Free Will, Regret and the Choice Engine

choices of doors

While I was on vacation earlier this month,  I had a few “heavy” talks with a friend who was with us. At one point we got into a discussion of regrets. My philosophy is no regrets. I think regrets hurt our present and future. I’m a believer in the idea that if you change one thing in your past, you change everything that follows. And I am not unhappy with my present and changing something in the past that I wasn’t happy about would move me out of this present.  Yes, changing something might make my present better in some ways,  but there’s no guarantee of that positive result.

Of course, this is all a thought experiment since we can’t change the past. That only happens in science-fiction.

Are you reading this article because you chose to? Or are you doing so as a result of forces beyond your control? That is how an article I read this past week about free will and regrets begins.

Tom Stafford is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield who studies learning and decision making. “The Choice Engine” is an “interactive essay” about the psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of free will.

How and why do we choose? Are our choices free, or determined by things like our past, our brains or our environment? Are our choices ours?

Studies have shown that people who believe things happen randomly and not through our own choice often behave much worse than those who believe in free will. That makes sense. If you don’t think you have a choice in the matter, then what-the-hell is the difference?

There is a simple example given using an insect to illustrate. When a female digger wasp is ready to lay her eggs, she hunts down a cricket or similar prey, paralyses it with a sting, drags it back to the lip of her burrow, and then enters to check for blockages. If you move the cricket a few centimetres away before she re-emerges, she will again drag it to the threshold and again leave it to check for blockages. She will do this over and over. The wasp has no free will – no choice in the matter. The digger wasp has become an example for biologists of determinism.

Determinism is the idea that what we think of as a “choice” is in fact a path dictated by pre-existing factors.  I don’t subscribe to that philosophy.

“I’m no wasp,” you might say. “My choices are my own. Freely made.” But these neuroscience-of-decision-making people seem to think that sophisticated animal that we are, we are also trapped in behavior beyond our control. Free will is just an illusion.

I disagree.  Stafford, a cognitive scientist, disagrees.  I would like to believe that he is correct and that “… the evidence shows that most people have a sense of their individual freedom and responsibility that is resistant to being overturned by neuroscience.”

Stafford’s book, Mind Hacks: Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain, has hacks/exercises that examines specific operations of the brain. They are a hands-on way to see how your brain responds and learn about the “architecture”of the brain. You can try to “Release Eye Fixations for Faster Reactions,” “See Movement When All is Still,” “Feel the Presence and Loss of Attention,” and “Understand Detail and the Limits of Attention.”

It is your choice whether or not to read the book.

The Strange Case of Phineas Gage

I love reading stories about brain research. Exploring the brain is like exploring outer space. I’m not sure that we will ever figure everything out about either of them.

Go back a hundred year or more and scientists didn’t know anything about which parts of the brain did cognitive functions where the senses were located.  It was still considered legitimate for doctors to use phrenology. That was measuring bumps on someone’s head as a way to detect mental illness.

And then came Phineas Gage. Poor Phineas had a tragic accident.

In 1848, Phineas Gage was a 25-year-old foreman of railroad crew that was cutting a railroad bed into rock for a new rail line in Cavendish, Vermont.

It was dangerous work. They would pack explosives into a hole, pack it down with a tamping iron, top it with sand and then stand back and blow it up.

September 13 was not a lucky day for Phineas. He was packing a hole and probably was distracted. looked away while he was tamping and the metal pole hit rock, set off a spark and ignited the explosive.

The explosion shot his tamping iron into Gage’s skull just under his eye socket and it came out the back of his head.

That tamping iron was 3 feet long, 1.25 inches round and it weighed 13 pounds. It did not kill him.

skull
Animation of Gage’s injury in the frontal lobe.

But it did change him. I don’t mean that he looked different, but he did. It was his personality that changed.

His friends and workers described the pre-accident Gage as being “amiable, with a well-balanced mind… shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation.”

But Gage after the accident swore at everyone, was constantly drunk, became a lousy worker and was no longer much of a friend.

He lost his railroad job could only get menial work.

But his injury showed doctors that there was a link between the brain and our personalities. With our current knowledge, we can map where the tamping iron passed through his brain and the function of the temporal lobe. We now know that the temporal lobe is responsible for processing information we see and hear. But it also is responsible for long-term memory, behavior and personality and processing language.

Phineas Gage moved to San Francisco to be near his mother and sister, but after suffering from a number of seizures, he died 1860 at age 36.

MORE
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
https://www.learning-mind.com

Medical School Art Class

art class
A Penn State Medical School student participating in the “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” course – Image: Patrick Mansell via news.psu.edu

Educators have been hearing a lot about STEM the past decade. STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and there has been a big push to increase STEM courses and STEM skills in all levels from elementary school through college.

I am a proponent of STEAM which includes the arts and humanities into the mix.  So, I was pleased to read that students in the Penn State College of Medicine take a required humanities course in their fourth year to help broaden students’ perspectives and encourage them to bring a humanistic approach to their work.

Scientists and engineers are often designing products for human use, but their med school curriculum doesn’t usually include much humanities like psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature or art. The STEM fields increasingly need to consider biases, ethical problems and social inequities that are part of those other fields.

How about some impressionist painting? A seminar on “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” engages students with the work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. Is this art history? No, the exercises range from “observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists… and through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.”

Art does good things to your brain – literally (see video below)

But we have a history of separating the humanities from the sciences. Think about how while industrialist Andrew Carnegie was donating lots of money to higher education, he was pointing out that the study of “dead languages” and other humanities subjects were useless pursuits. Industrialist Richard Teller Crane said back in 1911 that no one with “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness… are those who are useful.”

I think Aristotle was all for STEAM and with the creation of universities, medieval thinkers used the “Liberal Arts” of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) as a way to provide a balanced education.

Neil Degrasse Tyson asks “Suppose they did that back in Renaissance Europe? What would Europe be without the support and interest in art? We measure the success of a civilization by how well they treat their creative people.”

And although I’m thinking about art and literature here, I will note that Albert Einstein seemed to get a lot of use out of his violin that went beyond musical thinking.

 

Restructuring Your Thoughts

As a seeker, I have gone down many roads. One thing I’ve decided traveling all those roads is that it is you are primarily responsible for what you get in life.

I have found that certain mottoes or mantras or whatever you want to call them talk about this idea. I have found this in religions and self-help books. It’s a wide range.

I don’t advocate the  idea that you can  visualize what you want from life, though that certainly will be an appealing way to attract followers. I’m also don’t buy into the law of attraction.

So many of these approaches involve thinking positively, and having a positive attitude is certainly better than having a negative one. The more scientific (or psychological) version of this is something I encountered when I was “in therapy.” That is cognitive restructuring. Right off, let me say that this helped me, but it was not enough on its own. It was a tool in the toolbox.

I have also seen this called cognitive reframing. I don’t have the degrees to explain all this properly but this technique is part of cognitive therapy. My doctor wanted me to identify and then change thought patterns and beliefs that were causing stress and/or depression.

When I was depressed, I found everything meaningless. I had a very difficult time naming any things – food, places, activities – that I enjoyed or that I felt were really were important. At the time, that did not seem odd. Now, it seems very odd – and sad.

The doctor wanted me to keep a journal, which is easy for me because I have been doing it most of life. I agree that writing our thoughts down is one way to take control of them. I do it currently with food as part of a diet I am following.

From my journal entries, the doctor observed that a lot of my anxiety seemed to come out of my imagined scenarios of situations that were really quite unlikely to happen. This observation made sense to me, but controlling or training my mind to think constructively and positively was difficult. It wasn’t working and I just could not believe that I could change things in my life by thinking differently about them.

I looked back at my journal from that period and found an entry that had the line “Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs” written at the top.

Therapists like to turn your comments into questions. It is some kind of reflection technique. I was unhappy with my work life at that time.
“Why are you unhappy with your job,” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I’m making less money than my previous job.
“Do you equate happiness with financial status?”
No, but it would be nice to be paid what I think I am worth, and it would be great to get things I want and not worry about bills.

Then we would talk about what I might do to get a raise in salary or a promotion or even apply for other jobs that could give me what I was seeking. Of course, it was really about not just the money but feeling like my work was not valued in non-monetary ways too.

I had read back then that we have somewhere 10 and 20,000 thoughts per hour. This statistic freaked me out. Too too much thinking. In my insomniac nights (of which there were many in that period), I just could not turn off thoughts. Despite years of meditation training and practice, nothing worked.

This was a time before smartphones and early in the Internet days, but the therapist wanted me to tune out the news on TV and radio. (Probably more important today to do some tuning out, especially if you are anxious or depressed.) He suggested that I return to some print novels that I had loved earlier in life. But since most of us are online a lot (and you are online now reading this), and not everyone can afford or is willing to go into therapy, you can find websites with names like TheEmotionMachine.com and VeryWellMind.com that might get you started.

I can’t say that it did not help me, but I can’t say it was the action that pulled me out of that negative state. There were drugs, which I was opposed to at first, but seemed to help too. There were other changes in my life – some made by me, some made to my life by others.

Have you had any experience with this approach to making your life better?  Comments welcome.

Brain Dump

brain

A brain dump is letting out all your thoughts. Not in a barrage of conversation, but via pen to paper. It’s a form of release. It is a way to face reality. It means putting thoughts somewhere else.

I came across several articles lately about how to do a brain dump. Try brightontheday.com and lifehack.org. I originally read about it in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. It seems so simple – too simple – to be effective, but it does seem to work.

I look at Weekends in Paradelle (and perhaps my other blogs too) as a kind of brain dump where I work out and organize my thoughts.

Brain dumps also have another application that is less noble. On forums and social media sites, students ask for answers to exams. Some requests are not so lacking in academic integrity and may want training material or practice items. In academic circles,  a brain dump is when a test taker goes from an exam online to dump everything that they can recall about the test questions and answers. Yes, it is cheating.

It can also be the transfer of a large quantity of information from one person to another or to a storage and retrieval medium. In slang, it can describe a hurried explanation of a system, job, skillset. In computing, the phrase describes the taking of a snapshot of the internal state of a knowledge database for transfer or archiving purposes.

For a legitimate brain dump of yourself, you might want to start by trying doing one before heading to bed for the night. You dump all the things still lingering in your mind onto a piece of paper and let them go. The idea is to get out everything that has the potential to keep you up at night. Don’t make it a To Do list for tomorrow. That will just keep you up! But if upcoming things are on your mind, put them down, but let them go.

According to “the rules,” after you write down anything and everything, you should start a new page and organize. This is where I depart from the rules because I don’t like turning the dump into a To Do list, and putting categories and priorities to the list does just that.

I do find it useful to just write my thoughts in little group in the corners of a page. One corner for concerns, one for errands, places I want to go – whatever things seem to be filling my head. I have seen actual brain dump pads online, but a blank sheet works for me and you could just make a sheet that works for you on your computer and print out a few. I also have seen brain dump journals and perhaps keeping your sheets in one place might be useful to look back on later – but a blank book would work fine and is probably cheaper.

Is this a daily practice? Not for me, but I suppose it could be a daily practice. I seem to do it when I need it. It often happens late at night.

I know that academic brain dump is all about getting access to other people’s brain dumps, but I think the real value is in examining your own thoughts.

A Brain Hack in a Teacup

There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.

Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.

I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.

White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.

Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.

Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”

Can we get L-theanine from other sources?  It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).

Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.

Monk Hands

It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.

The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.

What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.

Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.

That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.