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November 17th, 2018
Usually we hear about taking it to the max. Turn the volume up to eleven, go the extra mile, just one more drink, do one more push up, just one more bite. Just one more pair of shoes or gadget. Just one more Netflix episode.
It would be easy to just label ourselves as consumers, often mindless in the act of consuming, and shake a finger at this culture of consumerism, but like any generality, this misses nuances that begin to erode such a label.
We would be better described as filters of experience. We are like combs that are passing through all the various versions of reality that we can muster. Perhaps we are organizing it, or perhaps like a combine harvester for farming; we are trying to separate the fruit from the straw in order to level-up our current reality to a more interesting and expansive one.
Unfortunately it seems that the long time we spent without abundance dictates in evolutionary biology that we have feedback mechanisms in our brain, mostly attached to dopamine production that has us geared towards taking it to the max when it comes to things we find pleasurable, like food, sex and rock and roll. Oh and drugs of course.
The opiate crisis, the obesity epidemic, and the ubiquity of internet pornography might simply be described as the result of a dopamine mechanism that is still calibrated to much leaner environment when such abundance was not available. Our systems were in equilibrium in those earlier leaner times and now that we’ve changed the environment, our systems don’t respond ideally because they are not calibrated for such ripe resources. This is essentially what evolutionary biology seeks to explore.
While the dopamine cycle might win a majority when it comes to dictating human behavior, it does not dictate all human behavior.
That dopamine cycle is part of an older part of the brain if we view the brain in terms of evolutionary development.
Our newer hardware, the neocortex is where our executive function mostly resides, and it’s this part of the brain where we as humans can do a truly remarkable thing: we can learn something conceptually, understand it’s full ramifications without actually experiencing them, and then override our older systems, such as the dopamine cycle and change our behavior to gain a greater understanding and experience of reality.
To put it simply, we might be hardwired to take it to the max, but we can run any new program we want, thus allowing us to take it to the minimum. That is if doing so makes sense.
Take for example the case of Angus Barbieri. In 1965 Angus weighed 456 pounds, and in that same year he decided he was sick of being so heavy. So, under doctor supervision, he went on a fast. The doctors recommended a short fast, but Angus really took it to the minimum. He fasted for 382 days and lost 276 pounds. He took vitamins and drank tea, coffee and sparkling water, but other than that, he did not eat.
Just remember that fact next time you hear yourself say “I’m starving!” or when you hear someone else say it. If you have the resources to read this post or listen to this episode, then it’s simply not true. The human body has powers that are unfortunately rarely tapped in our comfortable modern society.
The benefits of fasting have been known in the scientific community for decades and recent research is only adding robustness to this old knowledge.
It does well to think about it this way: If you knew you were going to lose 90% of the possessions in your home tomorrow, what would you safeguard today? This is essentially what the body does when there’s no food available. It holds on to the essentials, making them stronger and more robust and then… literally…. cuts the fat.
William James once wrote, “We learn most about a thing when we view it under a microscope, as it were, or in its most exaggerated form.”
Exaggerated form is the key phrase here. The extremes are where things literally reveal the breadth of their existence. If you run for as long as you can today, that’s potentially useful information. Funny enough though, if you do so, you’ll be able to run farther tomorrow, and extend your own personal extreme.
Sitting in silence for one minute might feel chaotic and unbearable, but do it enough times and gradually the experience changes.
This is another way to take it to the minimum. Those who meditate daily are trying to do essentially that. Take the mind down to a current minimum of activity. For reasons beyond the scope here, it clearly has a lot of long term benefit.
Another example is a sort of lifestyle exercise that the ancient Stoics used to practice and recommend. Seneca would for several days a month eat the plainest food, wear the simplest clothing and sleep on the floor. Though he was one of the wealthiest men of his time, he found great benefit in this practice because it kept him perpetually prepared for potential disaster. If he woke up one day and found that he’d somehow lost all of his wealth, the experience of living on bare essentials would not be a shock, and so his mind was protected from panic, distress and chaos in this way.
Risk is a very strange concept in our cultural mind these days. Somehow, in the same cultural breath, we say that improvement and innovation requires taking risk, and yet we constantly look for safe, risk-averse options.
The mistake is thinking that this is an either/or situation. We love either/or’s because for whatever reason we love taking a side, perhaps it helps with establishing some kind of identity. Straddling categories seems to be difficult even though this is generally where the most interesting and beneficial experiences arise from.
We can ask about our behaviors and habits, what should we try to take to the max and what would be interesting to take to the minimum?
To loosely quote Brian Koppelman and David Levien: the only person more capable than a man with infinite resources is someone with nothing to lose.
Taking one’s self to the minimum can make one invincible to things that annoy, frustrate and panic other people, granting you clarity to see the next best step when everyone else is caught up in their own idea of what’s happening.