BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our CapacitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are mounds of books out on the science of maximum human performance, be they on mind-hacking, sports & exercise science, or some combination thereof as applied to a particular pursuit. Hooper creates his niche by way of a broad and varied selection of topics, including: language learning, singing, running, achieving longevity, and sleeping. For the reader who is interested in the topic of how top performers in a given domain achieve that supernormal performance, it makes for an interesting read. However, it may leave some readers scratching their heads as to who the book is aimed at. It should be noted that several of the topics addressed are of much more broad-ranging appeal than those I mentioned (e.g. focus / attentiveness, bravery / courage, and resilience.)

The book is divided into three parts on “thinking,” “doing,” and “being,” respectively. The four chapters in the first part investigate the heights of intelligence, memory, language, and focus. The chapter on language deals with how some people are masterful polyglots, speaking many languages, as opposed to the harder to investigate question of how someone becomes William Shakespeare. Throughout the book, there is a mix of stories and interview insights from those who are peak performers as well as discussion of what scientific studies have found. The former makes up the lion’s share of the discussion, and the central question with of science is how much of peak performance is genetic and how much is built.

Part II, on doing, has three chapters, exploring the topics of bravery, singing, and running. This is where one really sees the book’s diversity. Books like Amanda Ripley’s “Unthinkable” address the question, among related questions, of why some act heroically, and there are a huge number of books on how to be the best runner or singer one can be, but not a lot of books take on all three questions in one section. The book on singing focuses on opera singers who belt out their tunes largely sans technology – i.e. there’s no Milli-Vanilli-ing L’Orfeo. The chapter on running gives particular scrutiny to endurance running.

Part III investigates why some people live longer, are more resilient, sleep better (or do well with less sleep,) or are happier. Since Buettner’s “National Geographic” article on “blue zones” (i.e. places where a disproportionate percentage of the population live well beyond the average human lifespan,) there’s been a renewal of interest in what science has to say about longevity. As mentioned, the chapter on sleep covers the topic from multiple vantage points. Everyone needs sleep, but some perform best with ten or more hours of sleep while others are extremely productive on four hours a day, and some can cat-nap periodically through the day while others need a single extended and uninterrupted period of sleeps. Wisely, Hooper doesn’t simply take on the question of why some people are happier than others in the book’s last chapter, but rather he asks the more interesting question of why some people who have every reason to be morose (e.g. paralyzed individuals) manage to be ecstatically happy.

The book has a references section, but there isn’t a lot of ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, etc.) It’s a text-centric book that relies heavily on stories about Formula-1 racers, opera stars, ultra-marathoners, and other extraordinary individuals while investigating the subject matter.

I enjoyed this book. I am intensely interested in optimal human performance across a range of skills and characteristics. So, I guess when people inevitably ask who the book is directed at, it’s directed at me and others with this strange fascination. If you have that interest, it’s for you as well.

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5 Untruths Worth Pretending Are True

pretend_play_preschool

 

William James famously suggested that the path between emotion and expression wasn’t a one-way street. In other words, it’s not just that having an emotion causes us to express it through facial expressions and body language, but also that by assuming a given expressions we create the corresponding emotional state. James might have gone a little far in proposing the emotion can’t exist devoid of its expression, but he came by the belief that you could get to emotion through expression honestly enough.

 

I read about how James, suffering a bad cases of the blues, asked himself what would happen if he behaved as though he was in a happier state of mind. He decided to carry out this experiment, and he soon found himself in a much better mental state. This got me thinking about what else one might pretend that would yield positive results.

 

It should be noted, that there’s been a lot of research on this topic, and it’s been dubbed the “as if principle,” though colloquially people talk about it as “faking it till you make it.” Some of you may be familiar with this idea from the study showing that adopting a Wonder Woman stance made subjects feel more confident. If not, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk can be viewed here.

 

So, here are five ideas–true or not–that are worth believing:

 

[Note: You’ve got to pretend as if you were a five-year old. Don’t bring those pathetic and puny adult imaginations.]

 

5.) I’m happy:  Starting with the self-ruse most widely known and which James brought to our attention. You may have heard the following advice: if you’re ever feeling down, stand up and pump your fists in the air at an upward angle such that one’s body forms a “Y” (or an “X if you want to keep your feet wide.) This is a hardwired victory behavior written into our evolutionary coding, and it’s hard to be depressed while doing it.

 

4. Oneness / Unity:  Try pretending that you’re connected to everything in the universe. The experience isn’t uncommon with mystics and meditators, as well as those in the Flow. This is an attempt to work it around from the other direction.

Now, some mystic-scientist out there is going to say that this isn’t an untruth because there’s evidence that we are connected to everything, citing quantum entanglement and such like. Maybe so, but as there’s no reason to believe we have a sensitivity to happenings at that quantum state, the pretending is still necessary. (i.e. Even if such entanglement exists, we can no more sense it than we could recognize if a force of 1-trillionth of a gram touched our skin.) Evolution doesn’t grant us capabilities beyond what are needed to survive to procreate, and so I’m doubtful that we have some untapped power to sense quantum entanglement lurking within us.) The oneness we feel has to do with the part of the brain that tracks the “I v.) not-I” divide fading out of operation–rather than an awareness of some web of subatomic entanglement.

This self-subterfuge is a way to simultaneously put one’s worries in perspective while not becoming demoralized about being an insignificant speck in a vast universe. One is an infinitesimal speck in an infinite universe, but one is tied into the universe such that one is simultaneously an infinite universe.

 

3.) Chi / Prana: I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the immaterial energies of Eastern traditions (Taoism and Yoga, respectively) exist. However, I wouldn’t argue that there’s no benefit from imagining them to exist.  There seems to be little doubt that visualizing the flow of these energies can have benefits–regardless of whether they’re the traditionally advertised benefits or not. Even if you don’t succeed in pulling energy into one’s body directly, sans the middlemen of food and oxygen (so one can live off the dew on a single ginko leaf–ala “Kung Fu Panda”), visualization is good for the brain and the invigorated feeling one creates in pretending chi exists can’t hurt.

 

 

matrix

2.) “There is no spoon:”  This, of course, comes from the movie “The Matrix” in which a young sage / savant attempts to teach the protagonist, Neo, how he can bend a spoon with his mind. The upshot is that one doesn’t try to bend the spoon, one realizes that the spoon is a figment of the imagination.

The idea that we are part of a simulation may turn out to be less far-fetched than it seems. I cite, for example, the TED Talk by physics Nobel Laureate George Smoot.

At any rate, the virtue of the thought exercise of pretending this is true is two-fold. First, one can ask whether one would lead the same life and give events the same weight if one was to discover that one was living out a simulation designed to advance the understanding of some entity (e.g. an alien race, a colossal supercomputer, etc.) Second–and more importantly–one may become more attuned to the fact that one’s own mental / emotional world is full of dream-like simulations. One’s brain is designed to anticipate worst-case scenarios, and it’s exceedingly good at fabricating scenarios that taint our perception of the world with anticipated negative possibilities–most of which will never come to fruition. There are many variants, attributed to various speakers, of the following Mark Twain quote:

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

 

 

1.) There is no I:  A core tenet of Buddhism is that there is no self. Depending what a self has to be to exist as an independent entity, science may yet converge on a similar conclusion. The self seems, at best, to be an emergent property. In the Anil Ananthaswamy book I recently reviewed, it’s compared to a center of gravity. There’s no molecule that can be called the center of gravity, it’s a property that moves around as the body does. It’s definable, but not in terms of a specific location or physical existence.

Pretending there is no self may help put many worries into perspective. Like #4, it may also help one feel more connected to a larger world. But most importantly, it may help one to turn off those parts of one’s mind that are prone to self-loathing, self-denigration, or just self-consciousness.

 

Happy pretending.

nightsky

BOOK REVIEW: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the WorldThe Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book combines travel writing with pop science discussion of what makes people happy (or unhappy.) Weiner travels to ten countries in pursuit of happiness, and reflects upon the cultural components of bliss.

Some of the countries, like Switzerland and Iceland, rank among the world’s happiest in international surveys. Some of the countries, such as Qatar and America, have every reason to be happy, but aren’t necessarily as blissful as the rest of the world would expect. Some of them, like India and Thailand, have good reason to be unhappy, and yet they manage to be global exemplars of happiness [at least within certain domains.]

Then there are a few nations that have unique relationships to happiness. Bhutan has a national policy on happiness [plus it’s a Buddhist country, and Buddhism probably offers the most skillful explanation of what it takes to be happy of any world religion.] Moldova provides a counterweight as it’s one of the least happy countries in the world. Weiner visits the Netherlands in part because one of the biggest academic centers studying happiness is located in Rotterdam, but it also offers an opportunity to study whether the country’s unbridled hedonism (drugs and prostitution are legal) correlates to happiness. That leaves Great Britain, a country known for wearing the same happy face as its sad, terrified, and enraged faces.

I’ve been to half of the countries on Weiner’s itinerary, and—of the others—I’ve been to countries that share some—though not all—of the cultural constituents of happiness. (e.g. I haven’t been to Qatar, but I’ve been to the UAE. I haven’t been to Moldova, but I’ve seen somewhat less grim Eastern European states. I haven’t been to Switzerland or Iceland but I’ve been to cold countries in Western Europe. I haven’t been to Bhutan, but I’ve been in areas where Tibetan Buddhism was the dominant cultural feature.) This allowed me to compare my experiences with the author’s, as well as to learn about some of the cultural proclivities that I didn’t understand during my travels. And I did find a lot of common ground with the author, as well as learned a lot.

I found this book to be interesting, readable, and funny. Weiner has a wacky sense of humor that contributes to the light-hearted tone of the book—perfect for the subject. That said, some people may be offended because the author doesn’t pull punches in the effort to build a punchline, and this sometimes comes off as mocking cultures. However, in all cases—even that of Moldova—Weiner does try to show the silver lining within each culture.

The paperback edition I read had no graphics or ancillary matter. There are no citations or referred works (except in text), and the chapters are presented as journalistic essays. The chapters largely stand alone, and so one could read just particular countries of interest. He does refer back to events that happened in earlier chapter or research that related to another country’s cultural proclivities, but not often. The first chapter, on the Netherlands, would be a good one to read first because he describes many of the scientific findings on happiness in that one.

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in what makes some places happier (or sadder) than others.

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BOOK REVIEW: Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and WisdomBuddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is one of those books whose title leaves one unclear as to the book’s nature. The title has religious connotations, but its subtitle, The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom suggests a secular and rationalist work. The subtitle might clear things up if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many New Agey, spiritualist types who like to glom onto scientific terminology—presumably in an attempt to lend credibility to ideas that are “out there.” Thus, one may reasonably wonder whether this is just another Biomechanics of Chakra Fluffing style book—actually, I made that one up, but if you can see why such a title would be oxymoronic you know where I’m coming from. Without further ado, let me state that this book is rooted in the science of the brain, and, while it uses its fair share of concepts from Eastern religion as pedagogic devices, it doesn’t presuppose need to believe in anything [or anybody] for which there is no evidence. [What remains less clear is whether this book is properly considered self-help or pop science?] This issue with the title may be why Hanson came out with the more secularly-titled Hardwiring Happiness book a few years later that seems to cover similar territory (though, I’ve not yet read the latter.)

The central premise of Buddha’s Brain is that the brain’s neuroplasticity allows one to change the way one experiences life by changing the way one perceives and responds to life’s little trials and tribulations. Over time, one can become happier, more loving, and wiser—i.e. one can have a brain more like the Buddha’s. “Spiritual” matters are always at the periphery of what Hanson is discussing because this type of practice has historically been in the bailiwick of religious traditions—specifically Eastern (and other mystic) traditions that focus on looking inward to be a more virtuous person. However, where said traditions have often relied on assumptions unsupported by current science—such as the existence of a unitary (i.e. universally interconnected) consciousness, Hanson considers the issue from the perspective of our current understanding of the brain. In particular, he focuses on the fact that we are capable of training our brain to respond more positively to events.

Evolution, beautiful and elegant as it may be, has made us pessimistic and prone to disproportionately focus on the negative. This is because survival depended on being ready for worst case scenarios. So we imagine what that worst case is, and endlessly replay scenarios to prepare ourselves for how to deal with said worst cases. While this approach may have enhanced our ancestor’s survival probability, it can easily get out of hand and for far too many people it has. In the book, Hanson proposes three evolutionary strategies (i.e. creating separations [us / them, I / you, etc.], maintaining stability, and threat avoidance / opportunity seizure) that often end up tainting our worldview, raising our stress levels, and causing declining health and well-being. The book does get into the mechanics of stress reduction as well as how to change the way one experiences the world so as to be exposed to less stress.

Rick Hanson is a psychologist who holds a Senior Fellowship at a center at the University of California at Berkeley. He also founded his own center called The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.

The book is organized into 13 chapters arranged in four parts. The four parts are: I.) The Causes of Suffering, II.) Happiness, III.) Love, and IV.) Wisdom. These parts are preceded by front matter which includes the first chapter which lays out the basics of the brain in layman’s terms as well as discussing the evolutionary survival strategies that sometimes fail to serve us well in modern living. More detailed discussion of the brain is introduced throughout the book at is relevant to the discussion at hand, but the level of this discussion should be approachable to all readers. Each chapter is divided into many subsections to make the reading easily digestible. One of the nice features of this book is that each chapter has a bullet point summary at the end. Actually, the author uses bullet points prominently throughout the book. There is one appendix which explores questions of nutrition for brain health. There is an extensive reference section containing largely scholarly references, as one would expect of a science book.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t certain whether to classify this as a self-help or popular science book. In many ways it’s both. It does give a great deal of practical advice about what one can do to change one’s life. On the other hand, it offers more background into the science than your average self-help book—though always at a layman’s level.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in self-improvement, the science of the mind, or both.

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TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: Death as the Good Drunk

I don’t think Death should be depicted as a cowled, faceless Grim Reaper.

Instead, I think Death should be the wise drinking buddy who can hold his liquor.  Not the one who acts like an idiot an encourages friends to do the same. Rather, the one who spurs you to ask out a girl who’s way out of your league, and keeps you classy if (when) she declines.

BOOK REVIEW: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human PerformanceThe Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is NOT a book about the comic book hero. It’s a book about a mental state called “the flow” and how adventure and extreme athletes have used it to make tremendous strides in their sports. The characteristics of the flow include extreme focus, time dilation / time distortion, a vanishing sense of self, extremely high performance, fearlessness, and a falling away of everything non-essential to the task at hand.

Kotler is by no means the first author to write about the flow. The term was inaugurated by a book entitled Flow first published in 1990 by a University of Chicago Psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the process of conducting a study on happiness. He found that happy people tended to engage in activities in which they could immerse themselves and find the zone. Contrary to the early part of Kotler’s book–in which it sounds like adventure athletes cornered the market on flow–Csikszentmihalyi says that said activity could be work or hobby and that the flow is to be found in poetry writing, yoga, martial arts, copy writing, or potentially any activity in which the skill level and challenge are both high.

(To be fair, Kotler does get around to recognizing that extreme athletes neither invented nor exclusively exploit the flow. However, his—well-taken—point is that such athletes are unusually good at finding, and dropping deep into, the flow in part because risk-taking behavior is an important trigger. And for free climbers [rock climbers without ropes], mega-ramp skateboarders, and bodysuit skydivers sometimes there are only two possible states of existence—the flow and being scraped off a rock.) It should be noted that some of the elements of flow sound a lot like the states that have been described by various mystical religious traditions for centuries, e.g. the dissolution of a feeling of separation between self and the rest of the universe. Warning: religious readers may find it disconcerting to read that there are scientific explanations for states that were once attributed to communion with god or the like.

While I’ve given Kotler’s book high rating, I haven’t yet given one reason to read it—and I do recommend people read it. First, while Csikszentmihalyi is the “father” of flow research, his methods were decidedly low tech–i.e. surveys and interviews—but Kotler reports on more recent studies involving neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity, and neurochemistry. Second, while Kotler delves into the science of the flow, he does so in a manner that is approachable to non-scientists. Finally, all of the narrative accounts of extreme athletes interspersed with the more technical commentary make for a very readable book, even if one is not particularly knowledgeable of—or interested in—such sports. I gave this book a high rating both for its food-for-thought value, and because of its high readability.

I will admit that I was not so enamored of the book when I first began it, and other readers may find the same irritation. For one thing, Kotler’s adoration of extreme athletes comes off sounding like diminishment of mainstream athletes and others involved in “flowy” activities. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter 1. Kotler gives us an endearing description of how gymnast Kerri Strug won the gold in the 1996 Olympics by sticking a landing on a shattered ankle. However, he then comes off a bit douchey when he suggests that Strug’s achievement pales in comparison to Danny Way’s skateboard jumps at the Great Wall of China.

For another thing, in his zealousness to prove that extreme sports practitioners are full-awesome while mainstream athletes are “meh,” Kotler makes some comparisons that seem apples and oranges to a neophyte such as me. If they are fair comparisons, he certainly doesn’t explain why they should be considered so. The best example of this is when he states that Olympic divers took decades to achieve increases in rotation that extreme skiers and skateboarders surpassed in much less time. This seems unreasonable for two reasons. First, divers have a very standard distance in which to achieve their acrobatics. In other words, they don’t get to build a “mega-platform” that’s 50% taller like Danny Way creates “mega-ramps” that were bigger than ever before. Of course, if you can increase the distance between yourself and the ground you can increase your spins, rotations, or whatever much more quickly (yes, your danger goes up vastly, I’m not diminishing that.) Second, the divers gained zero advantage from technological improvements, but the same cannot be said for skiers and skateboarders. In other words, if you go from skis made of oak to ones made of carbon nanotubes (that are 50 times stronger and 1/100th of the weight) of course you’re going to make gains faster.

Perhaps, I’m overstating Kotler’s disdain for mainstream athletics, but that’s what happens when one uses a national hero as a set up to show how much more awesome a relatively unknown skateboarder is (among skateboarders Way is extremely well-known but he’s not a household name as the Olympian was–at least for a short time in the late 90’s.) I suspect that Kotler was just trying to convince a general audience that the athletes he’s speaking about aren’t pot-smoking knuckleheads who are as likely to be seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos crushing their nads on a handrail as setting a new world record. These men and women are serious people engaged in serious activities, and they give it their all. They do deserve more respect for that than they are probably given by broad sectors of the populace. Perhaps, the importance of what these folks are achieving does need to be conveyed because the demographic that reads books and the one that follows extreme sports probably has wide wings of non-overlapping area. (I’m not saying skateboarders are illiterate or bookworms don’t skate–just that the Venn diagram has substantial areas of mutual exclusivity.)

As I indicated above, in each chapter we get both some insight into the nature of the flow and its triggers and stories of adventure / extreme athletes that serve as examples of what’s being discussed. In chapter 2 we learn what the flow looks like in terms of brain waves (i.e. high theta/low alpha, or between meditation and a relaxed / resting state of wakefulness.) In chapter 3, we learn about the neuroanatomy of the flow in terms of what areas of the brain it lights up, and what areas shut down–which is more important to flow states. In chapter 4, we learn about the neurochemistry of the flow and that a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin makes up the chemistry of flow, but, critically, not so much with the adrenaline. The subsequent chapters deal with triggers of the flow, and what conditions best set up achievement of this state of mind.

Chapter 9 stands out as an important, but quite different, portion of the book. It deals with the downside (or dark side) of the flow. This has a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned internal substances (and the flow state in general) are quite addictive. While it’s unfair to say, and unlikely, that the extreme athletes Kotler writes about (i.e. the ones at the top of their games) are drug addicts as some might assume of skate boarders, snow boarders, and the like, it may not be unreasonable to say that they have a kind of monkey on their backs—albeit a perfectly legal one rooted in their own neurochemistry.

As I’ve said, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in this state of mind. One needn’t be interested in extreme sports to get a lot out of the book.

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Paleo-Stressing: Acute v. Chronic Stress

"What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people--not lived in your cages?"

“What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people–not lived in your cages?”

Paleolithic dieting is all the rage these days. I’m no expert on the paleo-diet, but–as I understand it–this refers to the practice of eating the foods consumed by our pre-agrarian ancestors. The idea is that if one consumes the foods that our species is evolutionarily-optimized to eating, one will be healthier.  Whether one believes in the merits of the paleo-diet or not on the whole, it’s hard to argue that one wouldn’t be better off eating less highly-processed and highly-refined foods and more things that look like food at a glance.

 

Our diet isn’t all that has changed since the days of our pre-agrarian ancestors. Modernity has brought with it an entirely new way of experiencing stress. Eliminating or reducing stress is a common topic of discussion, but not all stress is created equal. There’s a necessary form of stress, a stress that makes one better, stronger, faster, and smarter. We don’t want to willy-nilly eliminate stress; we want to reduce the wrong type of stress.

 

Our ancestors—like animals–experienced brief periods of intense stress (e.g. saber-tooth tiger attacks), followed by longer periods in which they were free of deadlines, carpools, and after-school activities. Now, no one likes to have a saber-tooth tiger stalking them. It’s unpleasant. Modern humanity has gone to great lengths to eliminate those short bursts of terror, but not without cost. (If you don’t believe me read Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

 

Whether or not you believe that eliminating acute instances of terrifying stress is bad for mankind, it’s hard to argue that modernity’s leveling process didn’t eliminate stress, but instead resulted in a chronic stress on a smaller scale. People today have impossibly long daily to-do lists, and they have to accept trade-offs between work, family, and personal development.

 

It’s true that you don’t get eaten by a giant cat when you drop the ball, but life is so packed diverse events that one may feel like one is dropping some ball constantly. If your boss thinks you’re a model employee, then your kids are probably going to need therapy. If you have a contented home life, your boss may have his or her eyes open for someone who can give the firm consistently 70+ hour work weeks. If you feel you’re doing alright on both the work and family front, your body and / or mind is probably a train wreck.

 

Chronic [mini] stress may feel better than acute [catastrophic] stress, but it takes its tolls in various ways. First, with our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight reaction) constantly engaged our body’s power to heal itself is reduced. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the body devotes resources to long-term goals like getting healthier, but in stress mode activities not relevant to immediate survival shut down. This is a great system if you have periodic life and death stress, but is not so good if you’re under constant stress.

 

Second, chronic stress reduces sleep, and sleep is essential to one’s mental and physical well-being. There are a wide variety of symptoms associated with sleep deprivation such as forgetfulness, decreased concentration, decreased alertness, reduced reasoning ability, diminished problem-solving capacity, and depression—all of which can diminish our physical health through accidents, ailments, suicide attempts, and lack of energy for exercise.

 

Third, chronic stress can make one fat, with all the health issues that result. Some people use food as a coping mechanism. Other people eat too fast or choose their food poorly because of time constraints or because they are not mindful of eating as their monkey minds churn at a mile a minute. Then there is the more convoluted and complex issue of cortisol–a hormone released under stress that is linked to weight gain in at least some cases. Even if you don’t have a problem on the calorie intake side, the stressed individual may not do so well on the calorie burning side—either because of a lack of time to exercise or a lack of energy.

 

Modern humans are uniquely suited to chronic stress because we are the only species that achieves the same physiological stress response by remembering and obsessing about a stressful event as experiencing it. Abandoning the modern approach to living isn’t an option most are willing to entertain; but there are ways to combat chronic stress.

 

Move – Meditate – Mindfully Breath: The bad news is you’ve got to shoehorn these activities into your schedule daily (or at least several times a week.) The good news is that they don’t need to take up a lot of your day. There are a number of systems that address all three components in one handy package such as Qi Gong, Yoga, and some martial arts. I don’t think it matters so much which one chooses as how one goes about one’s practice.

 

Movement strengthens and strategically stresses the body, but it also increases one’s bodily awareness so that one becomes aware of how stress is manifesting itself in one’s body. Meditation teaches one how to live in the present moment, and it trains one to recognize the seeds of negative thought and emotion earlier so that one can counter-act them. Obviously, breathing is essential to life, but learning to be aware of one’s breathing patterns and to “manually override” the breath patterns associated with harmful emotional states is a beneficial skill.

 

Massage / Bodywork: Whether self-administered or other-administered (the latter allowing greater distressing–particularly if the masseuse is skilled) massage is an activity, like movement, that can help one become aware of where one is physically holding one’s stress. These physical manifestations of stress can exacerbate the whole experience of stress. One should take time periodically to have bodywork done. A day rarely goes by in which I don’t work on my own neck, shoulders, head, or face, and I occasionally get professional Thai Yoga Bodywork done.

 

The Places that Scare You: Force yourself to go someplace (not necessarily literally a “place”) that scares you once in a while. This needn’t be skydiving or hand-gliding—but it could be. It may be a martial arts class in which one has to put on the gloves occasionally and go at it. It may be joining Tostmasters and having to give a speech in front of a crowd. It may be traveling to some backwater where you don’t know the language, but you want to learn. This is a very personal issue. (i.e. A Type-A personality he-man may not find that skydiving is outside his comfort zone. If so, sorry, skydiving doesn’t count, he may need to learn ballroom dancing, or something else that truly takes him outside being comfortable.) KEY POINT: The problem with hiding from all stressors is that it doesn’t result in a stress-free life, what happens is that smaller and smaller stressors loom bigger and bigger in one’s mind. Which brings us to…

 

Perspective:  One must put life’s challenges in perspective. Each person’s problems are important to them, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s problems, but—come on—you’re not going to be eaten by a freaking saber-tooth tiger.

BOOK REVIEW: The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert WorldThe Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

A number of books have come out about introversion in recent years. Most of these books seek to dispel common myths about being introverted, such as:

a.) Introverts can and should change teams to the extroverted
“light side” as soon as possible.

b.) There’s something psychologically wrong (re: neurotic or even psychotic) with being introverted.

c.) “Introverted” is synonymous with:

1.) Shy (i.e. having social anxiety disorder)
2.) Schizoid
3.) Anti-social
4.) Self-centered (in the pejorative sense–a more neutral meaning could be said to be true by definition.)

This isn’t to say that one can’t be both introverted and any of the above, but one can also be extroverted and any of the above (including, believe it or not, shy—i.e. it’s possible to be an extrovert with social anxiety disorder.)

Where Dr. Olsen Laney’s book tries to carve a niche is in teaching introverts how they can conduct their lives in an extrovert-centric world so as to maximize their effectiveness and minimize their exhaustion. One will note that her advice doesn’t advocate attempting to become extroverted. In fact, one of the most interesting and informative sections of the book is chapter 3, which explains the differences in brain chemistry that result in introversion or extroversion. While some of the conditions mistaken for introversion–such as shyness–can be overcome or trained away, introversion is hardwired into the brain.

The book’s ten chapters are organized into three parts. The first part explains just what defines an introvert, what traits commonly mistaken for introversion aren’t introversion, and the physiological roots of introversion. The second part consists of four chapters that delve into problems faced by introverts in four critical domains: relationships, parenting, socializing, and work. The final three chapters present the prescription for modifying one’s behavior to keep one’s energy up in the face of the demands of modern life. It’s really all about energy—how we use it and replenish it differently. The external world—most notably interaction with other people but also anything of a chaotic environment—drains the energy of introverts faster than that of extroverts.

As one reads through the book, there are many tips for mitigating the negative effects of common introvert characteristics seen as problematic in an extrovert’s world. It should be noted that some of these are genuine problems (i.e. how one metabolizes food) and others are a matter of perspective (i.e. lack of conviction v. open-mindedness.) These “problems” include: difficulty making quick decisions, difficulty with word retrieval, lack of investment in one’s own ideas (“wishy-washy” in extrovert lexicon, but arguably open-minded), tendency toward over-stimulation, lack of inclination to engage in [prolonged] eye contact, proclivity to metabolize food quickly with resultant blood sugar drops, proclivity towards sedentariness, and a tendency to fail to delegate work and reward job completion—if one happens to be the boss.

I found this book to be enlightening. There were many ideas I found myself agreeing with (e.g. using hobbies and activities as a means of controlled interaction.) There were only a few pieces of advice that I thought poor (i.e. picking a weekend day to lay in bed or on the couch all day—reading or otherwise.) While it may seem logical that movement would drain energy in contradiction of the goal of restoring energy, I find being sedentary beyond a certain number of hours to be a huge energy drainer and that periodic movement is necessary and restorative to keep my energy level robust. (And I’m about as introverted as one gets by the criteria established in the book, most of which apply to me.) Of course, there are variations among introverts–just as among extroverts—not only with respect to the degree of introversion but also with respect to specific characteristics experienced. (e.g. Some introverts may not find that all of the criteria in the preceding paragraph apply to them.)

I’d recommend this book not only for introverts, but for those who interact with introverts in key ways (e.g. familial relations, significant others, bosses, employees, etc.) Non-introverts may find some sections are more helpful and necessary than others, and may not find they need to read from cover to cover.

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BOOK REVIEW: Know Your Mind by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Know Your MindKnow Your Mind by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is an Indian guru headquartered in Bangalore, India. In addition to his work as a spiritual leader, he heads up an organization called the “The Art of Living,” which has both a philanthropic mission and a role in spreading knowledge of yoga. Among his most important accomplishments is the development of a breathing technique for helping to attain greater emotional well-being. However, he may be most broadly known for occasional appearances on television programs such as those of CNN International.

The slim volume K(no)w Your Mind contains a series of short chapters, many of which are partly in Q&A form–coming from talks he has given internationally. The common theme of these discourses are how one can understand one’s mind and learn to live in a way that maximizes happiness.

Sri Sri’s approach is quite mainstream when compared to more controversial gurus such as the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (i.e. Osho.) There is little that would raise hackles of most people. It proposes nothing magical–though Shankar supports belief in some, broadly defined and mystical, deity. His approach doesn’t rely on said deity. The book is essentially just about training the mind to look at the world in a different way.

One example that the author uses in various permutations is that people dwell on the negative. As he says, “When you are healthy, you never ask the question, ‘Why am I healthy?’When you are sick you say, ‘Oh, why am I sick?'” Similarly he mentions that, if someone tells us they like us we don’t question it, but if they tell us they hate us, then we do.

When asked how to avoid stress, he states flatly that one shouldn’t avoid it, but rather learn hope to cope with it more effectively.

On the positive side, the book conveys a lot of good information in a highly readable format. Shankar explains the mind with humor and occasionally with a parable or narrative to help make the lessons more memorable.

However, if one is looking for a systematic approach, one won’t so much find that here. It’s clear that this is a series of snippets from talks combined together. If that’s what you’re expecting, then it shouldn’t be a problem. However, if one is expecting a step-by-step guide, this book may not suit one. Occasionally it’s helpful if on has some yoga terminology in one’s head like samadhi or pranayama, but context should make the meaning clear.

I’d recommend it for someone looking for food-for-thought on bite-sized pieces on issues like memory, emotion, and mindfulness.

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Picture Your Unhappiness in its Underwear

I was writing some six-words on Smith Magazine the other day. I do this now and again as an exercise to get the creative juices flowing. There are a series of themes, and I try to write in as many of them as I can in less than 20 minutes, writing in a free form, stream of consciousness style.

When I got to the category HAPPINESS the first six-word to jump to mind was: “Picture your unhappiness in its underwear.” This one drew a nice response, which began me thinking about whether this advice might have actual merit–as opposed to being a non-nonsensical statement that might at best function as a Zen koan.

As I thought about it, three legs of the stool came to mind.

1.) Have a sense of humor. Anger and sadness have a hard time taking hold if one can manage a good laugh. I’ve found that being able to dance personal tragedy into comedy has been a great coping mechanism. One does have to be conscientious about not becoming a snarky person. One risks beginning to see the world through a crap-colored lens just as a means to comic fodder (or from a martyrdom complex.)

Perhaps even if one can’t formulate humor, one can still use laughter. There’s a system called laughter yoga that is based on the belief that you can create the same range of physiological responses from “forced” laughter as one does from spontaneous laughter. It’s a sort of chuckle pranayama (breathing exercises.)  While I don’t know much about the system, I can believe that it has merit based on what I’ve read about human emotions.

2.) Lay the source of your unhappiness bare. This sounds simple enough. One must know what is making one unhappy in order to turn that frown up-side-down.

That being said, human beings have an astounding ability to attribute all negative happenings in their lives to external factors. Like politicians, we like to take responsibility for what is going right (regardless of whether we are responsible or not), and we love to place the blame for failure firmly elsewhere (even it it’s mostly our fault.) This may be an evolutionarily-hardwired coping mechanism, but it can keep one in the doldrums.  If one continually says, “He makes me so mad” or even, “His actions make me so mad,” then you’re forfeiting control over your emotional state. Jerks and bitches might be an intermediary cause of unhappiness, but ultimately one’s own perceptions and responses lead to the negative emotional state.

This is where the hard work of mind training comes into play. Instead of being swamped by negative thoughts, one has to recognize them early, find the root cause, and recognize that our desire to for things to be a certain way is ultimately what makes us unhappy. We may want people to think we are smart or beautiful, and intimations to the contrary (whether intended or not) make us fume.

Don't be an angry monkey!

Don’t be an angry monkey!

One of the few things I remember explicitly learning in high school was about what our psychology teacher called a “gestalt of expectations.” Like most ideas one remembers though only taught once, I remember it because it had a memorable story attached to it. The story goes like this: “A man is driving through the desert in the American southwest. Now, out in the southwest, gas stations can be few and far between. So the man runs out of gas, and realizes that the station he passed 20 miles back is his safest bet because–contrary to what he had thought– the next one going forward might be another 50 miles.  So he starts walking. It’s hot. He’s hungry. He’s thirsty, and only has some lukewarm water that’s getting hotter by the minute. The backs of his hands and his face are getting sunburned. He starts thinking about how the little two-pump gas station is going to gouge him. He realizes he’s desperate, and so he figures the attendant is probably going to sell him gas at $6 a gallon, a bottle of cold water for $8, and don’t forget the jerrycan at $20.  These thoughts and the heat keep making him madder and madder. Finally, he gets to the station, and the attendant comes out and say, ‘Oh my, Mister, you must have had a horrible time.’ And so the man on the verge of heat-stroke punches out the attendant, a kid who only wanted to help him out.” Once one starts attributing one’s unhappiness to external sources, one can easily mis-attribute unhappiness because one thinks one knows what is in the minds of others, when really one doesn’t.

3.) Unhappiness, like standing around in one’s underwear, is–at most–a temporary state. As Taoists have been known to suggest, one’s darkest hour is a time to rejoice, for surely it will  get better from there. The only way one can remain in a perpetually unhappy state is to carry it with one long past its time. Just like the only way that can always be rained on is if one carries around a complicated mechanism with a showerhead and tank and keeps refilling that tank so that the shower never runs out. Otherwise, the dry season will come eventually.