This is what distinguishes us from other species.

Every single time I hear this formulation put forward in one of its multiple permutations (e.g., “Language is what distinguishes us from other species”; “Creativity is what differentiates us from animals”; “No, wait. It’s intelligence!”), I go through a series of automatic reflexes:

1) Yawn. Yes, it’s boring to hear the same refrain repeated to exhaustion.

2) Yuck! Are we really that self-centred and attention-seeking? Why is our need to feel special almost always stronger than our ability to recognise that we are but one species among millions? In the greater scheme of things we’re really not that special or unique.

3) WRONG! Please, use some critical thinking and stop jumping the gun. Who are we to say that of all the species in our planet we’ve been granted the exclusive rights to intelligence, creativity, language, music, play, feelings, etc.? We should read more books. Specifically, those reporting results from comparative psychology and ethological research. And when in doubt, not just assume we’re the one and the only.

Rather than spotting the differences, I personally feel we should spend more time connecting the dots. But hey, let’s do both. As long as we drop the self-aggrandising attitude and recognise that we’re made of the same building blocks as roaches and pigs, and actually that’s really kind of cool, we might even begin to understand how it is we fit in this huge and complex puzzle we got ourselves randomly embedded in.

More is less

Or why moving to a big city like London will make your dating life more frustrating, not despite, but because of the apparently inexhaustible amount of choices you get to make.

After looking at the current research, we can sum it up this way:

Some choice is better than none. Too much choice will kill your love life.

Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk “The Paradox of Choice” isn’t specifically about the romantic dilemmas of people living in big cities, but I think you can draw the inferences on your own.


Life as fiction

“There are the facts of what people say and what they do; and these, like the lines of a novel, can conjure up a compelling depth – of underlying motivations, beliefs and attitudes from which people’s behaviour appears to emerge. However, as for fictional characters, so with real people: the sense that behaviour is merely the surface of a vast sea, immeasurably deep and teeming with inner motives, beliefs and desires whose power we can barely sense is a conjuring trick played by our own minds. The truth is not that the depths are empty, or even shallow; but that the surface is all there is.

We are fictional characters, in stories of our own invention.”

Excerpt from the MOOC “The Mind is Flat”, taught by professor Nick Chatter from The University of Warwick on the FutureLearn platform.

Even though it may be a useless exercise, incarnating the role of a semi-omniscient narrator and trying to figure out the motives lurking behind other people’s behavioural outputs is irresistible, addictive and provides us with a temporary sense of control – as if our ultimate interpretation of those behaviours might help shape reality itself. Maybe it does. Maybe not. Pardon me – I tend to over analyse things.

Lies, white lies and Dylan lies

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a second post. In the news pieces regarding the Lehrer “situation” and respective comment sections people have been wondering: if Jonah was going to put his reputation on the line, why would he do it for something like some pretty innocuous Dylan quotes? Like journalist Stuart Kelly puts it: “Although one could speculate endlessly about why Lehrer felt the need to invent the quotation (it doesn’t even add that much to his argument), the more pressing question is why he believed he might get away with it.”

I’m afraid you’ve got it backwards, Stuart. It’s precisely because what he added is nothing special and doesn’t alter our view of Bob Dylan in any respect, that Jonah (probably) thought it wasn’t that important. Well, it’s obviously important for those who make their goal in life to recite every word the songwriter has ever uttered – and they probably were excited by the proposition of some Dylan sayings in mint condition – but apart from them, not really. I don’t think he would have fabricated the results of a scientific study or something of consequence.

Somehow he got tricked – probably under great pressure – into thinking that that kind of lie wasn’t too bad. The problem is, the mindset with which the public perceives that same fact is completely detached from the lie in itself. It’s the act of deception, coming from a reputed journalist and famous science writer that pierces us. Advertisers lie, journalists don’t. We only care about advertisers lies if they hurt us. We always care about journalists lies even if the fabrication is of no consequence.

We need to trust this bearer of truth – and what does that say about us? Probably that the more we trust the professional, the more sparsely we use our own judgement and critical reasoning. But that’s part of the evolutionary package that allows us to take mental shortcuts and make fast decisions. And I’m running off topic.

The ironic thing is, now that he’s been caught lying, Jonah will probably be one of the most thorough and honest journalists out there. But since people see him as a liar – as opposed to a regular human being who’s been caught lying – they probably won’t believe him anyway. Well, since he can no longer get away with it (there’s now a small legion of fact checkers ready to disprove his every word) I certainly will.

“Everybody lies”

So Jonah Lehrer lied. He went and made up some Dylan quotes.

I honestly don’t care – at least not in the his life is over, he’ll never be paid to write ever again kind of “caring” that most people are engaging in. Because:

1) I’m THAT biased (I met his writings through Proust is a Neuroscientist and have craved them – not the madeleines, though – ever since; he’s also pretty cute).

2) He was one of the authors that helped me start chasing the subject of human behaviour and neuroscience and I’ll always be thankful for that.

3) I love pop science. I’ll even make a t-shirt one day. Science is not for the illuminated few. Science is for the public and it should be translated into a discourse that most people will understand and, yes, enjoy. Does that mean oversimplifying some things? Well, did you start learning Maths by solving second degree equations? Those that use Jonah’s error to accuse pop science of doing more damage than good are just being narcissistic elitists. Sorry, I can’t lie about that.

That said, I’m sad. I expect more from someone who I came to admire so much. But hey, if like me you saw your House, you know: everyone does it. Even your idols. After all, they’re as human as you. And you’ve lied too. House knows it. I know it. I sure have.

The Happiness Advantage

First, let me list the reasons why you should watch this talk:

“So one of the very first things we teach people in economics and statistics and business and psychology courses is how, in a statistically valid way, do we eliminate the weirdos. How do we eliminate the outliers so we can find the line of best fit? Which is fantastic if I’m trying to find out how many Advil the average person should be taking — two. But if I’m interested in potential, if I’m interested in your potential, or for happiness or productivity or energy or creativity, what we’re doing is we’re creating the cult of the average with science.”

“[…] most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier. […] every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. […] What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier.

But the real problem is our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.”

Shawn Achor is damn funny.

Now, the comment.
I personally feel that anxiety keeps me from doing my best work – or just leads me down the path of procrastination, preventing me from doing any work at all. So, based on my personal experience and the scientific evidence I’m aware of, I tend to agree that feeling good – in the flow – helps us work better. But I also think that work needs to be an instrument to achieve happiness. Either because of intrinsic gratification or because of its impact on our social status and ability to acquire things that also make us happy.

So, on the one hand we would have carpe diem – seize the day. The opposite team would be seizing the day… after today, that is, the future. It seems, from Shawn’s talk, that the first guys would be really happy and productive, and the second group not really. But if we live only with the present in mind, we might end up making really bad choices for our future (for more about that, check Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and other work), and that’s not predictive of happiness in the long run.

Which leads me to the point I’m trying to make. The traditional view that effort leads to happiness isn’t wrong. We need that drive to keep us going. The anticipation of a positive achievement is in itself a happy psychological event (thanks to dopamine, among other things). The problem comes when we focus only on long-term goals that take us months, years or even decades to achieve. And then the days seem to get longer and duller, depending on our personal resilience and perspective of events. And we might even start questioning our life choices, because the pleasure we’re able to derive from the present seems to be rarer each day that goes by. And we also tend to increase exponentially the amount of chocolate ingested.

Living in the present is about setting short-term goals and focusing on one thing at a time. You know, basically the opposite of our multitasking short attention span post-modern society. Being in the flow is about feeling completely absorbed in the current task or event. We’re frequently ‘in the flow’ when we’re watching a really great comedian or having sex – but not necessarily when watching a really great comedian having sex. It also can happen while we’re working… I’m told. No, really, when it happens to me is usually when this difficult (some would say impossible) mix is achieved: I see a purpose in what I’m doing; I don’t see the task as too easy or extremely difficult; I believe I’m doing a good job and that I can add something relevant; I have a sense of autonomy and I’m able to expand my creative horizons. Quite a hard recipe to put together, I know. But it helps if you start with a positive attitude. And that’s where Shawn & co. come in.

Reality. It’s out there, but who really knows what it is? According to agents Mulder and Scully, aliens know, it seems. Anyway, I’m digressing. Again. What I’m trying to say is that how we perceive things has a real impact on our feelings and attitudes. The bad news is, how we perceive things can be totally different than how things really are. The good news is, how we perceive things can be totally different than how things really are! Confused? The same mechanisms that allow us to perceive a neutral event as something negative also allow us to see it in a positive light. Let me stress something here: a neutral or ambivalent event. A funeral is not something we should be trying to see in a positive light. Unless we believe in an afterlife much better than this one (72 virgins might make it for some).

How we perceive an ambivalent reality has a lot to do with the glasses we’re wearing. Remember how everything seems so much worse when you’re feeling sick and in pain? That feeling is as biological as it is psychological. What about when someone gets high – no, not you, I know you don’t do drugs – and keeps laughing for no apparent reason? Our thoughts can be curbed as much by external events as by our biological state. But there’s a vice versa to that. Thoughts influence other biological events occurring in the body as well. And they can also influence external events – by means of actions that we decide to take.

Since it’s almost time for me to go to bed, I’ll wrap it up for you: get some exercise; invest in meaningful relationships; eat well (a little of everything and too much of nothing); try to focus on one thing at a time; get some more exercise; have (safe) sex; laugh (out loud and on the inside as well); reflect on what you do and try to find a sense of meaning for your actions; keep your expectations at a reach level (not necessarily low, but no mission impossible either); and try not to think too much about how we’re all going to die no matter what.

And basically, live in the present – with the future in mind.