The Machine that Builds the Machine

My thoughts on thoughts, nudging the mind, and how technology demands we take an active role in managing our mental state.

This post is discussed in Episode 14 - Reaching Human Potential at Home Depot.


I’ve recently spent a lot of time thinking about thoughts. Most of us identify with our thoughts yet they can be surprisingly out of our control. Consider that at one point or another most people will struggle with negative thoughts or the mental gymnastics of procrastination. In the moment our thoughts appear immutable however patterns of thought, or mental states, can be recognized and escaped. In turn, learning to recognize these patterns and even induce them can be something worth exploring.

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Nested within the nature of thought are topics such as the philosophy of self[1], meditation, and mindfulness. While the recent popularity of mindfulness has brought this area closer to the mainstream it continues to engender intense skepticism. No small part of that skepticism comes from meditation’s deeply rooted history in religion and eastern mysticism. Other correlates include self-help books, pseudoscience, 70’s gurus and cheap incense. In turn the barrier to entry is high and willingness to discuss low[2].

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It’s no surprise then that mindfulness has led the recent surge in interest; it’s an applied contemporary packaged for the masses. The religious and academic contexts have been distilled away and the focus has shifted towards the outcome: a happier, more content life. Silicon Valley has added it’s practice to the ranks of other cushy benefits like nap pods and frozen yogurt machines. Books like Dan Harris’ “10% Happier” have become New York Times Best Sellers. Early scientific research on mindfulness is not only promising but has propelled scientists onto lists of the most influential people in the world.

 The exploding popularity of the word “mindfulness” in books, 1800-2008, data from Google Ngram Viewer

The exploding popularity of the word “mindfulness” in books, 1800-2008, data from Google Ngram Viewer

 Rising Google Search interest in the topic of mindfulness, 2004-present, Data from Google Trends

Rising Google Search interest in the topic of mindfulness, 2004-present, Data from Google Trends

Think what you will about mindfulness and the like. None of this takes away from the fact that it can be a useful exercise to pay attention to the qualities of thoughts and do an accounting of sorts. Observe how you feel, when you feel it, and whether you like it. Over time patterns emerge. See if you can notice their characteristics and when they arise, and use this new perspective to nudge your mind.  


States of the Mind

Mindful

To be mindful is to pay full attention to the present moment in its entirety from the environment to physical sensation, thoughts, and emotion. This involves noticing things as they arise but returning to the moment rather than being pulled away. It’s a feeling of strong agency and attentional control. Take the example of noticing you are thirsty. For someone with poor attentional control that stream of thought might look something like this:

I’m thirsty. Or maybe I’m hungry… no that’s not it I just ate breakfast. Oh I have to make that dinner reservation for Sarah. I should really spend more time with her. *phone vibrates* I can’t believe Chris posted that on Instagram. What other notifications do I have? Ugh I have a direct message on Slack from my boss. I really need to get that report done.

These aren’t racing thoughts but they certainly aren’t cohesive or goal-oriented. The sense of thirst comes into awareness and then it triggers other thoughts like a chain reaction. For some there is no escape; this chain starts at the alarm clock and ends when crawling back into bed. This type of aimless thought is only haphazardly productive at best. At worst it’s exhausting. It doesn't have to be this way. If you have a strong sense of mindfulness that stream of thought might look something like this.

I’m thirsty. *silence*

That’s it. There’s no need to do anything but notice. Every thought doesn’t need to be interrogated nor does it have to lead to another. If you would’ve forgotten that dinner reservation or task from your boss in this scenario the solution isn’t to think harder; it’s a to-do list.

Mindfulness is particularly useful for emotions like frustration and anger. Often these emotions kick-off negative thought spirals where you are compelled to fully articulate the wrong doing either in your head or by venting to others. Such an event could color your mood for hours or days. The alternative is to simply notice the anger and turn your attention away from the past trigger and back to the present. While they can’t be out right avoided it’s amazing how much faster these emotions can dissipate with improved attentional control. Ninety-nine percent of thoughts should simply be noticed and let go. To do so you must practice the noticing and the letting go.

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Distraction

It’s one thing to be temporarily distracted by something; it’s an entirely different thing to be in a state of distraction. This state is best described as the mind and body being in entirely different places. Occasionally there are things that pull us away from the present with good authority, for example the sudden thought that you may have forgotten to turn off the oven. At other times we leave the present for no good reason. Whatever is happening now isn’t enough to capture our brain’s attention so it searches the space of all things for something, anything to capture it. That could be the work we have at our desk, what we’re going to make for dinner, or the latest headline. Picture the following:

You’re at work and you’ve just sat down at your desk in the oh-so-modern open office. Before you can catch your breath Jim is getting worked up about ham sandwiches again. When you first joined you humored him but you now know this happens on a semi-regular basis. Once these rants start they usually last a good five minutes. You have no interest in ham sandwiches and are already well informed on Jim’s hot takes. Jim is a good guy; he’s just way too into sandwich theory. You can’t ignore Jim or shut the conversation down because you have a working relationship to maintain. Maybe Jim is your supervisor. Maybe you’re too new to risk appearing standoffish. So you nod along and pretend to give Jim 50% of our attention while actually giving him 10%. The other 90% is debating where you’re going to go for lunch.

That is the moment attention is separated from the present. In this case it’s a decent strategy for dealing with Jim but it’s possible for this type of diversion to encroach elsewhere. For example, sitting at a family gathering where the conversion about what kind of cheese was used in the mashed potatoes isn’t quite riveting enough so you scroll through Facebook. Or choosing to keep your phone on the table at a restaurant, ready like an emergency fail-switch. Especially in cases where we’ve chosen to be together it’s not enough for just your body to be present.

I swear I know people that live their entire lives in this state of sustained distraction. Nothing in the present is ever good enough to pull them back. During bleak times I’ve spent days like this as well, but I can only imagine what those struggling from an attentional or dissociative disorder are going through. It must be a kind of hell. For those of us with more agency the mind is like a dog on a walk. It’s often best to keep a short leash but it's okay to give some slack occasionally. Some people let their dogs walk all over the place. For others you’re not sure who’s walking who. Don’t be that guy.

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Flow

Flow is the feeling of full immersion. It’s being lost in work and forgetting to eat. Time seems to bend. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for productivity but it’s also when the rest of the world melts away during a movie and control of emotion is ceded to the screen; the protagonist’s plight becomes the viewer’s. If a movie isn’t good enough, or work is too easy, the mind tends to wander and you lose the experience of flow.

 Tapping flow in work, the greater your skill the greater the challenge required. Too easy results in boredom, too difficult results in anxiety/frustration.

Tapping flow in work, the greater your skill the greater the challenge required. Too easy results in boredom, too difficult results in anxiety/frustration.

Most of my desires are in some way a desire to be lost in an experience. As a kid I could spend entire weekends out of my mind immersed in a video game. Now I seek obsessive hobbies, travel, and friends eager to have conversations beyond the weather. The means have changed but I’ve always sought things that pull me into a state of obsession. All well and good but flow can be like an amphetamine. My instinct is to seek bigger, better, longer, and more intense experiences. I want a virtual reality desktop computer and a vacation in space.

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Uninvited breaks from flow, just like a drug, result in frustration. If someone’s phone rings in a theater tensions rise as the crowd considers mob violence. Subcultures exist around movie plot holes and graphical glitches in video games. Open offices and Slack may encourage collaboration, but they also reduce the friction for interruption. Most employees want quiet work spaces and fewer meetings, not arcade rooms. Given the pleasures of flow and the reaction to its loss, one conclusion is that the mind has set a Father John Misty-like "total entertainment forever” as a heuristic. Since that goal is unsustainable the question becomes where, when and how much.

Flow remains the most perplexing of the states I find myself in. If mindfulness is the source of contentedness, flow is the source of accomplishment and pleasure. I definitely want those in my life but using them as a guide appears to be a fast track to chronic dissatisfaction and constant searching.


Nudging the Mind

So to be mindful is to pay attention to the present, distraction is a state where not enough attention is given to the present, and flow is when one piece of the present fully captures attention. Once you notice these states you’ll want to nudge, explore, and induce them to your benefit.

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Finding Mindfulness

Chances are that if you’ve never given much thought to the state of your mind you won’t know what to look for when it comes to mindfulness. Guided mindfulness meditation is a great way to get pointed in the right direction. A guide will help you find home base and afterwards you’ll have a much easier time getting there on your own.

Often these guided practices involve exercises like keeping the attention on the breath, noticing when a sound dissipates, or exploring the sensation of sitting. It’s amazing how difficult this is when you first start practicing as your attention slips through your fingers constantly. Seemingly out of nowhere items for your grocery list come up, that thing you forgot to do at work, or that mean thing your boss said. It’s a humbling experience that forces you to accept that you have no control over what thoughts arise. You only have control over what to pay attention to[3].

Building this control is like teaching a dog to walk. They must constantly be reminded to come back to your side, just as you must bring your attention back to the breath, but eventually it becomes second nature. Over time this muscle strengthens and you’ll cross a few common stages.

Stages of mindfulness practice:

  1. You begin practicing mindfulness meditation and think you’re doing it but you’re actually just thinking with your eyes closed. This looks like the chain reaction of thoughts caused by noticing you’re thirsty as described earlier.

  2. At some point, possibly weeks into your new habit, you have a brief moment of clarity, actual mindfulness. It lasts seconds and you realize this is really the first time you’ve felt it.

  3. These glimpses of mindfulness become more frequent but are always fleeting. As you struggle to maintain hold they slip through your grasp and you feel frustration.

  4. Over time you learn to let this frustration go too. It’s just another thought to pull your attention away from. Now whenever you sit down to practice you can confidently get to this state though it may take time.

  5. You begin to make stronger and stronger attempts at pushing mindfulness into life outside of meditation[4].

Mindful by Default

If distraction is your default state you will constantly be searching for something to grab your attention and will expect those around you to say and do what is necessary to hold it. When things get boring at the dinner table you instinctively reach for the phone. In that moment the presence of friends or family wasn’t enough and rather than appreciate or improve the situation you disengaged.

At any given moment our mind can be here or elsewhere, and the latter has become increasingly tempting. Our phones contain the sum of human knowledge and put everyone we’ve ever known a few taps away. That’s a far bigger temptation than daydreaming and as a result there has never been more pressure to set distraction as the default state.

Worse, apps are in stiff competition to be what distracts you as they sell a margin of your attention to advertisers. This arms race has helped drive data specialist salaries in silicon valley to $300k+ as some of the most talented in the industry are being tasked with optimizing these systems for potency at scale[5]. As a result the endless feeds of Facebook et al are slot machines with magic machine learning dust--- they learn what engages you, the appropriate dose, and schedule to keep you pulling the lever, never satisfied. The psychology is old and simple; the delivery mechanism is the innovation.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, innovated his own philosophy of science called Radical Behaviorism and founded his own school of experimental research psychology-the experimental analysis of behavior. Skinner also invented the cumulative recorder to measure rate of responding as part of his highly influential work on schedules of reinforcement.

Back in my day you had to surf the depths of the internet for diamonds in the rough. Now if you watched that video on Youtube it’s used your history to make a best guess at the ten videos you'd click on next and has the best candidate set to autoplay in five seconds. The content matters only in how well it can capture your attention and as a result these platforms have amplified conspiracy and outrage. Their algorithms are like having a friend that is always down to do more drugs and conveniently has them.

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Consider that the average american checks their phone 50 times a day. For those 18-24 years old the figure rises to 75 times. Assuming 16 waking hours that’s one check-in every 12 minutes. From my own experience I suspect most of this behavior is not goal-oriented. Put another way, we do not unlock our phones with a specific action in mind but rather in hopes of finding something interesting. What is this other than pulling a slot machine lever?

All of this means it takes more conscious effort to keep the present as the default state but things are better here. Besides feeling better and more connected to those around you it’s only from the present that you can make informed decisions on where to spend your time. Maybe that’s a hobby or maybe that’s an hour of Facebook. Both are fine so long as you consciously make the choice. Decide what is important, give it your attention, and then return to the present and do it again.


Tinker in the Machine

I don’t know what the solution is here but I know there are wrong answers. Though mind wandering has its place in a happy life, I don’t feel good when I’m distracted for too long and the people I know who spend a lot of time there seem the least fulfilled. I feel the most alive during flow. I seem most aware, and therefore in control, when mindful. I couldn’t have even described these states until I was mindful of them and in that sense mindfulness practice feels like a method for directly increasing personal agency. If there’s anything I’ve found that makes me more satisfied with life it’s that feeling of being in the driver’s seat. Only from there can one experiment towards a markedly better life and find a solution that lies in some sort of balance between whatever mental states are encountered.

So which dials do you turn first? Step one is to make sure you have a good sense of home. Give mindfulness meditation a solid chance. There are plenty of free resources online and, ironically, Headspace is a great app for teaching the ropes and helping to gamify habit formation. Be aware of the common pitfalls people face and push through them. There are a lot of bad ideas in this space but there is some actual science as well.

Take an afternoon to do a deep dive on your phone’s notification settings. To cause a vibration in your pants unprovoked is a privilege that should be granted selectively. Apps shouldn’t be able to notify you by default. The fact that they do is a strong signal that these platforms and manufacturers don’t respect your time so you must take matters into your own hands. Try limiting notifications to only critical functions. That way you can’t be baited into an app like Facebook. Other things to experiment with include greyscale and limiting the number of apps. Phones aren’t going away anytime soon, nor should they, but you have to take ownership and make sure yours is serving rather than directing you.

If you just want to dip your toes in the water, begin by simply paying attention to your thoughts and mood. It sounds trivial but most people don’t do it and fail to notice obvious patterns. Notice when you reach for your phone or enter a sour mood. Notice how things like caffeine, alcohol, and other drugs make you feel. Just noticing these things will put you ahead of the curve and on a path towards spending more time in the driver's seat.


Footnotes

[1] The philosophy of self seeks to distill that thing we feel at the center of our experience. Is it real or an illusion? Most of us would agree we aren’t the same person we were a decade ago, yet it still feels like something has persisted through all this time. What is that thing? This is a great topic to spend a Sunday afternoon reading about.

[2] Sam Harris broke this barrier for me in his podcast Waking Up and the book of the same name. The close-out episode of 2017 was entirely dedicated to the science of meditation and featured prominent UW Madison professor Richard Davidson (proud alumni here). For anyone looking for a solid place to start this episode and book are great launching points.

[3] It follows that if you don’t control what thoughts arise you cannot be the thinker of your thoughts. This is contrary to what we intuitively identify as the self and is how mindfulness connects to the philosophy of self mentioned in the introduction. Whatever the self may be it cannot be the thinker of thoughts. More Sam Harris.

[4] Once you’ve gotten a good handle on mindfulness it can be interesting to experiment with attentional control. Next time you’re in a movie theater see if you can consciously switch your attention between the movie and the room. In one the movie entirely absorbs you. In the other two hundred people are suddenly in your headspace. It’s a noticeable difference in awareness. The same shift can occur almost anywhere but the effect is exaggerated by the immersiveness of a movie theater.

[5] As NYU professor Scott Galloway puts it, the greatest collection of technology, IQ, and capital ever assembled is being used to sell incremental Nissans.