Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mindfulness - Because We're Thinking Blind Without It


Continuing from my previous blog on mindfulness, from a book I'm working on about bipolar recovery ...

How powerful is mindfulness? Several years ago, on the dentist’s chair, I mindfully observed myself in a state of sheer panic. An assistant placed a suction tube into my mouth while a very understanding dentist fired up her drill and bored into my tooth. Gripping my armrests, I willed myself to remain seated as I heard the terrifying high-pitched screech of whirring metal against enamel. I felt water droplets and microscopic particles of tooth against the insides of my cheeks. She’s going to strike a nerve! I know it!

In the state I was in, there was no way I could fight that thought. The trick - and this is where the rubber meets the road - was for me not to attach myself to that thought. I was in a state of high panic. But what prevented me from giving into that panic was that part of me that seemingly hovered from above, dispassionately observing what was going on below, as if I were watching the grass grow or the paint dry. I’m guessing my panic scared the dentist and her assistant every bit as much as it did me. Somehow, we all got through it.

Attachment and non-attachment are recurring themes in Buddhism. Attachment - to our fears and desires - lies at the root of our suffering. Conversely, non-attachment is the key to happiness. Random thoughts have a way of sticking to us like fuzzy objects to Velcro. If we allow them to gain traction, they take over and pull in every unwanted emotion. That relationship break-up that happened five years ago? Suddenly out of the blue, totally unconnected to what’s going on around you right now, you’re feeling both longing and anger. Here we go again, your brain has been hijacked. The elephant has stampeded. All you can do is hold on for dear life.

A lot of us, if given the choice, would opt to simply wipe our memory clean, along with other events in our lives. But it’s not the events that are doing us in, it’s the thoughts of the events. Big distinction. While we can never undo the event, we are capable of forming a better relationship with our thoughts. Instead of fighting them, we can bring them out into the open where they lose some of their force. This is psychiatry 101. 

But in the context of our discussion, the focus is a bit different, directed at our erroneous thinking. Like driving in traffic, we catch ourselves making a wrong cognitive turn and make an immediate course correction. At first, the mental effort is all white-knuckles. Damn! A false equivalence cut into my lane. Bastard! Watch where you’re going! Shit! Confirmation bias barreling down on me. Son of a bitch!

But with practice, as we begin to spot the hazards much earlier, we make the appropriate adjustments with far less drama, to the point where we’re almost driving on autopilot. It’s as if the brain actually knows where it’s going. Hallelujah!

But this is the ideal. Are you willing to settle for much less? Say a ten percent improvement? Let’s think like a statistician: A world-class sprinter who improves his time in the hundred meters by ten percent is going to beat Usain Bolt by ten meters. A politician who gains ten percent on her opponent is going to win in a landslide. In our own lives, that ten percent could make the difference between keeping your job and losing it, of staying in a relationship or finding yourself on your own, of thinking with greater clarity or losing your words.

Worth it, then? Of course it is. The catch is getting started. Meditating for say ten minutes a day is a good way to begin, but when you’re depressed, who wants to meditate? Even when we’re doing well, meditation is a big chore. You can go to mindfulness classes and tune into mindfulness videos and audios, but this is a major commitment. Your best bet, then, might be to purchase a mindfulness app. We’re so tethered to our phones anyway that setting aside a little time for mindfulness won’t be too much of an imposition.

Some of these apps are aimed at quieting the mind or guiding one into a meditative space. What we’re looking for here, though, is one that assists us in sharpening our thinking. Some of these come with monthly subscriptions, but a good many have free options. I cannot personally vouch for any of these apps or for mindfulness apps in general. What I can vouch for is mindfulness as a way of life. I am as far away from being a master at it as I am from being a concert pianist, but the little bit I’ve learned to apply to my life has made it one worth living. Please, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Three words: You are worth it.


John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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Mindfulness: An Introduction


I know, I know,  mindfulness has been overdone, but I've been writing and advocating on this powerful practice since back in the days when it was underdone. From a book I'm working on about bipolar recovery ...

At the same time Socrates was challenging his students to think for themselves, over in India the Buddha was urging his followers to tame their runaway brains by using the mind to watch the mind. “Mind precedes its objects,” reads the first line of the Dhammapada, the best-known of the Buddhist scriptures. “They are mind-governed and mind-made. To speak or act with a defiled mind is to draw pain after oneself, like a wheel behind the feet of the animal drawing it.”

This is another way of saying if you are contemplating that shrimp dip in the fridge, it will be in your stomach faster than a two-year-old can dash out onto the street. We simply can’t help ourselves. 

It also helps illuminate that perplexing passage in Matthew where Jesus proclaims that lusting in your heart equates to the sin of adultery. Immediately after, Jesus preaches that if your right eye is causing you to sin, then pluck it out. That troublesome right hand, too. In striking parallel, in the Fire Sermon, the Buddha tells a thousand monks that every part of us, including the mind, is raging out of control. Accordingly, he advises, the noble disciple develops an aversion for the eye, the ear, the tongue, the mind, on and on. 

In so many words, 500 years and a continent apart, the two Wise Ones are reminding us how notoriously unreliable our brains are. We default to our fears and desires. Together, these thoughts obstruct our path to salvation and enlightenment, not to mention our basic happiness. Thus, if we think of lust as a version of obsession, the brain is fully locked and loaded - if the opportunity is there, night is sure to follow day. You’re best off not even thinking about it, but that’s far easier said than done. Is switching off our thoughts, or at least reining them in, even possible? Enter mindfulness.

Mindfulness, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, “is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are,” rather than as we want them to be. Paying attention on purpose is what we do when driving along an unfamiliar thoroughfare at night or being on your best behavior in a room full of strangers. You need to be on top of everything going on around you. Your mind cannot afford to wander. Maybe you call it concentrating on the task at hand. But in this heightened state of awareness, you are also practicing mindfulness.

Now take that same level of concentration and direct it inward. Try this simple experiment: Settle yourself in a comfortable position, take a few relaxing breaths, close your eyes, and focus your attention on the breath going in and out of your nose. See if you can keep it going for a couple of minutes. Congratulations! You have just observed, perhaps for the first time in your life, your mind in action. Not an encouraging sight, was it? There it was, your precious mind, wandering in a zillion different directions at once, all over the place, like Esmeralda Marcos in a shoe store. Every time you tried to bring it back to the task at hand, there it would go again, your thoughts scattering like feathers in a high wind - into the past, into the future, into different locations and dimensions.

Perhaps you were thinking about what you should have said to your co-worker two weeks ago (still bugging you, isn’t it?). Meanwhile, as that doobee-doobee-doobee-do passage in the Monkees’ tune, Last Train to Clarksville, keeps playing over and over in your head, your mind fast-forwarded to a week from now (”Maybe I should give him a call”), and into a different time zone (“I wonder what the Gobi Desert is like this time of year”), and into fantasy worlds (“Dragons are cool”), everywhere, in fact, but where it was supposed to be - in the here and now, breathing through your nose.

My God! It’s a three-ring circus in there! Not surprisingly, this is the first major realization most of us come to when we meditate for the first time. Various meditation and yoga and breathing exercises can help slow down the brain and bring a little peace and quiet into our lives. But here, we will focus on using our awareness to avoid becoming captive to the first random thought that enters our head.

It all comes down to our ability to recognize our erroneous thinking as it happens and make timely interventions, using every hack at our disposal. We catch ourselves, say, being overconfident or over-optimistic and act before those thoughts have a chance to gather momentum. Depending on the situation, we can simply allow the thought to float away or we can contest that thought with a good healthy dose of pessimism. (Or, if you insist, to replace that dreary pessimistic thought with a cheery optimistic one.)

In this context, think of mindfulness as that engineer’s app we’ve implanted in our brain, the one that goes off when we’re we’re about to screw up. Buddhist teachers compare this sense of heightened awareness - what they call guardian alertness - to the mahout, the driver on the elephant, ever ready, at the slightest indication, to apply a steel hook to the animal’s head or face. The mind watching and guiding the mind, this is the essence of mindfulness. Sorry about the poor elephant.

To be continued ...


John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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More on Thinking Hacks


The following is an edited version from a book I am working on about recovery in bipolar. One section of the book lays considerable emphasis on using critical thinking in our recovery. Thus, in previous posts, we  showed how philosophy teaches us to take nothing for granted, then had a hard look at the cognitive traps we all fall into, how Sherlock Holmes and Charles Darwin serve as models of observation and reasoning, and how improving our word power can save the day. Then, in two posts, we had a look at the thinking hacks used by lawyers and engineers and historians. In this post, we continue with some short takes on the hacks used in a number of other professions ...

Statistics 

On the eve the 2016 US Presidential election, the celebrity statistician Nate Silver calculated that Donald Trump had but a one in four chance of winning. But one in four, he noted, is hardly the near-certainty we are led to believe. Conduct four computer simulations with those same odds, three turn up heads, one tail. In this case, three will be Clinton, one Trump. This turned out to be Trump’s lucky day. 

Another way, of looking at it, if you were told upon getting into your car that you had a one in four chance of getting into an accident (meaning a three in four chance of safely arriving at your destination), you would choose another means of transport. On the other hand, the same odds might look encouraging when considering a surgical procedure to correct a life-threatening medical condition.

Nothing is certain. Our lives play out in probabilities. Statistics offers us options more reliable than making wild guesses. As such, it may be the most powerful thinking hack in the box. Our choices may come up wrong, but we can take comfort in having made informed ones. Odds are you will thank yourself.

Science

Let’s get real - reality doesn’t give a crap what any of us think. If science has the effrontery to contest a cherished opinion of yours, then at least have the courtesy to listen. If still not satisfied, summon the discipline to put in the work and frame a coherent and respectful rebuttal, together with the humility to acknowledge that its practitioners were the ones who scored 1600 on their SATs, not you. In the poisonous political climate we’re living in, science is enduring its greatest attack since the Dark Ages. Research budgets are being slashed, government scientists are being censored, and legitimate findings being ridiculed. But at the end of the day, no matter what, reality will go on, impervious to our conceits, ever ready to make fools of us all. 

Psychology/Psychiatry

Don’t count on anyone behaving rationally. This includes yourself. This insight was Freud’s gift to the world. Thinking with our emotions is the wild card in the behavioral deck and we have to account for all 52 of them.

Economics/Accounting/Finance

Three words, “follow the money.” If it’s flowing away from you, you may need to take responsibility and change your habits. Another possibility is you’re being hoodwinked. Since 1981, the money has been inexorably trickling up (and away from us), and - being the irrational beings we are - we keep voting in those responsible. Economics has been used in support of the con game, but it also provides the means to see through it. Do your homework, and vote wisely.

The Arts

Our unpredictable lives call for creative solutions. The creative brain has a logic of its own, and the artist is smart enough to follow wherever it may lead. But the product of his or her imagination emerges from a highly disciplined mind, no short-cuts, no cutting corners. Muses don’t exactly appear to those watching TV. Let that be an inspiration.

Mysticism 

Seeking a reality beyond our apparent reality has always been a legitimate enterprise. Plato imagined his world of ideal forms, Pythagoras sought the mysteries of the universe in terms of the numerical and harmonic proportions. At times, the musings of theoretical physicists are indistinguishable from those of mystics. Dare to imagine another reality. That is the job of every inquiring mind.

Wrapping it up

Think like a lawyer - pessimism has its purpose. So does getting to the point and arriving at agreements. Think like an engineer - we can’t just make up our own rules. Think like a statistician - probability beats uncertainty, informed choices beat wild guesses. Think like a historian - otherwise the present makes no sense. Think like a scientist - because reality is boss. Think like a psychologist - irrationality is the norm. Think like an economist - follow the money. Think like an artist - that’s how ideas happen. Think like a mystic - our mind has no limits.

Above all: Fidelity to the facts. I know, I know - facts get in the way of a really good misconception, but in the long run you will thank yourself. Thinking, in short, is good for you, especially when we get it right.

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

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Monday, April 8, 2019

Applying Your Thinking Hacks


The following is from a draft of a book on bipolar recovery. Enjoy ...

If we look upon philosophy as the root of all critical thinking and natural science as its trunk, now we need to examine its various branches. These would include disciplines such as law, engineering, statistics, history, economics, science, the arts, and even mysticism. All of the above (there are many more) employ the tools of logic and natural science (which includes fidelity to the facts and not jumping to conclusions), not to mention virtuosity in words or numbers. In addition, they offer powerful variations of their own, what I call their trademark “thinking hacks.” You may never become, say, a lawyer, but picking up a trade secret or two is going to add clarity to your thinking and make your life a lot easier. In examining these various hacks, by necessity, I’m taking an idealized view of the professions. Let’s begin …

Law

We associate lawyers with adversarial combat, which makes it easy to forget that most of their work involves keeping us out of trouble.

Lawyers are trained to anticipate everything that can possibly go wrong. If you are depressive by nature, you are a natural attorney. Not surprisingly, the legal profession leads in those who suffer from depression. One major advantage to depression is that depressives make great realists (the term is “depressive realism”). If, for instance, you and your business associates come up with a scheme to set the world on fire, you can count on your lawyer to throw a wet blanket over it. Or maybe she will help you get the fire going without getting your fingers burnt. Either way, you will be grateful for her unbridled pessimism.

Lawyers are also adept in sorting out the relevant from the irrelevant. Instead of gathering facts, lawyers seem to specialize in throwing them out. Then they work with whatever is left. This is a gross exaggeration, mind you, but it points to a skill we all need practice in, which involves directing our focus to the matter at hand. If we want to know, for instance, whether it will be rainy or sunny tomorrow, we don’t need to hear the entire ten-day forecast. 

By the same token, if a fact is relevant, lawyers take a dim view of someone leaving it out. Take, for instance, the case of a home-owner shooting an intruder. The prosecutor is considering filing criminal charges. If you happened to have heard this story second-hand, hold your outrage - chances are your informant has left out the not insignificant detail that the intruder was shot in the back while fleeing.  

Lawyers also seek to establish that we’re all sharing the same assumptions. In our daily lives, particularly in our personal relationships, we demand straight answers. By the same token, we expect to be listened to in good faith. Quid pro quo: No equivocations from one party, no jumping to conclusions by the other.

On more rarefied levels, lawyers grapple with issues such as fairness and equity. When people feel cheated or exploited or lied to, the level of trust required in our personal and social and community relationships breaks down. Even the winners lose. 

So, time to think of how to care for your 90-year-old mom. Your three siblings are coming over tomorrow to discuss options. What could possibly go wrong? Already you’re thinking like a lawyer. Plan for the worst, set out the rules of engagement, and aim for everyone coming out happy. Hate the lawyer, if you must, love the reasoning.

Engineering

I’m including the medical profession in this category, as well as technicians and mechanics. Engineers bring practicality to science. On one hand they bend the rules of science to make things work. Here they are, ever resourceful, masters of the work-around, patron saints of the pocket knife, demons with duct tape. On another level, though, there is no margin of error. If they get it the least bit wrong, the airplane crashes, the bridge collapses, the patient dies.

Engineers live with a constant working awareness of reality, operating according to its many laws: Newton’s Law, Ohm’s Law, on and on. Positive wire in the positive terminal, closing tags to the html code, air pressure just right. If something goes beep or flashes red, you pay attention. If it needs maintenance, you tend to it. Solution matches problem: If something has a hole in it, you fix the goddamn hole.

Their logic is relentless: If this, proceed to that. Deviate just one bit from the logic - a this where a that should be - and you have a disaster, an Ikea table with one leg pointing to the ceiling - it’s almost that simple. 

If only we had that type of clarity in our personal lives. Instead, it’s a train wreck. We put the metaphorical wire in the wrong terminal, we neglect to apply the closing tag. When something goes beep, we either ignore it or over-react. If there’s a hole in it, we make a matching hole. And so we inflict endless pain on ourselves and those around us. 

You would think engineers would set an example, but no, outside of their profession they’re as incompetent as the rest of us. I recall some of my personal interactions with them and their medical and technician and mechanic cousins and can only cringe. What we really need is a savior engineer, of virgin birth to dwell amongst us and show us the way. Or perhaps a Moses engineer with ten precepts cast in silicon or a Buddha engineer with the Four Geek Truths.

The least they could do for us is develop an app, one we could implant in the brain that sends a 240-volt current through us every time we’re about to do something wrong, together with a written warning that flashes across our retinal screens. You know: “This is no time to show your spouse who is boss. Shut up and breathe through your nose.” Or …

“That syllogism is a bit shaky, but it’ll do in a pinch.” Or …

“Look at the expression on her face, you moron. For crying out loud, give her a hug.” Or …

“No! No! Optimism bias. You’ll be lucky to break even. Tell your friend to come up with a better offer.” Or …

“Idiot! Use your brain. Remember what happened last time you left the cap off the toothpaste?” Or …

“No! No! That’s how your Uncle Shithead would respond. That’s the last thing we want, don’t you agree? Now slowly count to ten, then repeat after me: “I hear you.” Last but not least …

“Slowly now. Be calm, stick the fork into your potato salad like every thing’s normal. Wait ten seconds for further instructions.”

In the meantime, we’re stuck with the brain we were born with. Work it like an engineer and watch out for that live wire.


John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

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History - Because We're Lost Without It


The following is from a book I'm working on on bipolar recovery. This is a continuation from my previous post, Applying Your Thinking Hacks ...

I’m forever indebted to my fifth grade teacher, Mrs Clancy, who opened my mind to reading and history. Unfortunately, the study of history, along with the arts and humanities, has fallen victim to our misplaced enthusiasm for the STEM curriculum. In our quest to turn our youth into human calculating machines serving the global economy, we are committing no less than cultural genocide upon ourselves. Without history, we’re like a dementia patient staring blankly into an open refrigerator, with no idea how we got there or what we’re going to do next.

With no memory, there is no identity, no sense of “I.” Think about it. With your personal memories, you are a four-year-old kid, you are the rebellious teen, the young adult with dreams, the 40-something, and so on. You are not just the age you are now. You are a composite of all those earlier versions of who got you to where you are now, from birth canal to the refrigerator door. Only this time looking in, you recall that four-year old who has sneaked down to the kitchen to fix himself a bowl of cereal. Just like you’re doing right now. Somehow, that feels reassuring.

Likewise, we’re Socrates and Shakespeare and Eleanor Roosevelt. We were there at the Battle of Hastings. We sat on the steps of the Parthenon, suffered on the Trail of Tears, spewed up phlegm in the hold of a coffin ship, felt the wind in our face at Kittyhawk. 

Or did we? If there is no history, no Mrs Clancy to mentor us, where are our cultural memories going to come from? Where is our identity as a people, where are our reassuring anchors, our informational touchstones?

It is no accident that each book in my Bipolar Expert Series has a strong historical component, and by now I trust you see the wisdom in that approach. By necessity, any enquiry into who we are right now - as individuals and as a people - needs to take the long view. Otherwise, we’re reduced to staring with blank looks into metaphorical refrigerators.

In the first year of my road journey, in 2017, living out of my car, I covered 30 states and 13,000 miles. Heading east into Arizona, I climbed up onto a ledge and held the palm of my hand against ancient Indian petroglyphs. Later, on the other side of the country, I stood on the spot where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Further north, I planted my feet at the Concord Bridge, where a group of stubborn farmers had the guts to stand up to authority. Heading west, my path paralleled that of settlers venturing out of New England for the rich soil of Ohio. From an old fire look-out tower in the middle of New York State, I gazed over rolling countryside where the Five Nations once reigned supreme. 

Further west, my path would cross with Lewis and Clark. On the bluffs overlooking the Missouri, where their Corps of Discovery ventured into the unknown, I unexpectedly came upon a newly erected 60-foot tall stainless steel statue of a Plains Indian woman, striding like a ghost among the trees. Further down the road, I walked in the greasy grass, where the Lakota and Cheyenne faced Custer in what would be their last stand.

In Washington State, I had the honor of observing Dusty, a member of the Jamestown S’klallam Coast Salish, carving a totem pole. Unlike most tribes, the Jamestown S’klallam succeeded in resisting attempts by the white man to herd them onto a distant reservation. The white man retaliated by depriving them of their Indian status. Now, with their Indian status restored and a secure economic foundation, the tribe is reclaiming its history. How important is history? Talk to anyone who has had it taken it from them.

And here we are, in our ignorance and stupidity, doing it to ourselves. 

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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Using Your Words to Build a Better Brain


The following is from a book I am working on about bipolar recovery. Enjoy ...

We can make a strong case that the consolidation of our language-processing into regions of the left hemisphere of the brain some hundred thousand years ago proved to be the evolutionary game-changer that took us to the top of the food chain. With words, we can not only imagine a different reality, we can create what we imagine. Is God real, then? Or is God merely a word? Questions like this were the stock-in-trade of the twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The answers actually don’t matter. What counts is our singular capacity to simply ask these questions.

Our words are also what bind us to each other, allow us to thrive (or at least survive) in social networks of infinite complexity. Other animals may communicate amongst themselves, but we’re the only ones with the ability to tell stories by the campfire.

To fully appreciate the gift of language, contemplate for a moment the lives of those who labor under major language deficits and the conditions they contend with: Schizophrenia (where speech may become unintelligible), stroke and brain trauma (where key language functions may be taken off-line), Alzheimer’s (where losing one’s words is a dead give-away). The isolation of madness, confusion, dementia - who wants to live life under those conditions? Tragically, but understandably, many choose not to.

But even only slight difficulties can throw us off, and the consequences can be enormous. In our case, we are likely to perceive reality a bit differently than the chronically normal, leading us to see, say, 28 when others see four. This imposes a huge burden on us to make ourselves understood. It’s not good enough that we be merely articulate. We have to perform even better, and do it standing on one foot in a high wind with our eyes closed.

Actually, particularly in bad conditions. When our environment turns on us, language is our best defense. We need to rise to the occasion. Heaven help, when we feel events moving entirely too fast for us and we panic or freeze or when we feel so sluggish that even Vanna can’t find the right vowels for us. Inevitably, there comes a time when our words fail us. Try to recall the last time that happened to you and how totally alone you felt.

The good news is that we don’t have to remove the front panel to our cranium and change out frontal lobes. We can improve our language skills the good old fashioned way - by reading. Not light reading, or what you are used to reading. A good many of us have not cracked open a serious book since college or high school, and that needs to change. 
Let’s start with the book in your hands (this will be part of a book soon enough). If you’re struggling with it, congratulations on getting this far. Please keep at it. By all means, when you're done, go back to your light reading, but do make it a point to schedule another work-out with books on this reading level. 

Off the top of my head: God: a Biography by Karen Armstrong, and Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. Also, Google Bill Gates’ annual reading lists. The guy is smart for a reason.

If you feel comfortable reading this book, great, go out and buy more of my stuff (just kidding). But once you’re done here, it’s time to start increasing your resistance training. Maybe you’re doing this already. Otherwise, my recommendation is to start with Walter Issacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe. The author is a former editor of Time magazine (indeed, it was during his watch that in 1999 Time cited Einstein as its Person of the Century), and thus anything he writes is eminently readable. The challenge is the subject matter - chapters on the special and general theories of relativity can’t exactly be skimmed. Take your time, then have a dialog with yourself, explaining relativity - in your own words. Congratulations - Einstein! - you’re on you’re way.

The point, here, is that as you begin to immerse yourself in other people’s words, their words begin to become your words. You have more of them and new ways of using them. This, in turn, is going to improve your cognitive and social skills, and make getting through the day a bit less challenging. It’s sort of like experimenting with new recipes. You may attempt Julia Child’s beef beef bourguignon only once, but next time you cut up some meat and toss it into a crock pot, you may decide to add red wine and pearl onions.

Your next step is to use your words in real time. This means having conversations. If you’re dealing with social anxiety or laboring under depression or facing similar challenges, you have your work cut out for you. Ideally, you want to be around smart people who challenge your thinking (but in a safe environment). Personal example: Back when I was regularly attending psychiatric conferences, I approached a researcher standing before a poster of a medications study he was involved in. “Uh, what about the two trials where those drugs failed?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “It was the trials that failed.”

I didn’t necessarily agree with his answer, but I did accept his implied challenge to lift my game. My words needed to be more precise. If you don’t feel you’re ready for this level of engagement (it took me two years after I started writing on mental illness to summon up the courage to address researchers face-to-face), I suggest a target far less intimidating, say, someone walking their dog. Dog owners, for reasons unbeknownst to me, love being interrupted to talk about their little best friend. Once you ask, “What kind of dog is that?” you won’t be able to get them to shut up. This may seem a modest exercise, but if you’re new to this, then hats off to you - you’ve taken your number one cognitive weapon out of its sheath and given it a swipe. Engaging in rapid parry-and-thrust with Steven Colbert can wait another day. 

Incidentally, if you’re looking to strengthen neural connections, I can think of few faster ways than by engaging in challenging conversation. Like learning a difficult musical passage or memorizing the streets of London, the brain will accommodate by laying down new roadwork. Literally, with words you can build a better brain.

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Critical Thinking: What We Can Learn From Sherlock Holmes and Charles Darwin


The following is from a book I'm working on about bipolar recovery. This post is a continuation from my previous post, Cognitive Bias: Even Einstein Fooled ...

Our best defense against our cognitive failings is critical thinking. Two iconic figures leading very different lives employed remarkably similar methods. Both were keen observers and relentless appliers of logic, highly disciplined thinkers never jumping to conclusions but always ready to entertain a wild idea. The first is the most famous fictional detective of all time, the second the most famous natural scientist. In looking for role models who know how to use their brains, one can do no better than Sherlock Holmes and Charles Darwin.

Sherlock Holmes

Holmes and Dr Watson have just met. Instantly, Holmes deduces that Watson has returned from military service in Afghanistan. “From a drop of water,” he informs his new fellow lodger, “the logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.” 

That drop of water could be a man’s fingernails, his trouser knees, his shirt cuffs - clear give-aways to a person’s occupation and identity, and, perhaps, his or her complicity in a dastardly crime. “The world,” says Holmes, “is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

Time for Holmes first mystery with Watson, “A Study in Scarlet.” The body is on the floor, blood-red letters on the wall spell, “Rache.” Action …

After careful examination of the crime scene,  Holmes informs two Scotland Yard detectives that the murderer was a man. Not only that: “He was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse, square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar. He came here with his victim in a four-wheel cab, which was drawn by a horse with three old shoes and a new one on his off fore leg. In all probability the murderer had a florid face, and the finger-nails of his right hand were remarkably long.” 

Also, the victim had been poisoned, and by the way: “‘Rache,’ is the German for ‘revenge,’ so don’t waste your time looking for Rachel.”

In the course of solving no end of mysteries, Holmes begins to spot a pattern to some of the crimes. It was as if a criminal mastermind were at work, leading a secret crime empire. A far-fetched idea, to be sure, but it turns out to be the only one that makes sense. As Holmes explained to Watson on numerous occasions: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sure enough, the mastermind is unmasked, a certain Professor Moriarty. In a confrontation, Holmes and his nemesis fall off a cliff together. So, with Holmes being temporarily dead and otherwise indisposed, now is a good time to cue up our second role model.

Charles Darwin

Darwin comes from a tradition of gentlemen scientists, who, in their leisure time, bequeathed to us astronomy, physics, biology, geology, economics, and other disciplines, and in the process changed how we regard our universe, not to mention each other. Starting around the beginning of the seventeenth century and continuing into the twentieth, these gentlemen, plus the odd cleric or two (Darwin falls into both categories) took to collecting rocks and butterflies and such and looking up at the sky and taking long walks in the countryside and poking pointed objects at things. With precious few scientific instruments to work with, their greatest lab and field tool proved to be their heightened powers of observation. But it didn’t stop there. Observation may have given them the data, but logic gave them the ability to run with it. Otherwise, Darwin’s best-known work might have been his multi-volume monograph on barnacles. That opus consumed Darwin for seven years. As a true natural scientist, he simply couldn’t help himself. 

When Darwin commenced his work on barnacles in 1847, his ideas on natural selection were already well-formed. Back in the 1830s, he spent five years aboard the Beagle as a naturalist. Traveling down the eastern South American coast, he kept observing seashells where they weren’t supposed to be: on towering coastal cliffs, among fossil bones of extinct mammals, deep in the interior. Up the western coast, high in the Andes, he spotted more seashells. His shipboard reading included Charles Lyle’s Principles of Geology. Already, still in his early twenties, Darwin’s brain was being primed to ask big questions, solve big mysteries.

By the time the Beagle reached the Galapagos islands, Darwin’s attention was mostly on geology. He dutifully collected mockingbird and finch specimens, but it was only on later examination that he realized their significance: The mockingbirds separated themselves out by species, depending on location from island to island. The finches displayed a wide variety of beaks, suited to local conditions - one type of beak for feeding on seeds, another for insects, another for fruit, and so on. From a metaphorical drop of water here, a drop of water there, Darwin was beginning to imagine his own Niagara. It was inquiry from the bottom up - based on careful observation - not the top down. Going at it the other way is a bad idea. In the words of our favorite detective: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

The Darwin Reaction

In late 2010, back when I lived in rural San Diego, I took it upon myself to visit the Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, 10 or 12 miles from my home. Until Ken Ham’s Creation Museum opened in Kentucky in 2007 and his nearby Ark Encounter park in 2016, Santee was the place to visit for your anti-Darwin fix. According to a display, “Helium Diffusion Dates Earth at 6,000 years.”

A large scale model of the Ark there illustrated the plausibility of floating a zoo in a wooden boat. According to a display, after the flood waters receded, Noah’s sons, together with the Ark’s animals, went their separate ways and across the oceans, via land bridges formed by a Flood-induced ice age. Actually, the ice age - according to creation belief, there was only one.

Another display asserted that Neanderthals were modern, “descended from Adam and Noah.” Their explanation: “Some compare Neanderthals to Eskimos. That would be consistent with humans who lived during the Ice Age.”

The museum makes a show of masking its talking points in science. Thus, the first law of thermodynamics and the principle of homeostasis are cited in support of the proposition that creation is constant and cannot be added to. It also boasts of a number of geologists affiliated with the museum. A large display shows how recent cataclysms such as Mt St Helens better account for the formation of the earth than the more time-consuming processes of plate tectonics.

It’s almost as if creationism were the true science. Indeed, we are informed that belief in evolution stemmed from “evolutionary religions,” ones that “reject the existence of a personal god who created all things.” A portrait gallery reveals the “bad fruits of evolution.” Alongside Charles Darwin, we have Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler.

In the bookstore on the way out, I came across a book titled Dinosaurs or Dragons? You can’t make this stuff up. But a 2018 reviewer on TripAdvisor leaves us with an entirely different impression: “We toured this museum in late December,” she wrote, “while visiting San Diego from PA.” She goes on to say: “Being lovers of science, natural history, world history, and Biblical truth, we knew we had to visit here. We thought the quality displays and fascinating content throughout could rival any secular museum, and we really appreciated the reprieve from the unsubstantiated "evolution" and "Big Bang" origins nonsense we find at typical museums (talk about "anti-science"!). Sure, there is a fair amount of reading required to get the most out of this museum (learning does take some mental effort, after all). … We highly recommend this museum if you want to learn and expand your knowledge of truth!”

It would be easy to write off the correspondent as some kind of crackpot, but again, being human she is contending with the same brain as the rest of us, loaded with the same cognitive traps. Moreover, her views almost certainly fit more inside mainstream opinion than those who watch TED Talks and listen to NPR. According to a 2018 Pew survey, only one in three adults in the US say man evolved through natural processes. An additional half are prepared to accept evolution, provided it is guided by God or a higher power.

By all means, continue to believe in God, but also keep yourself open to the possibility that our existence here - on this infinitesimally small plot of time and space - may be nothing more than a random series of accidents. The second book in my Bipolar Expert Series series, IN SEARCH OF OUR IDENTITY, goes into this in considerable detail. Knowing, for instance, that we are working with the same neurons as snails, with brains organized like those of rats and mice, with almost identical genomes to our primate cousins, we gain invaluable insights into how we think and feel and behave. The wisdom gained from these insights gives meaning to our experience and points the way to our recovery. Armed with our new tools of critical thinking, we dare to turn, “I think, therefore I am,” into something greater: “I think, therefore I will be.” A new you, at peace with yourself, at peace with the world. Take home message: Worship God, think like Darwin.

Final Word

We can’t leave Darwin without a brief word on “falsification.” Recall how Darwin observed seashells where they weren’t supposed to be. Now imagine another seashell find, again in an unexpected place, this time in the Canadian shield embedded in rock strata from the pre-Cambrian, when the earth was only just beginning to solidify. Such a find, most indubitably, would torpedo evolution, as any fan of Darwin would readily acknowledge. This type of acceptance of the rules is what keeps the game honest. Science works on the principle that while there may be experts in the field, there are no authorities. From the perspective of someone arguing from authority, though, it makes no difference where the seashells turn up - their conclusion will always be the same. The facts don’t matter. They are bound by no rules. It’s a fixed game.

To bring this down to earth, the greatest inquiry in your life will be into yourself. You need to be your own Darwin. When those metaphorical seashells in your world turn up in unexpected places, you need to be asking yourself hard questions, and you need to be doing it with the urgency of someone whose life depends on it. It does.

To the end, Darwin remained the keen and meticulous observer. His two block-busters - On the Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man - may have changed the world, but his last published book, a 326-page volume, reveals a man true to his roots, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, forever a servant to the facts. The title: The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits.

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Cognitive Bias: Even Einstein Gets Fooled


I am hard at work on a book on bipolar recovery, the third in my Bipolar Expert Series. A vital part of our recovery involves critical thinking. Unfortunately, our cognitive biases get in our way. Picking up from my previous blog post, Philosophy: Because We're Mindless Without It ...

So, you think you’ve got the answer - to life, to anything - well think again. As fate would have it, our brains default to answers without the inconvenience of grappling with the questions. Too often, wrong answers serve our needs every bit as much as right ones. Our DNA is programmed to find patterns in our everyday experiences, recognize their significance, and, based on these patterns, we plan and act accordingly. Wash, rinse, and repeat - again and again - and these patterns become part of our default operating system, how we view the world and everything that resides, therein. We may see ourselves as rational beings residing within an objective reality. Socrates would only laugh.

Inevitably, our patterns shape our identity. Then the real problems start. By now, we are so invested in our own sense of self that we will defend it at all costs, however horrifically our particular sense of self may be working for us. Our thinking - our capacity to face the facts fearlessly and make the appropriate course corrections  - has been hijacked. Like a slave eunuch bodyguard protecting a decrepit potentate, our thinking parries and thrusts against its perceived enemy, meeting facts and alternative viewpoints with rationalization and denial. Perversely, a successful rationalization lights up the brain’s pleasure circuits, encouraging us to persist in our delusions. Our warped reality holds, our identity stays intact, the sneering potentate tosses his slave a gold coin.

Change is possible, but first we need to know what we’re up against. That way, we won’t give up on ourselves. Trust me, even scientists - our very models of the apotheosis of rigorous thought - can be as willfully ignorant as the worst political extremist or the most naive conspiracy theorist. Cast your mind back to high school. Here we were - you and I - the C-students with no choice but to work with the brains fate issued us, forever rolling a rock uphill, being written off by our teachers as underachievers. There they were,  the A-students, flaunting their neurons, always showing up prepared, always handing in their homework on time, effortlessly solving all those “two trains leave the station” puzzles without resorting to pencil and paper. 

These were your future Einsteins, but even Einstein suffered from a major flaw in his operating system, one that led him on a 30-year wild goose chase in pursuit of a theory of everything that ended in nothing. For all his intellectual prowess, Einstein couldn’t reconcile himself to quantum physics. The major sticking point for Einstein was that quantum physics deals in probability rather than certainty, where the relationship between cause and effect appears decidedly more casual than common sense would lead us to believe. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he famously replied in a letter.

The technical term for Einstein’s failing is cognitive bias, another way of saying there are no end of ways our brains can play tricks on us. The field was pioneered by the Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman beginning in the 1970s. For their work, Daniel Kahneman shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (Nobels are not awarded posthumously, thus disqualifying the late Dr Tversky). In his best-selling 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, among many other things, Dr Kahneman articulates our tendency toward “optimistic bias.” Part of this has to do with our unwarranted overconfidence in completing projects on time and within budget, based on our inflated sense of our ability to control events. Whether remodeling a kitchen or conducting an overseas war, apparently we can all benefit from a good healthy dose of pessimism. 

Another one includes “framing.” Say, if you were told that a certain surgical procedure had a 10 percent failure rate, would you opt for the surgery? Maybe not. What if you were told, instead, that the procedure had a 90 percent success rate? Maybe yes. The same information both times, but the way it was presented in each case encourages a different response.

Perhaps the most glaring cognitive bias is “confirmation bias,” where we tend to accept facts that fit inside our belief systems and reject those that fall outside. Nowhere is this on better display than in what passes for political discourse in the US. For instance, according to  a 2011 PRRI/Brookings survey, when Obama was in office, only 30 percent of white evangelicals thought that a politician who commits personal immoralities is fit for public office. In 2016, with Trump as the Republican Presidential nominee, a whopping 72 percent suddenly decided that personal immorality did not matter.

Democrats are not immune: When Clinton was in office, feminists found themselves in the bizarre position of defending the President’s grossly inappropriate sexual behavior and attacking his victims.

If you think I’m engaging in “false equivalence,” here, you have a very good point. Part of false equivalence has to do with treating one side’s minor failing the same as the other’s major failing. My response is that reality is messy and full of contradictions. We may long for simple answers, but their only useful purpose is to making us temporarily feel good. We need to do better.

A sampling of more cognitive biases (from Wikipedia): “Anchoring” (relying too heavily on one piece of information, such as the first source you encountered while researching a particular topic), “availability heuristic” (such as giving too much weight to emotionally charged memories), the “Dunning-Krueger effect” (too stupid to know you’re stupid), “gamblers fallacy” (such as thinking flipping five heads in a row raises the chance of tails coming up on the next flip), “hyperbolic discounting” (a preference for immediate pay-offs), “overconfidence” (99 percent certain answers turn out to be 44 percent wrong), “status quo bias” (preference for things staying the same).

Then there are the various social biases, such as “authority bias” (accepting as Gospel truth the word of your favorite authority) and “ingroup bias” (such as favoring those one perceives to be members of one’s tribe).

Psychiatry’s five-factor model (FFM) affords us insights into how our preferences seem to be shaped from birth, including whether or not we are “open to new experience,” and “conscientiousness,” which places a high premium on loyalty and duty. Not surprisingly, political liberals are inclined toward openness to new experience (as well as favoring cats over dogs) while conservatives score high on conscientiousness and prefer dogs.

Are our beliefs truly that predetermined? Are are brains really that hopeless? When it comes to shaping our destiny, are we as powerless and mindless as steel filings drawn to a magnet? The metaphor comes from Oscar Wilde. In a parable, he wrote how the filings deluded themselves into thinking they were headed toward the magnet of their own free will. In his story, some of the filings “were heard to say it was their duty to visit the magnet.”

Socrates, where are you now?

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

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