Mind Wondering

Curating Curiosity

Month: September 2018

What “The Humans” Taught Me About Humanity

Sometimes it’s hard to look at humanity and see anything other than the ugliness and greed that seems so pervasive in our world right now. The last few days have been particularly difficult, as politicians have placed power over people. They struggle to push through their agendas, relying on grandstanding rather than fact-finding in their quest to… what, exactly?

Make the world a better place?

If that’s the aim, then both sides are doing a shitty job. I’m a liberal, but being from Oklahoma I also have conservative friends, and I know if we talk long and honestly enough, we see that we basically want the same things.

The news we see blasted on our screens is polarizing because that’s what gets ratings, and it’s starting to make our thinking binary. But the world isn’t ones and zeroes, black and white, or any other simple metaphor we can come up with to pit one group against another.

The world is π.

It’s Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism painted by Bob Ross in real-time. Angry. Happy. Simple. And frenetic as hell.

There are as many possible iterations of humans as there are of stars, and I guarantee we’re all as fallible, fascinating, and flawless as the next.

I see this most clearly not when I’m stuck in the liberal echo chamber of Los Angeles or shaking my head at the misplaced fury of Fox News. The nuance of our nature certainly doesn’t show up on Facebook or Instagram where algorithms and curated lists of friends and followers only confirm what we already believe. And don’t even get me started on the hate-fueled Rage Fest that is Twitter.

I see it in the stories we tell. Not only to each other, about our days, our hopes, dreams, fears and failures. I see it in the ones that a wonderful group of people called authors have written down for posterity.

There are numerous studies that have shown a link between reading fiction and increased empathy and emotional intelligence. The idea is that stories that focus on the interior lives of characters stimulate an area of the brain used for enhancing theory of mind, the ability to intuit what’s going on in another person’s mind.

But what if a story could help us see what’s going on in all of our minds?

That’s what The Humans, a fantastic novel by Matt Haig, did for me. The book follows an alien who travels to earth and assumes the identity of an illustrious Cambridge University mathematics professor named Andrew Martin. His mission is to rid earth of the information that would allow for interstellar travel. The reason is simple: humans are greedy, violent, self-centered beings and allowing them to travel among the stars would have deadly consequences for the Universe and its inhabitants.

At first, alien Andrew is disgusted by the people of earth. Not only are their looks repulsive, but they act in completely incomprehensible ways.

He’s baffled by the popularity of magazines…

Magazines are very popular, despite no human’s ever feeling better for having read them. Indeed, their chief purpose is to generate a sense of inferiority in the reader that consequently leads to a feeling of needing to buy something, which the humans then do, and then feel even worse, and so need to buy another magazine to see what they can buy next. It is an eternal and unhappy spiral that goes by the name of capitalism, and it is really quite popular.

He sees social media as a news source for narcissists…

On Earth, social networking generally involved sitting down at a nonsentient computer and typing words about needing a coffee and reading about other people needing a coffee, while forgetting to actually make a coffee. It was the news show they had been waiting for. It was the show where the news could be all about them.

And only realizes the error of his thinking when he remarks that getting drunk on a park bench “seems like a good way to solve problems,” and that the homeless man next to him must enjoy it because otherwise he wouldn’t do it.

Of course, this was a little bit disingenuous of me. Humans were always doing things they didn’t like doing. In fact, to my best estimate, at any one time only point three percent of humans were actively doing something they liked doing, and even when they did so, they felt an intense guilt about it and were fervently promising themselves they’d be back doing something horrendously unpleasant very shortly.

Reading these passages reminded me of another excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness, whose main premise was to show why humans are so terrible at predicting what will make them happy in the future. In it, Author Dan Gilbert argues that the best predictor of future happiness is not facilitated in our imagination like most of us think, but rather by using other people’s experiences as indicators of what our lives will look like.

This is precisely what Andrew does throughout the book. His first introduction to love involves a conversation with a student he stumbles across in the dining hall of the university who has “thin, orange-pink scars on her arm” and a t-shirt with the Vonnegut quote, “Everything was beautiful (and nothing hurt).”

“What about love? What is love all about? I read about it. In Cosmopolitan.”

Another laugh. “Cosmopolitan? Are you joking?”

“No. Not at all. I want to understand these things.”

“You’re definitely asking the wrong person here. See, that’s one of my problems.” She lowered her voice by at least two octaves, stared darkly. “I like violent men. I don’t know why. It’s a kind of self-harm thing. I go to pubs a lot. Rich pickings.”

“Oh,” I said, realizing it was right I had been sent here. The humans were as weird as I had been told, and as in love with violence. “So love is about finding the right person to hurt you?”

“Pretty much.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness. That was …someone.”

That someone was philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche, who also wrote the words, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

Haig is no stranger to suffering. In his best-selling memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, he details his struggles with depression and the ways he’s overcome the disease. One of those is through writing and the hope that his pain will not have been in vain.

Haig’s understanding of pain is present throughout The Humans. In a poignant acknowledgement of its universality, our protagonist states…

I knew there was one rule that held fast across the universe: if you wanted to get someone on your side, what you really had to do was relieve their pain.

And yet, he’s also able to understand that acceptance is often the best way to find relief…

Just to feel pain, sometimes, was enough to cancel it.

…and perceive the different ways people deal with pain…

Some humans not only liked violence but craved it, I realized. Not because they wanted pain, but because they already had pain and wanted to be distracted from that kind of pain with a lesser kind.

Following along as someone discovers these insights, especially in a first-person narrative that allows the reader to place him or herself in the shoes of the character, is both enjoyable and enlightening in the best possible way.

Later in the The Humans, Haig returns to the concept of love as his main character starts to discover it in himself. Sometimes it’s coupled with pain…

That’s what starts to happen, when you know it is possible for you to feel pain you have no control over. You become vulnerable. Because the possibility of pain is where love stems from.

Sometimes fear…

Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole, which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. You lose yourself, like I lost myself, in the warmest of annihilations.

But always with another human…

This was, I realized, a beautiful planet. Maybe it was the most beautiful of all. But beauty creates its own troubles. You look at a waterfall or an ocean or a sunset, and you find yourself wanting to share it with someone.

For me, reading books like The Humans has been, and still is, the best way I’ve found to rejuvenate a withered psyche after a dispiriting week. When everything and everyone around me seems at conflict with some ill defined “other,” stories like these remind me that all I have to do to see our shared humanity is look a little closer.

Why We’re Addicted to Tech & What We Can Do About It

In a fantastic two-part series, Judy Estrin breaks down “Authoritarian Technology,” detailing how we developed such an unhealthy relationship with our digital devices and what we can do to make things better in the future.

The underlying theme of the first part, “Authoritarian Technology: Attention!”, is how tech companies are taking advantage of psychology to highjack our attention to increase their profits. This progression is often slow and insidious, and before we know it, we’re hooked…

We have a natural desire to avoid pain and discomfort; we choose ease of use even when we know the downsides for ourselves and our environment. We give up power, privacy, and agency to make it easier to login, shop, connect, or make decisions as to what to read, watch, buy, or vote on. Quickly we become dependent on features that we didn’t know we needed.

The result of this isn’t just that we cede control of our well being to a few companies that are mostly concerned with keeping our attention in order to serve us more ads. We become addicts, constantly stimulated by the devices on our desks and in our pockets, unable to bear even a moment of boredom.

In order to connect with our inner lives in a healthy way we must to be willing and able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without immediately seeking distraction or escape.

The first time I made a plan to limit my phone use was an unmitigated disaster. Until that time, I hadn’t realized that everything about the apps I was using were designed to keep me engaged with them throughout the day, regardless of whether or not this made me happy.

If you’ve ever lost your phone or gone without it for a few days, this becomes apparent very quickly. The first day is unbearable. You feel like you’re missing out on everything: the urgent emails, the family emergencies, the invitations, and your favorite podcast. Checking your laptop at the end of the day, you realize you didn’t miss out on much. The next day is easier, as you start to enjoy the absence of push notifications, Trump tweets, and actually find the time to read that book that’s been on your shelf for years. By day three, you’re as relaxed as you can ever remember being and seeking out more face to face interactions to get your social updates.

Then you get your phone back. Having seen the light, you consider tossing it out the window to continue enjoying the peaceful feelings you experienced over the last 24 hours. I’ll do it! You think. Right after I get on Facebook and let everyone know I’ve got my phone back. And just like that the cycle continues.

After trying to make a change and failing, we beat ourselves up for not being able to resist the lure of our devices. But as Estrin points out, this is how they’re designed…

Incessant notifications, scrolling timelines, and brightly colored games hijack our brain chemicals, much in the same way a narcotic or sugar does, ensuring our maximum attention and use.

So, outside of relinquishing all of our material possessions and moving to an ashram in India, what can we do?

In part 2, “Authoritarian Technology: Reclaiming Control,” Estrin presents a multi-dimensional framework for action that, among other things, includes empowering people with information, protecting the vulnerable, and establishing a field of research to provide understanding of the byproducts of technological innovation.

Empowering people means getting to them when they’re young and most receptive to hearing new information. One way we could do this is to change the curriculum of students.

The curriculum should go beyond teaching coding or using PowerPoint. It should also include subjects like why one might want to turn off notifications, etiquette for sharing articles, dealing with online bullying, basic security practices.

In a perfect world, the tech companies will do their part by prioritizing the needs of the people over their own profit, but Estrin knows this is unlikely. Instead, she argues that we should work toward incremental change. Some of the proposed changes she has seem more likely than others.

With the current uproar around all the data these companies are collecting, I can see them becoming more transparent in the future. But, and it’s a big BUT, I believe they’ll only do this if they’re told they have to (new laws) or if they believe doing so is better (more profitable in the long run) for them as a company than the alternative.

Other changes seem less likely, such as limiting the amount of engagements on a post in order to slow down its virality by making people think longer about whether they should be sharing it or not. To me, this seems like giving Vicodin to a heroin addict. It might keep them from going through withdrawals for 30 minutes, but they’re going to keep hunting for a bigger fix, and someone will be there willing to provide it.

On the surface, it seems the most likely catalyst for immediate change would be government regulation. Maybe in the future our iPhone will come with the warning: Many apps are designed to be addictive, hijacking your attention and leading to a myopic worldview, increased anxiety and depression and an overly egocentric attitude.

Considering how much money the tech companies have to pay lobbyists to advocate on their behalf, this seems highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. After all, as liberal as Silicon Valley appears, the American Dream tech founders are chasing is still built on the premise that “success” is measured most often in monetary gain.

In my opinion, the catalyst to change our obsession with technology and indifference to its calamitous effects will occur through quantitative research. Estrin argues for an entire new field of research to be developed.

Actions must be informed by data — not tech optimism or panic.

I believe this is slowly happening and offers the highest potential for mitigating the negative aspects of addictive technology. Seeing Media Psychology offered as a doctorate program at Stanford gives me hope for the future.

For now, we should all aim to increase our self-awareness around the tech we use by continually asking ourselves questions.

  • Am I happier after scrolling through social media or might the notifications and colorful buttons just be manipulating my brain the same way drugs do?
  • Did I make the choice to pull out my phone, or is it unlocked and on an app before I realize I’ve even reached for it?
  • Is liking photos and re-tweeting and posting pictures the best use of my limited time, or might reading that book I’ve put off lead to a more fulfilling life?

Until we start to take some personal responsibility and demand change with our pocketbooks, corporations with hidden agendas will continue to deny or downplay the negative aspects of digital technology and promote its positive benefits. Thankfully, there are brilliant and powerful people like Judy Estrin increasingly advocating for change on all of our behalf. It’ll be slow, but I for one am looking forward to the day when more of my decisions are made by me.

 

Can MDMA Cure PTSD?

That’s the question the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been attempting to answer for years with their MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials.

For those who came for the MDMA, but don’t know much about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), WebMD defines it as…

A mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

It’s been described as being permanently locked in the fight-or-flight response state, with perceived threats causing your stress hormones to spike higher than normal and stay there for extended periods of time (many people are locked in this state for years).

I first heard of this condition after getting stabbed at 15 years old and becoming severely anxious and depressed in the coming years. Six months after this traumatic incident, I attempted to take my own life by slitting my wrist with a straight-edged razor. I’d been in therapy and on anti-depressants for a while at that point, but I still didn’t feel like I was getting any better. The therapy sessions were more about me trying to prove to myself that everything was okay than actually opening up about the terrifying thoughts and fears swirling around in my head. I was worried if I told my therapist that when I was driving I was afraid every car that was behind me for more than half a mile was following me I’d be labeled a paranoid schizophrenic and thrown in the psyche ward. Large crowds scared me. New people scared me. Even seemingly unrelated anxieties, like those of being in the presence of a girl I liked, would trigger intense emotions that seemed unbearable.

I was suffering from PTSD. I continued to suffer for years until time and enough self-help books to fill a library began to slowly wither away the constant worries I’d been plagued with. It was hell, and many people are stuck in that hell right now. They’re soldiers, police officers, and sexual assault victims. They’re your neighbors, co-workers, and family. They probably never speak of the pain they’re in because it hurts too much. They need help, but have tried other therapies and medications and nothing seems to work.

Enter MDMA.

For anyone that hasn’t been to Coachella in the last decade, MDMA can be thought of as Ecstasy or Molly, although the latter two drugs are very often cut with other dangerous chemicals making them much less safe. However, the effects these drugs have on the brain are nearly the same. Each increase the activity of three brain chemicals…

When combined, these chemicals work together to increase energy and happiness (dopamine), enhance formation and retrieval of memories and focus attention (norepinephrine), and promote a sense of well-being and empathy (serotonin).

The idea behind using MDMA in psychotherapy was that the feelings produced by the drug would greatly enhance the value the sufferer received during their therapy session, so much so that just two to three eight-hour sessions could produce long-lasting results. And that’s exactly what MAPS has observed in the trials they’ve undertaken to get the drug approved by the FDA. The completed studies have been limited mainly to combat veterans, sexual assault victims, and police officers and firefighters who had not responded to other treatments. On average, these people had been suffering from treatment-resistant PTSD for nearly 18 years. Cut to one year after their MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions and 68% of the participants in the Phase 2 trials no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Calling any treatment a Magic Bullet is a misnomer, but after the impressive results in Phase 2 trials, the FDA gave MDMA-assisted psychotherapy its Breakthrough Therapy Designation.

According to the FDA’s official FAQ section…

breakthrough therapy designation is for a drug that treats a serious or life-threatening condition and preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement on a clinically significant endpoint(s) over available therapies.

MAPS is beginning their Phase 3 trials now, the final phase before the FDA decides whether or not MDMA can be prescribed legally as a treatment for PTSD. Assuming the newest trials go as well as the previous ones, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could be available as a treatment option for PTSD within the next two years.

If that happens, many people with treatment-resistant PTSD might find a way out of their personal hell by combining therapy with a chemical that’s been said to “feel like Heaven.”

Can Psychedelics Change Your Mind for the Better?

One of my favorite books of the year is Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”. While reading it I nearly wore the skin off the tip of my pointer finger highlighting entire passages on my Kindle.

Don’t let the length of How to Change Your Mind intimidate you. It’s a page turner and I breezed through this book as quickly as any novel I’ve read. It reads like three books in one: A history of psychedelics, the neuroscience behind them, and Pollan’s personal accounts having taken them for the first time in his 60s. A common theme throughout the book is the potential for psychedelics to enhance the well being of those suffering from things like depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as allowing for “the betterment of well people.”

The book is littered with gems such as the story of Oscar Janiger, a pioneer in LSD research, who personally administered the compound to Aldous Huxley and Cary Grant. Later, Grant would credit psychedelics for ridding him of his sadness and vanity.

“I’ve had my ego stripped away. A man is a better actor without ego, because he has truth in him. Now I cannot behave untruthfully toward anyone, and certainly not to myself.” –Cary Grant

While the stories of famous figures were especially fun to read, the part that piqued my curiosity most had to do with the changes in the brain that psychedelics actuate.

Research being done at Johns Hopkins on patients suffering from anxiety due to life-threatening cancer suggests that a single experience with a high-dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) is enough to lessen their fear of death, with many people reporting that it was completely eradicated. Scientist’s believe this has to do with the psychedelic’s ability to quiet a person’s default mode network, the part of our brains we often refer to as the “ego” that’s responsible for self-related thinking and mind wandering. An over-active default mode network leads to obsessive self-reflection and negative patterns in thinking that are common in addicts and people suffering from depression.

Shutting down the default mode network for a period of time can be terrifying, as the ego will attempt to remain in control for as long as it can. But if you’re willing to surrender, you can experience a sort of ego death that allows for wonderful things to happen. As Pollan explains…

No longer defended by the ego, the gate between self and other is thrown wide open. And what comes through that opening for many people, in a great flood, is love. Love for specific individuals, yes, but also love for everyone and everything—love as the meaning and purpose of life, the key to the universe, and the ultimate truth.

What separates How to Change Your Mind from the rest of the literature on psychedelics is his detailed research and skeptical eye. His isn’t the conversion story of Allen Ginsberg, who, having taken psilocybin with Timothy Leary, “got on the phone and started dialing world leaders, trying to get Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong on the line to work out their differences.” His is a subtler shift. He advocates for the use of psychedelics in a controlled setting, with someone trained to not only help you through the trip, but also make sense of your experiences and integrate them into your life after.

One of the biggest benefits Pollan sees with psychedelics is their ability to tell us something about our minds…

This, I think, is the great benefit of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness, the light they reflect back on ordinary ones, which no longer seem quite so transparent or so ordinary.

I don’t know what the lasting impact of this book will be, but I can say that I’ve noticed a profound shift in the cultural conversation regarding psychedelics over the past few years, and especially in the months since Pollan’s book came out. I myself am hopeful that these compounds can be studied more widely in the future and the benefits people of different cultures have been experiencing for millennia will be used to help change our minds for the better.

For more from Michael Pollan, check out his talk with Tim Ferris on YouTube here:

…or download it on iTunes here…

Michael Pollan – Exploring the New Science of Psychedelics 

 

Superhero Cape or Anchor? Thoughts on Joe Rogan’s Elon Musk Interview

Elon Musk was on Joe Rogan’s podcast last week talking about all the things we’ve come to expect from him…

  • Tesla and Space X
  • The existential threat Artificial Intelligence poses
  • The world as a simulation
  • (Not) Flame Throwers
  • A soon-to-be-announced Neuralink product with the possibility of making anyone superhuman

I found the talk fascinating, especially in regards to the last point. By making everyone else superhuman, Elon Musk is effectively leveling the playing field for himself. But being a superior human being has its drawbacks.

“I don’t think people would like it that much,” the enigmatic Tesla founder said when the idea of there being multiple Elon Musk’s in the world came up. “It’s very hard to turn it off. It might sound great if it’s turned on, but what if it doesn’t turn off?”

Musk was clearly talking about the way his brain works, and the point was salient, especially in a day and age when the technology we use on a minute-by-minute basis is programming our brains to be turned on all of the time.

“I thought I was insane,” Musk says, speaking of his experience as a young boy. “Because it was clear other peoples’ minds were not exploding with ideas all the time.”

Toward the end of the podcast Elon Musk makes a plea for everyone to try and recognize the good in others and give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s hard-won advice from someone who’s suffered and succeeded and recognizes that the struggle goes on.

I have a feeling many more people feel similar to Musk than he thinks. They might not build spaceships and electric cars, but they create inspirational art, write deeply moving stories, film YouTube vlogs and sell their crafts on Etsy. Creating is the only thing that gives them shelter from the explosions in their heads.

Many of these people are what society would deem “mentally ill.” I’m one of them. The term does a good job of calling attention to the suffering we feel as a result of the way our brains work, but it also brands us with a label that’s too often used to shame and speaks nothing of our gifts. The cape we wear might feel like an anchor, but if it catches the wind we can fly.

Watch the full episode here:

Listen to the full episode here:

The Joe Rogan Experience – Episode #1169 w/ Elon Musk

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