’t bother me when my job description is undefined to the extent that I should find meaningful things to work on.
And yet, the dislike of planning seems to be inconsistent with the fact that I am also very much into making goals. Changing myself.
I realized a couple days ago that it’s the connotation of the wold “plan” that triggers me. It seems futile (to my old brain, who is in charge of assigning futility to things) to plan because it implies an understanding of the future, which we don’t have.
Rather than try to predict a future, I subscribe to a chaotic form of forward progress: set your sites, start running in that general direction, and pick yourself up whenever you fall. That’s how I get anywhere, and it doesn’t require much planning at all.
But taking this back to the old and new brains, I realized that my dislike of the word “plan” has been preventing me from adopting some more subtle and beneficial planning-like strategies, and the internal monologue itself was really interesting to me.
For example, I don’t like the idea of defaulting to the old brain for all decisions. I would like to allow some decisions to route to the new brain, especially when sticking to goals over a long period of time is concerned.
Planning, and therefore sticking to goals, is a new brain thing.
But my old brain has cleverly planted an emotional trigger around the word and concept of planning, so that whenever it came up I would get anxious. The anxious state is one which my old brain has more control over, and it easily vetoes further thought in the direction of planning. By the time I calm down the new brain sees how poorly that went and notices the new pattern, “Buster doesn’t like planning”. And the initial trigger is reinforced.
In many ways, the word/concept of “meditation” has the same problem for me. I get anxious, the old brain vetoes the idea, and the new brain later determines that “Buster doesn’t like meditation”.
Same with “going to bed early” and “morning person”. Old brain triggers immediately and says, “lame”.
I suspect that many calming, planning-like concepts suffer from the same old brain overrides in our world. If an idea is easy to shoot down by the old brain, it will never be “cool” to society in general and therefore it has to be whispered in smaller friendly groups lest the speaker reveal their “new brain” tendencies in a world that spends most of its time in “old brain” thinking modes.
In short, I’d like (new brain speaking) to practice using slow, calm, new brain planning even when I (old brain speaking) think it’s lame.