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Unhealthy Mind Image

habit forming learning motivation neurogenesis neuroplasticity procrastination

Blood vessel in GFAP-driven thymidine kinase brain
Blood vessel in GFAP-driven thymidine kinase brain

Everyone is familiar with the concept of the unhealthy body image. We're flooded every day with the imagery of unrealistically fit models. This makes us feel bad about ourselves, because our own bodies... aren't quite there, to say so. And then we so want to believe in the new amazing diet or the magical appetite pill! Yeah, people do strange things in the name of the often heavily photoshopped beauty ideals.

As the title suggests, the author claims to have spotted uncanny parallels between the unhealthy body image and the unhealthy mind image. A brilliant eccentric genius, apparently fluent in every single skill known to mankind. A passionate entrepreneur, who adopted Uberman's sleep schedule and uses the spare time to learn Mandarin. An inventive engineer, tweaking their own biochemistry by literally reading their own source code, DNA...

Regardless of being a blessing or a curse, our culture pushes us towards the extremes. Students and researchers resort to nootropics the same way professional athletes resort to doping. It is amazing how sometimes it seems to work. Yet, there is no magic. The mind is like a muscle. For it to develop, it has to be regularly exposed to significant stress. Procrastinating writing the thesis until the last night and then hacking it up in a couple of hours is just like trying to bench-press 100kg on the first visit to the gym. The end result is strikingly similar: sheer embarrassment and feeling being the most stupid person on Earth.

So, let it be clear that there's no magic. Yeah, some people are born with a talent for both/either mental and physical fitness. Not everyone is like them. But science is spectacularly efficient regarding unveiling the underlying principles based on the extreme cases. In his wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks tells stories about people with extraordinary memory, as long as stories about people with an extraordinary lack thereof. Due to these people and their willingness to help the scientists have developed abstract models of human memory, as long as other remarkably human traits.

What do we claim to know about our brain, nowadays? The most striking revelation (at least for me) is that the unity of the mind is an illusion. It happens to be a bundle of processes, collaborating (or not) towards the survival of the individual in a dynamic and social environment. Well, David Hume and Buddhist monks knew this long before the fMRI scans, but some people (like me) have to see the fMRI scans to accept the idea. On the other hand, I know it's an unpopular opinion, but I say that René Descartes was quite wrong when he said: "I think therefore I am". The voice in our head (or voices, whatever floats your boat) is the manifestation of the Default Mode Network (DMN for short). I assume my audience is familiar with the concept of silencing the mind and becoming pure awareness. No thoughts, just being in the moment... Take that, Descartes! By the way, that increased headspace would be the manifestation of the Task-Positive Network (TPN), which is negatively correlated to the DMN. Meaning fMRI shows that when TPN is active DMN is not, and vice-versa. Q.E.D., the human mind has at least two chunks with orthogonal modus operandi and that can not be engaged simultaneously!

Thing is, more often than not TPN and DMN have quite the opposite views on what you're supposed to do. And not unlike the stereotypical shoulder angel & demon, each tries to tip you to their side. And just like in the mythology, DMN almost always wins. Which isn't a bad thing, per se. DMN is responsible for habit forming and following. The habit has an intrinsic expectation of a reward. When you're unmotivated to do your aforementioned thesis, you feel like you'd rather tidy your place up or get the creative juices flowing with a short <UNRELATED_ACTIVITY_NAME> session or just binge-rewatch your favorite sitcom show to forget about the haunting despair...

Yet many habits are very useful. For instance, driving a car could be so light on the cognitive resources that it is actually perceived as relaxing. Or any kind of activity performed in the state of flow - chunks of knowledge just link together in meaningful ways, without significant conscious effort! Well, good habits are self-reinforcing, just like the bad habits.

And this is amazing. Following a tip from a friend, I've enlisted myself in this Coursera thing, Learning How to Learn. They teach pretty solid techniques for a productive mental workout routine. Like the well-known Pomodoro technique (I've tried it before, it worked amazingly, but only now I understood why and got curious to try it again). Or avoiding focusing on the end product: when it's something seen as unattainable, the end effect is of an anti-reward. Counterintuitively, doing something in the context of the product without a solid concept of a closure helps with the pain of the anxiety that leads to procrastination. There's a subtle plot twist that I've always struggled with (and continue to): the goals are important but they must not be stated in a form of a closure. "Work on a blog post" is a better word choice than "Complete the blog post".

In the end, it is all about the mindset. Admit that the willpower is scarce and forcing yourself to do things instead of procrastinating leads to a burnout. Admit that no dopaminogenic substance or chemicals whatsoever will give you more willpower. Recognize that forming (or unforming) a habit is more efficient than summoning the willpower to deal with the situation. Recognize that habits are formed by spaced repetition with a rewarding follow-up.

And that's it. No unrealistic expectations. It takes longer to attain a good physical shape, regardless when or how you start. Why wouldn't it take long to attain a good mental shape? However tempting speeding up the process is, unlike the anabolics, the nootropics have a neglectable impact.

Happy conscious choices ;)

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