Are You the Master of Your Fate?

“And this is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it. We fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense. It is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely… out of control.”

– The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

My History and Systems of Psychology professor posed an interesting question to my class the other week: you arrive home and surprise your girlfriend with a large and expensive bouquet of flowers, but how does she react? Does she run up to you with tears of joy in her eyes, and hug you with all the love in the world? Rather, does she react with scorn, convinced that you’re fruitlessly trying to repair your damaged relationship through presenting something as meaningless as a bouquet of flowers whose colors she finds ugly?

Context could help with predicting her reaction. If the relationship was healthy, then she would be more likely to give you all the love she has to offer. Alternatively, if the relationship was on the verge of its imminent dissolution, then she would be more likely to kick you out of the bedroom and force you to sleep on the couch for the night! Even if there is no context to clarify her reaction, no matter what, she is going to react one way or another.

The flower bouquet scenario was brought up in regards to a class discussion on explanatory reductionism, a set of philosophical ideas that states all universal phenomena, from the stars in the sky to the deep blue seas, can be explained by breaking them down into readily understandable terms. According to this paradigm, elements are broken down into molecules, which are broken down into atoms, which are further broken down into protons, neutrons, electrons, and a nucleus. Reductionists argue that by reducing complexity down to its simplest form, we can understand virtually everything in the universe, including free will.

At the same time, there is something deeply unsettling about explanatory reductionism. If we were to assume that, for instance, free will could be broken down and summed up as nothing more than an illusion the brain constructs for itself to reconcile a startling lack of control, then what does that say about us as a species? If we could use explanatory reductionism as an avenue toward perfectly predicting how our girlfriends would react upon the presentation of an expensive bouquet of flowers, then one might argue that it would take away a lot of the luster—the charm and the mystery—that make life worth living in the first place.

Consider the difficulty of describing a long walk on the beach with a beautiful woman you are maddeningly attracted to, sipping on an apple martini and sinking your toes into the sand as a gust of refreshing cool air brushes your face and the sun sets in the distance. As uniquely placid such an experience of consciousness may be, it therefore cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs in a science textbook that you would read once and take a test on the following week. But if a reductionist’s approach can be taken to the stars in the sky, the deep blue sea, and the molecules that constitute an element, what is to stop us from taking it to the mechanisms behind human consciousness and for the purposes of this article, free will?

Free will has always been a sensitive religious and spiritual subject because people despise being told that they do not have it, and they will go to great lengths to convince themselves that they are somehow special for having it. “Well, of course I have free will. After all, I chose what I wanted to eat for breakfast this morning, and I chose what I wanted to wear to work.” But rarely do they ever stop to consider where their choices come from, and how they are made.

The issue of free will became apparent to me after watching HBO’s critically acclaimed Westworld (2016). In Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Bicameral Mind), one of the hosts, or synthetic humans, discovers that what she interpreted as an awakening of self-awareness was yet another behavior that somebody had preprogrammed into her. Despite having thought she was in control the whole time, it turned out that control was simply a string of computer code. Aptly, the host snatched the tablet out of the programmer’s hands, and broke it, content with perpetuating the lie that her choices belonged to her and nobody else. Maybe the lead writers of Westworld were trying to communicate something about humanity’s own understanding of power, control, and freedom. If we discovered that our choices were under the control of something more powerful than ourselves, we, too, might react in the same way.  As the Architect puts it in The Matrix Reloaded, a movie that’s received heavy scrutiny for preaching determinism every five minutes, “Denial is the most predictable of all human responses.”

Whatever the case may be, I do not argue for free will because if there is no such thing as a “higher” or “lower” species, then there is very little to separate us from a spider, dog, chimpanzee, or rhinovirus. And yet, we never say that spiders, dogs, chimpanzees, or rhinoviruses possess free will—only that there is something special about the human being that endows him or her with the fantastic ability to choose. Why, then, must we always assume that our choices have any more weight to them than those of other species on the planet?

If you look at the animal kingdom, a lion’s life is essentially on rails from birth until death. The lion will hunt, look for food, and procreate, but nothing that the lion ever does will deviate it much from evolution’s prescription of its behavior. And if we happen to intervene on a lion’s hunt for its prey, we’ll take a step back and affirm that “it’s just nature. Let the lion do its thing,” as if to say that humankind should refrain from obstructing an animal’s lifestyle because unlike animals, humans benefit from being able to choose everything.

I’m not saying that humans are by and large incapable of choice because that’s a tough pill to swallow. To a certain degree, denial of the relative impossibility of free will is necessary toward maintaining sanity. What I am saying is that the decisions we make but that we think aren’t automatic are automatic, and the work of Ivan Pavlov would concur.

Ivan Pavlov was the first physiologist to systemically uncover the origins of learning. He discovered dogs that had been conditioned to associate the ringing of a bell with the presentation of a bowl of food would produce significantly more saliva than dogs that had not made the association, and thus even when the bells were rung but the food was withheld, the conditioned dogs would salivate anyway. This was considered a landmark study because it demonstrated that learned behavior can occur involuntarily when the subject is conditioned into pairing a stimulus with a physiological response to that stimulus.

I remember learning about classical conditioning in high school and thinking about how cool it was to catch myself in the middle of an automatic behavior. For example, I clean my retainer every morning by placing it into a glass cup, filling the cup to the brim with hot water, and letting a dissolvable antibacterial tablet eradicate all of the plaque while I take a shower. One day, I happened to leave my retainer in the cup without cleaning it, so I never stowed it away into its respective plastic case. Before going to sleep, I then reached for the case and opened it, and curiously, it was empty! “Oh… That’s right,” I reminded myself. “I forgot to clean it today.”

A second example of behavioral automaticity from my experience comes from routinely charging my smart phone, as its battery power does not last long. I spend a large portion of the day sitting at my desk writing articles, completing homework, and editing YouTube videos, and thus I look behind me quite often to see if my phone has received any text messages or Facebook notifications. However, when I unplug my smartphone to listen to Pandora and type a paper, I still check behind me to see if I have received any notifications, even when my phone is sitting on my lap. I’m sure you’ve experienced a similar phenomenon: you experience a mini heart attack when you can’t find your car keys, only to discover that they were in the palm of your hand the whole time. How silly of you!

Above were two rather mundane representations of what a lack of free will might look like, but they get you to contemplate the extent to which behavior is rhythmic, especially since most of our days consist of a pattern in that we wake up, attend to school and work responsibilities, and go to sleep. Everything in between—brushing teeth, eating breakfast, and watching Netflix—is on autopilot. If we make even the slightest alteration to our schedules, like going to the bar instead of watching a television show on Netflix, we exhaust many cognitive resources adjusting to it. After a while, however, it just becomes another box that we check off before the next day kicks in, and we don’t waste time on giving it a second thought.

Next, consider the science behind dreaming versus wakefulness as it applies to the debate of free will. We still don’t know how and why we dream, but we can be confident that dreams occur in REM sleep, or deep sleep. Dreams have also been speculated as protective mechanisms against the overwhelming bombardments of stimuli that we take in every day. In other words, the brain staves off information overload by taking these stimuli, including people’s faces, music lyrics, and smells and tastes of Chinese food, and weaves them into cohesive narratives that the hippocampus goes on to convert into memories. If dreams are therefore an unconscious response to the stimuli that the brain has encoded in the past 8 to 10 hours, our behaviors are likewise generated in large part by the unconscious mind, and everything we do, from going on a blind date to eating a slice of pizza at two in the morning, is nothing more than a story that’s been written out well in advance but that the brain has to “act out” by virtue of the vast amount of information that it sorts through for the sake of its ongoing survival. But if wakefulness cannot function without a certain amount of sleep and dreaming, who is to say that we have any more control over our wakeful states than we do over our dreams?

Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) might be able to answer that question. They wanted to test the lag time between when the brain consciously intends to move and when movement is actually carried out, hypothesizing that if the conscious intention to move is what supposedly generates the movement, an action they referred to as “movement genesis,” then the movement should occur after the conscious intention, and not before it.

In Matsuhashi and Hallett’s study, participants were instructed to randomly perform brisk finger movements every time they heard a tone, and refrain from expending mental energy by counting the number of movements already made and planning when to make the following movements. They made sure to only move their fingers whenever a thought of finger movement had precipitated it. On occasion, a specialized stop signal was played that informed the participants of their intentions to move and thus signified to them to immediately cancel finger movements thereafter.

A graph of tones documents two key test conditions: (1) before participants are made aware by the stop signal of their conscious intentions to move their fingers, and (2) after participants are made aware of their conscious intentions to move their fingers but cannot cancel their movements because the stop signal was played too late. One subject yielded a lag time of about 1 second between his conscious intention to move and movement genesis, that is, he moved his finger 1 second before even thinking about it. As such, Matsuhashi and Hallett concluded that movement genesis occurs on multiple levels of the unconscious mind and is not as simple as thinking about when to move first, and carrying out the movement itself second. The evidence indicates that a movement is carried out well after any thoughts of movement have been created.

Obviously, there is more to be said about the topic of free will—about its philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience—but with what little evidence we have at our disposal thus far, there is a lot going on beneath the surface of every decision we’ve made and are going to make.

Maybe our minds just have minds of their own.

 

Reference

Matsuhashi, M., & Hallett, M. (2008). The timing of the conscious intention to move. European Journal of Neuroscience, 28(11), 2344-2351.

Video: Why We Are Already Living in the Apocalypse: A Walking Dead Video Essay – Part 3 (Philosophy)

Here is Part 3 of my 5 part Walking Dead video essay. Stick around for Part 4!

Video: Why We Are Already Living in the Apocalypse: A Walking Dead Video Essay – Part 1 (Power)

Here is Part 1 of my 5 part Walking Dead video essay. Stick around for Part 2!

“Positive Intelligence” (Review)

Last summer, I listened to “Positive Intelligence” (2012), an audiobook by Shirzad Chamine that my father introduced me to. You can also find a paper version of the text available for purchase at PositiveIntelligence.com. In it, Chamine explains how our minds are controlled by 10 entities, or “Saboteurs,” each with their own intents and motivations.

The 10 rather arbitrary Saboteurs, as their name suggests, sabotage our emotional health by corrupting our thinking, and thus account for much of the pain and anguish we feel in life. For example, the Judge is the primary Saboteur which all other Saboteurs stand in service to. Its job is to relentlessly heckle and scrutinize you for your every little mistake as a way of pushing you toward some much needed improvement. Sound familiar?

Chamine tells you to give your Judge a name as a way of identifying it so that when it appears to hijack and “sabotage” your thought process, you can strip it of its credibility. He talked about the creative names people gave their Judges; the Destroyer and the Executioner are two examples. I call my Judge the Chief Executive Cognitive Mediator, or CECM for short, because it mediates many of the higher-level cognitive processes that constitute rational decision making and emotional regulation. I also call it the Chief Executive Cerebral Mediator.

Other Saboteurs include the Avoider, the Controller, the Pleaser, and the Hyper-Achiever. They are malicious by their nature, but they served an important survival function in early childhood by steering us away from particularly dangerous threats, such as a hot stove, busy traffic, or a tiger. The main premise of Chamine’s book is that while the Saboteurs continue to remain useful, they are not needed as much in adulthood, mainly due to how our brains have developed enough for us to flee danger through the use of basic intuition and common sense.

Chamine believes that the greatest enemy we face in life is not the government, our parents, spouse, coworkers, or managers, but rather our very own internal mental conflicts—our Judge. And to a certain extent, he’s right. There were moments where an annoying customer would make me feel terrible at work only to find myself feeling even worse upon ruminating on it at home. It’s always been my reaction to the event and not the event itself that’s caused the majority of my depression. Unfortunately, Shirzad Chamine’s “Positive Intelligence” lacks in soundness for the simple fact that many if not all of his techniques for conquering the Saboteurs are just plain impractical, and also that his definitions of what Saboteurs even are prove to be very nebulous.

Regarding the impracticality of his techniques for conquering what he calls Saboteurs, Chamine has made me question his credentials on one too many occasions. He explains that the Sage is what’s used to overpower the Saboteurs, and that at a biological level, the Saboteurs dwell in the limbic system while the Sage dwells in the prefrontal cortex. If you activate your Sage, you can tone down your Saboteurs, and in order for your Sage to gain greater control over your Saboteurs, you have to “build up your PQ brain muscles.” This can be accomplished by fully immersing yourself in any activity that stimulates the senses, such as going to the bathroom, driving to work, and eating lunch. While I do agree with Chamine that distracting yourself from distressful feelings is a good way to work through them, it is not as simple as just doing a few “PQ reps” every day. Rubbing your fingers together (yes, that is a technique he proposes) is not going to allow you to recover from the deficits in your mental health.

The other issue I had with “Positive Intelligence” is Chamine’s ineffective attempts at precisely defining the Saboteurs. It was a relief to attach some words to the negative thoughts that constantly plague my mind, but I also found myself struggling to identify the Saboteurs based on the terminology that Chamine used. Extending from this issue is how he never quite specified where the Saboteurs activate in the brain, apart from the Saboteur-rich limbic system and the Sage-rich prefrontal cortex. Emotions are much more complex than Chamine leads his audience to believe. It would have been nice if he were to at the very least show brain scans of patients in “Sage mode” and “Saboteur mode,” differentiating between the emotional signals that fire in response to a problem and the rational thought that is required to solve the problem.

For the reasons discussed above, I cannot recommend Shirzad Chamine’s “Positive Intelligence” for readers who are oriented toward more scientific literature. His evidence for the Saboteurs is barebones and simply insufficient. It’s nonetheless a great self-help read.

The Dangers of Seeing Black & White

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the narco world, it’s that life is more complicated than you think. Good and bad, they’re relative concepts.”

Narcos (Season 1, Episode 1), Steve Murphy

I used to think colorblind patients literally saw the world in black and white, like their lives were an unending 1940s noir film that lacked in depth and quality. Later, I realized that colorblindness is actually a deficiency of the retina’s cone cells to properly differentiate between colors. It is, of course, still possible to see in black and white, but not in the way that you would expect.

Disclaimer: I take no credit for what I’m about to say here. The purpose of this article is to put my own spin on what’s been known for the entire course of human existence.

You do not need eyes to see. I was introduced to this concept when I attended therapy last year, as I wanted to get a better feel for how the process worked. I only went a couple of times because I didn’t see the value in talking about my problems to a stranger whose job was to more or less regurgitate much of what I already knew. My therapist, by her grace, brought up an interesting point that I will never forget.

She told me, “Well Marc, you seem like an all-or-nothing kind of guy.”

Her statement struck a chord with me because it identified a personality trait that I wasn’t previously aware of. It appeared that my understanding of the problems I was discussing ad nauseum was the real problem, and not external forces. Perhaps if I viewed them as opportunities and not impossibly unreachable obstacles, they wouldn’t be so problematic anymore.

I felt transformed and revitalized, but as time had come to pass, I reverted back to my age-old ways of interpreting reality. Nonetheless, my understanding of what my therapist told me that day became further solidified upon listening to the audiobook Positive Intelligence (2012) by Shirzad Chamine. There was a particular chapter in that book where Chamine referenced an ancient Taoist parable that is also my now-favorite philosophy.

The parable chronicles 5 days in a Chinese province. On the first day, a horse jumps a poor farmer and his teenage son’s fence, causing major property damage. However, by the terms of the local law, the boy and his father are allowed to keep the horse, meaning they will become wealthy and prominent. On the second day, the horse gallops back to the mountains and leaves the farm behind, yet returns on the third day with a dozen more wild horses. On each of these three days, the father dispassionately asked his son, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

On the fourth day, the boy gets violently knocked off one of the horses and breaks his leg. His father, noticing that his son is in tremendous pain, asks him once again with his usual indifferent tone, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” Finally, on the fifth day, the province goes to war, and Army recruiters arrive at the town where the poor farmer and his son live and begin drafting able-bodied young men to go off and fight. Every young man in the town is sent away to certain death except for the farmer’s son, and all because of his broken leg from the day before.

This old but gold parable led to the creation of an idea I call Noir Syndrome, with noir being a reference to the film genre that was traditionally shot in black and white. Noir Syndrome proposes that all of our anxieties originate from our tendency to view life as falling on one extreme or another without taking into account deeper meaning, contrary evidence, and alternative perspectives. All or nothing.

We’ve been conditioned to view life in this way because it is effortless and requires very little additional thought. However, this manner of thinking is dangerous in that it harbors the delusion that everything is always operating on a good-bad dichotomy, when it is anything but. Chamine talks about the same thing in his book. Again, I am not the first person to think of this, and neither was he.

How do you even define what is good and what is bad, or what should fall on one extreme end of the spectrum and the other? The poor farmer could only ever ask this question because he was wise enough to know that it didn’t warrant an answer. Technically, every “bad” thing in life is nothing more than a momentary inconvenience, while the extent of this inconvenience is the primary determinant for how “bad” it really is by our standards. Life is a double helix of sorts, and not a straight line; all good eventually leads in to bad and all bad eventually leads in to good, creating a self-contradiction of sorts since the two cannot be categorized independently from each other. They are two sides of the same coin.

You have to search for some shred of good in every tragedy or setback you experience. In fact, you don’t even have a choice in the matter. This is because if you constantly view things as the best or worst, good or bad, all or nothing, you’re setting yourself for unimaginable heartbreak if they fall somewhere in the middle. By that logic, you determine your reality by setting the parameters for how it’s supposed to look in your eyes.

Start seeing grey, and the world becomes a whole lot more colorful.

The 5 Universal Truths Society Never Taught Us

Growing up, information is deliberately withheld from us, either because the truth hurts or because we’re not ready to hear it yet. We were taught that there are no winners or losers in life, real beauty can only be found on the inside, and that good things will happen to good people. Somehow, it is considerably more complicated than that. The same could be said for that one disgruntled office worker of twenty years who was denied that much deserved promotion, only to walk in on his wife cheating on him with his boss. He, too, discovered that perhaps the world isn’t as friendly as he was lead to believe, and that his life could be uprooted in any instant. For this reason, I have devised five universal truths that society was either too afraid or unwilling to teach us as children.

Truth 1: If something is too good to be true, then it probably is.

As someone who is now undeterred by disappointment, I cannot even begin to delve into the number of times I was confident that a wish of mine would come true, only to get severely burned. I just couldn’t help myself.

You do not have to make the same mistake that I did. Question not just the bad, but also the good things that happen to you, understanding there is always more to the story than the first few pages. That way, you will be prepared for any abrupt change in circumstances that might arise, like walking in on your boss who denied you that much deserved promotion courting with your wife.

Truth 2: Expectations do not always correspond to reality.

I’ve always said that it’s better to be a pessimist than an optimist, because at least the pessimist can take solace in knowing that the future event he or she expects to turn into a disaster…turns into a disaster. Although you shouldn’t view every opportunity as a potential train wreck, you should nevertheless remain skeptical and most of all, cognizant. Expectations of future events more often than not take unexpected turns in the present, and not always for the best.

Truth 3: You can’t cry when the forest is reduced to nothing but ash when you were the one who started the fire.

If you’ve ever been through the five stages of grief, you’ve probably asked yourself, “How could this have happened to me?” The question you should have instead asked yourself is, “How could this have not happened to me?” While this might be difficult to hear, we are always the cause of our own suffering. It is the premise by which many self-help books have based their entire platforms on. Of course, it is easy to default culpability to another person or some inexplicable, all-controlling and ubiquitous force in the universe, but really we should be coming to terms with how even our deepest wounds are self-inflicted. Only by changing our attitude toward these wounds can we ever permit them to heal.

Truth 4: Humankind is the architect of its problems.

This one extends from the previous point, albeit on a larger scale. You always hear stories on the news of corrupt governments, degenerative societies, and terrorist attacks, yet one thing these stories do not cover in much depth is that all of these depravities are instigated by man and not natural forces. The greatest problems mankind faces, like climate change, war, genocide, famine, and poverty, can all be traced back to none other than mankind itself. Imagine how much more peaceful the world would be if everyone got along and had their ways. Talk about a real pipe dream.

Truth 5: People don’t change. They grow.

Sometimes I hear from people that, “He’s changed. He would never hurt me again.”, “I’ve changed.”, or “I can change.”, when they’re really excusing themselves for tolerating blatantly abusive and destructive behavior. Actual change, at least from a personality standpoint, is not possible. No matter how many times we attempt to adjust some aspect about ourselves that we do not like, we always revert back to the state we were in when we made the adjustment. The reason I substitute change with growth is because growth implies some degree of permanence, whereas change assumes that we could end up the way we were. Everyone is the sum of all their experiences, and every experience stays with us.

And there you have it–5 universal truths society never taught us as children. Are there any that you are guilty of denying on a regular basis? I’m guilty of at least two.