Sometimes, It’s Best To Just Stop Thinking

14363038593_d1f14e22ba_zThere are generally two types of people in the world when it comes to decision making.  The first takes the time to gather information, evaluates and analyzes several options, and,  makes a decision backed by sound methodology and reasoning making sense to them.  The other type, of which I tend to be included, makes decisions based on little information with reasoning along the lines of “It just feels right.”

More Information + More Time =  Better Decisions?

Gathering more information and taking the time to make calm, careful decisions is better, right? Not always. There is an implicit belief in our society that more information is better which is supported by basic economic theories.  Economist do concede and make the exception that this is not true when the information is not free.  The general rule is, according to economics, that more information is always better unless the cost of acquiring further information exceeds the anticipated gain from it.

In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gerd Gigerenzer proposes that this is not true even when the information is free and that, while the belief that more information is better is accurate in some cases, there is a range of situations in which less time, less information, or fewer alternatives can actually lead to better decisions and outcomes.

In 2000, he asked 100 random pedestrians in Berlin to pick 50 stocks they recognized out of a list of 100.  Taking the ten stocks most often chosen, he created a portfolio and submitted it to an investment magazine, Capital, to take part in a contest they were conducting. More than 10,000 participants, including the editor-in-chief and professionals with sophisticated computer stock picking programs and insider information, submitted portfolios.

Even in the down market which followed, his portfolio, based solely on collective recognition, gained 2.5% and out performed 88% of all the portfolios submitted.  The editor-in-chief of the magazine lost 18.5% on his portfolio.  In a second similar experiment, the results were almost identical. Given that some 70% of mutual funds perform below the market in any given year, these results were not totally surprising.

Unconscious Intelligence

These experiments depict a concept Gigerenzer calls “a beneficial degree of ignorance” where a gut feeling can outperform a considerable amount of knowledge and information because oftentimes, we make decisions based on  intuitive judgements which have a real basis in the unconscious mind.  In the stock example, something he calls the “recognition heuristic” was at work.  The recognition heuristic implies that when a person recognizes one object but not the other, then, they infer that the recognized object has a higher value.

This kind of unconscious intelligence has actually been identified to be located in the anterior frontomedian cortex of the brain by functional magnetic resonance imaging scans. Although the exact functions of this area of the brain are still not specifically known, the region is widely associated with unconscious intelligence. Such intuition is not impulsive, but is believed to be a form of unconscious evaluation and can be consciously over ruled.

When Too Much Thinking Can Be Deadly

Similarly, too much information and too much thinking can be detrimental – even deadly – in other cases.  For example, imagine a marine on the front lines of combat in a war zone with bullets whizzing by and bombs exploding.  Trying to gather too much information before acting could prove deadly.  An airplane pilot could crash before they analyze multiple options and arrive at the best one in an emergency situation.  The gut feelings of trained professionals are based on unconscious skills which can be impeded by too much deliberation.  In such cases, thinking too much about the processes involved or using more time, thought, or attention can slow down and disrupt performance disastrously.

In the book, The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success
by Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, they write:

New York City firefighters receive over 600 hours of training and a multitude of written exams before they are eligible for assignment.  By the time they encounter their first fire, a lot of what they need to do is so practiced and ingrained they could practically perform their job in their sleep. …this is no different for FBI agents…(650 hours of training), doctors (an average of 11 years), and many other professionals that call for performance under pressure.

Thinking Can Lose The Game

The same is true for experienced athletes.  In his book, Gigerenzer tells of studies of novice and expert golfers.  Under timed pressure, novice golfers, not surprisingly, performed worse while expert golfers actually did better when they had less time. With repetition and practice, motor skills become unconscious and are best when performed outside of conscious awareness.

For this reason, gymnasts, professional tennis and basketball players, and many more put a lot of time into practicing; so they don’t have to consciously think about everything in the moments when they need to perform at their best.  They can rely on the quick, intuitive decisions of their unconscious brains.

Permission To Stop Thinking

You do this too. Think of tying your shoes, riding a bike, or driving a car.  While learning, you need to consciously pay attention and concentrate on every detail.  After that, having to consciously think of the steps involved would be detrimental to actually performing the task at hand. Once some one is skilled at something, it’s best to just stop thinking.

Swimming In A Sea Of Neurotoxins

3165456548_70fe4dc501_zYou eat and are surrounded by known neurotoxins everyday. A neurotoxin is a substance that interferes with the electrical activity of nerves preventing them from functioning optimally. Neurotoxins interact with nerve cells by either overstimulating them to death or interrupting their communication process.

Studies have shown that neurotoxins can shorten the life span of nerve cells. These toxins have been linked to brain disorders, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s, and can cause serious reactions including migraines, insomnia, asthma, depression, anxiety, aggression, chronic fatigue, and even ALS. Neurotoxins may be partially responsible for the swelling numbers of children diagnosed with ADHD and autism.

The availability of neurotoxins has increased dramatically in the last few decades as our food has become more processed and we rely more on synthetic, manufactured products and live in chemically treated environments. Restaurant food and junk food are notoriously known for containing high amounts of neurotoxic additives because they make the food taste good and make you crave more.

In our every day lives, we are immersed in neurotoxins.  Known neurotoxins are allowed by the FDA in the food we eat and water we drink. Because their bodies and brains are still developing, children are the most vulnerable to neurotoxins.  It’s hard to avoid neurotoxins, but it is possible with some effort and education.

YOU HAVE TO READ LABELS.  Most food and personal care products containing neurotoxins have them listed right on the ingredients list, but, be careful, neurotoxic substances can go by many name variations which is one way manufacturers try to deceive you. A list of the most common offenders to avoid in food is below.  (Source: http://energyfanatics.com/2010/05/02/ten-neurotoxins-you-should-avoid/)

  1. Aspartame: Very common in sugar-free food products, especially sugar-free gums and drinks. Most aspartame is made from the fecal matter of genetically modified bacteria. Studies have linked aspartame to diabetes, migraines, kidney failure, seizures, blindness, obesity, neurological disorders, mental illness and brain tumors.
  2. Monosodium glutamate (also known as sodium glutamate, MSG): Very common in chips, canned food, baby food and other junk food. Independent researchers believe that MSG plays an important role in neurodegenerative brain disease, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. The evidence supporting their claim is that MSG destroys neurons in cells, especially brain cells.
  3. Sucralose (also known as Splenda): An artificial sweetener that is very popular in sugar-free products, especially sugar-free drinks. Sucralose was accidentally discovered while doing research to create a new insecticide, which is why some researchers suggested that sucralose should be listed in the insecticide category. This neurotoxin is regarded as a chemical cousin to DDT. Sucralose is a chlorinated compound. When the body breaks this type of chlorinated compound, it releases toxic chemicals.
  4. Aluminum: This type of metal is common in drinking water, over-the-counter antacid and vaccine. Aluminum is hard for the body to absorb, but citrate or citric acid can dramatically increase its absorption. Vaccine is one of the major contributors to aluminum toxicity, because the aluminum is injected directly into the body.
  5. Mercury: This heavy metal is common in fish products, vaccine and amalgam fillings (also known as silver fillings). Mercury can be found in drinking water too. Mercury is one of the most toxic neurotoxins, because it easily destroys brain tissue. For an excellent short video showing how mercury destroys brain tissue, read this article titled How Mercury Destroys the Brain.
  6. Fluoride (sodium fluoride): This toxin is very common in drinking water and conventional toothpaste. Fluoride was used to kill rats before it was introduced into consumer products. The fluoride used for consumer products is a mixture of many hazardous chemicals. It is known as sodium fluoride, not to be confused with the natural calcium fluoride. This is why there are warning labels on fluoridated toothpaste. For proof that fluoride is a hazardous toxin, read this article.
  7. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein: This harmful food ingredient is very common in certain junk food. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein contains high concentrations of glutamate and aspartate. In high levels, glutamate and aspartate can stimulate nerve cells to death.
  8. Calcium caseinate: This toxin is popular in protein supplement, energy bar and junk food. It is harmful to the brain due to its neurotoxic properties.
  9. Sodium caseinate: This type of protein is common in dairy products and junk food. It has been linked to autism and gastrointestinal problems. Visit this site for more specific information about sodium caseinate and calcium caseinate.
  10. Yeast extract: A popular food ingredients in many processed food, such as canned food. It is toxic to the brain.

Some of the most common neurotoxins and carcinogens to avoid in personal care products can be found here, The Price We Pay For Beautyand here, The Environmental Working Group Cosmetics Database (good info on cleaning products too.)   The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics is also an excellent resource.

image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mbshane/

The Multitasking Myth

6035325308_f03cab1af5_zA mom holds her baby while stirring a pot of spaghetti on the stove and talking into the phone cradled between her shoulder and ear.  A salesman, running late for his next appointment, glances at the client information laid out in the passenger seat of his car while singing the tune on the radio and whizzing along the highway.

Multitasking.  We all do it.  At times, it simply can’t be avoided. Life often demands that we do more than one thing at a time.  But are we really doing ourselves any good?

The idea of multitasking was originally used to describe a computer’s parallel processing capabilities and has become shorthand for our brains attempting to do many things simultaneously.  However, your brain is not built to work that way.

Oh sure.  You can walk and talk at the same time, but when it comes to paying attention, your brain operates sequentially focusing on one thing.  Research shows that our brains are biologically incapable of processing more than one attention requiring input at a time. What’s really happening when people think they are multitasking is that they’re shifting their attention back and forth and utilizing short term memory.

New studies have shown that, while the brain can keep track of more than one thing at a time, it cannot actually execute two distinct tasks at once.  Studies show that a person takes longer to complete a task when interrupted and makes about four times more errors.

Talking on a cell phone while driving is the perfect example.  John Medina, neuroscientist and author of Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, writes in the online article, The Brain Cannot Multitask:

Until researchers started measuring the effects of cell-phone distractions under controlled conditions, nobody had any idea how profoundly they can impair a driver. It’s like driving drunk. Recall that large fractions of a second are consumed every time the brain switches tasks. Cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes in emergencies, slower to return to normal speed after an emergency, and more wild in their “following distance” behind the vehicle in front of them.

If someone appears to be an adept multitasker, they are really showing good use of working memory.  It becomes much easier to switch back and forth with less errors when the tasks are familiar.

Your brain is a sequential processor no matter how much multitasking is valued in our society, and research clearly shows that it decreases productivity while increasing mistakes.  The bottom line is slow down, turn distractions off, and tune in.  You and your brain will be happier.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stoneysteiner/

There Is No Such Thing As Normal

11210003685_101f302d99_zAbout a year after my brain injury, I had regained some semblance of my “before brain injury” life back.  Although my two sons had moved to a different state with their father, I was living independently and driving again, had learned skills to compensate for my memory deficits, and could speak somewhat understandably instead of just making sounds.  But, my solitary life, in which I struggled to do the stuff other people do every day – that I too used to do without a thought: go to the grocery store, pay bills, mow the yard – looked very different than it had before or than I thought it should or would at this point in my life.

I remember telling my brother, “I can’t wait to get back to my normal life.”  A very wise soul, he looked me in the eyes and said, “This is your normal life, Debbie.”

It took me another year to quit desperately trying to get back to the person I used to be before the injury and realize that that person was gone forever.  Over the next couple of years, I gradually began to accept the “new Debbie” with her way-less-than-perfect speech, handwriting, and memory.  And, in another couple of years, I began to even sort of like her.

Recovering from the brain injury taught me a valuable lesson.  I learned that there is no such thing normal.  Normal is an illusion.  It’s an idea we get in our heads about what our lives should look like influenced by society, the media, friends, family and a million other things.  Searching for normal is denial of and resistance to whatever is happening right here and now which results in struggle and pain.  ( See blog:  Life Gets Better By Managing Expectations) Wherever I am in my life and whatever is happening IS normal whether it’s what I wanted or expected or not.

Eckhart Tolle said, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”  I have learned not to judge any situation as good or bad when it arises. It’s my job to find the good in it for me, whatever “it” is.  Good is always present. (See blog: One Little Question)  By taking this attitude, things always turn out good because “good” is up to me.

So, although finding out that I have to move may be unsettling and my mind’s first inclination is to try to stay right where I am comfortable now, the normal, it turns out that I get to move into a cooler house that I can make into a real home for me and my animals.

At the outset, the dog getting sick doesn’t seem to have any upside to it.  But, his being puny made me realize how much I appreciate him and how much he’s added to my life over the years.

I have come to appreciate all of life’s ups and downs and swerves and curves.  It’s all part of it, and it’s all normal.  I used to wish for a calm life with no surprises, but now think of how numb and boring that would be.  To live a rich, full life, I have to be willing to embrace, yes embrace, whatever comes my way and find the joy and meaning in it.  Without any little part of it, life wouldn’t be the multi-textured, colorful tapestry it is.  I’ll take that over normal any day.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kathyroom17/

Games Your Brain Plays

file0001052648856Your brain has natural tendencies, of which you probably aren’t even aware, to keep it feeling happy and safe.  While these inclinations were built-in to help our species survive, they color our perceptions, can be problematic, and tilt a person towards unease and unhappiness.

Your brain is wired to ensure your physical survival, which makes it happy, but doesn’t help you find and stay in a happy place. Two things have to happen to counteract this natural slant of your brain: awareness and action.

In What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo writes:

Awareness of why we are doing what we are doing is a crucial step toward action because it initiates a change in thinking – we have to pause to examine what’s going on. And this why science-help is more useful than typical self-help.

He explains ways, drawn from research, in which our brains tilt away from peace and happiness and offers suggestions to elevate awareness and take action.

Slow down

Although not always possible, slowing down and behaving with conscious intent can avoid and diffuse many problems.  Although your brain is wired to react, there is usually enough time to pause and consider options, intentions, motivations, and possible consequences.   You want to learn to pause and respond.  (See: Are You Responding Or Reacting?)

Be aware of the influence your pre-existing beliefs are exerting on your current thinking

Everyone’s thoughts are biased by beliefs influenced by parents, education, religion, and society.  (See: Stepping Out Of The Shadows)  These subconscious beliefs color how a person sees the world, determines happiness, impacts relationships, and are resistant to change.  However, if someone becomes aware of their patterns, challenges them, and consciously chooses their thoughts, these incremental changes can, with persistence and time, add up to big differences.  (See: The Law Of Little Things) This is how happiness becomes a choice.

Check your availability bias

Your brain tends to make judgments with the most accessible and available information which, as we know, is not always the most accurate.  DiSalvo cites the example that people typically judge the crime rate being much higher than it actually is because that is all the news focuses on.  The same phenomenon occurs when someone becomes strongly affiliated with a political party or religion.  The group’s view-point becomes the most readily available to a person and becomes the “right” one.  (See: My Reality Is Not Your Reality) The way to combat this bias is to become aware of it, challenge your thinking, and try on different perspectives.

Act on short-term rewards that yield long-term benefits

Your brain has a natural tendency to focus on the short-term.  Knowing this, you can work with your brain by setting short-term, tangible goals that will lead to accomplishing long-term goals. Whether quitting smoking, losing weight, or sticking to an exercise routine, your brain will keep more motivated and you’ll have more success by breaking the goal into smaller steps.  Don’t forget to celebrate and internalize your accomplishments along the way.  (See: Motivating The Grey Matter)

The hunt is more exciting than the capture

Have you ever focused on a reward and then when you received it, felt a sense of loss? Blame your brain.  It’s all too easy to get caught up in a cycle of wanting, getting, and regretting, like bidding on eBay for example, and before you know it, an addiction has been formed.  (See: Sex On The Brain) Becoming aware of this tendency of your brain and stopping the cycle is key.  A person has to realize that what they are doing is no longer in their best interest and walk away.  Easier said than done, but it can be done.

Feeling right is not the same as being right

To your brain, uncertainty is a threat which sets off the alarms.  Your brain wants to feel “right” to return to a sense of calm.  Because of this, it’s all too easy to confuse being right with the feeling of being right.  Knowing that this is your brain’s tendency, considering all available information and perspectives, and learning to be comfortable with uncertainty can counteract this slant.  (See:  Uncertainty…The Only Thing That’s Really Certain)

image source: http://www.morguefile.com

The Gap Between Knowing And Doing

4386332168_8b943f73a3_zAlthough the difference between the two words is just a few letters, the gap between knowing and doing can be as wide as a universe.

After the break up of my eighteen year marriage and the end of a subsequent three year relationship, I found myself in the dark, confusing chasm between knowing and doing. Goodness knows, I’d read enough books to confidently label myself a co-dependent, over-reactive, passive aggressive, people pleaser with low self esteem, PTSD, and obsessive compulsive tendencies.  But, knowing all of this didn’t help….yet.

I was a self-help junkie, always searching for my next fix and seeing myself in every book I read.  Yet I was never quite able to take the wise words from the pages and work them into my day-to-day life. While I could easily diagnose my deficits and wanted to do better, really changing anything was beyond me.

Because of this predicament, I found myself in a most uncomfortable place, the space between knowing how to do better and actually doing it.  When I didn’t know any better, I was blissfully ignorant.  I could be all justified and smug in my victim role and right-ness.  Everything was always someone else’s fault.

However, once I knew better, I had to look at myself, question my behaviors, and see how I contributed to situations.  I had to start taking responsibility for myself and my life. When you are used to blaming everyone else, believe me, this is not any fun!  But, it is a necessary first step to doing things differently.

Byron Katie writes in Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life:

If you begin by pointing the finger of blame outward, then the focus isn’t on you.  You can just let loose and be uncensored.  We’re often quite sure about what other people need to do, how they should live, whom they should be with.  We have 20/20 vision about other people, but not ourselves.

…Eventually you come to see that everything outside you is a reflection of your own thinking.  You are the storyteller, the projector of all stories, and the world is a projected image of your thoughts.

I knew that I wanted to tell a different story.  I knew that I wanted to think and act differently and create a very different reality and future for myself.  My motto at the time was an Einstein paraphrase:  ”If you want different results, you have to do something different.” The problem was in the doing.

For a while, I existed in the uncomfortable place between knowing and doing and sometimes was harsh and critical of myself for not doing like I knew I wanted to.  At these times, I knee-jerk reacted back to my old fear based behaviors.  At other times, I extended understanding and compassion to myself while measuring my progress in 1/16s  of an inch.

Over time (and I mean years) with dogged determination, I did adopt new behaviors which became my go-to responses. Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to physically change structure and operation based on stimuli, behaviors, and thoughts, new neuronal connections were made which became the main pathways in my brain.

Neuroplasticity is the super power we all have to change ourselves and our lives for the better and to close the gap between knowing and doing.  By consciously acting with mindful intent over years and continually encouraging and forgiving myself, all those micro measurements added up.  I still don’t always do as I know, but I’m happy to say it’s more often than not these days

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