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psychology
How To Defeat Negative Thinking

We all have negative thoughts and self-doubt from time to time. We’d be disastrously over-confident if we didn’t. The problem comes when these negative thoughts overwhelm us, or worse, become our default way of thinking.

The video above from Happily, presents two strategies based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to defeat negative thinking.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

I’ve heard many people talk about imposter syndrome over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it summarised as neatly as The School of Life does in this video about it:

The root cause of the importer syndrome is a hugely unhelpful picture of what other people are really like.

This simple sentence sums up the entire problem. We look at people who are more successful than us, or who we admire, and we imagine their internal world to be completely different to ours.

“How can they possibly experience self-doubt?” we ask ourselves. They have millions of fans, or are well respected by their peers, or have won prestigious awards. “How can they ever feel as if their opinions stupid?” Everything they say is so insightful and clever. “How can they ever worry about how they look?” They’re always so well presented.

This may all be true. The people we admire have very likely reached a point in their careers or their lives where they are surrounded by evidence of their ability. Yet current success doesn’t guarantee future success. Many very successful people admit that they still worry about how their new work will be received. Rather than freeing them from doubt, success simply moves the bar which separates success from failure.

Self-doubt is a human trait, not a trait which only afflicts an unfortunate few, or which fades once a certain arbitrary point has been reached. The thing which separates people who succeed from this who don’t is the ability to persevere despite any feelings of doubt they might have, not the fact that they don’t have them.

"If you feel like the whole world is against you, it’s your mind that’s against you."
This study into false memories suggests you can’t tell what’s real

Memory is identity. It is our only window into the past, the most reliable evidence we have that life didn’t just start a moment. ago with everything in it’s present state. We use it to organise our lives, to distinguish friend from foe, even to convinct criminals.

Yet memory isn’t as reliable as we’d like to believe. In this article, Julia Shaw talks about memory hacking; the ability to convince people that they did things that never happened:

You try to get someone to confuse their imagination with their memory. That’s it: Get them to repeatedly picture it happening.”

For example, in a recent stud, she informed participants that they highs committed a crime when they were 14 years old, and that she was going to help them retrieve the memory. Using information she gathered from the subject’s parents and friends, she constructed a plausible, detailed story of the crime (a petty theft), and over the course of a few weeks, or sometimes less, the participants would come to believe it.

So how can we spot a false memory? Well, here’s the bad news. According to Shaw, all of our memories are false:

“I like to say that all memories are essentially false. They’re either a little bit false, or entirely false. There are entire experiences that never happened.”

How To Stay Calm Under Pressure

Pressure is an unavoidable fact of life, and we all know what it’s like to crumble under it. Whether we’re asking someone out on a date, applying for a job, or speaking in public, we’re all well aware of how it can make us freeze up.

What’s worse is that those high pressure moments are, by definition, the moments when we least want to feel tense and nervous and incapable of performing at our best. So why does this happen? It turns out there are two competing theories.

First, there’s the idea that the desire to perform well acts as a distraction, which takes valuable mental resources away from the task at hand.

The second is, in a way, the opposite. On this view, too much conscious attention is being paid to a task which we would normally perform instinctively. This extra attention actually makes us over-think what we’re doing. Essentially, we’re micro-managing ourselves.

Whatever the reason for pressure’s ability to derail is, there are ways we can get ourselves back on track. Firstly, we can practice under pressure. Unsurprisingly, research has found that those who train themselves to become accustomed to pressure perform better than those who don’t.

Secondly, we can develop a pre-game routine. A sequence of movements or mental cues that we associate with performing well (Think Sylvester Stallone turning his cap around in “Over The Top”).

And lastly, keeping your focus on your goal, rather than the intricacies of reaching it, can reap benefits during those high pressure moments. Getting the details right is why you practice. In the big moments it’s best to put your faith in the work you’ve done and go for it.

What Is The Subconscious?

Most of us go through life feeling like we’re in control. That we can choose freely from the options presented in life and make those choices according to our conscious feelings at that time. But this isn’t actually the case.

The vast majority of our behaviour is governed by the firs, habits and instincts of our subconscious mind. All things we have very little conscious control over, and need to expend significant conscious effort to change.

Aligning the desires of our subconscious mind with those of our conscious mind is considered to be the defining task of our lives according to psychologists like Jung. But there’s a problem; most of us are unaware of what those desires are:

Practices like dreamwork, hypnosis, meditation, visualisation and shamanic healing techniques, are all effective ways to bring the murky underworld of the subconscious to light. Because the subconscious often includes unresolved aspects of our personality, these practices can help us integrate these shadowy parts of ourselves, so that we can live a more fulfilled and equanimous life.

Why Do We Make Irrational Decisions?

Why do we make irrational decisions? Sometimes even when we know they’re irrational. Well, it turns out they’re only irrational if you overlook the mechanics behind the decision making process. Not only are a lot of our decisions heavily influenced by unconscious bias, our emotions make us weigh identical outcomes differently depending on whether we feel like we’re winning or losing at the end:

Under rational economic theory, our decisions should follow a simple mathematical equation that weighs the level of risk against the amount at stake. But studies have found that for many people, the negative psychological impact we feel from losing something is about twice as strong as the positive impact of gaining the same thing….

As convenient as it would be if we could weigh up our options as calm, reasonable human beings, the fact is, it’s quite rare that we make decisions this way. But understanding the mechanisms at work increases our ability to avoid the traps our natural irrationality creates.

Are You Missing Something?

A couple of months ago I watched this video about a preacher named Gerald Glenn. Gerald believed that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about. He went as far as to advise his parishioners, and even his children, to ignore social distancing measures, saying that though the virus was out there, God was out there too. Gerald tested positive for coronavirus shortly after the video was made, and died around a week later.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What makes somebody, especially a layperson, feel so secure in their opinion about a pandemic which has proven to be dangerous, that they would advise their children not to take it seriously.

Of course, the easy answer here is faith. He was a man of God. But since then we’ve seen countless examples of people failing to take the pandemic seriously. Some of whom have paid the same price. Did they all imagine that God would protect them? Or was there something else behind their complacency?

In his excellent book, “Thinking Fast And Slow”, Daniel Kahneman says this about the mind’s tendency towards bias:

…the focus on error does not denigrate human intelligence, any more than the attention to diseases in medical texts denies good health. Most of us are healthy most of the time, and most of our judgements and actions are appropriate most of the time.

Of course, this is true. We all make countless decisions every day about people’s emotional state, about which of numerous courses of action to take, about how dangerous a situation is, and for the most part, we get it right.

The problem today is that many of our decisions aren’t simply at this local, personal level. Today we’re required to take in vast amounts of complex, often conflicting information, and come to conclusions which don’t just affect our immediate circumstances, but the lives of those around us.

In the age of coronavirus, we’re all making decisions about whether to wear masks and under what circumstances. Soon, we’ll be deciding whether to take a vaccine which has been developed far more quickly than usual, but is also our best hope for protecting lives and returning to some degree of normalcy. We need to decide which voices to listen to and which to ignore, about issues which we don’t have a good grasp on.

When making decisions such as these, it’s vital to recognise that our gut instincts can be wrong, because the price of being wrong might be very high indeed.

In the interest of encouraging a healthy scepticism of our gut instincts, the video above introduces the concept of survivorship bias. Survivorship bias describes our tendency to focus on the people or things that succeeded in overcoming an obstacle, and overlooking those (usually a much greater number) that didn’t.

It’s the reason why we listen to the advice of celebrities who tell us that the key to success is to “work hard and believe in yourself”, even though countless people who did both failed to achieve the same results because they weren’t as lucky.

In a situation like a global pandemic, it’s tempting to take the seriousness of the threat lightly if it doesn’t affect you personally. In this case, you’re one of the lucky people who overcame the risk of infection, and so believe that the things you’ve done are obviously sufficient to minimise the risks of becoming sick. But this overlooks the millions of people who became sick even though they behaved similarly to you but weren’t as lucky.

I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do. Frankly, nobody who isn’t an expert in epidemiology has any business telling anybody what to do. We’re all in the dark on this. But our gut feelings are unlikely to be a reliable guide on how best to keep ourselves and others safe. We’re all decent people. None of us wants to put other people at risk needlessly. When making decisions about how to deal with this problem, let’s keep those feelings at the forefront of our minds.

Why Forgetting May Make Your Mind More Efficient.

Most of us spend a great deal of time and energy trying to be less forgetful. Yet it turns out that forgetting is an essential part of the brain’s strategy for processing and storing new information. I’m expecting the processing benefits of my appalling memory to kick ini any day now…

Traditionally, forgetting has been regarded as a passive decay over time of the information recorded and stored in the brain. But while some memories may simply fade away like ink on paper exposed to sunlight, recent research suggests that forgetting is often more intentional, with erasure orchestrated by elaborate cellular and molecular mechanisms. And forgetfulness is not necessarily a sign of a faulty memory. “In fact,” Wimber says, “it’s been shown over and over in computational models and also in animal work that an intelligent memory system needs forgetting.”

Far from signifying failure, forgetting may be the brain’s frontline strategy in processing incoming information. Forgetting is essential, some researchers now argue, because the biological goal of the brain’s memory apparatus is not preserving information, but rather helping the brain make sound decisions. Understanding how the brain forgets may offer clues to enhancing mental performance in healthy brains while also providing insights into the mechanisms underlying a variety of mental disorders.

How does your mind work?

Our minds are responsible for everything. Our sense of identity, our perception of the world, our likes and dislikes, there’s simply no way to overstate their importance.

Yet most of us understand very little about how they work. I don’t just mean in a technical neuro-biological sense, or even a generalised, psychoanalytical sense. Most of us simply don’t don’t know very much about how our own, personal minds work.

This article by FitMind is a nice primer on the layers that make up our thinking, behavioural and learning processes. It breaks the mind into three parts; the evolved mind, the part of our mind that is instinctively afraid of snakes and the dark. The conditioned mind, which learns to make connections between things in your environment and the dangers or rewards they represent. And the self-directed mind, which we mould through effort and practice.

It’s a really interesting read, especially the exploration of how the three layers interact with each other to produce our personalities. Check it out!

Brainstorm or Green Needle?

We’ve talked before about how our perception isn’t always an accurate representation of the world, and this video is a perfect example of that. Press play, focus on the word “Brainstorm” or the words “Green needle”, and the the audio will seem to say the one you’re focusing on.

After a little practice I was able to switch between the two at will while others only seem to be a able to hear one. How did you get on?