Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Our Brains are Wired for Seeking

I love this article on seeking from Slate magazine, I think it is one of those ideas that can help you gain a new perspective on human behavior (including your own). The article describes how the act of seeking is hardwired into our brains as an end to itself. The article then goes on to describe why this brain circuitry can be overactivated by Google, Blackberry and other common technologies

J.D Meier gives a great synopsis of the article in his post, Seeking is the Granddaddy of Emotional Systems. He boils the article down to five bullet points:

  • You can’t stop doing it.   You have an insatiable need to search.  It’s stronger than the basic drives for food, sex, and sleep.  We’ll even seek at our own expense.
  • Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.   “Seeking” is the master emotional system that influences the rest of our emotional systems.
  • Each stimulation evokes a reinvigorated search strategy.  It’s self-reinforcing.  Stimulating the lateral hypothalamus puts mammals in a loop of foraging, excitement, and craze.
  • Seeking is the motivational engine that gets us out of bed.  “Seeking” is the natural drive that motivates us each day.
  • Abstract rewards excite us as much as tangible one.  Our “Seeking” circuits are the ones firing when we get thrilled about the ideas or make intellectual connections.

The word seeking is overloaded with meaning, so it took me some thinking to parse out what the article means to me. I don’t think it means people are seekers in the sense of seeking philosophical enlightenment, or amazing impactful results, or even new meaningful knowledge. Some people are, but that’s not the norm.  The people who do amazing things have channeled their base-level seeking to achieve more powerful results, plus they have the innate capabilities that allow them to get those results. As a species we are seekers for tidbits, like mice searching for nuggets of food. The base level seeking impulse is very simple. Search for something that fulfills a simple need (food, shelter, comfort, etc). Its the searching for something that matters. The acquisition matters less and wears off quickly. Then we are off to seek again.

Its the happiness conundrum. You think you will be happy if you get X. Where X could be money, partner, knowledge, results, reputation, house, status, etc. But this is where we are tricked by our own biology. We are not meant to be happy or satisfied for extended periods of time. We are restless creatures and our biology gives us the happiness ‘high’ for a small amount of time and takes it away. We go back to seeking. If we were truly happy and satisfied we would stop seeking and evolutionarily that is a very bad thing.

We think happiness is good, therefore we seek it (its a meta-search if you will :)). But the search for happiness is endless and we will never truly reach the goal. So what are we to do? I think there are two choices, not necessarily mutually exclusive. While its cliche, I think we can choose to enjoy the journey - the seeking - as much as possible. If you consciously realize you are seeking and are ok with that, not fooled into thinking this search will end your constant seeking, then I think you can choose to enjoy it for what it is. The other choice is to try to make a conscious decision to be satisfied. I think satisfaction means you are happy with what you have and what you are. You can rest for a while and maybe stop seeking. Careful though - stay satisfied too long and you may become like the little creatures in H.G Well’s “The Time Machine” who have evolved into a state of feeble satisfaction due to having conquered all possible challenges in their environment.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Telling Stories

The way we think of our lives and how we fit into the world is in the form of stories. That’s why narrative is so powerful, it taps into the essence of how we think about being human. Most of us have a subconscious narrative that runs through our lives, whose power we may not even realize. If you can tap into that narrative, understand what your story is, then you have the power to change it! Its like lucid dreaming. The power of a lucid dream is that you suddenly realize you are sleeping and you have the power to modify the dream in ways you hadn't previously realized were possible. Likewise, if you are conscious of your internal story you have leverage to change your life in ways that may not have seemed possible before.

Once you understand your own narrative, what’s to stop you from learning others? If you can get a glimpse of someone else’s story then you can gain a deeper understanding of their perspectives, their priorities, and their motivations. People can be motivated by a wide variety of things (money, approval, achievement, etc). Understanding someone’s internal narrative can help you tap into their values and motivations in powerful ways!

Finally, you can use narrative and story to get your points across and share your perspective. Try this exercise sometime. Try to convince someone with plain facts and data and then try to convince them with a story that explains where you are coming from and how their decision or actions fit into that story. Which is more effective? By sharing stories not only can you get understanding you get the chance to modify your own understanding, your own story, as a result of the interaction.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Michael Michalko wrote an inspirational article on choice, how we can choose our attitudes deliberately and consciously.

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of belief lately. Belief in a God, or not. Belief in a caring Universe, or not. Belief in personal power to do good, or not. Belief in free will and the ability to change outcomes, or not.

It strikes me that many of these questions are unanswered and unanswerable. Nobody can prove to me that free will exists. Nobody can prove to me that there is a power in the universe that cares about my well being. Nobody can prove to me that consciousness is more than a set of electrical impulses in the mechanical system of my brain. Philosophy is the study of that which cannot be proven, we are unable to know truth in some areas, we have to cast about to find that which we believe in. Belief is a choice, is it not? And what you believe is the bedrock on which you form your attitudes and outlooks upon life. So if you have a choice, choose that which gives you the most happiness and allows you to be most effective in your life. Unexamined belief can lead to foolishness. Purposeful belief that improves effectiveness by shaping your lens on life can be very powerful. What do you want to accomplish and what beliefs would help you get there?

I saw a study in which people were given the choice to cheat or not in a simple game. The reward for cheating was a few extra dollars at the end of the game. The price of cheating depended on a personal belief system, on whether they could feel good about the choices they made. Before the game began, half of the people were given information that refuted the possibility of free will. Once they started playing, the people who had been told free will did not exist were much more likely to cheat. If they could not be responsible for their actions then why not make a little extra cash? This doesn’t prove anything about free will, and if you think about it you’ll understand why, but it illustrates how our beliefs and preconceptions influence our actions.

I choose to live in a universe in which I have free will, my actions matter, there is a loving force that cares about my well being and rewards that which is good (perhaps it's my wife :)). I believe I can make a lasting impact if I choose to.

Its worth asking yourself, what kind of a universe do you choose to live in?