Brainwave states

August 16, 2006

The brain is an electrochemical organ that emits an electrical charge that can be measured and also influenced through a technique known as entrainment. Entrainment is the tendency for two oscillating systems that have similar periods to fall into synch with one another. What usually happens is that the system with the greater frequency slows down to match the system with the lesser frequency. I had a very strange experience with this when I was on my meditation retreat last month when my heart beat kept synching itself to the ticking of my bedside clock. Other anecdotal evidence of these things include how people you’re having a close rapport with will often mirror breathing patterns, and for women who live together to slowly gain matching menstrual cycles.

In any case, the brainwave states are typically divided into these five categories:

  • Gamma: 38-80 Hz (waves per second). A heightened state of awareness. Your mind will feel loose and free, able to make wide connections quickly. Good for wit, improve, problem-solving, and sometimes even ESP.
  • Beta: 12-38 Hz. A focused state. You will often be in this state when engaged in conversation, leading a group, or engaged in something new.
  • Alpha: 8-12 Hz. A meditative or relaxed state. Associated with taking a rest between working states, or taking a shower, or driving down a familiar road, or on a walk.
  • Theta: 3-8 Hz. A sleepy state. Right after you wake up or right before you fall asleep. You are still thinking but everything is a bit groggy and slow. Hypnosis can often take people into this very suggestible state.
  • Delta : 0.2-3 Hz. Deep, dreamless sleep.

Once you recognize these states, it’s possible to take advantages of the strengths of each. The alpha and theta states are great for new idea generation… the commonly reported phenomenon of getting your best ideas in the shower, or driving to work, or walking to the store seem to support this. On the other hand, Beta and gamma states are best for intensely social and communicative environments… first dates, parties, etc.

There are biofeedback and brainwave alteration tools out there to help entrain you into deeper slower states of awareness. My question for you is, do you know what you’d want to do with these different states if you could better control them?


Persuasion and Brainwashing Techniques Being Used on the Public Today is a fascinating article by Dick Sutphen about, well, how persuasion and brainwashing techniques are being used on the public today by religious organizations, the military, human-potential organizations, and the media.

It’s a long article so I’ll paraphrase the six techniques here:

  1. Isolation: the meeting or training takes place in a place where participants are cut off from the outside world. This often involves making a public commitment to stay during the training. When training takes place in isolation like this, there is usually a quick follow-up session to ensure that the technique has really taken hold.
  2. Fatigue: a schedule is maintained that ensures physical and mental fatigue. This means long hours, few breaks, and very little time for relaxing or reflection.
  3. Tension: techniques are used to increase tension in the group. For example, perhaps there are a few truisms thrown around that might make you feel like you are doing something wrong. Or that you are a sinner, or depressed, or generally unhappy.
  4. Uncertainty: people are randomly put on the spot. Forced to withdraw into anger, fear, or awe. Revivalist churches and human-potential seminars include asking people to come on stage and talk about humiliating or weak moments in their lives. This withdrawn, fearful, state, makes you many times more susceptible to suggestions as your guard is down and you are looking for safety and reassurance in whatever form it takes.
  5. Jargon: new language to talk about what’s going on. It could help label the “enemy”, whether it be ignorant people, people who aren’t yet enlightened, or evil people. Also, new language to talk about people who are “fixed”: either enlightened, saved, or healed.
  6. Humorlessness: there’s no humor involved until the process is complete. The humor then serves as a way to celebrate and seal the deal.

A couple other techniques can be used in addition to help the effects become more pronounced. These three steps are called the “decognition process” as they help slow down and eventually stop thinking altogether.

  1. Alertness Reduction: one part of this is to force participants to keep a poor diet: either lots of sugar, or very bland foods. Sugar throws your nervous system off. A very bland diet (usually fruits and vegetables and no dairy or meat) will make you more spacey. Another part is inadequate sleep after long hours of intense discomfort or strenuous physical activity.
  2. Programmed Confusion: a deluge of new information, combined with questions, discussion groups, and one-to-one create a sense of jumbled-ness that make it easier to insert crazy ideas.
  3. Thought Stopping: most of these brainwashing techniques encourage stopping your thoughts in one of three ways. All three processes can be very helpful if you are controlling the process. The only danger comes when you allow someone else who you don’t fully know the motives of to take you through these steps and slowly alter deep beliefs about yourself and the world.
    1. Marching to a beat, usually at around 1 or 1.5 steps per second, is particularly useful. Both the military and Hitler used this to great effect. The beat puts you in a slightly altered state of awareness that is close to hypnosis and makes you more susceptible to suggestions.
    2. Meditation is the second form of thought stopping. An hour to an hour and a half of meditation a day for several weeks is enough to keep you in a constant “slow” state that is more focused and susceptible to suggestions (both good and bad).
    3. Chanting is the third form of thought stopping, and has the same general technique as marching. The beat helps put you in a slightly different state of awareness.

The full article really is pretty interesting, and goes more in depth about things like persuasion, misuses in the media and by the government, and some cautions.

Link to the full article [via Omni Brain]

Unfortunately, it isn't possible to have guests over in your mind. But wouldn't that be neat? At the very least, if it were possible, perhaps we would tidy our mind’s workspace as frequently as we tidied our home and office workspaces. As it is, the mind’s workspace is more like that basement closet that we stuff thing’s into in order to hide them from guests, investors, friends, family, etc. It is the black box of a productive environment, and as such one of the most neglected aspects of our daily maintenance, weekly reviews, self-evaluations, life hacking, and attempts to get things done. At the same time, the roots of most of our problem can be traced (like a bad smell) back to the mind’s workspace.

Some of the moving parts involved in your mind’s workspace include:

  1. Working memory
  2. Habits
  3. Visualization
  4. Bodily and mental stress

David Allen in Getting Things Done does a great job of addressing the mind’s workspace with a couple key phrases. The subtitle of the book is even “the art of stress-free productivity”, which encapsulates both the method and the result of setting up the proper workspace in your mind. Turn your mind into a beautiful room that you are comfortable sitting in. Another great phrase is “mind like water” which is about having an organized mental workspace that is able to react to every event in perfect proportion to the event’s weight. It doesn’t overreact or underreact. Both of these phrases emphasize the aesthetics of a well set-up mind. Perhaps they are a bit too zen wacky for some though, so I’ll try to come at it from a couple different angles.

What is your mind's workspace like?

How does it feel to sit in your mind's workspace? Try it. What do the walls look like? What kind of chair are you sitting in? How does the desk look? Do you have 12 monitors up… each blaring different scenarios, conversations, reminders, news reports, and soap operas? How much information is there lying around, and how organized is it? Is it sunny or dark? Warm or cold? Crazy or calm? All of this is simply an exercise in confabulation of course, as the real structure of working memory is mostly obscured from us. But hopefully what it can help reveal is how your mind feels. Most likely, unless you've already learned the art of mental clarity, this space feels a bit like a dark room full of wild yet familiar things. The cobwebbed attic of the brain metaphor is overused, but strangely appropriate for most of us.

As was mentioned in the post about setting up your physical workspace a couple days ago, there is some projection of your mind's workspace out onto your environments. If you need some help knowing exactly how your mind's workspace is, then, it doesn't hurt to look at your home and office workspaces. What does your desk look like, what does your wallet or purse look like, what does your garage look like?

What do you want your mind's workspace to be like?

What does a perfectly productive mind feel like to you? A good exercise for this is to imagine a virtual reality machine that you can design for yourself. This virtual reality machine will be replaced with your own mind when you are satisfied with it. You'll never need to set another alarm clock because your new mind will have an accurate clock in it that will let you know when to wake up, or when that next meeting is, or when the headlining band is really going on. You'll never need another PDA or pocket book because your new mind will be able to store grocery lists, email addresses, phone numbers, names and faces, and personal affirmations appropriate for every adversity or problem that might come your way. Your mind will have the ability to remember things it wants to remember, and forget things it wants to forget. It will be able to filter out all information that it doesn't need, and focus on tasks that are set when they are set. It will remind you to buy batteries for the dead flashlight when you are at the store passing the battery rack, not when the thunderstorm knocks the power out of your house. It will be an awesome mind, and it will never accidentally fall in the toilet or get left in the cab.

But that mind doesn't exist!

After you've designed the perfect mind, perhaps you're now saying that the exercise was futile because that kind of mind isn't possible. In Getting Things Done, for example, one of the primary goals of the system is to remove all of these distracting and stress-inducing things from your mind because it is not the right tool for the job. I don't actually think this is always the case. Getting your mind in order may allow your to reap wild benefits in productivity and focus in proportion to the level of disorganization it is currently in. The truth is that people are often failing at creating a good GTD system simply because they can't afford to take the productivity hit of writing each thing down when just remembering them seems to work so well. Only, it doesn't always work. And it causes stress. But how much of this is just because we don't know how to use our minds?

Memory is the best list-making tool

What's easier: keeping a grocery list on a piece of paper, or keeping a grocery list in your mind? Well, it depends. Factors include:

  • When you realize you need to buy something, is it easier to find the paper and write it down, or easier to remember it?
  • When you're at the store, do you have the piece of paper or can you recall the list.

There are two actions involved: saving the list and retrieving the list. Both tools have their pros and cons both for saving information and retrieving information.

To save something to a list, you need to make sure the list is with you. It might take physical energy to find the list if it's nearby, or otherwise you'll have to remember to put something on the list. If you can remember to put something on the list, how much easier is that than simply remembering the thing that you were going to put on the list? To save something to memory, on the other hand, you need to have memory tools at your disposal, which we'll talk about soon. This also takes energy to do, but it's mental energy.

To retrieve something from a list, you again need to make sure the list is with you when it's needed. This, again, will take physical energy, and, it might take additional mental energy to remember where the list is, as well as a mental reminder to get the list before it is needed (it's no good if you remember to get the list when you're already at the store, unless it's already with you). To retrieve something from memory requires mental energy as well as confidence that your list was properly saved into memory.

Another way of thinking about it is this: why does each method fail? Physical memory fails when they are incomplete (you didn't add something to the list when you were supposed to either because you didn't want to expend the physical energy or because you didn't successfully remember to add something to the list) or not present when you need them. Mental memory fails when an item isn't properly saved or is lost before it is retrieved.

How to improve your memory

Most people will say that they don't have a good memory and that's why they have to write things down. But how many of us have really worked on improving our memory? How many of us were taught to memorize things by repeating them over and over? That's actually one of the worst ways to memorize something, especially because our brain learns to ignore things that are repeated repeatedly… in the same way that it'll learn to filter out noise from a loud room. It's possible to remember something the first time you encounter it… if there's a vivid sensation attached to it. Particularly powerful sensations include:

  • A striking image
  • A powerful emotion
  • A new smell

All you have to do to remember something is associate it with a striking image, a powerful emotion, or a new smell. Using these techniques, people have recited the first 83,431 digits of pi, the entire Koran, the entire Guinness Book of World Records, the weather and day of the week for any date in a person's life, and many other ridiculous things. These people are labelled as having photographic, or eidetic, memory.

But, even more amazing and not as much of a scientific anomaly is the fact that each of us can remember an insane amount of information every day without any effort at all. You can remember scenes from movies, quotes from television shows, the lyrics to songs, the clothes people wear, people you've run into at a coffee shop or bar, and any number of details. What separates this information from your grocery list and what you had for lunch last Tuesday? The former are associated with striking images, powerful emotions, and (okay, maybe not that often) new smells. The later, are not.

Here's how you remember something after experiencing it once

Associate it with a striking image. Of the three options given above, this is the one that is most universally applicable. It's not that easy to evoke a powerful emotion or new smell on demand… but it is easy to think of a weird striking image on demand (after a little practice).

There are several well-established ways to do this. Here are a few pointers to great resources:

I'll be exploring some of these techniques more in future entries, as well as ways to continue to explore the possibility of using your brain instead of, and in addition to, technology and things that are expensive and which you are suspicious of.

Just found an interesting article from a few months ago that nicely summarizes some of the current ideas and studies that are being done to find out just how useful it is to "think problems through":

In a study I conducted with Dolores Kraft, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Dana Dunn, a social psychologist at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, people in one group were asked to list the reasons their relationship with a romantic partner was going the way it was, and then rate how satisfied they were with the relationship. People in another group were asked to rate their satisfaction without any analysis; they just gave their gut reactions.

It might seem that the people who thought about the specifics would be best at figuring out how they really felt, and that their satisfaction ratings would thus do the best job of predicting the outcome of their relationships.

In fact, we found the reverse. It was the people in the "gut feeling" group whose ratings predicted whether they were still dating their partner several months later. As for the navel gazers, their satisfaction ratings did not predict the outcome of their relationships at all. Our conclusion? Too much analysis can confuse people about how they really feel. There are severe limits to what we can discover through self-reflection, and trying to explain the unexplainable does not lead to a sudden parting of the seas with our hidden thoughts and feelings revealed like flopping fish.

It goes on to talk about how overanalyzing a problem when we're currently feeling down is especially damaging.   Self-reflection just makes you more depressed because the activated part of your brain is a negative filter, and will have no problem coming up with more and more things that are going wrong, some that aren't related at all to the current problem, and it will send you into a downward spiral.

Read the whole article here: Don't think twice, it's alright

Uncovering hidden biases

April 25, 2006

Mind Hacks linked to an interesting article in Science News, "The Bias Finders", which is about the relatively new "implicit association" tests that can tell how much you are subconsciously biased regarding certain issues such as race, gender, social status, etc.

Particularly disturbing was the observation that these biases seem easier to create than to remove. When people are told stories with nonsense words fitting a pattern where one subconsciously associates a certain kind of word with positive connotations and another kind of word with negative connotaions, people immediately tested to have an implicit bias towards the positively connotated words. When asked to retake the test with the associations switched, the people said that they prefered the positive words, but tested to still implicitly preferred the words that were now associated with negative connotations.

This only supports my argument that we should begin brainwashing children in school as early as possible… to adopt biases towards equality, and positivity towards all ethnicities, genders, and social status levels. There's something about it that just sounds wrong though, isn't there.  Hmm…

Hamlet's in my zeitgeist today. A coworker quoted another line from Hamlet to me earlier today, "Things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes them so." Which also applies to what I'm about to talk about here.

I'm going to start trying something sort of weird. I'm going to take new posts from Steve Pavlina and write my own post with the same title, addressing the same issue, but with my take. After reading his site for a while I've found that he continues to address really interesting topics–in fact, things that I've been thinking about and writing about for years with slightly different names, references, and answers–and since comments are often turned off, one way to continue to the conversation around the web is to do what I'm doing here. I hope nobody interprets this as me trying to ride his wave… I do have a day job after all and have not spent nearly as much time thinking about this stuff as he has. What am I trying to do though? Honestly, I'm not quite sure… other than trying something new.

Today's post was "To Thine Own Self Be True," and here's my version:

The question posed is "How can you decide what to do with the rest of your life?" The question is difficult to figure out because it is impossible to frame the question in a testable manner, therefore you can never know for certain if you have the right answer. You get one guess, and one attempt to implement the guess, and no way to really know how you played except by setting up your own point system. There is no objective system that we can all reference to see how we're doing. When you ask yourself most questions, like "What should I eat for lunch?" you know which dimensions lunch will be judged on, and you have results from previous lunches to compare today's lunch with. This may seem obvious, but the fact that we do not know exactly which dimensions on which to judge life and we have no previous lives to compare our current life with. True, there are religions and philosophies and game theories to help some of us along, but the lost souls of this world like myself that have no faith or certainty in anything other than the fact that we are sometimes wrong and sometimes right, and want great things for ourselves but don't know how to achieve them, we are on our own.

Or so it seems at first glance. There are a series of insights that together provide a way out of this circular thought pattern.

  1. What you do doesn't really matter.
  2. You are what you see.

I don't want to sound like a depressed existentialist… I'm far from a real existentialist of any sort. But if you have a strong negative reaction to any or all of the points above, I want to emphasize that this is not a hopeless perspective that I'm advertising. It's actually one of the most enjoyable and life-affirming realizations that I've had in the last couple years.

It begins with what I call the "it doesn't matter paradox". As most of you know, our brains function in such a way that we can't register absolute values. We rely entirely on changing values to see (our eyes wiggle back and forth for this reason) and we judge changes in value by comparison to nearby values. Losing a dollar in a bet doesn't matter unless it's the last dollar you have. The dollar only "matters" in the context of the system in which it exists. The same is true with everything else. These contextual systems that create value, meaning, and mattering are human creations (at least, unless you believe that there's a God who would score our lives based on a point system). Some things might seem to matter no matter what, but it's really just an aesthetic preference most of us keep because the alternative is to most a depressing and inhuman thought. This is because we have trouble acknowledging a perspective bigger than our own lives, or the history of humanity, or even of the earth. But we all know that if we could see anything from the perspective of a galaxy 100 billion billion light years away, we would understand that it didn't really matter whether or not Kelly Clarkson won American Idol or that other dude did.

And yes I know this thought feels repuslive to you. Me too, usually. Very few people actually believe that nothing matters (other than when we're drunk and trying to feel sorry for our latest breakup–it's usually followed up with philosophies including the fact that we're going to die alone and that at least we have our kitties to keep us company)… but for most it's an ugly belief and one that one might register as possibly true in some abstract logical sense but not really accept into your heart and emotions without a lot more insight to help squeeze it in sans ugliness. One of the additional insights, however, is that because "mattering" is relative, the absolute value of how much things matter also doesn't matter. The paradox is this: when nothing matters, everything suddenly matters again. Mattering becomes an aesthetic and emotional experience perhaps with no monetary value at all… but when something has no absolute value you can begin to appreciate it for what it actually is instead of what it is worth. Everything is an end in itself; a word and its own definition a the same time. Your career and job and life no longer matter in terms of what they are worth to some undetermined point or value system… they simply are what they are: beautiful, textured, multi-dimensional, and weird. If you think about it, it's the only truly human answer to this question; the only one that makes room for a truly rich experience of life. The alternative is that life is a game with concrete rules or absolute values where you place value in things according to some established system. And yet, because we're not given access to these rules and values we get clever people like Daniel Gilbert create theories about The Futile Pursuit of Happiness (where he realizes that we are never made as happy as we predict we will be when we achieve the things we think will make us happy) and marketers start trying to get around you by trying to find out why you really want to hire that milkshake (the real reason we buy things).

In his post, Steve comes to a very similar conclusion when he talks about solving the "what should I do?" questions by figuring out who you are, and being that person wholly, rather than figuring out which actions will provide the most fulfillment. Ultimately, being what you are is your primary occupation in life. If it were anything else wouldn't it be a disappointment?
But, a somewhat subtle point that Neil Strauss often makes (he's a popular journalist and most recently writer of a book about the secret society of pickup artists called The Game) is that the answer is not simply being yourself but being your best self. Do not simply take the you that you were given, but work to make it the best version of yourself that you can.

Easy to say, but how do you do that? Isn't finding your best self as difficult as finding your fundamental purpose in life?

No, because you yourself are a purely subjective experience. The best you is the one that you most enjoy being. And the best world is the one you most enjoy seeing. This is where "you are what you see" comes in. We see the world through a filter of our own emotions and thoughts… in fact, it is our subconscious that actively filters what we see for things that match our emotions and thoughts. It is well known in neuroscience that the 40 million plus sensory stimulations that come in per second into our brain must be narrowed down to something closer to 10,000… and the way that it chooses which 10,000 sensory inputs it will send to our attention is by seeing which filters have been recently activated in our brain. We've all experienced seeing a new word that we just learned suddenly appear everywhere. Or, when one thing goes wrong suddenly more things seem to go wrong. We are fed what we have recently eaten when it comes to emotions and thoughts. Think about this the next time you feel like you're at a boring party, or, alternatively, the next time everything seems to be going right for you: you are actually perceiving the environment that exists internally… to a point. This is probably only about 75% true–most of the time we're not so immersed in ourselves that we're completely blind to novel occurences outside of ourselves–but it's a lot more true than most people give it credit.

Once you realize that you are what you see to a large extent, it's time to think about the variables that contribute to what you see.

  1. Your emotional state and your chosen subconscious filters.
  2. Your chosen environment (see: angry/negative people can be bad for your brain).
  3. What you choose to do in that environment and with that emotional state.

As you can see, there is still a lot of choice involved here, if we choose to exercise it. That is primarily why it is my goal here to give you 101 exercises that work towards one of these levels of experience. Some exercises will help create or revise existing emotional filters. Some will help shake up the environment that you've chosen to build around you. And others will be ways for you to explore your own contribution to that environment… as you are as much a part of it (and therefore a contributor to other peoples' lives) as they are a part of yours. Your primary obstacles will largely exist within your own head, either in the filters you've created, the environment you've chosen to build around you, or in the contributions you've chosen to release into that environment. Your primary tool will be momentum… bootstrapping it, directing it, and letting it spiral outward into the various corners of your life. Momentum (by which I mean the inertia that propels us forward into making changes for the better, and expecting greater and more exciting things out of our and other peoples' lives) is (I think) the single most important ingredient that most of us lack, but when we have it… when we're in the groove and we're in our element and working instinctually and skillfully towards our own happiness, then everything else just falls into place as if by design, and we're left in wonder, confabulating fantastic tales around our own success, meanwhile happy as drunk kittens in cups.

30 day trial

April 23, 2006

Steve Pavlina is my nemesis. I've used nemeses in my life as a way to figure out who I want to "reach"… whatever is meant by reaching someone. The first step is to find people that you admire and who seem balanced. There are many ways to succeed that involve becoming unbalanced somehow, and these people we call geniuses. They sacrifice something like sanity, or common sense, or social skills in order to leap ahead in one particular area. We rarely feel jealous of these people, but appreciate them. Very few people would want to be tortured like Van Gogh even if it meant painting some great masterpieces. Same with Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain, etc. Steve Pavlina, on the other hand, seems to have found a way to live life that improves the quality while at the same time making progress on difficult projects.

One of his ideas that I like is the 30 day trial. One of the primary obstacles in change is lack of momentum. Our conscious mind can't lobby a new behavior with our subconscious unless there's some momentum or resources available to divert to the project. Maintaining a momentum of positive change in our lives is something that could improve everyone's life… we all know that it's easier to run 5 miles a day when we're already running 4 miles a day than if we haven't run in years. The more you're already doing, the easier it is to convince ourselves to go one step further.

The 30 day trial is helpful when we're trying to bootstrap momentum. If you have a new idea for a project and have no current momentum on it, it's a little easier to convince your subconscious to partake in a 30 day trial of a behavior than to convince it to start a completely new habit that will supposedly last forever. When I say something like "I'm going to become a vegetarian" I can feel the back of my mind slightly doubt that statement… it goes, "Really? That's a big change… don't you think it's more likely that you'll try it for a few days then give up?" But if I say, "I'm not going to eat meat for 30 days" my mind is more like, "Okay!" The trick is that after 30 days it's a lot easier to say, "Let's do it for 30 more days" or even "Let's do it for a year".

One of the things about making changes in your life is that we underestimate the difficulty in convincing our subconscious to adopt new behaviors. By admitting that there is a bit of a lobbying issue, and starting things with a 30 day trial, you can slowly train yourself to become more susceptible to new habits.

My 30 day trial is to post one entry a day here, which I will do by waking up 30 minutes earlier than I usually do.