Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article on How to Sleep, Thomas Edison used Stage 1 of the natural sleep cycle – AKA hypnagogia –  to come up with insanely creative ideas for new inventions.

He would take a cat-nap in a chair with steel balls in his hands and, as he drifted off and relaxed, the balls would drop (as it were), waking him and more often than not he’d have a new idea for research.

Edison had attained what is known as the hypnagogic state. Hypnagogia is just a fancy Greek word for the transition from wakefulness to sleep: Stage 1 of the sleep cycle. Please note that hypnagogia is NOT sleep: it is precisely the point between sleep and wakefulness. This is important.

The hypnagogic state is characterised by alpha-theta brainwaves and can lead to lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Normally we would not recall any of these experiences because normally our body continues in the sleep cycle and we pass into Stage 2 and so on through the cycle.

If we recall dreams, they are usually from the REM stage of sleep. If, however, we are woken, like Edison, during this first phase then we are very likely to recall our dreams or hallucinations.

With practice we can learn to balance on the edge of sleep and wakefulness and even to control our hallucinations to a certain degree. We can use the hypnagogic state to boost our creativity, to reduce stress and to energise our mind and body.

How to Induce a Hypnagogic State

You’ve probably already experienced a hypnagogic state. Think of times when you’ve been drifting off and had some vivid dreams or hallucinations – but not fallen asleep.

Try to remember the details of where you were, what you were doing and what time of day it was when you had the experience.

Then simply set up those conditions again and this time try to induce the state deliberately. Perhaps it was after a meal at lunchtime, perhaps it was in the library, leaning back on a chair in the sunshine, perhaps it was listening to the radio in the early morning.

I find public transport is good: you can’t fall asleep totally and there is plenty of background noise to provide stimulus.

Here are some more tips:

  • Hypnagogia is about observing the mind as it descends into Stage 1 sleep. Therefore, the two prerequisites are drowsiness AND an effort to think. Just drowsiness and you risk falling asleep; just an effort to think and your mind will stay awake. It is the effort to think that makes it possible to ‘observe’ the consciousness of your subconscious mind.
  • Therefore, don’t try it when you are tired. Late night hypnagogia will probably just lead to full-on sleep.
  • If you think that sleep is a risk, don’t use your bed. If you do use your bed, perhaps prop yourself up with a pillow to avoid sleep.
  • Follow Thomas Edison’s guide. Get yourself some steel balls and an armchair. Another one I’ve heard is a teaspoon and a plate. Hold the teaspoon in your hand and put the plate on the floor underneath. You’ll wake when you muscles relax and the teaspoon drops onto the plate.
  • Try setting your alarm for 30 minutes earlier in the morning and then try to ‘doze’, try to balance between sleep and wakefulness until it is time for you to get up.
  • You can use the snooze alarm on your clock to make sure you don’t go into sleep.
  • The afternoon nap is another classic opportunity for hypnagogia.
  • The brain works in roughly 90 minute high activity cycles, each followed by a 20 minute low activity cycle. If you can, work for 90 minutes and then try a burst of hypnagogia.
  • Stage 1 of sleep only lasts about five minutes. If you wake up after twenty, you’ve probably been asleep.
  • Relax, close your eyes, but stay watchful, observe yourself drifting off.
  • Try concentrating on the changing patterns of your mind as you drop off. Don’t think about what you are thinking about (i.e. work, the kids, etc.), but just observe the way in which your thinking is changing, a change in consciousness perhaps.
  • For me, there’s a point where I feel the body go numb (sleep paralysis) and then I know that in a few seconds my mind will dip into subconscious activity. If I don’t fall asleep, I know that I will be able to observe this state.
  • Be patient. At first this will seem like an odd thing to be doing and you will probably struggle to enter a hypnagogic state. Keep trying, but don’t force it.

Using Hypnagogia for Creativity

Many artists, writers, mystics, philosophers and scientists have used hypnagogia to break through creative brick walls. These have included Aristotle, the Greek philosopher; Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet; Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer; Isaac Newton, the English scientist; and Beethoven, the German composer.

Observed hypnagogia can inspire not just images and sounds, but also present flashes of insight and, occasionally, genius. I’ll never forget the time my hypnagogic state constructed an entirely new way of presenting data, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Shame I don’t work with data, really!

Hypnagogic states are highly creative. They are extremely productive, packing a high density of ideas into a short period of time. They are extremely novel, throwing together ideas and thoughts that might never have occured to you otherwise. They express the incredible flexibility of the mind. They are more complex than you can grasp in a wakeful state. They transform existing objects into something totally new.

But the best part is that we all have access to this state. We can do it as much as we like without doing harm to ourselves and it will become more productive the more we use it.

Think again of Thomas Edison. Was he a particularly innovative inventor? Or was he just some guy who napped a lot? The two go hand in hand. Walk hand in hand with your unconscious, work together.

Control Your Experience

As you develop your ability to enter a hypnagogic state, you can start to try and do more with these experiences. You can’t directly control the hallucinations, but you can try to suggest things to the mind.

It is important that you remain relaxed. Just let it happen, whatever it is. Anxiety will provoke your alarm systems and you will wake up. The hallucination is in control just as much as you.

Record Your Experience

Of course, the hypnagogic experience is just an entertainment unless you make an attempt to record it. If you want to make something creative out of the hallucination then you must rehearse and write it down immediately afterwards, while you are still in the afterglow of the experience, otherwise it will fade quickly and vanish.

Another way to record the experience is to learn to verbally report the images as they are happening using a dictaphone. This is not easy to do in the beginning because it uses the analytical side of the brain, which is inherently wakeful, but it can be done.

Verbal reporting can take place as long as you don’t search for words, grammar or intellectual concern for the expression of abstract ideas. This means that you can record more directly the images and ideas, rather than scrabbling for a pen immediately afterwards.

Ease the Pressure to be ‘Creative’

Inspiration gained from hypnagogic states can also be used to ease creative pressure on an artist and to deflate ego and arrogance. Because they are ideas that have arrived from an unconscious state, it is hard to take full credit for them. The creative process becomes more of a partnership between you and your ‘muse’.

Tom Waits is among the many artists who have found this a useful way of reducing the stress of public acclamation of his ‘talent’. He puts in his shift and his muse puts in hers. When the ideas arrive, he is ready to receive and works them up into songs or words. If the ideas don’t arrive, then it’s not his fault; he did his job and his muse simply failed to show up, maybe she will tomorrow.

Other Uses for Hypnagogia and Alternatives

Hypnagogia is not just good for unlocking the creative power of the brain, it is also beneficial in other ways. The relaxation of a hypnagogic state refreshes your mind and body and diminishes the apparent unpleasantness of painful stimuli.

The practice of hypnagogic observation doesn’t just conserve energy, it produces it. It also lowers blood pressure and oxygen consumption and leads to a decrease in heart rate and respiration. All of which is good for beating stress and stress-related illness.

Inducing a hypnagogic state is not the only way to get the benefits of theta brain-waves. The following are other alternatives (my experiments in brackets):

I encourage experimentation – but hypnagogia is a great option that’s relatively easy, fun and safe.

Hypnopompia

Hypnagogia has a partner: hypnopompia, the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Hypnopompia is probably the more common experience.

Most people quite often have this sort of hallucination in the mornings, especially if your alarm goes off early and you use the snooze button. It seems to be identical in brain-activity to hypnagogia, but of course happens at the end of the sleep cycle, when you are half-awake.

The downside: you can only do it once a day! Nevertheless, you might as well indulge when you can.

Bonus: A Theory of Dreaming

We have two brains, not one. We have an ‘old’ brain and a, relatively-speaking, ‘new’ brain and they’ve evolved one on top of the other in us humans. The old brain is for use in survival mode: there is no ‘ego’, it is totally animal. The new brain is what makes us uniquely human, this is where the ‘ego’ sits, our self-conscious mind.

Dreaming is a product of the old brain; it subsumes the ego totally. Babies almost exclusively use the old brain; they have no self-consciousness and have no concept of inner and outer worlds. As the new brain starts to take over we develop our self-conscious mind.

What is Wakefulness?

Dreaming is an activity independent of sleep. Brain activity observed during the dreams of REM sleep is identical to that observed during our (so-called) waking hours. Therefore you could characterise our waking state as REM dreaming plus direct sensory stimulus.

It is only with the development of the new brain that we have also developed the distinction between sleeping and wakeful states. The new brain grabs that sensory stimulus and takes over. The old brain is still doing its thing, but at the subconscious level, which we don’t often notice or pay attention to except in meditative states, day-dreaming or hypnagogia.

What is Sleep?

If the waking state is simply the REM dreaming of sleep plus an exterior sensory stimulus, then what is sleep? People deprived of REM sleep dream more in the NREM phases, people deprived of sleep altogether hallucinate.

Hallucination in the real world is dangerous; believing you can fly off that cliff, believing you are invincible and so on. Therefore, we need to secure a safe place to give ourselves over to dreaming, to give ourselves over to the old brain. That safe place is sleep.

We can only sleep when our surroundings are secure; we can’t sleep if we don’t feel safe, our panic buttons are pushed and we stay awake. Therefore sleep is simply a safe place where we can dream.

This idea has remarkable conclusions. If the wakeful state is simply REM dreaming plus sensory stimulus and sleep is simply a safe place for us to dream, then what are we? Dreamers I suppose.

Creativity as Dreaming

This makes sense. Humans need less sleep than other mammals. This could be because we are able to ‘let go’ in a wakeful state as well – through creative arts or daydreaming, for example. This explains why we can survive REM deprivation, whereas animals, cats for example, go crazy and die.

Our ability to relax and engage in dreaming activities means that we need less sleep and less sleepdreams. This also explains why napping during the day can reduce your need for nocturnal sleep.

Now: Experiment!

This is all fascinating and highly theoretical. Sleep and dreaming, especially hypnagogia, is not well-understood by anyone – and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers! All I hope is that I have given you something to think about, to investigate further and to experiment with in your own life.


The primary source for this article, particularly the section, A Theory of Dreaming, is a book by Andreas Mavromatis, Hypnagogia, published in 1987 by Routledge. This is still the standard work on hypnagogia (as far as I know).

Further Reading:

How to Sleep

The Sleep Habit

Sleep is a habit. Get into a good habit and your sleep will be good.

This fact translates into just one hard and fast rule:

Get out of bed within 30 minutes of the same time everyday. Every day.

That includes the weekend. This will make your body rhythms consistent and you will get good at sleeping the whole time you are in bed because your body will know that that is the time allocated to it for sleeping.

Equally this will mean that you will begin to feel tired around 8 hours before your wake up time. So go to bed then. Don’t fight your body.

It is a scientific fact that most people get most benefit out of sleeping the hours between 11pm and 7am. Don’t blame me if you like staying up later, I’m just saying.

Sleep Hygeine

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. However, there are some things that contribute to sleep, some things you can do to facilitate it and some things that you should avoid. These tips are called Sleep Hygiene.

1. Don’t use your bed (or bedroom if possible) for anything other than sleep. Your body will then get used to the equation Bed = Sleep and respond accordingly.

2. Read fiction before sleeping. This activates the right side of the brain and helps you switch off the hyperactive, analytical left side. This will particularly help you if you spend hours lying in bed thinking over problems and worrying about things. Whatever you do, do not read non-fiction. This will have the reverse effect and you brain will churn over the ideas all night.

3. Don’t take caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant and takes around five hours to leave the body. Caffeine includes coffee, coke and chocolate.

4. Don’t drink alcohol either. It badly damages sleep quality. Have a drink at lunch time instead!

5. Don’t smoke. Nicotine is a stimulant and smokers get withdrawal symptoms during the night, disrupting sleep.

6. Get a bigger bed. Sleep is an activity. During the night we twist and turn – as shown by the state of the bedsheets in the morning! If you sleep with someone else then consider a king size. Seriously, people who sleep together, sleep worse.

7. Sleep in silence. If noise is a problem, then use earplugs or a white noise recording (you can find them on the internet or just detune a radio). A fan works as well, although you might dream that you’re flying through the wind.

8. Keep cool. Body temperature is crucial for sleep and therefore so is room temperature. Slightly cool works best. Make sure there is sufficient ventilation as well.

9. Don’t eat a meal in the three hours before your sleep time. But you could have a small snack high in tryptophan, calcium and carbohydrate like a roast turkey sandwich with a small glass of warm milk. Tryptophan promotes sleepiness, calcium facilitates the absorption of tryptophan and carbohydrates slow and clear the mind. Avoid proteins at all costs.

10. Avoid bright lights in the run up to bed time. Your body clock is set by daylight, so you’re just confusing it with bright electric lights. Dim the lights, or read with just a soft table lamp. Equally, eliminate light in the room when you are actually trying to sleep. You might have to use blackout curtains or a eye mask.

11. Listen to an audio book to help soothe you to sleep. I know someone who listened to a recording of Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ for a whole week and never got past the first few pages. However, put the player on a timer so that it doesn’t wake you up a few hours later.

12. Take a warm bath before going to bed. Sleep onset is encouraged by a drop in temperature. A warm (but not hot) bath will simulate this drop as the water evaporates off your skin. However, this is artificial and not normally necessary. Bear in mind that this artificial drop is followed not long after by a gradual rise in body temperature as you warm up again. This is not conducive to sleep – so jump into bed within 20 minutes after taking the bath.

13. Slow down your heart rate. In other words, try meditation or focus on your breathing. Whatever you do, do not take exercise in the 3 hours before you intend to sleep. This could mean no after work gym sessions.

14. On the other hand, do exercise during the day. As little as 30 minutes exercise will help you sleep at night. Hit the gym in the morning.

15. Do not do any stimulating activities before sleeping. This means television, surfing the internet or card games.

16. Avoid sleeping medicines. There is no substitute for natural sleep. If you are still having problems then make doubly sure you are keeping good, regular sleeping habits and go and see your doctor. Be careful.

Now I shall dig a little deeper into what sleep is and what it does for us.

The Stages of Sleep

Sleep is made up of several different phases:

Stage 1
This lasts around 2-5 minutes. It is distinctive for its Quasi-REM (dreaming without the eye movements), which is not well understood. This is the condition that Thomas Edison induced to help him with breakthroughs in his inventions. He used to sit in an armchair with two steel balls in his hands, resting on the arm rests. When he moved from dozing into deeper sleep, the balls would fall onto the floor and he’d wake up from his dreaming, often with a new idea.

Stage 2
The first stage of ‘proper’ sleep is characterised by a slowing of your heart rate and a drop in body temperature. This explains why these two changes can be used to induce sleep. Stage 2 sleep is important for increasing alertness, promoting motor learning as well as reasoning, planning, language, reflexes and social interaction.

Stages 3 and 4 = Slow wave sleep (SWS)
This is the deepest sleep that we have. If we wake up during this phase (thanks to an alarm or an irate policeman) then we will feel groggy. This is known as sleep inertia and has three solutions: go back to sleep for 20 minutes or so, engage in a physical activity or splash water on your face. During slow wave sleep our bodies stop producing stress hormone and boost our levels of growth hormone. We also metabolise fats, cholesterol and carbohydrates during this phase and our mental neurons stop firing. This phase will clear your mind, repair your body and improve your declarative memory (e.g. “The Fire of London was in 1666”).

Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
REM is the most glamorous phase of sleep, it is the time when we dream most deeply and memorably. Our blood pressure and heart rate go up and we pump 50% more blood to the brain which is firing neurons as if we were fully awake. REM sleep enhances our memories as our brains transfer information from short to long term memory. REM sleep also enhances creativity.

Sleep Cycles
It is not necessarily helpful to give approximate time lengths for the various stages of sleep because they vary a lot according to the human. For example, a male aged 20-29 years will spend about 21% of his sleep time in Slow Wave Sleep, a male aged 40-49 years about 8% and those aged 60-69 will spend just 2% in SWS. However, the average duration of a sleep cycle is about 90-100 minutes. This explains why humans average about 8 hours sleep a night, that is 5 full cycles.

So that’s it. Sleep isn’t a terrifically well-understood area of human activity, given that we spend about a third of our time engaged in the activity, but the tips above are a good start to sleeping well.


This article first appeared on the (now defunct) website, How to be Human. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here.

How to Avoid Regret

This is a moderately long article (2000 words). If you’re short on time, you can get straight to the point by going to the summary at the bottom of the page.

The Disaster Paradox

The human cons itself into feeling good about things. This should make us happy – our minds are on our side! They are constantly trying to turn negatives into positives. This is the work of what Daniel Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. The comparison with the physical immune system is a good one: our psychological immune system steps in when something really bad happens and corrects it without us having to do anything consciously.

Sometimes, though, when we’re infected with a minor virus, the immune system doesn’t kick in and we get a cold. Equally, sometimes something minor goes wrong in our life, the psychological immune system doesn’t kick in and we get really annoyed by it. This happens all the time. You might get made redundant: a complete disaster, but you start to rationalise it. It’s an opportunity to develop yourself and you never really liked the company anyway. But if you miss the bus on the way home you get into a stinking fury and it ruins your whole day.

This leads to an interesting paradox. Because mildly bad experiences don’t threaten our psychological health it is sometimes hard to see them positively compared to really awful experiences.

An experiment was done with volunteers who were told that they were joining an exclusive, elite club, but that they had to undergo an initiation which would be an electric shock. There were two sets of volunteers, one set who had a small electric shock and one set who had a massive shock before joining. Interestingly, the people who received the bigger shock preferred the club compared to the people who only had to suffer a small shock. Their psychological immune systems had kicked in at the higher level and had turned it into a positive.

That’s why it’s the small things that really get to us – you can forgive a cheating partner, but not the fact they always leave dirty dishes lying around.

This fact means that bystanders to an insult are often more hurt by it than the actual victims. The bystanders get mildly miffed and don’t trigger the psychological defences, whereas the victim gets badly hurt and looks on the positive side. However, we are not aware of this paradox: we believe that if we were insulted we would feel terrible and that the bystander wouldn’t be too bothered.

Our Defence: Rationalisation

The premise of the good psychological immune system is that it changes the facts to suit your mental state. This is the process of rationalisation. Before you got fired you thought you wanted that job – you did want that job: your brain had rationalised all the bad aspects of the job, leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction. The job was earning you good money and wasn’t too much of a pain in the ass. But as soon as you got fired you realised how awful it was; your brain rationalised in the opposite direction to match your new circumstances and to keep you happy.

How can this be? Simply that, when the psychological immune system is faced with hard evidence opposing the required mental state, it demands more rigorous standards and we criticise that evidence furiously. Forty percent of recently laid-off workers don’t find work again for at least six months, but that figure doesn’t apply to you because you’ve got excellent experience and great references. And when faced with favourable evidence we accept it with very little consideration. Four percent of recently laid-off workers find work that pays better than their old job; you’re easily in that four percent. Our brain agrees to believe what our eyes show us and in return the eyes look for what our brain wants to find. We tackle the bad event with rationalisation, re-framing it in our favour.

But beware: research shows that deliberate attempts delude ourselves will fail. We must feel as if we have come upon the positive feeling honestly, even if subconsciously we are still deluding ourselves. Asking a friend, ‘That job never suited me, did it?’ is an example of a loaded question wrapped up as an honest inquiry. It won’t work unless you’re really gullible.

These rationalisations or explanations are the psychological immune system’s filing mechanism. Explanation closes the file and we cease to respond emotionally to an event that has had closure. Think about the great thrillers in film or literature: there are always plenty of cliff-hangers. You are desperate for the mystery to be solved and, when it is, you get a great dose of pleasure and forget about it, you move onto the next chapter. But if the mystery is never resolved, you keep on thinking about it long after the book’s finished. With explanation we can file the event away. Even fake explanations enable us to move on (as long as we believe in them).

Conversely, the unexplained dominates our mind. If you find out that you have a secret admirer, but you don’t know who, it keeps you buzzing for days – weeks, even! The unexplained is rare and unusual, it captures our attention and we keep thinking about it. This is great if the unexplained is a happy event, like your secret admirer; not so great if the event is a disaster, like your redundancy. If you can explain an event, you can move on from it. However, even in happy circumstances, most people will choose to avoid uncertainty; we are a cautious people and think we’ll  prefer guaranteed outcomes.

What Makes Us Feel Regret?

We feel more regret when:

  • we suffer because of bad luck rather than through human error;
  • we are rejected unanimously by a broad range of people, rather than one judge;
  • we learn of alternatives to our choice than when we don’t;
  • when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional;
  • when we fail by a narrow margin than a wide margin;
  • when we accept bad advice, rather than reject good advice;
  • when we don’t act, than when we do (even wrongly).

We feel more regret in these situations because the psychological immune system is less able to rationalise away these occurrences. Bad luck is a poor excuse; we prefer to have someone to blame. But then again, we can’t blame everyone. If you have a choice of a hundred spaghetti sauces and the one you choose is not good then you only have yourself to blame because you could have gone for a different one. If you are doing something that no one else is doing and you fail, you only have yourself to blame. If you come within a millisecond of breaking the county 100m sprint record, then you’ll obsess over all the little things you could have done to get that last fraction of a second. If you accept bad advice then you can only blame yourself for being so stupid to have taken it. Rejecting good advice is much easier to rationalise: maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so well for you, it was still the right decision in the circumstances and so on.

The interesting thing about the last point, however, is that we expect to regret incorrect decisions that we act on more than incorrect decisions where we didn’t act – even though the opposite is true. Daniel Gilbert gives an example with stock shares.

You have shares in Company A and consider moving them to Company B, but don’t. Company A’s shares then lose £1,000 in comparison to B’s. At the same time you have shares in Company C and decide to switch them to Company D, whereupon they instantly lose £1,000 in value compared to Company C.

Which scenario do you instantly feel worse about? The one where you make the switch, right? The one where you took action. But we know that inaction, in the long run, will make you feel more regret than action.

We find it harder to generate a positive view of inaction because we can’t think of all the lessons we learnt from the experience, whereas with action you can always say: ‘Well at least now I know!’ Although our psychological immune system can rationalise an excess of courage better than an excess of cowardice, we will always err on the side of inaction for fear of looking like an idiot.

We are also more likely to look for the positive in things that we’re stuck with. Tests on people on election day show that they prefer their chosen candidate on the way out of the polling booth, compared to on the way in. Siblings, employees and spouses should provide numerous other examples from your own life. You demand higher standards from someone on a first date compared to someone you’ve already said ‘I do’ to. We feel happier when we get a test result saying that we have a potentially deadly genetic defect OR if it says that we don’t – but we feel terrible if the tests are inconclusive. We can’t feel happy until the fate is irrevocably ours.

Summary: How Can I Avoid Regret?

Our psychological immune system will kick in at a certain level and particularly when we:

  • take action;
  • are in pain;
  • are trapped and have no choice.

Conversely, the psychological immune system is not good at seeing the good side of:

  • inaction;
  • mildly negative events;
  • avoidable events.

But, when given a choice, we do not choose action, serious pain and irreversible commitment over inaction, mildly painful things and freedom. So we are actively choosing the things that will leave us less satisfied in the long run.

However, knowledge is power, so I have a few of suggestions of how to avoid regret. Do not be surprised if you find them hard because they run counter to every instinct you have.

  • Don’t think too much, just act – even if you think inaction is wiser.
  • Consequences from actions, bad or good, can and will be justified.
  • But equally, keep most people on your side – your psychological immune system can’t ignore overwhelming evidence!
  • If in doubt, follow conventions – they are more easily justified.
  • Don’t be afraid of failing spectacularly – you won’t feel that bad.
  • When you fail by a hair’s breadth use it as motivation, try not to think what might have been.
  • Don’t fear the catastrophe.
  • Don’t fear pain – in fact, seek out real hardship.
  • Don’t give yourself a choice, commit.
  • Start shopping in smaller shops (or write a specific shopping list before hand).
  • Become a determinist (‘There was nothing I could do…’).
  • Look for the good (or the diabolically disastrous) in the small things that go wrong.
  • Writing about bad events can make you feel better about them. However, logically enough, writing about good events makes you feel worse about them!

I’m sure you can already spot problems with this list (slavery was a convention once and presumably Hitler could have done without some of the consequences of his actions) so remember to do things that you can justify to yourself and, if in doubt, write down this justification in plain, logical language so that later, when you are kicking yourself for investing in paper pickaxes, you can remember what on earth possessed you. At the very least this justification will make it look more like you had no choice anyway so you can just sigh and get on with no regrets.


This article draws heavily on the work of Daniel Gilbert, specifically his book Stumbling On Happiness.
This was originally published on the website, How to be Human. I hope it finds a new audience here.

How to Make Happy Memories

There is a lot going on in our lives and our poor little brains are just not big enough to remember every detail of all the things that we experience. So they engage in a bit of reductionism. We remember our birthday party last year as being ‘fun’ or ‘debauched’, we remember the botanical garden at Kew as being ‘lovely’ or ‘green’ and we remember banoffee pie as being ‘yummy’ or ‘sickly’. We might go a bit deeper than this for vivid memories, we might remember (or imagine we remember) particular scenes or words, but most people do not have a photographic memory.

So you might imagine that we are more or less at the mercy of the experience itself as to whether it is a happy memory or a sad memory; an exciting memory or a disappointing memory. If the film was an excruciatingly tedious series of over-blown monologues then you are inevitably going to have a memory filled with disappointment. But you would be wrong.

An experiment was done in 1990 by cognitive psychologists concerning memory and the effect of ‘verbal overshadowing’. A group of volunteers were shown a particular shade of yellow for five seconds. Half the volunteers were then asked to describe the colour they saw verbally for a further thirty seconds; the other half just sat and waited for thirty seconds. Everyone was then asked to pick out the particular colour from a line-up of yellows. 73 percent of the non-describers successfully picked out the correct shade of yellow they had studied just thirty seconds earlier from this line-up. That is quite shocking in itself, but incredibly only 33 percent of the people who had described the shade of yellow successfully picked it out. Their description had interfered with their memory, overwriting what they had experienced and replacing it with something else.

This has fascinating implications for happiness and memory. Imagine if, by a simple process of reprogramming, we could remember that monotonous film as a great occasion, one that made us ecstatically happy, rather than bitterly disappointed. All it would take would be a chat over a glass of wine afterwards with a friend, describing all the good bits, all the bits you enjoyed – even if it was just the fact that you had a good nap during the tedious monologues.

But there is also another implication contained in my first sentence: there is a lot going on in our lives and our brains are not suited to remembering fine details of our experiences. They want to reduce things down to simple ‘good/bad’ adjectives. But if we take time over our experiences, being careful to process them in a ‘happy’ way rather than just experiencing them and automatically assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ then we will be more able to generate happy memories. This explains why some people just seem to be happy all the time and others just seem to be permanently annoyed by everything: these people might just have got into the habit of assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ more often.

So perhaps the solution is to try and do less and concentrate more on the things that we do experience. Slow down and think about your experience for happiness. Instead of going to Kew Gardens and rushing around trying to see everything, go to just one of the greenhouses and spend all day studying a particular species of plant. By doing things slowly you will remember more and be able to draw more happiness out of each experience. You would have a surfeit of adjectives for that plant, not just ‘pretty’ or ‘withered’ and thus you would be more involved in your own experience.

This need not be the Zen advice that it appears to be. I recently took a long distance bicycle ride to Bordeaux and find that the memories of it are still incredibly vivid and a constant well-spring of happiness. It’s not as though I was picking a blade of grass and contemplating it for hours on end, but just by progressing through France at a leisurely 10 mph I was more deeply involved in my own experience.

How to make happy memories:

1) Self-modify your experiences by discussing them and framing them in a positive light.
2) Broaden your memory’s record of an event by spending longer over it, relishing the moment.

Give it a try today, after all: what price happiness?


This was originally published in 2009 on the (now defunct) How to be Human site. I hope it finds a new audience here.

22 Tips for 100 Push Ups

I am now on week 10 of the 6 week program ‘One Hundred Push Ups’. I finally feel like I can say I have accomplished pretty much what I set out to achieve: I have done 100 consecutive push ups (or press ups, as I call them – like I’m a button or something) on no less than three occasions.

So here are my hot-tips for anyone else wanting to take the pain.

22 Tips for 100 push ups

  1. Press ups are hard bloody work. By the end of a good session, you will be sweating buckets. The floor below you will be damp. Which is nice. Maybe have a towel close to hand, certainly in the latter weeks.
  2. Give yourself a good reason for doing this stupid regime. Mine was to be able to show off in the pub.
  3. Get yourself an ups buddy. Otherwise the first few weeks will seem pretty stupid and pointless: ‘I did 10 press ups!’ isn’t going to impress anyone else.
  4. Press ups make your legs wobbly. You also might not be able to move your arms much.
  5. After a hard session, do not expect your arms to respond when you want to get up. You will have to roll onto your back, bring your knees up and then roll onto your side so you have some leverage. This is normal.
  6. Don’t try carrying anything immediately after a heavy session. You will drop it.
  7. For this reason, don’t drink from a glass. But do drink (water).
  8. Eat an egg soon after for muscle-loving protein.
  9. Try not to strain your neck – it hurts. Looking forwards, as opposed to downwards seems to help. However, it is a fact (I reckon anyway) that contorting your face into stupid grimaces and making ridiculous noises DOES make that last set of 10 easier.
  10. Eventually you will stop making grunting noises that make people think you’re watching porn.
  11. Feel good about it. Feel really good about it. Make a spreadsheet or something, tick things off.
  12. Make sure you have access to the regime at all times. You don’t want to miss a day just because you don’t know how many you should be doing. No excuses.
  13. Don’t fuss over what time of day to do them: it’s going to hurt like fuck anyway. It’s supposed to.
  14. You can do it through (non-ups related) aches and pains. 6 hours of cricket and trampball on the Sunday and I went for a hard session on the Monday. Just get on with it. No excuses.
  15. You can do it through illness (although probably not serious illness – seek medical advice, blah blah blah.) I did it with a nasty chill. Yeah, sure I was sweating like a fat man in a sauna, but it was worth it for the achievement.
  16. But don’t beat yourself up about it. It is better to enjoy it and finish it than to make yourself miserable and fail. If you fail at one level, just repeat it the next week.
  17. Or change the regime. I failed twice on Week 6 Level 2 and couldn’t face doing it a third time so I just switched to Week 6 Level 3 – much harder. To get through it I increased the length of time between reps and just about got there. The next week I did my first hundred. Mess around with the regime to suit you, but make sure you stick by the goals you set.
  18. The ‘6 weeks’ claim is just a target. It took me until Day 1 of Week 9 to get to 100 consecutive press ups. Just keep going.
  19. Don’t stop when you get to a hundred. Just keep going.
  20. Invest in new shirts for your new arms.
  21. Just do it.
  22. When you’ve done your hundred, start on the ‘Two Hundred Sit-Ups’ regime 🙂

How to make a free and easy documentary video

  1. Get a YouTube account: http://www.youtube.com. Apparently other video sites exist, but I’m going with the market leader – why not? Assuming this isn’t going to be a magnum opus (YouTube is limited to 10 minutes) – just get it up and get it out there.
  2. Download a free lump of software, like this one: http://www.aquasoft.de/SlideShowYouTube_en.as?ActiveID=2124
    This is not a perfect piece of kit. Every now and again it will do funny things and time-slip your video. Live with it: it’s free and easy.
  3. Choose a topic for your documentary.
  4. Do a ton of research on your topic.
  5. Write a script.
  6. Search Wikimedia Commons for pictures relating to your topic and download them.
  7. Throw them into the SlideShow software. In some logical order please.
  8. Record your script with a microphone and Audacity (another free lump of software: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/)
  9. Edit and mess around with your sound file until it sounds good. Don’t worry about perfect, we’re happy with good.
  10. Export it as an MP3 file (you’ll need to download the MP3 Codecs for Audacity to do this bit.)
  11. Throw it into the SlideShow software.
  12. Make sure the pictures line up with your vocals nicely and that there are no ridiculous transitions (like the photo of your grandma doing a somersault whilst you talk about her hip replacement.)
  13. Upload the bugger to your YouTube account.
  14. Check SlideShow hasn’t done something very odd. If it has, mess around until you fluke upon the right timing.
  15. Publicise your baby.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw94Qtb7e-M

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A2jQtzUbJo