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! You can not be in the focused attention mode and the diffuse attention mode at the same time!

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… because it just feels right and easy way of “warming up” before the serious work... Well, that’s the so-called illusion of validity.

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. Quotes indicate that these words are just labels.

Take laziness as an example. We are always taught to fight our laziness, however it has been proven that the willpower is scarce and forcing yourself to do things instead of procrastinating is physically and mentally unhealthy. No dopaminogenic substance or chemicals whatsoever will give you more willpower, yet they are so overrated because they make you procrastinate more efficiently. Remember working on a hard issue being really tired and having a shot of espresso… what was the most frequent outcome:

  1. suddenly everything clicks into place in a daring way (imagine an ancient philosopher and mathematician having his “Eureka!” moment);
  2. you gain an extra drive to keep plowing through small fragments of the task in hand (if you’re lucky) but sparing zero fucks for the big picture (now imagine a prisoner digging the tunnel right into the wardens’ restroom).

Unfortunately, the illusion of validity in the second case is too strong and humans aren’t naturally wired to double-check their expectations. Ironically, the evolution made us extraordinarily efficient at being lazy. How do we beat the procrastination?

One option is, by tricking our lazy brains. 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 (I've tried it before, it worked amazingly, but only now I understood why and got curious to try it again) and memory palace (the thing Sherlock Holmes does) techniques. 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". And my favorite trick: studying and reflecting on solutions in the evening, before going to sleep. Then there’s a higher chance of storing the latest impressions in the long term memory, and the “associative machine” within our head will work on the solutions regardless the consciousness being engaged.

To round up, the whole idea that the physical and the mental fitness are the two sides of the same coin isn’t very recent, nor unexpected. Move and sleep enough, don’t overeat and the mood improves. Yet this is somehow extraordinarily difficult to grok. We have little illusions about our physical limitations and performance. Yet we are notoriously bad at assessing our mental competencies. Duning-Kruger effect is observed when people overestimate their abilities (more than half of the interviewed drivers think they drive better than average). And the impostor syndrome happens when people try to remember the instances then they succeed, undershoot and assume they generally fail (even if the objective evidence contradicts this). If the consciousness is the mirror of the reality, it is a very stained and cracked one. No wonders the subjective reality is so distorted!


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