kottke.org posts about fitness

Better living through self deceptionMay 24 2007

Interesting article about how people tell their stories and think of their past experiences and how that influences their mood and general outlook on life.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person's unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being -- who had recovered, by standard measures -- told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

"The story is one of victorious battle: 'I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,'" Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

The article goes on to describe the benefits of thinking about past events in the third person rather than in the first person:

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students' essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

"What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you're feeling upset," instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study's lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

But things like eating disorders and mental illness aren't external forces and thinking about a bad memory as if it happened to a third party is not the truth. The standard model of the happy, smart, successful human being is someone who knows more, works hard, and has found, or at least is heading toward, their own personal meaning of life. But often that's not the case. Self-deceit (or otherwise willfully forgetting seemingly pertinent information) seems to be important to human growth.

Consider the recent findings by a group at Harvard about the effects of mindset on physical fitness:

The researchers studied 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. Women in 4 hotels were told that their regular work was enough exercise to meet the requirements for a healthy, active lifestyle, whereas the women in the other three hotels were told nothing. To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, the researchers investigated whether subjects' mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independent of any actual exercise.

Four weeks later, the researchers returned to assess any changes in the women's health. They found that the women in the informed group had lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, body mass index, and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were significantly higher than those reported in the control group and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks.

Just by thinking they were exercising, these women gained extra benefit from their usual routines. The idea of thinking about oneself reminded me of Allen Iverson's training routine, which utilizes a technique called psychocybernetics:

"Let me tell you about Allen's workouts," says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. "All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we'll be on our way to the game and he'll be quiet as hell. Finally, he'll say, 'You know now I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I'm gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I'm gonna kill 'em with it all night long.' And damned if he didn't do just that. See, that's his workout, when he's just sitting there, thinking. That's him working on his game."

What Iverson is doing is tricking his conscious self into thinking that he's done something that he hasn't, that he's practiced a move or shot 100 perfect free throws in a row. I think, therefore I slam. (I wonder if Iverson pictures himself in the first or third person in his visualizations.)

Carol Dweck's research looks at the difference between thinking of talent or ability as innate as opposed to something that can be developed:

At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite -- the determination to master new things and surmount challenges -- lay in people's beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn't tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks.

For some people, the facade they've created for themselves can come crashing down suddenly, as with stage fright:

He describes the sense of acute self-consciousness and loss of confidence that followed as "stage dread," a sort of "paradigm shift." He says, "It's not 'Look at me - I'm flying.' It's 'Look at me - I might fall.' It would be like playing a game of chess where you're constantly regretting the moves you've already played rather than looking at the ones you're going to play." Fry could not mobilize his defenses; unable to shore himself up, he took himself away.

In a slightly different but still related vein, Gerd Gigerenzer's research indicates that ignoring information is how smart decisions are made:

In order to make good decisions in an uncertain world, one sometimes has to ignore information. The art is knowing what one doesn't have to know.

Research done by Edward Vogel at the University of Oregon shows the capacity of a person's visual working memory "depends on your ability to filter out irrelevant information":

"Until now, it's been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it's about the bouncer - a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness," Vogel said.

And data from another study indicates that perhaps one of the things that the brain does best is forgetting ("motivated (voluntary) forgetting", in the words of one researcher):

The findings suggest that despite the brain's astonishing ability to archive a lifetime of memories, one of its prime functions is, paradoxically, to forget. Our sensory organs continually deluge us with information, some of it unpleasant. We wouldn't get through the day -- or through life -- if we didn't repress much of it.

Perhaps the way to true personal acheivement and happiness is through lying to yourself instead of being honest, loafing instead of practicing, and purposely forgetting information. There are plenty of self-help books on the market...where are the self-hurt books?

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