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The Tinkered Mind
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March 5th, 2019
Culturally and psychologically, we operate with an illusion of self-control. It’s not entirely an illusion but the word or phrase self-control carries none of the nuance and gradation required to be a useful or realistic concept. We do talk about this gradation from time to time when we observe that someone has a lot of self-control or that we wish we ourselves could muster more self-control. This is a somewhat healthier use of the concept but it does not fully address what is occurring without total self-control. We are constantly negotiating our affect on reality as a tug of war between what self-control we can muster and all the other forces that take the wheel in the relative absence of our own personal control.
The majority of these forces are counter to our conscious wishes and in many cases seem to be undoing the actions we undertake when we are exhibiting agency with self-control. The simplest example of this is mindlessly eating some dessert knowing that we will go to the gym in the morning. Many people poorly rationalize that one cancels out the other, but regardless of equivalence, these behaviors are ultimately in opposition of one another. One is solely undertaken for immediate short-term pleasure and the other is often undertaken with a vision of the future that for many is only a sort of fantasy. Even though it is possible, few people achieve full transformations, and it’s for a simple reason:
We cannot access a visceral emotional experience of the what this transformation will be like
The emotional and pleasurable experience of short term decisions are accessed as soon as they’re undertaken.
The first requires a heavy consistent conceptual understanding of possibilities. One must constantly remind one’s self of the goal which feels unrealistic – for the plain and obvious reason that there’ never been a real experience of such a state. Essentially it requires a kind of faith in a process that we do not yet feel will work. Whereas most of our detrimental acts require the absence of this kind of thinking. Basic urges take over and form a kind of autopilot for self-destruction.
These polar states can feel as extreme as some epic battle between good and evil, where victory can only be achieved with some massive and unrealistic mental effort of total domination over our less beneficial selves.
This, however, is not necessarily the truth: we can slowly nudge our way to victory. In fact this is the only way that we can make substantial long-term changes. We cannot wake up the next morning with a total different program of behavior. But we can slowly form and nurture habits that will put us on a new autopilot aimed at a better life.
That consistent mental effort is still needed, at least in the beginning while a habit is forming, but once the brain has reorganized its own physical structures to reflect this habit, the new behavior begins to gain it’s own momentum, carrying us along with less and less mindful effort in order for such a thing to be carried out.
Meditation is a good example: Aside from any potentially positive reaction to merely sitting in a quiet calm place for a few minutes due to its novelty, the first handful of sessions has a negligible effect on who we are, how we feel and how we operate. Brain scans show that it takes at least three to four months before changes in brain structure occur due to the practice. This is a somewhat steep entry fee. We must put in a lot of time with little to show for our efforts. This is in accord with our idiotic cultural definition of insanity: doing something over and over and expecting a different result. But this is exactly what happens given behaviors that are geared towards long-term benefit: For quite a while it seems like nothing is happening, but eventually, such new habitual behavior begins to yield results. In such cases doing the same thing over and over does produce a different result.
Physical exercise and nutrition is an easier and more visible example. We do not wake up on day 2 of our new efforts with a new body and mind. We have to nurture a kind of fantasy about a possible future and keep toiling away in the faith that such a fantasy will eventually materialize.
Such faithful efforts are better viewed as gently nudging our personalities and bodies in new directions.
We generally expect drastic changes to have drastic results, but when a drastic day of novel exercise and healthy eating does not produce a corresponding drastic result, it’s easy to lose faith.
But if we think of nudging our selves towards a new life with consistent little nudges of new behavior, consistency is the most important part of this recipe.
Just as water can slowly shape and sculpt stone, we too can move the monoliths or our more stubborn selves by nudging it in new directions.