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Building a blueprint for a better brain by tinkering with the code.
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June 23rd, 2020
You are a system. Your brain, your body, and even your life, is an interconnected set of systems.
Mental health is highly correlated with a sense of agency, the sense that you can actually do something, that you can have an impact on the world around you. Mental health declines when we lack a sense of this agency. And what does that mean in terms of these ‘systems’? It means that there’s a disconnect between your brain as a system and your larger life. The two, as a larger system, aren’t functioning properly. Many people point the finger outward, at the way the world is, and blame that system for the malfunction, the disconnect between their own self and their ability to have an effect. But all this does is further relinquish a sense of agency. The system can’t really hear you. Other people can, sure, and so such complaints might have a meaningful impact on the minds of others, but how does this effect your own sense of agency? Can you see the impact? Can you measure it? Do you have evidence? If you’re focus is on the so-called ‘system’ and it doesn’t seem to change, how does that inform your sense of agency? Certainly, the result can easily be for the worse.
In psychology, this leads to something called learned helplessness. If a person, or even an animal like a dog, attempts to change their situation but their efforts have no effect, and this ineffective effort is taken enough times, the person will begin to believe that they can’t actually do anything. When placed in a new environment where an impact can be made, such a person won’t even try.
Success, on a personal level, up to the level of society, boils down to gaming the system. This phrase generally has a negative connotation associated with cheating and tricks. Wikipedia has a definition ideally worded for this discussion.
Gaming the system can be defined as using the rules and procedures meant to protect a system to, instead, manipulate the system for a desired outcome.
There is nothing inherently malicious in this definition. It’s certainly easy to see how this tactic is a good fit for nefarious aims, and we’re all quite certainly aware of how our larger shared systems have been gamed in ways that are perhaps unfair. But now turn this mechanism back on to yourself. If you consider yourself a system, defined by the way you habitually behave and think, encoded – we might say – by the structure of your brain, the layout of neurons and the way they are calibrated to habitually fire, then ask: has your system been gamed?
Certainly. The proof lies in the tension between the words influence and manipulate. We’ve all been influenced by those around us, and certainly a great many of us would admit to being manipulated, be it by lovers or politicians or car salesmen. But the two words mean the same thing, one is merely positive and the other is negative. Both words define some sort of transitive effect that’s carried out on one party by another with the aim of creating a desired outcome. Whether that outcome be to sell a broken car, or get a vote, or to avoid telling the truth about where exactly someone was last night and who they were with.
Notice for a moment that much the same thing is happening when someone is trying to tell a convincing lie, or someone is trying to tell the truth. In both instances the effort is to convince the listener to believe something in a certain way.
Now consider this question: can a system game itself?
Time for a personal story – something that just about never happens on Tinkered Thinking. Ever since I first read the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, I’ve had the desire to be a meditator. And for all my effort, I couldn’t figure out how to make it a solid practice. I tried many times over the course of many years until finally I stopped trying. Despite the fact that countless people, just like me, had figured out how to make a practice of meditation over the millennia, somehow, I just couldn’t. Does this sound familiar? This was an instance of learned helplessness. My efforts consistently failed to have the desired effect, and so, I stopped trying. Seems sensible. How many times can we remember hearing “well, if it’s not working out, then just stop, do something else.” How many times a day is this the advice being given? How many people are instead saying “well, if it’s possible, then there must be something you’re still not seeing about how it works.”
Many years later several key pieces of information fell into place that allowed me to game my brain. The first is that structural changes in the brain as attributed to meditation are not detectable until after 3-4 months of daily practice. What this means is that there’s just a bunch of grunt time that you’ve go to put in. The next piece of information has to do with habit formation. Doing something sporadically is the functional equivalent of not doing it at all. On top of this, sporadic effort is far less likely to result in any tangible result, especially with something like meditation which takes a few months before anything worth much notice takes effect. (That being said, as an aside there are recent clinical studies that show consistent meditation for just 10 days reduces stress by a noticeable percentage, and this percentage increases significantly by the time you hit 30 days in a row.) Nonetheless, there appeared to me to be a virtuous fitting together of puzzle pieces. By the time meditation starts having an effect on my brain, I’ll have already passed that critical habit threshold of doing something 30 days in a row. The whole endeavor was suddenly much simpler: I’m just going to sit here every day for at least 10 minutes and not worry about progress, or doing it correctly or anything. I realized that I could game the system of my brain by focusing solely on the idea of creating a behavioral habit with the realization that if it just kept happening as a part of daily autopilot, then I would eventually reap the benefits. It worked.
Something similar has happened with Tinkered Thinking. Today marks 800 episodes. Over half a million words, churned out a little bit everyday. It certainly seems like an impressive number, but somehow it has required surprisingly little effort. How can that be?
The brain was gamed. Tinkered Thinking became a habit, and now, the distinct behavior of a person sitting down to write for 20 or 30 minutes has become a default facet of each and every day. 800 episodes is just the compounded result of one thing done everyday.
The effect of gaming systems in this way creates a rippling effect. First you game your own brain, and begin to see better results in your day. Then with that increased agency, your ability, probability and possibility of gaming a larger system in which you exist goes up. Tinkered Thinking started off as a somewhat accidental gaming of one brain, and now the message of Tinkered Thinking has thousands of people paying attention, and the hope is that this content games their brains for the better. We call this influence, but it’s my hope that Tinkered Thinking gives people the knowledge and the tools and the curiosity to hopefully systematically manipulate and game their own brains, so that each and everyone of us can have a little more agency. Not only does this make us have greater wellbeing, but it also means that our chances of having a meaningful impact on the world as a system, goes up.
It’s a stale platitude to say it all begins with one’s self. It’s true, but the platitude is incomplete. It implies some sort of magic combination of willpower and faith that somehow transforms you into this force for good, and that set up of expectation does little good. It’s far more practical, and effective to look at yourself as a system, a system that can be gamed, a system that can game itself.
That original description of gaming the system defines the use of rules and procedures that are meant to protect a system. That’s a key right there. Why do we as individuals have habits, both good and bad? Well the brain can’t tell much difference between the good and the bad ones, it just does them because they make up the set of behaviors that have worked in the past. One of the rules or procedures that is baked into our beings is this habit circuitry. It may even be responsible for things as fundamental as breathing and eating – things which we do habitually, and which protect, support and maintain our system as a living organism.
It’s this habit circuitry that is perhaps the most approachable and offers the greatest potential return. It’s the thin edge of the wedge that helps us crack open the door to a better life. But as with any system, there are many levers to pull and many buttons to press, and often we don’t hit upon the right combination for a while. The same is true of our thoughts, many of which just aren’t helpful, and in order to game that mental world, in order to game your brain, you first have to start by tinkering with your thinking.
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