The Adaptive Brain

Last night, I started my local course on The Science of Mindfulness. This is taught by the same teacher who taught The Science of Willpower class last year. She has a great book and is an excellent lecturer. I really enjoy her classes and I knew this would be no exception. As she talked about what the class would cover, one of the things she mentioned is how our brains are constantly changing.

I think most of us believe that youth is the time to learn all new things. By the time we reach middle ages, it’s too late to pick up a new instrument, a new “talent.” We’re pretty much done.

It turns out not to be true.

I’ve never believed this to be true so I am glad to find out that there’s research proving the human brain can be changed at all ages. She specifically mentioned a study where a group of adults were taught to juggle. These people had never juggled before. They had brain scans before the study began, then they were taught juggling for a while and had another brain scan done. The research found that certain areas of their brain changed during the study. The part of the brain responsible for tracking visual things (makes sense, right?) got denser. So the brain realized they were doing this and started becoming more efficient and capable.

So lesson 1: you can learn at every age and your brain is constantly adapting and optimizing in your favor.

And, even more interestingly, these same people were then told to stop juggling for six months. At the end of six months, they had another brain scan and it showed that the same areas got less dense. Weaker.

So lesson 2: if you don’t keep practicing, the brain adapts to that, too and thinks you don’t need that optimization anymore and so deteriorates.

Isn’t that fascinating? Your brain is a lot more adaptable than you think. I love this because it shows that we have a lot more control than we assume. If we want to get better at something, we have to do it, and then keep doing it. We say this to kids, but it’s also true for us.

And it’s true for physical/mental activities as well as emotional ones. So we think we can get better at math or music with practice. But we don’t think the same way about depression, pain, anxiety, happiness, etc. Those work the same way, too. You practice, you get better, your brain helps you out.

So you are in control.

You can make it happen.

I am not saying there aren’t limits and that we can do anything, anytime, etc. But the fact that our brains have plasticity all the way from birth to death is a very empowering thought for me.

As we always say: what you water, blooms.

Choose wisely.

Voices in our Head

At the end of last school year, back in June, I was reading Savvy to the kids. We never finished it so yesterday I picked it up again so we could continue. This morning, I read this passage from the book:

I thought about those two gals and their constant griping and bellyaching, and my head swam with questions. If I could tell what Lester was thinking or feeling by listening to those voices in my head, why did they always talk about him like he wasn’t even there? They were always cutting him down to the quick. It seemed like those two ladies had had such an effect on him that now it was only their voices he heard loud, loud, loud. Was it their nasty chit-chat that told Lester who he was? No wonder the man had a stutter and a twitch.

Maybe it’s like that for everyone, I thought. Maybe we all have other people’s voices running higgledy-piggledy through our heads all the time. I thought how often my poppa and momma were there inside my head with me, telling me right from wrong. Or how the voices of Ashley Bing and Emma Flint sometimes got stuck under my skin, taunting me and making me feel low, even when they weren’t around. I began to realize how hard it was to separate out all the voices to hear the single, strong one that came just from me.

If you haven’t read the book, the two gals she mentions are Lester’s tattoos (she can hear people’s thoughts if they have any writing/tattoos on their skin).

After we read the chapter, I talked to David about this passage for a while. I told him how we all have that in our heads. How he should stop an pay attention to the voices in his own head and see whose they are. Like when he says he’s not good at something, is that really him or is he hearing a not-so-nice classmate who might have made a snide comment that stuck with him? I told him to make sure it’s his voice and to not let others’ voices take charge of his thoughts. (Not even his mom and dad’s.)

I explained that by the time we get to be my age, our heads are so filled with these that it gets harder and harder to differentiate whose voice originally put these thoughts in our head. We’ve carried them for so long that they feel like our own voice. But they are not. Some other person put them there. And if you pay attention from the beginning, maybe you can be better at weeding them out. Making sure your own voice is the strongest.

Because, I honestly think that we get all muddled up while we’re young and we spend the rest of our lives trying to sort through the noise in our heads. Yet another area where awareness would be a big gift.

I also told him that the other side of the coin is important, too. That other people will hear his voice in their head. And that he should make sure they hear him saying kind and encouraging things. And that it can really empower people to have a kind voice in their head. I told him how his little brother will get affected by his words so much and that’s why I make a point to ensure he’s as kind as can be. I told him that his words do matter. People do hear him and will remember. He should think of how it feels to have a discouraging, disparaging voice in his own head and see if he would ever want to be that for someone else.

The same goes for me, of course. I am trying to comb through the voices in my head. Find what’s mine. Kick the others out. And I want to be the kind, encouraging voice in others’ heads. The empowering voice. For every single person around me. I want to be that.

The story continues to say:

Climbing back up into the big pink Heartland Bible Supply bus, the morning warm and bright, I tried to listen past Carlene and Rhonda; I tried to hear if there was any of Lester’s own voice left in Lester. The more I watched and listened, the more it became clear as clear that whenever Lill smiled Lester’s way, or whenever she spoke to him as we traveled down the highway, Carlene and Rhonda seemed to lose their sway. Lill shone on Lester like the sun. And on his arms, his sleeves rolled up, the women’s scowling, animated faces dissolved back into the thin black lines of lifeless tattoos.

Maybe Lill was an angel, I thought to myself; maybe she was Lester’s angel, sent down from heaven to clear the voices from his head.

Today’s my husband’s birthday. Above all, this is the gift Jake’s given me. He has helped me clear the voices in my head. Sure he has his flaws and put some voices of his own. But he’s been there to remind me through and through that my own voice is the strongest and most worthy. I am deeply grateful for him.

Happy Birthday, my love. I love you with all my heart.

An Experience vs the Memory of an Experience

This morning, as I ran, I watched this Ted talk by Daniel Kahneman. Well, I’ve watched the first 7 minutes of it so far (I get to watch the rest tomorrow.) but it already gave me some food for thought so I wanted to share with you.

One of the things Daniel shares is that there’s a difference between an experience and the memory of an experience. He talks about a man who watched a symphony for some time (let’s say 40 minutes) that he really enjoyed. Towards the very end, there was some very loud disruption and the man said “it ruined the whole experience!” Daniel talks about how this is clearly not true. For the first 35 minutes, the man was truly enjoying the show, so it wasn’t the experience that was ruined, it was the memory of the experience. How we remember things is not how they actually were. I think even though we know this, it’s significant to think about it.

Especially because Daniel also talks about some specific ways memory can be tricked. According to his studies, endings matter. In the case above, the symphony ended negatively so it left a bad impression on the man’s mind. They also did studies on colonoscopies. They took two individuals: A and B. A had a short but intensely painful exam. And B had an exam that was twice as long and just as intense for the same duration as A but then it got less intense for the second half. One would think B would rate his experience as worse than A since he had at least just as much pain and had to go on for twice as long. But because the ending of his exam was less painful than A’s ending, the memory of B’s test is less painful in his mind than A’s memory was. So endings matter. Apparently more than the overall experience.

These two ideas led me to think about my own life. I am still struggling quite a bit and working actively and regularly on coaching myself and being acutely aware of the good in my life. There are many moments of joy and peace and contentment in my days but the end of my work days are often hectic and frustrating. And by the time work is over, kids are in bed, etc. I am spent and worn out and I often remember that feeling more strongly than the others in my day.

So to rectify this, I thought it might be interesting to start keeping a “spot check of feelings” log during the day. Where each hour I would take a second to see how I feel at that moment. Am I happy? content? peaceful? frustrated? whatever it is, i note it and move on. This way, regardless of how my day ends, I can look back and see all the moments in my day and not let my memory of my day overwrite the actual experience of the day. If the gentleman at the symphony did that every ten minutes, he’d realize he enjoyed 75% of the show and it might change his overall view. So I am going to see if it works for me.

The other idea I had was to end each day with something really good/happy/calming/joyous. Since endings matter and I know this, why not use it to my advantage? Even if I am dead tired and frustrated, I think I can find a 15-30 minute activity that will turn the last moments of my day around. And if those last moments are so crucial to memory maybe I can “trick” mine by ending my days with a happy moment.

So since I like lists, my plan tonight is to make a list of 10 things that are 15-30 minutes each. Things that bring me joy or peace. Things that I can do at night. I will pick one each night and see if I can trick my memory.

I bet I can.

Looking for the Holes

First of all, I apologize for the lack of thoughts posts this week. It was an exceptionally hectic week at work and when I was completely brain-dead at the end of each day, I decided it was ok to give myself the night off. I still did some art because that’s good for my soul but my brain wasn’t working enough to write. So, I apologize. Though, it’s been quiet here on the blog, too, so maybe the rest of you are on vacation while I work so hard! 🙂

Secondly, I have been doing well on my summer of calm. I’ve had several situations that came up and I was able to keep my cool. I have been better (not great but better) at not yelling and staying calmer in general. I am working on it. Considering the craziness of this week, I am proud of myself.

I’ve also been working on my little changes. Slowly but I’ve made headway on several. I’ve also filled the download I mention here and done some journaling, some of the assignments from Christy’s class, etc. I’ve got a long way to go, but I am making progress. Slowly.

I was thinking today that when I look at myself, I often see the holes in my life. The areas where I am struggling more and wish I were better. Like driving, riding a bike, eating healthier, etc. I just see what’s missing. And I take what’s there and good for granted. My job, husband, kids, whatever it might be. Even the things that were not there but are now. Like being thinner and healthier.

Whereas when I look at others, I do the opposite. I take what’s best about them and don’t even notice anything else. I might see their success where I am struggling and not notice their struggles in an area that’s already well for me.

But that’s what life is. None of us are perfect. We all have holes. I have a friend who used to introduce me as “This is Karen, she speaks seven languages.” And it drove me mad. So I told him that if he had to say that, he had to say it this way, “This is Karen, she speaks seven languages but she can’t ride a bike.” Because then you see my holes. You see that I am far far from perfect. And it sort of evens things out. You tell yourself “ah i might not have learned languages, but I can ride a bike!” and that’s important. It gives much needed perspective to each of us.

Life is mostly a game of chance. Sometimes we get stuff because we put a lot of energy and time into it, and other times we’re just lucky (or unlucky.) And sometimes it’s a combination of both. But none of us can have it all. We each make choices along the way. Sometimes we regret them and other times they turn out way bigger that we’d hoped. Either way, we never have it “all” and if we continue to look for the holes, we will never ever feel good. Or complete. Or done. Or “good enough” as the case is for me.

This is where gratitude plays a big role I think. Where you spend time truly focusing on the great things that you do have. So much of what you probably are taking for granted. Gratitude shows you that you don’t just have holes but you also have these magical, wonderful areas in your life. Areas where you’re soaring. Thriving.

And it’s crucial to pay attention to them.

So while I will continue to work on filling some of the holes in my life, I will also make myself pay more attention to the incredible fullness I have there, too. Life changes in a moment. And I could lose it all. I don’t want to take a moment of my life for granted.

Not one moment.

Leaky Perception

This weekend, as I exercised, I watched a TED talk on perception and there are so many things I loved about it that I don’t even know where to start.

The first thing that struck me as “good to remember” is a little similar to the bit I wrote about choice. He talked about how having control makes such a difference. More importantly, feeling like you have no say in how things work out is really really bad for humans. So it’s important that we think and reframe a situation where we feel like we’re in control of it. Like it was a choice.

I had this experience quite a few years ago with someone I was close to. I felt like this person wasn’t behaving the way I wanted her to. After a lot of struggle and frustration (and anger towards her) I realized one day that she was just being who she was all along. I had unrealistic expectations of who she could be and if I wanted to continue to have her in my life, I was going to have to reframe my point of view. Suddenly, it felt so much easier to deal with the same problem because I felt like I was actively making a choice to have this person in my life despite her “faults.” The reigns were in my hand. And it, literally, changed our relationship in a fundamental way.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the talk. About how I should work on areas of frustration in my life and see if I can change my point of view so I feel more in control and not like it’s happening “to me.” I think this is one of the biggest keys to feeling more content in life.

The other part of the talk that really resonated with me was how perception and reality are really intertwined and how our perception of something is sometimes even more powerful than the reality of it. This course I took a long time ago talked a lot about how facts happen and then we create stories around it. And the stories are never true because with stories there’s no “true or untrue” they are just made up. Facts are facts and everything else is a story. That’s how it is with perception. The perceptions of the events in our lives (the people in our lives) are what shape our stories about them. And then we feed those stories so they get bigger and deeper, until we can’t even see the facts anymore.

Our perception becomes the truth.

Since perception is leaky and tends to affect the way we live in the world, I think it’s really worth working on changing my perception on the things that I struggle with. Things that I have negative stories around.

Had you told me in 2009 that I could run almost 3 miles a day, I would have laughed at you. My story was that I had never exercised and couldn’t run a block. My story was that it was too late. My story was that if I had to lose weight, the only option for me was dieting. I had a huge story around this. But seeing Donna and then Cathy do it changed my perception. I don’t know why that did it and other examples hadn’t done it but I do know that my perception is what changed first. It suddenly felt doable. And once it felt doable, I was willing to give it a try. And once I tried it, I was able to do it. And once I saw how much I could do, my perception of myself changed. And then I did it. I lost the weight almost totally due to exercise. The weight I’d been carrying around since 1993. 20 years of weight.

My perception changed my reality.

So it worked in what I considered to be the most unlikely part of my life. I could have believed many many other things before I believed I would be the kind of person who runs daily. And I know that if it worked for that, it can work for anything. Truly. Anything.

So my goal is to make a list of the challenging areas of my life, the negative stories I have, the repeated frustrating conversations in my head and start tackling them. See if I can change my point of view. See if I can take charge. See if I can start by changing my perception.

And then just let it leak into my reality.

Expectations and Happiness

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the power of expectations. Or more like the downside of having too many of them. I’ve decided that one of the biggest contributors to unhappiness is when expectations don’t align with reality.

When I was pregnant with David, Jake and I took a baby prep class and a month after our kids were due, we all came back to the same hospital to meet and talk about our babies and how things went, etc. We noticed, at the time, that the couples who had an unexpected problem (however small it was) felt like their hospital/birth experience was terrible and in the cases where everything went smootly, the parents thought the hospital was amazing. There might have been some cases where the staff varied enough to cause this, but I really think it had more to do with the alignment of expectations vs reality. If you go into it thinking you’ll have a one night stay at the hospital and end up having to stay 3 days, suddenly it’s the hospital’s fault or something went wrong. Instead of focusing on the good, like how your baby is healthy, you focus on how things didn’t go as planned.

This is true in the smallest things in life like getting caught in a red light when you expect to be somewhere at some particular time. It’s also true in the biggest things like career, love, home, etc.

I’ve been trying to figure out what this means to me. Do I lower my expectations? Do I purposefully not set expectations? But aren’t expectations also a bit of a driving-force behind acheivement? How are they different from goals? I am not entirely sure of the answers. But I did decide that I will spend more time thinking about the crux of the issue and try to figure out what matters most to me and hope that, that particular thing goes well and try to refrain from having any more expectations than that. So, for example, concentrate on having a healthy and happy baby and let go of getting to control the timinig, location, and other, smaller issues.Or focus on getting somewhere safely even if it means I have to be a few minutes late. Cause safety matters more. Spend the extra few seconds to hug or calm David down even if it means I get that much less sleep.

I guess it’s a way of learning that you can’t have it all and you should stop expecting it. And it’s also taking your expectations, especially the subconscious ones where you just take things for granted, and living each day more aware of them and making sure you’re not expecting more than what’s realistic and, more significantly, more than what matters.

Extrovert vs. Introvert – Take II

In the last few weeks, I’ve become the office joke because I had the
audacity to claim that I
am not extroverted
. Anyone who’s met me under most normal
circumstances will quickly realize that I talk. A lot. Really. A lot.
With a few exceptions, I make friends quickly and feel comfortable
chatting up random people. I speak my mind. I tend to talk quickly and a
lot, so people think I talk without thinking. People make judgments
quickly and, unless they spend considerable amount of time with me, they
don’t get to see how I spend all my time. So they tend to “figure me
out” quickly and yet incorrectly.

Here’s what wikipedia says about extraversion and introversion:

Extraversion is “the act, state, or habit of being predominantly
concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the
self”. Extraverts tend to enjoy human interactions and to be
enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, and gregarious. They take
pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as
parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or
political groups. An extraverted person is likely to enjoy time spent
with people and find less reward in time spent alone. They enjoy
risk-taking and often show leadership abilities.

An extravert is energized when around other people. Extraverts tend to
“fade” when alone and can easily become bored without other people
around. Extraverts tend to think as they speak. When given the
chance, an extravert will talk with someone else rather than sit alone
and think.

Introversion is “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or
predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life”.
Introverts tend to be quiet, low-key, deliberate, and relatively
non-engaged in social situations. They take pleasure in solitary
activities such as reading, writing, drawing, watching movies, listening
to music, inventing, designing, programming and using computers
An introverted person is likely to enjoy time spent
alone and find less reward in time spent with large groups of people
(although they tend to enjoy one-to-one or one-to-few interactions
with close friends
). They prefer to concentrate on a single activity
at a time and like to observe situations before they participate.

Introversion is not the same as shyness, though introverts may also be
shy. Introverts choose solitary over social activities by
, whereas shy people avoid social encounters out of fear.

An introvert is energized when alone. Introverts tend to “fade” when
with people and can easily become overstimulated with too many others
around. Introverts tend to think before speaking. When given the
chance, an introvert will sit alone and think rather than talk with
someone else.

I added the underlines to show what pieces of each are true for me.
While I am chatty and enjoy the company of people, I hate parties. I
don’t like large social gatherings of any kind actually. I prefer the
company of a good book to 98% of people, including my friends. I spent
years writing. Even scrapping is something I prefer to do in the
solitude of my home. I spend hours thinking about my life, my choices,
the people around me, etc. I would say, for the most part, I am not shy
and, depending on who it is, I certainly get energized with people
around me. However, I always prefer solitude. I loved working
from home. So maybe, in the end, I am not an introvert, but an ambivert.
A term wikipedia describes as:
Ambiversion is a term used to describe people who fall more or less
directly in the middle and exhibit tendencies of both groups. An
ambivert is normally comfortable with groups and enjoys social
interaction, but also relishes time alone and away from the crowd.

I don’t know why the distinction matters so much to me. I don’t know why
I try to convince my work mates that they are wrong about me. It
shouldn’t matter much, I suppose. In the end, it’s just a label. And, as
with many others, neither of these labels fit me well. People are
allowed to think however they want. I guess I mostly mind that how I see
myself doesn’t seem to match how others see me. Does that really matter?

Obsessive Patterns

One of the comments Jake’s brother made at our wedding was about Jake’s tendency to obsess about things. He mentioned how he had a thing for remote control cars. And then he had a thing for something else and he’d obsess about that endlessly. We all laughed at the time, mostly because it was so true. Jake does obsess about things and delve into them wholeheartedly. So much so that it’s as if nothing else exists. He gets to be a complete expert on that particular thing. And then he moves on to the next. Cars, comic books, computers. While this is definitely true about Jake, I’ve been noticing that it’s slightly true about me, too.

I spent five years trying to write novels and short stories. I studied Japanese non-stop for six months and then continued regularly for two more years. I learned to knit and knit anything I could get my hands on. I picked up wire jewelry and made earrings I never wore. I picked up photography and that particular obsession took me all the way to starting a small business. I have always been more breadth oriented than depth, but I still find myself obsessing about things. I find that the initial excitement of learning something new is so intoxicating that I momentarily become unable to think about anything else.

This is also true when I meet new people. I want to know all about them. Their life, their thoughts, their preferences, their ideas of right and wrong. I can talk to them nonstop for several weeks before the newness wears out and I prefer to come up for some air.

I am wondering whether this is a trait particular to people like Jake and me or does everyone experience it to a certain extent. Are we crazy obsessive people or is it just human nature? Does your brain actually secrete something different when you have a new experience or learn something different?

I hope so, cause that way makes me sounds a lot less crazy.

Popping Pills

I recently finished reading Opening Skinner’s Box. It was one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking reads I’ve had in a while (not that that says much since it’s been a while since I’ve read but I am restarting, even if ten pages a night). There’s been a lot of controversy over this book. There are articles on whether the author made stuff up or misquoted some of the psychiatrists she spoke with. Regardless, it’s an interesting read and I would recommend it.

The book talks about ten experiments the author claims are the greatest experiments of the twentieth century. One of these experiments is about psychiatric wards. I will summarize very quickly and apologize if this is not clear. A researcher got eight of his friends to go to prestigious and public psychiatric clinics and they were to say that they heard a voice that said “thud” and see if they would be admitted. All other details they gave were to be 100% accurate and once inside, they were to act completely normal. All the patients were admitted and spent from 9 to 53 days at the wards. This was to prove that psychiatrists don’t recognize sane people.

This experiment caused a lot controversy and pissed many people off. One pyschiatrist claimed that such an experiment would never work today. So the author decided to try it out. Just like the original nine, she didn’t shower or brush her teeth for a week and then went in and said she heard a “thud.” Partly due to the experiment I explained above patients are never admitted anymore unless they are a danger to others or to themselves. As such, the author was not admitted anywhere but she was diagnosed in all places as a schizophrenic or some other equally serious disease and she was prescribed over 50 pills in total. All this after a ten to fifteen minute diagnostic solely based on her hearing “thud.”

Reading that gave me the chills. For some reason, right around the pregnancy I became very anti-medication. I am not saying there aren’t legitimate times that call for pills that are tremendously helpful and necessary. But I find that in our society, today, we over-medicate. Most of the medications have strong side effects that then reequire other medication. Fact is, medicine rarely works long term. Your immune system adjusts and you need to up the dosage or change pills. All you’re doing is intrdocuing a lot of foregin, not well tested stuff into your body for short term relief (not that it isn’t really needed at times). This coming from someone who took Vioxx for almost two years. So I wasn’t always such a pill-hater. But now I am. And reading the author’s experience only made me more sure that doctors are too quick to try to solve stuff with pills, especially if they don’t really know what’s wrong with you.

When David was six weeks old I thought I might have thrush and called my pediatrician. The nurse was going to write me a 21-day prescription over the phone. Without even seeing me and making sure I did have thrush. I told her that I wanted to see someone and be sure. She gave me an appointment and lo and behold it turned out not to be thrush. If I weren’t so adamant, I would have been taking unnecessary medicine (not to mention giving it to David through my milk) for three weeks.

How scary is that?

ps: For those of you who’ve been following the no-sleep saga, things have improved slightly. David now wakes up three times a night, around every three to four hours. I would be okay with twice a night and am praying that it’s coming soon. Some of my sanity is already coming back and I am really glad. Thanks for listening and being there.

Happie Joy Joy

I don’t have much to say today. Or at least I am not in the mood to say it so I thought I should point you to Oso’s thought-provoking post on happiness. It’s worth the read.

I commented that I tend to be less happy when I’m free and he replied that he does that, too, but it’s mostly due to avoidance. I agree with him partially. Sometimes there is a genuine issue brewing under and in that case it’s really a bad idea to avoid it and repress it down further so it’s harder to recall next time. Some stuff gets represed so much that we don’t even know it’s there anymore. That’s bed news cause it is bound to come up eventually and it’s not a pretty picture when it does.

Having said that, I do think that sometimes it’s best not to have too much time to think. There are times when I have nothing better to do and so will take a small thing and blow it right out of proportion. I will spend a huge amount of energy stressing about it and I will make myself miserable. All this not because the issue really warrants being sad, but because I have too much time on my hands. How pathetic is that?

The good news is, once the baby comes, too much free time won’t be a phrase I can utter until the baby is in college.

The Power of Many

I have heard that some scientists think that what makes humans superior to other creatures is that we’re social.

I believe in the power of many. In Turkish we have a saying and it translates to, “What does one hand have? Two hands make noise.” Okay, so it doesn’t translate well, but I hope you know what it is trying to say. It has always been obvious to me that two people can achieve a lot more than one, and three in return, can do even more.

Unless we’re talking about developing software.

But seriously, a single person has limitations on his or her capacity, just by the fact that a person can only do one thing at a time, be in only one place at a time. A crowd can disperse to attack the issue from a multitude of angles, bring the issue to a resolution. A single complaint might be whining, but a hundred people complaining often makes it a legitimate issue. Think about class-action suits, they symbolize the power of a crowd over one individual.

A group of people are stronger in pure muscle power as well as brain power. Having more people means more ideas, more points of view, and more experience to draw from. There are many studies proving that if humans grew up without other humans, they would not acquire language skills. We learn to speak so we can communicate with others. Because we live in a society.

There’s also the downside of the ‘power of many.’ There’s a famous psychology test where the subject is placed in a room with nine other researchers and shown two lines where one is obviously longer than the other. The psychologist asks each participant, starting with the nine researches who are acting as if they are subjects, which line is longer. Each researcher has been told to say that the longer line is the one that obviously appears to be the short one. By the time the actual subject’s turn comes up, he almost consistently replies in accordance with the undercover researchers.

Why? Because no one likes to sway from the crowd. Even when the answer is obvious and seemingly certain, very rarely do people want to give the single opposing response. It’s easier to roll with the crowd than to stand your ground alone. “If everyone said the answer is B, maybe I’m missing something. Maybe the answer is B.”

I bet your mom told you that it’s a bad idea to do what everyone else does, right?

Even though it increases the pressure to want to belong, I believe working in a group is consistently superior to working alone. It’s simply impossible to come up with as many ideas and see things from as many perspectives on one’s own.

The trick is not to give up your own sense of being in the process.

Previously? Finally.


So, at the end of last semester, I signed up for a class called ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ Actually, at the end of last semester, I signed up for a class called ‘theories of learning.’ It appears no one else thought learning theories were interesting because the class was cancelled due to low enrollment.

A week before classes were to begin, I was notified of the cancellation and had to scramble to fill in the time slot. Since I’d never taken a philosophy course, I figured the happiness class might not be awful. I mean it was a class on happiness, how bad could it really be?

Well, week one came and went and while I was quite hesitant, I did keep the class, thanks to an email from Richard who told me to keep at it and that the class would be worthwhile. The second week I remember sitting in the room, wondering why I kept punishing myself so. I kept thinking the professor was a little out there and didn’t hold on to any strong beliefs or positions of his own. But I didn’t drop the class. I wouldn’t.

Over the next few months, my happiness class was the source of a variety of posts. It seems week after week, the class made me think. It made me think about myself, about life, about my choices, about the whys and hows and why nots. Two of us in the class got engaged and our most vocal classmate stopped showing up, thus allowing the class to cover the full material. One of my classmates showed me how to knit a pattern and how to hide the small pieces of yarn sticking out on the edges. Another classmate asked me algebra advice for his son. The teacher told us how he’s been struggling with learning to brush his teeth at night.

Yesterday was our final class. The woman who helped me with my knitting said she wanted to make an announcement. She said that before the class she’s been struggling with personal problems. She’d had cancer and hadn’t been able to get back to her sculpture. She said she explained her frustration to the professor and he said he’d call her every morning for a week. On day two, she’d already organized her life around and now she has a huge piece that’s on display on the West Side of Manhattan.

It is then that I realized the horrors of judging. In my frustration and underestimation of the class, I had misjudged what was an amazing and kind human being. Even if he wasn’t the most organized professor, he helped each of us in his own way and I think that’s so much more precious than any well constructed instruction.

It also taught me the importance not underestimating. Not locking into the few words that someone utters and use those to judge him or her. As much as I’d like to say I don’t do that, this class showed me that I do. I made me look into my conscience and see the rotten portions.

Talk about a worthwhile class. Thank you, Richard.

Previously? Karma.