Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, summer is sliding inexorably away. With heavy hearts, we pack away our shorts and sandals and dig out our autumnal garb. This is it, guys: we’ll be layered up until next spring.

So why haven’t I worn a jumper or a coat since Tuesday? Continue reading Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

Stoicism and The Word of God

I’ve always been somewhat in awe of Christianity: two millennia of earnest study on the nature of being and how to live the good life – all based on one book. And there is plenty of good in the Good Book. Like Mark Twain said:

[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

Continue reading Stoicism and The Word of God

Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

Some of you probably know that, over the past 10 weeks, I’ve been studying person-centred counselling at the CityLit in London.

Some of you are perhaps also aware that I’ve recently (re)turned to mindfulness meditation to manage stress levels, as part of a concerted campaign against elevated Thyroid Peroxidase antibodies in my bloodstream.

And probably all of you know that over the last couple of years I’ve been investigating the transpersonal potential of psychedelics.

What I am slowly realising, however, is how tightly these three areas are woven together. Continue reading Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

“I don’t take reality for granted.”

Weird stuff happens. People really do experience telepathy, alien abduction and pre-cognition.

In the UK, we usually push such stories to one side and either forget about them, or (worse) medicate them. David Luke, Senior Lecturer for Psychology at the University of Greenwich tries to understand them. Continue reading The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

A Really Good Day Psychedelic Microdosing with Ayelet Waldman

This article is ambidextrous. On the one hand, it is nothing more than a non-fiction book review. On the other, it is a fully-featured 3,000 word guide to psychedelic microdosing.

The book in question is A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life by Ayelet Waldman. The title is a little coy – presumably so she can slip under society’s anti-drugs radar. Waldman is talking specifically about psychedelic microdosing, the habit of taking a very small dose of a psychedelic drug in the same way you’d take a microdose of caffeine with your morning coffee.

Waldman’s experiment lasted a month and follows the advice of Dr Jim Fadiman, who has been collecting informal reports from psychedelic microdosers for the last ten years or so. Once in every three days, Waldman would start her morning with a drop or two of diluted LSD, then continue her day as normal, recording observations on her mood, relationships and productivity at work. This book is her lab report.

Are you ready for this? So we begin, in conventional book review fashion. Continue reading A Really Good Day Psychedelic Microdosing with Ayelet Waldman

What Makes a Person Do a Thing?

This question has fascinated me for a long time. Why does anyone do a Thing, when doing no-thing is so much easier, more secure, and more comfortable?

  • What makes a middle-aged computer programmer with a young family do a complete career swerve and retrain as a chiropractor?
  • What makes a retired marketing manager, who had until his sixties showed little to no aptitude or interest for music, suddenly join a community choir?
  • What makes a woman in her thirties quit a lucrative career as a management consultant in the city to row single-handed across the Pacific Ocean, and become a United Nations Climate Hero for her environmental work?

(These are all people I know, by the way, all great role-models.)

Inertia, doing nothing, is the favoured course of (in)action for a human being. Inertia is defined as:

The tendency of a body to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.

Do you recognise this tendency to inertia in yourself? I certainly do.

  • Staying in a dreadful job or a miserable relationship.
  • Not breaking the silence and telling someone exactly how you feel about them.
  • Pushing to the back of your mind that day-dream of cycling around the world / writing a novel / falling in love.

(All things I have done…)

If the natural disposition of a person is to keep going as they are, then what makes someone divert course, and do a Thing?

The answer to this question is crucial for anybody interested in pushing their own boundaries of existence – and encouraging others to do the same.

I should say right up front that I don’t have the answer. But I do have a few answers, which I’ve noticed over the past few years of trying to do Things.

Using myself as Subject Zero, in this blog post I’ll examine three different Things I did, and try to dig down to that critical Why?

Why did I break university rules and go abroad to study Arabic in Egypt and Tunisia?

In the summer of 2007, I was miserable. I was studying for a part-time Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS in London.

I scraped through my first year, passing gruelling courses in history and music despite my complete prior ignorance of those subjects.

For my second year I just had to learn Arabic and write a dissertation. But I dreaded going back to London, where the rain fell in spadefuls and the teaching was dry as desert sand.

I have never felt so uninspired, so lifeless. Emerging into adulthood had been a shock and I could scarcely believe what I found there. Surely there was more to it than this?

Continuing along this path might not have killed me, but I’d have certainly failed my Arabic exams, and even today I’m scared of imagining the hollow person I might have become.

Inertia was not an option. In this case, doing a Thing came from hitting a road block. I felt that I could not go forward any longer, so I changed direction.

Realising that I could learn much better Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country, I spoke to my course convenor and proposed the idea that I go abroad to study.

I was shocked when, from behind his paper-strewn desk, he told me that university rules stipulated I must attend a certain percentage of classes (I think it was something like 70%).

This rule, he explained, was protection against legal action. Apparently SOAS receives a lot of wealthy young Arab men, who are sent to study in London, but spend all their time and money on sex and drugs. Then the families sue when the university fails their sons.

So I wrote SOAS a letter promising that I wouldn’t sue them, and left for Cairo.

Why did I leave everything behind and spend 2 months cycling 4,110 miles around Britain?

Hitting a brick wall in your path is one motivator, certainly, but it seems to be more of a stimulus to the essential process of imagination.

You need to have the idea of doing a Thing before you can do the Thing. This seems obvious, but I think is often overlooked. Without engaging the imagination, when you hit a roadblock you risk descending into frustration.

I have written before about how important are people who launch themselves on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures. Without these people, how will we hear the stories that fire our own imagination?

For me, this act of imagination manifests itself as an idea that I can’t shake off. I dream up a million and one ideas every year, but only a few lodge themselves in my head like spines I can’t pluck out without action.

Cycling around Britain was one such spine.

The idea bubbled up from a soup of dissatisfaction with what I’d seen of the world. I knew Cairo better than I knew anywhere in Britain beyond my bubbles of London and South Oxfordshire. I wanted to fix that.

An inciting dissatisfaction is not quite enough to stir me into action, however. I need to know that my idea is possible, that I can turn imagination into reality.

Somewhere on the BBC, I ran across an article about a kid who’d walked around the coast of Britain with his dog. So I stole his idea, thinking that if he could do it, then I could too.

The only problem was that he’d taken 9 months over the journey and I didn’t want to commit to something so vast.

So I decided to cycle (despite not having a touring bike or having cycled further than 10 miles in the past 2 years).

This was the idea that I couldn’t get out of my head.

But still the question remains: Why did I end up acting on that idea, rather than suppressing it like so many others?

There are a few influences that I could draw on here, including some pretty life-shattering experiences, like the death of my nan and the messy break-up of a relationship.

But these are distractions from the true first cause, only coming after I had committed to the journey.

No: the moment when this imagination started to become reality was forgettably insignificant.

I told someone.

That was it. I just mentioned my idea of cycling around the country in passing, in casual conversation with my sister and my (then) girlfriend.

While an idea stays locked inside your head, it is neutralised, safe. It’s only when you let it out into the world, first as a vocalised intention, that it takes on a power of its own and action becomes inevitable.

That first step is always the smallest, but takes the greatest courage.

It’s only after you’ve vocalised your idea that other factors conspire to push you out of the door.

For me, those other factors were not just losing my nan and my relationship, but also a question: Do I really want to be the person who walked away from such adventure?

Telling my sister and girlfriend was the tiny first step on a journey of more than four thousand miles.

That epic bike ride changed my life in many ways, but it was missing something. To this day, I don’t feel like I got the most out of that particular Thing.

Why did 80 cyclists ride 70 miles to give their bikes away to migrants and refugees?

Last Spring, a friend I didn’t quite have yet had an idea: to cycle from London to Calais and donate her bicycle to the destitute migrants living there.

I thought this was a great idea. We put a call out on Facebook and very soon people from all over the UK were messaging us, joining the ride.

At Barnehurst train station, the set off point for the ride, shivers ran up my spine as more and more people arrived, saddle bags full, chattering excitedly, bikes oiled and ready to ride.

Why did all these people come together on the ride? There are two answers to this questions, a Big Reason and a little reason.

  • The Big Reason we were all doing this was to ride in solidarity with those migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to escape certain death in Syria and Sudan, in the hope of a better life in the UK.
  • The little reason, though, was friendship. Everywhere you looked on the ride were little clusters of pals, three or four here, five or six there. Anybody who came alone was soon embraced. By the time we arrived in France, we were brothers and sisters.

The Big Reason could be called our higher purpose, the lofty ambition that bonded us all, but it was the little reason that actually held the ride together.

It was the little reason that gave us belief in our higher purpose, and it was the little reason that gave us the belief in ourselves to persevere through the hard ride.

Over the next 24 hours, we went through the full 70 miles of hills and woods, rain and thunder.

Strangers worked together to navigate the back roads of Kent, leg muscle massages were passed around, food shared, bikes repaired.

We became a community and that community sustained our belief that we could succeed in our endeavour. This was exactly the same for the Thighs of Steel ride from London to Athens in 2018.

A higher purpose is needed to make your Thing about more than just you, but it’s surely impossible to sustain belief in any higher purpose without support from your friends and your community.

  • I would not have returned to Calais again and again if I wasn’t certain that I would find friends there (even if it’s just ones I haven’t yet met).
  • I would not still be living in London if it weren’t for my friends.
  • I have forgotten almost as much as I learnt from my secondary school education, but I will always remember the friends I made there, and the lessons they taught me.

If you doubt the centrality of friendships to doing Things, then perhaps the following true story will help.

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, volunteers from across the Untied States travelled down to the deep south to help register black voters.

This was dangerous work, even for privileged whites. On the 21 of June, three young volunteers were killed, one black and two white.

Understandably, this discouraged some from making the journey from their safe homes to take up this deadly cause.

Fascinatingly, however, social scientists have been able to discover what kinds of people followed through on their initial enthusiasm: friends.

Those volunteers who had equally committed friends or who were part of a committed community (a political organisation or church group for example) were much less likely to drop out of the mission.

Friends hold us to account and inspire us to be the people we would like to be. Friends help us believe in ourselves and in the value of our Thing.

If you’re unsure that you can commit and follow through on doing your Thing, invite a friend and do it together.

Side note on relationships versus friendship

Relationships can be inspirational in the same way that friendships are, particularly in the early stages, when the fires burn strongly. But friendships are more powerful.

Perhaps surprisingly, friends are more likely to influence our behaviour than our partners or families.

Over time, we tend to take even the most passionate partners for granted. We start to believe that they will never leave us, and we can comfortably let our tendency to inertia show.

But because our friends can drop us any time, we tend to make a bigger effort to live up to our best selves.

What makes a person do a Thing? Four stages.

  1. You feel some dissatisfaction in your life, some hole that stimulates the imagination.
  2. You let your imagination play over the possibilities, gradually solidifying the idea that you can succeed. Here is where other people’s stories help: “If he can do it, so can I.”
  3. Tell a friend. Don’t boast, but feel the courage to take the first tiny step towards pulling the idea out of your head and into reality.
  4. Connect your idea and action with a higher purpose, supported by the belief you find in friendship and community. This will help you persevere through difficulties, and get the most out of your Thing.

EXTRA: One bizarre reason why people do NOT do their Thing

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the biggest reasons why people don’t do a Thing is, not because they lack the dissatisfaction or the imagination, and not because they fear failure, but because they fear success.

It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.

There are a couple of explanations for this strange modesty that I can think of:

  • Success means putting your heard above the parapet, putting yourself up to be shot at, perhaps more than failure might draw mockery.
  • If we believe that we are powerful, then what excuse do we have for not acting? Remember that inertia is the default setting for human beings. But if we are powerful, then we must act; we have a moral duty to use our power for good, and that takes us well out of our comfort zone.

So, in addition to the four stages outlined above, there must also be a courage to act up to your potential greatness.

This can actually manifest itself, less as courage, but more as an entitlement to greatness and power.

Some people are raised with this sense of entitlement: the schools of Eton and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge seem to raise students who have no trouble believing themselves powerful enough to act on a global stage.

Other young people draw such belief from their religion, or from powerful role models and mentors who lead them through their early successes, expanding their scope of the possible.

For the rest of us, we must ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Slowly, that feeling of being an imposter will dissolve, as our comfort zones expand into new territory, and we realise the extent of our power and feel the humility of our greatness.

Good luck!

Why are polyglots so damn nice?

The cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language are well studied and publicised. Learning a foreign language makes you smarter, better at multitasking, helps to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia, improves your memory and your decision-making and makes you more perceptive of your surroundings.

But what about the social benefits of learning a foreign language? Or, as a friend asked me the other day: “Why are polyglots so damn nice?”

We batted about a number of reasons that sprang to mind and I resolved to do further research on the subject. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little academic research into the niceness or otherwise of polyglots, speakers of multiple foreign languages.

The best I found was a study examining the relationship between empathy and achievement in foreign language learning. Excitedly, I clicked open the report, fully expecting to find hard scientific evidence for my friend’s complaint. Alas, the researchers found no such correlation.

This was rather disappointing, but I still strongly believe there is much more to this question than mere circumstantial evidence of all the nice polyglots we know.

So here are my introductory explorations of the matter. Why are polyglots so damn nice?

Empathy

Despite the one study I mentioned earlier, I’m sure there must be something in this. The researchers only tested students already studying a foreign language a university level: I’m talking about the difference between polyglots and ordinary mortals like me.

In order to become fluent in a foreign language, you must have spent a long time living and studying that language. Human beings learn by copying others and language learning in particular involves a high degree of mimicry. In order to copy others effectively (to the extent that you master a foreign language), you must be or become empathetic.

Far from being a trait fixed at birth, empathy can be practised and strengthened. Learning a foreign language to fluency is surely an excellent way of doing this. And, of course, empathy makes us nice.

Tolerance

Stepping into a foreign language is stepping into a foreign culture. The words we use affect the world the see and change the person we are. That’s why, when I studied Spanish in Sevilla, I became more expressive with my hands, more garrulous with my neighbours on the bus and more assertive in queues. That’s why, when I studied Arabic in Cairo, I became more adept at negotiation, more polite, more religious and even more assertive in queues.

When you have taken a foreign language to fluency, you cannot fail to realise that the way you do things at home is not the One True Way of doing things. Everything, from the words you use to the ethics of pig-eating is culturally relative. Even the etiquette of queueing.

This appreciation of cultural relativity makes you more flexible in your approach to others and more tolerant of strange and new things. This tolerance makes you nice.

Sociability

In order to learn any language to fluency, you must be sociable. When you’re a baby, that sociability is forced on you by family, school and roller skating club.

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, however, you often have to make a huge effort to use your new language, by seeking out conversational partners. In short, you must become highly sociable, otherwise your new language won’t get enough practise to reach fluency.

I found learning Spanish in Spain far easier than learning French in school precisely because the Spanish did not tolerate my quiet English reserve. They wouldn’t let me be unsociable, and I learnt more in two weeks of gallivanting than I had done in years of school-taught French.

Furthermore, if you’re a total dickwad, then your hard-won conversation partners won’t stick around and your language skills won’t improve. Learning a foreign language to fluency takes a special kind of sociability: the nice kind.

Humility

By the time you’re fluent in a foreign language, you’ve made more than six hundred thousand mistakes, from mere slips of the tongue to full on inadvertant insults. You’ve embarrassed yourself in front of greengrocers, taxi drivers, attractive would-be mates, teachers, work colleagues, politicians and even the neighbourhood dog.

You cannot learn a foreign language to fluency, therefore, without being humble. The only way to learn is by embracing every mistake, learning from it and jumping straight into the next one. There is surely no such thing as the arrogant learner, at least not one that has actually learnt anything.

The corallory of this is that you cannot learn a foreign language without relying on and accepting the niceness of other people, who patiently listen to your manglings of their beloved mother tongue, exert themselves to comprehend your garblings and then correct you, before listening to you regurgitate the now slightly less awful mess all over again.

Your learner’s humility makes you nice and your appreciation for the efforts of others to help you makes you even nicer.

Patience

You don’t become fluent in a foreign language without being a determined little bugger. According to the European Common Languages Framework, it takes about 890 classroom hours to go from zero to fluent (level C2) in French. That’s a year of concentrated study. Note, too, that this is only teaching hours; students must typically practise their language skills for two or three times this long outside class.

Looking at it this way, achieving fluency in a foreign language is an overwhelming feat of determination and patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Italian wasn’t learnt in an hour.

Not only is attaining fluency a monumental task, but, as soon as it is attained, your fluency degrades. You must practise your new language every day or, before long, you will find yourself back clutching a dictionary. Language learning is not for the impatient, who want fluency now, forever, without the effort.

But your practice of patient perseverence has another side benefit, I believe. Patience means you’re less likely to get frustrated with other people. Patience makes you nice.

Listening

Finally, for now, you can’t learn a foreign language without being a good listener. How else could you pick up the difference between “sheep” and “ship”, or “sheet and “shi…”?

But being a good listener isn’t just useful for avoiding strange bedroom mishaps; it’s also useful for making other people think you’re interested in what they’re saying. And other people LOVE that.

Yes, that’s right: being a good listener is directly correlated with being a complete bastard. Oh no, my mistake: it’s directly correlated with being damn nice.

You can be nice too!

That’s the end of my little examination of the (totally unscientifically proven) reasons why polyglots might be so damn nice. I shall leave you with one important note.

I am not saying that only nice people can become polyglots.

My argument is that the correlation works in the opposite direction: learning a foreign language makes you a nice person by making you more empathic, more tolerant, more sociable, more humble, more patient and a better listener.

There is hope for me still. Now sod off and let me get on with my conjugations.

End Notes

Anne Merritt (The Daily Telegraph, 2013) Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism

Filiz Yalcin-Tilfarlioglu, Arda Arikan (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012) Empathy Levels and Academic Achievement of Foreign Language Learners

10 great excuses to avoid making your dreams come true

Worried that you might be about to embark on the trip of a lifetime? Looking for some excuse not to step out of your front door? Scared that perhaps you might finally become the person you always dreamt of becoming?

Fear not! For I have compiled here an easy-to-remember list of great excuses that will successfully prevent you from ever making your dreams come true.

Note: These fail-proof excuses have been tried and tested on literally millions of people just like you. The human race has been proudly dodging, delaying and demurring their dreams since time began. (Warning: 97.2% of these humans did not procreate and are lost to the gene pool forever.)

1. I don’t have enough time. (Variations: I am too busy / I have too much work.)

Not too busy to take a photo of a clock, though.

A thought experiment might suffice here. If you carried on doing whatever it is that you are doing now, what will the world look like in ten years? What about if you take steps to follow your dream?

Without prejudicing your answer to the above thought experiments, there is the old saying: No one, on their death-bed, wishes they’d spent more time in the office. What kind of world are you building with your time, as currently allocated? What could you be building instead?

There is another aspect to this objection: Is your time actually yours to allocate? The most obvious answer, if you’re an employee, is No. Likewise, you may feel, if you are a mother or father or even a member of the local trombone choir. But these are all different orders of obligation. There is hierarchical obligation, that is weighted on your shoulders without your choice. And there is volitional obligation, like that towards your fellow trombonists.

Obligations can always be re-negotiated. Even children can be accommodated (see below).

 2. I don’t have enough money. (Variation: I don’t have the right equipment / stuff / shoes.)

16 Twixes for £2 or 2x 9 Twixes for £2?

What is it that you think money will accomplish for you? Think not in terms of needing money as a prerequisite for X. Think rather about how you can acquire X. Sometimes the answer will be through money alone, but I fear that would indicate a failure of imagination more than anything else. (But I accept that often we are tired and our imaginations exhausted.)

Ask the question: What would happen if I tried to do this without a million dollars / new shoes / a buffalo? Really think. 99% of the time you’ll find your imagination can fly over any apparent obstacle with ease.

Solidarity, mutual aid and recycling are all ways that you can make things happen without recourse to huge amounts of money. Do, swap, borrow.

3. I don’t have the right contacts / network / friends to make this happen.

Maybe you hate other people. Maybe you are anti-social. Maybe you don’t like asking other people for favours or access. I don’t either.

Is there something you can do to push yourself towards your goal that doesn’t require other people? As you march towards your future, you’ll find you naturally bump into people who will help you make it happen. There is no need to force relationships and there is no reason why you can’t start without them.

Taking that a bit deeper: Why do you think you need other people? Are you sure you’re not just using them as a crutch? If you are: well done! You’ve found a great excuse. You’ll never know if you could have managed without them and you’ll never know if you could have made contact with them.

4. I have a family / business / goldfish to look after.

Good for you! Caring is one of the most genuine human actions. But why are you being hierarchical about this? Speak to them (technical note: goldfish speak Portuguese) and involve them in the power structure. Why can’t you take your family / business / goldfish with you through your dream? Were they not part of your dream in the first place? If not, then perhaps you should think more carefully about their place in your life.

Alternatively, maybe you can swap dreams. Maybe they have a dream ready for the taking too. Take some time out and explore each other’s dream-lives. You might find that the world is a better place afterwards.

5. My boss / dad / government won’t let me.

My dad, yesterday.

Ooh, that’s a low blow. Delegating your responsibility for your life to someone else. Shifting the blame to an outside agent. Removing yourself from the equation. You might think this is an infallible excuse, but really… Why are you making an exception of your dream? You’ve already disobeyed your boss, your dad, your government – and any other figure of authority or representative of hierarchy – countless times! Why let them stand in the way of your dreams?

If you’re still having trouble squaring feelings of obligation, loyalty or guilt with your desire to act, then you should think more deeply about where the feelings are coming from. Some feelings of obligation aren’t hierarchical. The example of your dad above is mischievous. Of course your dad deserves consideration. Ask: is he being hierarchical about this? Is there room for negotiation? Are my desires being taken into account? Is there a threat of force if I disobey?

Any answer of ‘yes’ to the threat of force test is a sure sign of hierarchy and a relationship that you should immediately discontinue if possible, or disobey. Only by standing against hierarchy will you be able to win freedom for your actions. And you will probably be surprised by the emptiness of the overlord’s threats. The world will not collapse down upon you. And you will have won an element of freedom.

If you decide that this hierarchy is just too convenient an excuse to give up, I have one word of advice: Don’t tell the person that they are stopping you from becoming a god because they might get a bit pissed off with you. Also, you might find that they release you from their unwitting bondage.

6. The time isn’t right. (Variation: I’m too old / young.)

We’re all just birthday candles in the wind.

When is the right time? When should I take the bins out? Now? In ten minutes? At 4.27pm? On Tuesday? Does any of this make sense? No. Is this an extraordinarily boring discussion? Yes.

Am I too old to take the bins out? Am I too young? At what age should we start taking the bins out? At what age should we stop? Does any of this make sense? Is this an extraordinarily boring discussion?

Ultimately, as any parent who intends to devolve bin-removal duties to their offspring will know, you just have to pick a day – any day – and start. The time is never right, so don’t wait for it.

7. I have no grand dream to follow. (Variation: I have too many dreams!)

I can sympathise with this one, having swung from one extreme to the other several times. A “dream” is a stupid concept that means nothing. Last night I dreamt that I had a heart attack and my mum had to give me CPR. Full of symbolism, perhaps, but utterly useless as motivation.

What is a dream, then? A dream (he said, blithely attempting the impossible) is simply something that you think about or do for long enough that it begins to define you. You don’t define the dream, the dream defines you.

For example: I got it into my head about twelve years ago that I was going to be a writer of earth-shattering proportions. I flounced around university for a few years boasting of my soon-to-be-realised achievements and did precisely zero writing. BUT this wasn’t all hot air. Eventually, I started to feel that being a writer of earth-shattering proportions WAS part of my destiny. And I started to feel bad that I wasn’t doing anything to help fate along. So I started writing. Twelve years on, that stupid adolescent “dream” has defined me.

Don’t panic about not have a grand dream. Just do something you enjoy. Then do it again. And again. And again. And gradually, you’ll find that your actions define you and, retrospectively, you’ll define your actions as contributing to your dream.

Likewise, don’t worry about pursuing countless “dreams”, goals or white elephants. Find a way to combine them all into one thing. For example, my first book, The Soles of My Shoes, was a travel book – and that’s my top two right there – travel and books.

8. There’s no point. (Variations: It’s all been done before! / I can’t make a difference.)

This is particularly common as an excuse in the fields where there is the most point, where the difference to be made is greatest: politics, medicine, education to name but three. The size of the problem is so great that a single person feels overwhelmed and doesn’t see the point in swimming against the tide.

But it is those three fields which perhaps illustrate best the answer to ‘It’s all been done before!’ syndrome. Just imagine a doctor, faced with open heart surgery, heaving a big existential sigh and muttering, ‘It’s all been done before!’, before dropping his scalpel and going for a cigarette. The sentence loses all meaning.

The value of something is not in its uniqueness, but in its doingness.

I hope this illustrates the answer to ‘There’s no point!’ as well, but there is a more obvious response to the fear of ennui: you have more allies than you think. Logically, you know this must be so. On a planet of seven billion people, you cannot be the only person who thinks what you are doing is a good idea. You can even be alone with one other. There are literally thousands, millions probably, of people who think what you are about to embark on is the bee’s knees.

‘But how do I find these legions of allies?’ I hear you cry. There is only one answer: by starting. By starting, you are pushing a beach ball down a dune. You and all your friends begin to live your new reality, your new reality starts to define you and everyone you encounter starts to associate you with your new reality. Before long, you aren’t looking for allies; they are looking for you.

9. I don’t have the right skills / fitness levels / brain.

Get fit! Frowning uses more muscles than smiling.

Nobody does. I can tell you right now that 0% of basketball champions, 0% of Nobel Prize winning scientists and 0% of dauntless explorers came out of their mother’s wombs being able to do what they ended up being famous for.

Cycling 4,110 miles is a long way. Guess what: I didn’t have the fitness to cycle over 100 miles in a day when I started. How did I get to that level of fitness? By doing it. By getting on a bike and riding, day after day. Start now and you’ll get there.

10. I’m scared.

There is nothing to fear, but fear itself. And a traffic warden with a shotgun.

Ah – congratulations! You have discovered the catch-all excuse des champions, mon ami! This would appear to be the perfect excuse. It doesn’t harp on about circumstances, it can’t be bought, it won’t disappear over time – and, to top it all, it has the glossy veneer of self-deprecating honesty about. “I would do it, mate, but to be honest, I’m scared!”

Well, I’m sorry. You may be a champion excuse-finder, but this one won’t cut it. In fact, being scared is the ultimate motivation. When you feel scared of something, you can be 99% certain that this is exactly what you really want to do.

How to Make a Good First Impression: The Scientific Way

Do you smile a lot? Do you wear a suit? Is your hair combed? Do you wear loud ties? We are judging you! Unfair, but true. The good news is that we can use the science of first impressions to subvert.

This study from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at everything from the neatness of your attire to where you place your hands and examines how important each is in the overall judgement people make of your personality. The study also looks at how accurate the first impressions were for the subjects’ personality traits, but what I’m interested in is how to manipulate other people’s judgement of me. Obviously.

The study looked at ten personality traits:

  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Emotional stability
  • Openness
  • Likability
  • Self-esteem
  • Loneliness
  • Religiosity
  • Political orientation (liberal)

I’m going to ignore the last three because, frankly, I’m not interested in coming across as a lonely, religious liberal. So that leaves seven personality traits.

The study measured the effect on first impressions of the following ten physical attributes:

  • Healthy vs. sickly appearance
  • Stylish vs. unstylish appearance
  • Distinctive vs. ordinary appearance
  • Neat vs. messy appearance
  • Smiling
  • Looking away from camera
  • Arms folded
  • Arms behind back
  • Energetic vs. tired stance
  • Tense vs. relaxed stance

So let’s get straight to the point. How can I make the absolute best first impression?

Smile and have an energetic stance. These correlate strongly with all seven traits. If you do nothing else, just smile: we can all do that, even if we’re tired.

Almost as effective as these two is having a relaxed stance. This correlates strongly with all of the seven traits, except for conscientiousness. So be energetic, but not frantic.

If you can’t manage these three, then a combination of dressing neatly and stylishly, holding your hands behind your back and looking generally healthy should make a favourable impression. Don’t bother folding your arms: it has a negligible impact on other people’s impression of you.

I’m actually quite heartened by the findings of this study. The key to a good first impression is not artificial social markers, like a fancy watch and £600 shoes. The best way of making a good first impression are things we can all afford: a smile and an energetic and relaxed manner.

Finally, a warning for those who dress ‘distinctively’: yes other people will think you are open, but they will also think you are lonely, liberal and irreligious!


This blog post is entirely based on the following paper, which I recommend you read:
Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance
Laura P. Naumann, Simine Vazire, Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling
(Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2009; 35; 1661 originally published online September 17, 2009) http://www.simine.com/docs/Naumann_et_al_PSPB_2009.pdf

Consume Skills, Not Stuff

Instead of consuming more stuff, why don’t we consume more of our skills?

That little thought struck me yesterday, while I was sitting waiting in the bank, having loans advertised at me.

We all like to acquire new things. There’s nothing wrong with that desire; it’s a pretty decent developmental tool. But acquiring new things doesn’t have to mean buying new stuff. In most cases, new stuff is not the kind of acquisition that makes us happy.

For example: why should I buy a new guitar? A new guitar won’t help my skills, it won’t help me play any better. What will help me play better is acquiring a new song.

So I went home and ‘bought’ a new song by looking it up on the internet. I now ‘have’ a new song in my head and it cost me nothing. I can forever get pleasure out of my new acquisition, merely by sitting down and playing it.

Best of all, the song’s warranty won’t run out and it won’t break through overuse – in fact it only ‘breaks’ through underuse. What material stuff can you say that about? Certainly not my Argos toaster, recently replaced.

Some things need to be bought as stuff, like my toaster, but a lot of our desire can be slaked by picking up a new skill or by developing existing skills.

So from now on, whenever I desire something new, I’m going to think first of nurturing my skills.

Sleep Long: Be Awesome

Sleep 10 hours or more every night and you will reap huge benefits on your physical and mental performance and, not surprisingly, you’ll feel great! (You’ll also be less likely to get fat and die…)

Now, I’m not just making this up – science told me. Volume 34, Issue 7 of Sleep, in fact. More precisely, a snappily titled article, “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players”.

A-ha. Basketball players, you notice. Yes, the fact that their free throw and 3-point field goal percentages both increased by 9%, might seem to be rather sport-specific, but they were also faster in sprints and had faster reaction times. Not only that, but their mood was also elevated, with increased vigour and decreased fatigue and the players reported increased physical and mental well-being.

That’s the carrot, anyway. So why not try to sleep a couple of hours longer at night for a couple of weeks and see what happens? It might be hard at first, but persevere.

And if you prefer the stick to the carrot:

  • Short sleep duration is associated with obesity
  • Short sleep duration is associated with greater risk of death

Off you go now – to bed with you!


You can access the articles here:
Sleep extension benefits: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=28194
Sleep and obesity: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18239586
Sleep and mortality: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=27780

Money

Money’s a funny thing. It seems to be the most important thing in all the world, essential to feeding and loving and living. Then, just when it seems more important than ever, you realise that it isn’t at all.

But surely money…

  • gives you power.
  • makes you feel good.
  • makes other people respect you.

Well, yeah it does. But it’s a short-cut.

It is easier to buy your power than it is to influence others by your actions. It is easier to spend on instant gratification than it is to spend your life content. It is easier to earn money than it is to earn the respect of others.

But this isn’t what I’m most concerned with. I couldn’t really care less if you want to spend money on power, happiness or respect. No: I’m worried because money is boring.

Here are some choices, with money or with imagination:

  • We could go to the cinema tonight. Or we could jump in the Serpentine and make out on the island.
  • We could go to a restaurant for dinner. Or we could rummage around the fruit and veg market after closing and cook up some free food on an open fire in the woods.
  • I could join a gym and work-out in front of a mirror. Or I could go for a run in Epping Forest, get covered in mud and see how high I can climb a tree.

Boring is the enemy and money is the friend of boring.

If you think about it, it’s obvious: money is what (stereotypical) accountants like best. Anyone who wants to live like a (stereotypical) accountant is welcome to their money, but me? Naw thanks.

This boredom can be overcome, of course it can. I’m sure you can think of a hundred interesting things to do with a hundred pounds. But how many people actually spend a hundred nicker on fitting out the local bus shelter with velcro so that all the morning commuters get their suits stuck on the sides?

Of course we don’t. That’s because money is part of a system and that system is boring. You can’t package up a sunset or a tree mud or a lake. People have tried, oh boy have they tried, but some things are beyond market forces.

Money is part of a boring system so we can only spend it on boring things. Rent, restaurants, retail. Drink it on a Saturday night, then dance it away at a club – who ever thought we’d pay to dance?

Do you think Zorba would have paid to dance?

Get More Sex #3: Politics

Great news for anarchists!

Sexual activity is higher among self-defined political liberals than among moderates or conservatives, and it is highest among those who describe themselves as ‘extreme liberals’.

On the other hand, sexual activity is also above average among ‘extreme conservatives’.

Here are the cold, hard statistics. First is the number of sexual encounters per year for the group, followed by the same number adjusted for differences in age, race, and marital status.

Extreme liberal: 73 / 72 sexual encounters per year.
Liberal: 62 / 62
Slight liberal: 63 / 60
Moderate: 60 / 60
Slight conservative: 55 / 54
Conservative: 52 / 54
Extreme conservative: 59 / 62

These politics are also reflected in the fact that the most sexually active Americans are far more likely than average to approve of premarital or extramarital sex, to see positive benefits in pornography, to watch X-rated films, and to favor giving birth control pills to teenagers.

But it isn’t always liberal attitudes that match up with having a lot of sex. People who own guns also have higher-than-average sexual frequency.


More: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4021/is_n2_v20/ai_20302952/?tag=content;col1

Get More Sex #2: Religion

Religion can be a minefield when it comes to having sex. But what are the stats?

A US study shows that Jews and agnostics are 20% more sexually active than Catholics and Protestants.

They also found that Baptists have slightly more sex than the national average, while Presbyterians and Lutherans are slightly below average.

But why? God only knows. I mean, I could speculate that it’s because there’s more shame and guilt associated with the Christian religions, but really I have no idea. Hell-fire and damnation tends to dampen the passions, somewhat.

Another study found that observant married Jewish women reported having sex three to six times per week more than twice as often as married women in general. Ooo-whee!

But there’s more! Statistics have also shown that people who rarely go to church have 31% more sex than people who regularly go to church. Not sure about people who never go to church.

Extremely devout people are also less likely to masturbate and use vibrators. Those who attend church regularly are less likely to become sexually active, to have multiple and casual partners, and to have extra-marital affairs.


More: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-07-20/sex-statistics-who-does-it-the-most/#

Get More Sex #1: Wealth

If you want to have more sex, get rich or get poor.

People on very low incomes and those on very high incomes have sex more frequently than anybody else. Men earning a middle class income of £45,000 (US$75,000) per year average twelve fewer days of sex a year than men who earn about £15,000 (US$25,000) annually. Ouch.

I would hate to speculate why this might be, but I will nevertheless.

Low GDP has long been associated with high birth-rate in developing countries. But why? One possible answer is evolutionary.

A low income means an uncertain future for your progeny, compared to the future of sons and daughters of a person with plenty of money coming in. Poverty means inhibited access to medical care, education, food and many other things necessary to a secure life.

Therefore, in the absence of increasing wages, we have loads more sex in the hope that plenty of descendants will survive to pass on our genes through sheer statistical weight of numbers.

So why do the rich get loads of sex too?

One answer is that wealth has long been associated with desirability. If you’re rich and powerful, you are intoxicatingly attractive to the opposite sex, particularly to women if you are a man.

This doesn’t mean that men are any less shallow than women, just that we tend to go for a luscious child-bearing physique over a big bank balance.


Thanks to http://taraparkerpope.com/ for the fact.

36: A thought experiment to kick your ass

Yesterday I was 28. Today I am 36 years old.

I woke up this morning and I’d lost 8 years in a dreamless sleep. In the mirror, my face was a little more lined, a little thinner, my eyes a little duller. But not much had changed. I’d just lost 8 years of beating-heart life.

36 is a believable age. I could feel, today at 36, just like I did yesterday at 28. I know people who are 36 and they are not much different to me as I was yesterday. So why not?

8 years is a long time. Think of it all, reeling away behind me, all those days, suns and moons. And I’ve done nothing with it. I just woke up this morning, 36 years old, 8 years down.

Hits me in the guts, thinking of all the things I could have done if I hadn’t been asleep. I want to cry, I want to jump and run, I want to eat the world and leave marks.

I know I’m not 36 years old. But I could be soon and it needn’t be an 8-year dreamless sleep that I lose to.

The next 8 years I could lose on Facebook, in supermarkets, bored or brainless. I panic.

It’s a thought experiment.

But there is a deadline to life. Impending panic is a shock to start an engine. I feel it in my groin, in my guts.

So what is it? What thing would I jump to do if I did wake up aged 36 tomorrow? What one thing would make me think: “Fuck! Why didn’t I just do this sooner?”

Smile or Die Trying

At the risk of sounding like a laughter yogi… smile!

It will:

  • Give you a more fulfilling and longer lasting marriage.
  • Give you a greater sense of well-being.
  • Make you more inspiring to others.
  • Make you live longer.
  • Make other people smile too.
  • Make you feel happier.
  • Give you a bigger hit of endorphins and serotonin than chocolate or money or even sex.
  • Reduce your blood pressure.
  • Make you more likeable.
  • Make you seem more courteous.
  • Make you seem more competent.

Check out this TED talk for a bit more detail:


Some more smiling research stories:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/7849905/Smiling-makes-you-happy-research-into-botox-shows.html
http://longevity.about.com/od/lifelongbeauty/tp/smiling.htm
http://education.ucsb.edu/janeconoley/ed197/documents/Keltnerexpressionsofpositivemotion.pdf

Personality, Physique, Sex and Fingers

Want to know your prenatal androgen exposure level?

I mean: want to know how much of a testosterone-fuelled beast you are?

Well, do this then:

  1. Measure the length of your index finger (2nd finger) from the crease at the base to the tip. Not including nails. That’s cheating.
  2. Now measure the length of your ring finger (4th finger).
  3. Do it for both hands, just for interest.
  4. Now get a calculator (unless you are Rain Man).
  5. Divide the length of your index by the length of your ring (finger). You should end up with a number between about 0.90 and 1.10.
  6. Do it for both hands, just for interest. They should be similar, but your dominant hand is the more important number for this game.

The Results

NOTE: Ethnicity plays a big part here, so find someone else to compare with for real fun. The interpretations below are for white Caucasians. Other populations have relatively lower or higher ratios – doesn’t mean they are more or less mannish!

If you are a MAN:

  • 0.98 is the average.
  • 0.94 is macho.
  • 1.00 is more feminine.

If you are a WOMAN:

  • 1.00 is average.
  • 0.98 is more masculine.
  • 1.02 is girly.

This test for testosterone and oestrogen exposure has been demonstrated in humans since the 1930s. And, since 2006, in pheasants.

What does this mean?

IMPORTANT: Much of the evidence for the traits below is tentative or based on single trials. Don’t take anything too much to heart! These results show tendencies, not hard and fast rules. But it’s still interesting.

While the ratio interpretations above are for ethnic white Caucasians, the conclusions below hold true across ethnic boundaries.

Personality Traits

  • People with a low ratio tend to have low verbal intelligence, high numerical intelligence and low ‘agreeableness’.
  • Men with higher ratios tend to do better in exams.
  • Men with a low ratio are more likely to be aggressive. This doesn’t hold for women, though.
  • Male traders on the stock market are more likely to be profitable and stay in the business for longer if they have a low ratio. Biology and experience come out about equal as predictors of success. Which is incredible really. Men with lower ratios are better at ‘rapid visuomotor scanning,’ physical reflexes and are happier with exposure to risk.
  • Men with a low ratio are more likely to suffer from attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Men with a high ratio are more likely to be depressive.

Sexual Traits

  • Women with a higher ratio have a higher sexual success rate.
  • Women with a low ratio are more likely to report a ‘male sex-role’ in the bedroom.
  • Men with a low ratio tend to have a higher sperm count. Men with a high ratio are more likely to suffer germ cell failure, which sounds painful.
  • The ratio is not a good predictor of sexualilty, however – in either men or women.

Physical Traits

  • Women with lower ratios are more likely to play sports, and to play them at a high level.
  • Men with lower ratios are more physically competitive. Professional footballers have lower ratios than amateurs; footballers who played for the England national squad (i.e. ‘the best’) have lower ratios than those who haven’t.


FYI: I got all of these trials by following the footnotes in the Wikipedia article on Digit Ratio.

For what it’s worth, my ratio is 0.93. Man.

11 Tips on How to Eat and Drink Less, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

  1. Start eating at normal speed, then slow down to enjoy each mouthful
  2. Drink from a tall thin glass.
  3. Place food out of sight to avoid temptation.
  4. Focus on your food – you eat more while distracted. Like popcorn at a film. Or, in my case, Marylands in front of the computer. I can inhale them now.
  5. Use smaller crockery.
  6. Keep a food diary.
  7. Use the power of regret to motivate you to get to the gym: you know you’ll feel bad if you don’t go so just do it. As someone once said. 
  8. Do not exercise in front of a mirror, you’ll get really self-conscious and do less!
  9. On the other hand, do put a mirror in your kitchen to make you aware of your body.
  10. Use more energy in your day-to-day activities.
  11. Diet packs of food just make you lose vigilance so you end up eating more.

    How to Persuade, in 59 Seconds

    This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

    Rewards Don’t Work!

    • Rewards don’t work. They sometimes show a short-term boost, but generally elicit the response:

    ‘I get paid for doing things I don’t like; therefore I must hate this.’

    • Occasional surprise rewards work for things that someone enjoys already. So does praise for their effort.
    • For something disliked, modest payment and feel-good comments about their behaviour works.

    Quick Tips for Persuasion

    • Sit in the middle of a group. Important people sit in the middle.
    • If you are trying to sell something, keep the name of the product simple, in other words: easy to remember and straightforward to pronounce.
    • Use simple language, not fancy words to make yourself appear intelligent.
    • Make appeals personal, story based, not based on general statistics.
    • To get more donations, use the slogan: ‘Every penny helps’ and paint your collection box red.
    • Do a favour for someone and they’ll reciprocate. Don’t put the pressure on by doing too much to begin with. Ask for the return favour soon after – otherwise the other person will forget they needed you.
    • Put a photo of a cute baby in your wallet. WTF.

    Getting Agreement

    • Getting someone to answer ‘yes’ to a series of minor questions will encourage them to say ‘yes’ when you ask the big one.
    • People like things that are introduced to them whilst they are eating a meal.
    • People are more likely to be swayed by controversial arguments if they have caffeine.
    • Save your time, persuade by rhyme.
    • Similarity works to persuade. People like people like themselves, even just sharing a first name is enough. Funny, eh? I can’t think of a Dave I didn’t get on with. And there are a lot of us around.
    • Use humour, lighten up the persuasion, get them in a good mood.

    How to Nail Your Job Interview

    Job interviews are all about persuasion and, unjustly, likeability is more important than qualifications or experience, so:

    • Find something you like about the organisation and let your opinion be known.
    • Give a genuine compliment to the interviewer.
    • Chat about a non-work-related topic that you and the interviewer find interesting.
    • Be interested – ask what type of person they’re looking for and how they’ll fit into the organisation.
    • Be enthusiastic about the position and the organisation.
    • Smile and maintain eye contact with the interviewers.
    • When you do have a weakness, announce it early to show your honesty
    • Leave something positive to the end to show your modesty.
    • If you make what feels like a major mistake, don’t panic. The chances are it is much more noticeable to you than them. An excessive response or apology will only draw attention to it.

    How to Be Likeable

    • People like you more when they do a small favour for you.
    • The occasional slip up can enhance your likeability. Warning: this only works if you risk looking too perfect, like JFK.
    • Gossip positively – the traits you gossip about will come to be associated with you!

    How to Persuade a Crowd

    • The more people who are around a person in distress, the less likely anyone is to do anything about it.
    • Break the crowd mentality by targeting one person and appeal directly with a specific request.
    • If you have a request of a group, ask each person individually, not all together.

    How to Beat Stress, in 59 Seconds

    This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

    Focus on the Positive

    Think about the positive aspects of the stressful event. Did you:

    • Grow stronger or become aware of personal strengths that you didn’t realise you had?
    • Appreciate aspects of your life more than before?
    • Become a wiser person or strengthen important relationships?
    • Become more skilled at communicating your feelings, more confident or encourage you to end a bad relationship?
    • Develop into a more compassionate or forgiving person?
    • Strengthen your relationship with a person who hurt you?

    Write down how you have benefited from the experience and how your life is better as a result of what happened. Do not withhold anything and be honest.

    Quick Tips to Beat Stress

    • Pray for other people.
    • Listen to Pachelbel or Vivaldi.
    • Spend 30 minutes outside in the sunshine (but don’t stay trapped indoors on a sunny day).
    • Laugh for 15 minutes a day.
    • Don’t shout and scream to vent anger – it will only make you more angry.
    • Get a dog. Owning a dog relieves stress. In part, this is because it promotes social contact, but even watching a video of a dog works!
    • The placebo effect works to help you lose weight and this weight loss reduces stress. All you have to do is convince yourself that you are doing more exercise in your daily routine than you thought!

    How to Achieve Your Goals, in 59 Seconds

    This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

    4 Key Techniques for Motivation

    1. Have the right kind of plan.
    2. Tell friends and family about your plan.
    3. Focus on the benefits of your achievement.
    4. Reward yourself each step of the way.

    The Right Kind of Plan

    Wiseman’s got the plan, don’t worry.

    1. Define your goal:

    My overall goal is to…

    2. Create a step-by-step plan:

    Break overall goal into five steps, each with a goal that is concrete, measurable, realistic and time-based, e.g.:

    Step 1:
    • My first sub-goal is to… write a blog post.
    • I believe that I can achieve this goal because… I’ve done the research and I’ve done this sort of thing before.
    • To achieve this sub-goal, I will… sit at the computer and write 500 words on how to achieve your goals.
    • This will be achieved by… today!
    • My reward for achieving this will be, er…a pack of Marylands?

    3. What are the benefits of achieving your overall goal?

    • List three important benefits, focusing on how much better life will be for you and those around you.
    • Focus on the benefits of your desired future, rather than escaping the negatives of your present situation.

    4. Go public.

    Who are you going to tell about your goals and sub-goals? Maybe you could publish them on a blog or display them in your office or home?

    1 Simple Way to Beat Procrastination

    Start work on something for just a few minutes and your brain will want to complete it. Anyone can do anything for a few minutes. Just start.

    Use Doublethink to Achieve Your Goals

    Thinking about benefits and setbacks together will motivate you to achieve and help you persevere in the face of difficulties. Answer these questions about your goals to get the best motivation.

    1. What is your goal?

    2. Potential benefits and setbacks

    1. Write down one word that reflects an important way your life would be better if you achieve your goal.
    2. Write down one word that reflects a significant barrier standing in the way of you achieving your goal.
    3. Write down a second benefit.
    4. Write down another significant barrier.

    3. Elaboration

    • Elaborate on how the two benefits identified above will affect your life positively.
    • Elaborate how the two obstacles identified above will hinder your achievement – and outline the steps you would take to deal with them.

    How to Achieve Your Life Goals

    • Write your own eulogy (or obituary) in the third person (David Charles will be remembered as full of fast phrase, pace of prosody and poise of poesy…) to reveal your real life goals (that was a dumb example, by the way). What would you like people to say about you when you die? What would you like to have achieved?
    • Those who visualise themselves as others see them are 20% more successful than those adopting a first person view. Apparently. How do they find these things out? that’s what I want to know.

    How to Decide, In 59 Seconds

    This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

    Beware of Deciding in Groups!

    Groups tend to:

    • Polarise an individual’s opinion and make them take more extreme decisions.
    • Be more dogmatic than individuals.
    • Be better at justifying irrational actions than individuals.
    • Be more likely to see their actions as highly moral than individuals.
    • Stereotype outsiders.

    Furthermore, when strong-willed people lead group discussions they can:

    • Pressurise others into conforming.
    • Encourage self-censorship.
    • Create an illusion of unanimity.

    How to Beat the Salesman

    You can use these mind tricks for good or evil. Use them to persuade, or use knowledge of them to avoid the dodgy sales tactics of others.

    • Salesmen will often use ‘That’s not all…’ techniques, i.e. give something away for free, offer discounts or bargains. There’s nothing wrong with that – if you already want to make the purchase.
    • Another technique (often used, I’ve found, by people outside train stations incongruously desperate to call home…) is ‘Disrupt, then re-frame’ – in other words surprise a person and then make a request. Don’t ask for a quid, ask for 97 pennies. The unusual request will break through the other person’s automatic negative response.
    • Another good one is to ask for a small favour and then build up to the big favour/sale – get your foot in the door.
    • Or to start with a ridiculously big ask and so that your ‘reasonable’ offer looks like good value.

    Use the Unconscious to Unlock Complex Decisions

    When making straight-forward decisions, stick with the concious mind. Just think about the pros and cons and assess the situation in a rational, level-headed way.

    But for more complex choices, try giving your concious mind a rest by following this simple technique.

    1. Outline exactly what decisions you have to make.
    2. Work through anagrams for five minutes. This occupies your conscious mind.
    3. Now without thinking too much, write down your decision. Hopefully your unconscious mind has come up with something!

    When You Make the Wrong Decision…

    Regret is surely one of the most painful emotions known to humankind. ‘No regrets’ is a great thing to strive for, but there’s nothing more human than making bad decisions. Don’t let it get to you by using these tips.

    • People tend to regret things that they don’t do, rather than things that they do do.
    • Prevent regret in the first place by adopting a ‘will do’ attitude. Say YES.
    • If you do regret something, see if you can correct it. Write a letter, mend that broken relationships, go back to college, etc.. Use regret as a wake up call for motivation.
    • If it isn’t possible to make things better, don’t dwell on ‘What might have been…’ Instead, spend time thinking about three benefits of your current situation and three negative consequences that could have occurred had you taken the decision that’s causing the regret.

    Judgement

    Good judgement is at the heart of good decision-making. So what happens when you are faced with a judgement call?

    How to Beat Liars

    • Forget the clichés about liars staring to the left or whatever. It’s not true.
    • Liars tend to become static, they gesture less. 
    • They speak in less detail and increase their pauses.
    • They avoid the words ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and increase their use of ‘him’ and ‘her,’ rather than using specific names. 
    • If someone becomes suddenly evasive, ask for a straight answer.
    • Try to establish an honest baseline for the person by asking simple questions that will get an honest reply.
    • Get them to email you their story. People lie in 14% of emails, 21% texts, 27% face-to-face, 37% phonecalls. Take note of that one yourself: emails can come back to haunt you!

    How to Judge Time Accurately

    We are very bad at estimating how long things will take. Improve your estimates by:

    • Comparing how long a similar project took before.
    • Unpacking the activity into its constituent parts and estimate how long each one will take individually.

    How to Attract the Opposite Sex, in 59 Seconds

    This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

    How to Attract 101

    The best strategy is to give the impression that, in general, you are hard to get, but you are really enthusiastic about your date: ‘I am choosy, and I choose you.’

    The Touch on the Arm

    This is really powerful, apparently. It will make people help you out. It also helps women find men attractive.

    • Deliver at the same time as a compliment or request.
    • Try the briefest of touches to the upper arm.
    • Be careful. Some people don’t like to be touched – and a millimetre the wrong way could get you a slap. 

    Loving Styles

    Psychological similarity is a good indicator of long term satisfaction in relationships. There are three basic types.

    Eros:

    • Very strong ideas about the type of physical and psychological traits they desire in a partner.
    • Frequently experience love at first sight.
    • Engage in emotionally intense relationships, which falter as the love of their life changes.
    • Extroverted and giving, they feel secure in their relationships and get emotionally close to others.
    • Become infatuated during the initial stages and, in this stage, would not dream of infidelity.

    Storge:

    • Value trust over lust.
    • Slowly develop a network of friends in the hope that affection will transform into deep commitment.
    • Intensely loyal and supportive. Only form one or two relationships in their lives.
    • Altruistic and trusting, often brought up in large families. Comfortable depending on others for support.

    Ludus:

    • No ideal type in mind, they play the field.
    • Strive for novelty and thrills. Uncomfortable with commitment, many short-term relationships.
    • Enjoy the thrill of the chase, display little loyalty.
    • More neurotic and self-conscious than most, they have little sympathy for the feelings of others.
    • Fear of being abandoned by a partner – a situation they avoid by not getting too close to anyone.

    Speed Dating Tips

    • Think of questions that get the people talking in creative, fun, interesting ways.
    • Mimic the way they sit, hands, speech patterns, facial expressions.
    • Only select the few people you had genuine chemistry with.

    Sex and Sport

    • Women like men who do sports that show bravery – rock climbing, football, hiking. Not aerobics.
    • Men like women who keep fit – aerobics, yoga, gym. Not rugby or body-building.
    • No one likes anyone who plays golf.

    The Perfect Date

    • Do something that will make the heart race. Thriller films, theme parks, cycle rides. Dumb humans easily confuse the fast heart rate of fear with the fast heart rate of attraction.
    • Play the sharing game to build intimacy. Ask questions like:
    1. Imagine you are hosting the perfect dinner party – who would you invite?
    2. When did you last talk to yourself?
    3. Name two ways you consider yourself lucky?
    4. Name something you have always wanted to do, and explain why you haven’t done it yet.
    5. Imagine your house has caught fire and you can only save one thing – what would it be?
    6. Describe one of the happiest days of your life.
    7. Imagine you are going to become close friends with your date. What is the most important thing for them to know about you?
    8. Tell your date two things you really like about him/her.
    9. Describe one of the most embarrassing moments in your life.
    10. Describe a personal problem and ask your date’s advice on how to solve it.

    Quick tips for dating

    • Women rate men as more attractive if they see other women having a good time in his company.
    • Hungry men show a preference for fat women.
    • Disagree, then agree. Play a little hard to get for the first hour, then turn on the charm later. Talk about things you both dislike, rather than like.
    • Smiles crinkle around the eyes, not just the mouth. The most attractive ones are slow and involve a slight tilt towards the other person.
    • Love – leaning towards each other. Lust – licking lips.
    • Previous partners: Women like men to have two. Men like women to have had four.

    How to be Creative, in 59 Seconds

    This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

    Engage the Unconscious Mind

    1. Address a problem. What is it you are trying to solve?
    2. Do a difficult crossword, word-search, sudoku – or any other task that fully occupies your conscious mind.
    3. Now, without thinking too much about it, jot down the various thoughts and possible solutions that come to you.

    The Four Ps of Creativity

    Classic self-help. The X-number of Y.

    Priming

    1. Work feverishly on the problem.
    2. Then do something completely different: Feed your mind with new things: museum, art gallery, flick through newspapers, go on a train journey.
    3. Leave it to your brain to make the connections.

    Put plants and flowers in a room. Green is good. Don’t fake it though – pictures won’t do. Avoid red. Prime people with green objects if you want them to be creative.

    Perspective

    • Imagine how a child/idiot/friend/artist/accountant would solve the problem.
    • Think about analogous situations by applying the ‘is like’ rule – how is the problem solved by the analogous entity? Can this be applied to your situation?
    • Think about doing the exact opposite to what you are doing now.

    Play

    Have some fun. Being too serious constrains your brain. Take a 15 minute fun break.

    Perceive

    • Don’t go onto automatic pilot. Become more curious.
    • Ask yourself an interesting question each week. Try to find out the answers. Not just by using Wikipedia.

    Quick Creativity Tips

    Richard Wiseman has some quick tips for us. How kind *pulls desk towards himself*.

    Creative Brainstorming

    • Mix groups of people up to be more creative in brainstorming sessions. Put different kinds of people together, not bunches of friends.
    • Or better, allow people to be creative alone. It makes them responsible alone for coming up with good ideas. Quality and quantity of ideas improve when alone in most cases.

    The Power of Art

    • Spend a few moments describing a typical musician or artist. List their behaviours, lifestyle and appearance.
    • Look at modern art to help produce original ideas.

    Creative Body Language

    • When trying to be creative, pull the table towards you. Pulling things means you are comfortable with them and comfortable means creative.
    • Cross your arms to help perseverance in the face of failure.
    • Lie down to use your locus coeruleus against rigid thinking.

    How to be Happy, in 59 Seconds

    This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

    Here is what he suggests to make you happy.

    Write a diary

    • Don’t suppress negative thoughts – they will only come back stronger. So write about them.
    • List 3-5 things to be thankful for once a week. Appreciate things that go unnoticed.
    • Describe a wonderful experience you have had in life.
    • Describe a great future; realistic, but in which you have worked hard and achieved your goals. It won’t help you achieve it, but it will make you smile.
    • Write a short letter to a person you are thankful for. Imagine you have only one opportunity to tell them. Describe what they mean to you and the impact they have had on your life.
    • Think back over the past week and make a note of three things that went really well for you (this can be trivial, like stroking the cat and getting a purr in return).

    Spending and Giving

    • Buy experiences, not goods. Experiences tend to be social and the memory of them will improve with age, whereas goods tend to look worse with time. Like my bike.
    • We grow accustomed to changes in our circumstances. So riches will become quotidian.
    • Giving will make you happier than receiving gifts.
    • For a cheaper boost, carry out five non-financial acts of kindness on a single day. Don’t dilute the effect by spreading them out over the week.

    Act happy

    50% of  your happiness is genetic, 10% due to general circumstances, but 40% is governed by your day-to-day behaviour.

    • Smile for 15-30 seconds. Imagine a situation that would make you smile to make it convincing.
    • Sit up in your chair – posture is important.
    • Swing your arms like a kid (a human child, not a goat).
    • Add a spring in your step.
    • Use more expressive, excitable hand gestures in conversation.
    • Nod your head when others speak.
    • Wear more colourful clothing.
    • Use a greater frequency of positive words and a lower frequency of self-references in your conversation. The film was incredible! Not average.
    • Use a larger variation in the pitch of your voice. Squeak and growl.
    • Speak slightly faster.
    • Arm yourself with a significantly firmer handshake.

    Intentional change

    • Intentional change (i.e. pursuing a goal, starting a new hobby) will make you happier than circumstantial change (i.e. a change in circumstances – getting a new car, house etc..).
    • Make the effort to start a new hobby, project, sport – something new, not habitual.
    • Look at something you enjoy already and find something new that is related. For example, playing the clarinet if you enjoy the piano.

    All this advice seems pretty cool to me. However, it does come with a ‘be bothered’ warning. Can you be bothered? Seems like a lot to remember for me – no, I mean, go for it!

    How to Prevent Jet Lag

    I love the logic of this trick!

    The brain has two body clocks: one in the “old” and one in the “new” brain.

    • The new brain body clock works on natural light patterns. This clock can only shift about 2 hours a day. That’s why it gets thoroughly confused when we cross the planet and the sun is rising at half past midnight.
    • The old brain body clock, however, works to make sure you are awake when food is around. If we were always asleep at dinner time, we wouldn’t live very long.

    Normally, the new brain is in charge, but there is a way to switch over to the old brain: by throwing our bodies into survival mode.

    How do we do that? By starving ourselves.

    Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but apparently it takes about 16 hours of fasting before the old brain body clock will take over, believing food to be scarce.

    So if you’re flying from San Francisco to London, take a meal at the usual time in San Francisco, say, breakfast at 8.00am, then don’t eat anything at all until the next appropriate meal time in London, say, breakfast the next day at 8.00pm. Your body will switch onto the old brain and register the body clock time as “breakfast”: exactly what you want.

    Sleep, Meditation and Dreaming

    The Rise of Meditation in the West

    Meditation in the West has seen a burst of popularity since the 1960s. An Australian survey in 2002 found that 11% of people in Western Australia have practised meditation at least once in their lives. A 2007 government study in the United States found that 9.4% of people there had practised meditation at some time.

    The positive medical benefits for meditation have also recently been documented. The BBC (all hail!) have reported that meditation can reduce blood pressure and ease heart disease as well as actually changing the physical structure of the brain. Cool.

    So why is meditation not more a part of Western life? Why is it still seen as an Eastern technique, most often associated with India? Could it be something to do with our sleeping patterns?

    What?

    Yes, our sleeping patterns. Specifically, our sleeping patterns since the Industrial Revolution.

    Before the Light Bulb

    In Britain (in the south, so the best case scenario) we spend over half our time without the sun. Roughly 51% of our hours are night. 250 years ago that meant almost total darkness.

    Of course there were candles and we could light fires, but open fires were dangerous in our expanding wood-built towns and candles were expensive for most people. Gas lighting was still to be developed.

    In the summer, we have about 8 hours of darkness, if we put sunset at about 9.00pm and sunrise at about 5.00am. In the winter, however, we have about 16 hours of darkness, with sunset around 4.00pm and sunrise at 8.00am.

    If you can imagine this time 250 years ago, you would be in darkness from the mid-afternoon to the morning. What could you do? You couldn’t read or write, you couldn’t watch television, you couldn’t go outside for a walk to the pub. You couldn’t really do much at all (unless you were a thief) except go to bed or sit around in the dark and chat. For 16 hours a day.

    Industrial Sleep

    Since the industrial revolution and the explosion in light bulb usage, sleeping patterns in Britain have changed. Sleeping seven or eight hours a night all year round is the norm now – but it never used to be.

    When the sun went down, it used to get dark. Now we have lights in our houses, on our streets, we like to relax in the evening with a film. And all this light has done something a little funny: we think it’s summer all year round.

    Remember the 8 hours of darkness we get in summer? Isn’t that suspiciously similar to the hours most people sleep? You could call it the minimum that humans have evolved to live with; and that’s what we regulate ourselves to have by using electric lighting in the evenings.

    As the chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler says:

    “Every time we turn on a light we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep.”

    Pre-Industrial Sleep

    Without the miracles of electric lighting, our ancestors spent 51% of their lives in darkness. They couldn’t do much, but they could at least sleep properly.

    In fact, there was so much time to kill, that people would have two sleeps: first sleep and second sleep. The first sleep might be from evening until after midnight and then second sleep from the early morning until sunrise – or when the farmer came a-knocking.

    But what happened between first and second sleeps? Well, that’s where the meditation comes in. There wasn’t any reason to be fully awake (except to go to the toilet or have sex) so people drifted into this twilight zone of “meditation”. I put it in quotation marks because no one deliberately induced this state: it happened naturally.

    First sleep was deep, restful sleep with a burst of dreaming before waking for the first time. Then it was followed by a period of quiet “meditation” before second sleep, which was characterised by more dreaming.

    And that was natural.

    Can We Still Do This?

    Yes we can. Even today, if we are deprived of light for fourteen hours a day, we start to sleep in two shifts. Dr Thomas Wehr did an experiment to test this. After four weeks of acclimatisation to the regime, this is the sleep pattern his subjects showed:

    1. Lie awake in bed for two hours.
    2. Sleep for four.
    3. Awake again for two to three hours of quiet rest and reflection.
    4. Fall back asleep for four more hours.
    5. Wake for good.

    The question now is: why would we want to do this? Who’s got fourteen hours to waste on sleep?

    The Power of Dreams and Meditation

    That middle segment of wakefulness is not just sitting around in bed. It is characterised by an altered state of consciousness, neither awake nor asleep, where confused thoughts wander at will, like dreams, and people feel content. This brain-state is very similar to the state reported by people who meditate regularly.

    That period of “meditation” allows the sleeper to examine their dreams without the pressures of the day to worry about. How many people these days lounge around in bed, pondering their dreams – if they can remember them at all? No, most people have to get up and go to work, which breaks the spell.

    But dreams and quiet meditation are powerful tools. Half-controlled, half-random, dreams offer easy access to suppressed emotions and unexpected thoughts. We can visit old friends, talk to dead relatives, travel in foreign lands, have new experiences and remember old ones.

    This period of quiet meditation allows new thoughts to come to the surface, it allows our minds to shuffle through the events of the previous day and to put everything into perspective. “I’ll sleep on it,” is a common saying that reflects this.

    The night-time also has a reputation as the “mother of thoughts”. Many artists and creative thinkers report that dreams or sleep in general is the best time for generating new ideas. With a double shift sleep pattern, dreaming, waking and meditation is built in to the system. Twice over.

    A Experiment in Double Shift Sleep Patterns

    So I tried it (of course). I know that Dr Wehr’s subjects needed four weeks to get into this pattern, but that didn’t stop me trying. The idea that our sleep is supposed to be broken also takes the pressure off. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s no bad thing. It’s natural.

    So last night I tried it. I went to bed at about half eight in the evening and didn’t get out of bed until about nine in the morning. A good solid twelve hours of rest.

    And I did sleep in two shifts. The first was until about three in the morning. Then I simply lay in bed (after checking the cricket score…) pondering the dreams I’d just had. Then I fell asleep again after a while and woke at about half past eight. I then stayed in bed just thinking about the night’s dreaming and got out of bed at nine.

    I won’t bore you with my dreams, but suffice to say that I remember them still, twelve hours later. They were dramatic and exciting and perhaps even revealing. I’m going to try again tonight.

    Conclusion

    On average, we spend 10% of our lives dreaming between 100,000 and 200,000 dreams. That’s an awful lot. I can’t remember too many. One reason for that is that I sleep through too many of them. If I start sleeping in two shifts, like my ancestors used to, then I’ll remember way more. I really appreciate my dreams and the alternate reality that they allow me. Maybe I’ll understand them better, maybe I’ll understand myself better. Maybe I’ll just get a few more stories out of it.

    “Let the Night teach us what we are, and the Day what we should be.”

    Thomas Tryon, Wisdom’s Dictates (London, 1691)

    References

    Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles by A. Roger Ekirch:
    http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.2/ah000343.html

    Modern Life Suppresses An Ancient Body Rhythm By Natalie Angier, March 14, 1995:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/14/science/modern-life-suppresses-an-ancient-body-rhythm.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm

    Various BBC reports on meditation:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1847442.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/410003.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7319043.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8363302.stm

    How to beat Hormonal Changes with Exercise

    The Theory

    Exercise is particularly important for women to tone down negative consequences of hormonal changes. Exercise balances the system. Boosted levels of serotonin in the body regulates mood and aggression, which can be affected by hormonal changes such as the pregnancy, PMS and the menopause.

    Physical activity increases levels of tryptophan in the bloodstream and therefore the concentration of serotonin in the brain. It balances dopamine, norepinephrine and BDNF. And keeps glutamate and GABA (too high in PMS sufferers) balanced as well.

    The Workout

    • You can exercise while pregnant, but keep it fairly light. 30 minutes at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate per day.
    • For PMS, try 1 hour of aerobic exercise 4 times a week before your period.
    • In general, women benefit from moderate intensity workouts, but go with how you feel.
    • Remember that we evolved for long distance walking, not for sitting around in front of computers! Exercise is nature’s way of regulating chemicals in the body.


    Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

    Why Diets Don’t Work (or How to Stop Judging Obese People)

    The Obesity Epidemic

    Obesity has doubled since the seventies. The ruling hypothesis to explain this is that the rise is due to more calories consumed and less exercise performed.

    But, according to food consumption statistics, our diet has ‘improved’. We eat less fat and saturated fat now than we did in the seventies. And we do more exercise now as well. Believe it or not, exercise was seen as potentially unhealthy in the 1960s. The only things that we are eating more of now compared to the seventies and earlier are carbohydrates.

    Furthermore, obesity is linked to poverty, not to the excess food that comes from wealth. In very poor families, the men are very fat – and the women are even fatter, even though they do most of the work. Why would it be linked to poverty? The mass production and distribution of carbohydrates like rice, sugar and wheat means that these are cheap food products compared to the relatively expensive meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. There is no ‘thrifty gene’ that tells our bodies to store fat when times are good or when we know that food will be scarce.

    The storage of fat is an evolutionary adaptation, not a response to environmental circumstances. For example, squirrels will put fat on in winter, whatever you do. You can keep them from hibernating, you can starve them, you can even perform surgery to remove their winter fat – but their bodies will still put the weight on, and lose it again in the spring. That’s just what happens: it’s nothing to do with their diet and nothing to do with the reduction in exercise during hibernation.

    It’s Nothing To Do With Diet or Exercise

    (Of course, diet and exercise are vitally important in many other aspects of health. I am talking here purely about obesity.)

    Starvation diets don’t work. You lose a bit, then put it back on with interest when you go off the diet. (This has nothing to do with the health benefits of eating slightly less than you want, see my earlier post.) Often the obese eat less than the lean. Gluttony and sloth are not to blame, they are just ways of making fat people feel guilty and of making thin people feel good about their superior morals.

    Positive and negative caloric balance, eating more or less than you need, does not affect weight. Our body finds balance no matter what we do. If we eat more than we need, our metabolism will speed up and burn the excess calories off. If we eat less than we need, our metabolism will slow down and conserve calories (and we might live longer…).

    Forced over-eating

    There was an experiment where volunteers were fed 4000 calories a day. The subjects gained a few pounds and then their weight stabilised, so the researchers decided to increase the calories:

    • First to 5000 calories a day.
    • Then to 7000 calories a day.
    • Then to 10000 calories a day – all while remaining sedentary!

    The researchers noted that there were, ‘marked differences between individuals in ability to gain weight.’ One person gained just 9lbs after 30 weeks of this regimen. Afterwards, everyone lost weight with the speed that they had gained it.

    Calorific balance tends to 0, whether you are on a 1000 calorie diet or a 10000 calorie diet.

    Exercise

    Nor does exercise affect weight. If we exercise more, we eat more. Hence the phrase, ‘work up an appetite’. Exercise only burns a fraction of the calories we consume. You would have to walk up 20 flights of stairs to burn off the caloric input of 4 pieces of bread.

    Danish researchers trained previously sedentary people to run marathons. After 18 months of intensive training:

    • The 18 men lost an average of 5lbs (2.25kg) of fat.
    • The 9 females lost nothing at all.

    There are even studies that show people getting fatter with exercise, just as dieting regimes can do.

    Genetics

    Weight gain varies ten-fold between different people, indicating that it is genetic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us: we breed cattle for high fat yield using genetic principles. The difference in the size of cows is not put down to over-eating or sedentary behaviour, so why do we do that for fat humans?

    We are born with a genetically influenced body shape. The proportion of fat on your body will not change even if you lose or gain weight. There are three basic types of body morphology:

    • Mesomorphs: wedge-shaped power houses.
    • Ectomorphs: thin as a rake.
    • Endomorphs: pear shaped.
    Of course, most people have elements of one and aspects of another, but the general principle is clear: your shape is genetically influenced.

    Size is a Class Issue

    There is also a class issue here. McDonald’s is blamed, but Starbucks is not, even though a large frappacino with cream has just as many calories as a Big Mac. People who watch TV are called couch potatoes and lazy, but people who stay sitting at their desk reading books are not.

    Finally: if our environment was toxic, then why aren’t we all fat? It is not down to will-power or moral rectitude, as some people would like.


    This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p233 onwards)

    How to beat Addiction and Quit Smoking with Exercise

    The Theory

    Addictions are tough. Sex increases dopamine levels 50-100%; cocaine increases it 300-800%. The allure of drugs is vivid in comparison to natural highs. But we can do ourselves great harm with this dopamine abuse. Dopamine is key to wanting something, not necessarily liking it. You see this happen all the time. Addicts crave the hit and will do anything to fix it. But when it comes, they’re already looking forward to the next one.

    Addiction isn’t just about dopamine though. Addiction is learnt as well. We develop bad habits, automatic responses and reflexes. These learnt habits stick with us for a long time and relapse is all too easy. Addictions are about being passive to our cravings, being weak in the face of temptation and easily succumbing to the lazy thought habits we have developed. Exercise is the opposite, however. Exercise is about action, strength of mind and clear thinking.

    Exercise or Drugs?

    There are two effective solutions to stress – exercise or drugs. Cigarettes and nicotine are a relaxant and a stimulant. But so too is exercise. Just 5 minutes intense exercise lowers stress and builds dopamine. You can replace cigarettes with exercise. One real side-effect of quitting cigarettes is that your focus will be impaired through withdrawal of the nicotine. Exercise increases your ability to focus, so combining quitting smoking with a new exercise regime will actually help you quit.

    Exercise also counteracts the mind-dulling effects of drugs like morphine and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana and chocolate activate endocannabinoids, causing the mild euphoria we experience when using these drugs. But so too does exercise. During exercise anandamide is used to block pain, causing euphoria at high intensities – something called the ‘runner’s high’.

    The Workout

    • If you do 50 minutes exercise at 70-80% of your maximum heart rate your level of anandamide doubles, meaning you’ll replace cravings for your addictions with the ‘runner’s high’.
    • Take up thrill-seeking. This will get your dopamine levels up and you’ll find you crave less from your addictions. Also the more thrills you get from exercise, the more you’ll pursue it.
    • Increase your self-control with a regimen of exercise. The discipline and healthy feel of exercise means you’ll also smoke less, drink less caffeine and alcohol, eat less junk food, do less impulse spending and procrastinate less.
    • As a bare minimum try to workout 30 minutes, 5 days a week. In an ideal world, workout everyday.
    • Don’t just pound the roads around your house. Vary your exercise.
    • Try something that demands your full attention, like almost any competitive sport or yoga.
    • Even 10 minutes of high intensity exercise will reduce cravings.
    • Skipping rope jumping is good for when you need a quick fix to knock craving on the head: 10 minutes feels like 30 minutes biking.


    Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

    How to beat Depression with Exercise

    The Theory

    Exercise counters depression at almost every level. With regular exercise we become less anxious, less neurotic, less angry, less stressed, less cynical, less distrustful, more sociable, and more confident. How?

    • Exercise boosts norepinephrine, which boosts our feelings of self-esteem.
    • Exercise boosts dopamine, which boosts our motivation, attention, focus and satisfaction.
    • Exercise boosts serotonin, which enhances our mood and boosts our impulse control. It boosts our feelings of self-esteem and increases our capacity for learning.
    • Exercise boosts BDNF, which protects neurons against cortisol, the chemical released when we are under stress.

    Exercise has been shown to work as well as the drug Zoloft against depression. The improvement isn’t as dramatic as the drug, but exercise performs better over the long-term, over about 6 months.

    When we’re depressed, the brain stops adapting, it shuts down learning capacity at the cellular level. This means that we find it incredibly hard to work our way out of the hole. Depression is a form of hibernation. Instead of hibernating when food supplies are low, depression pushes us into hibernating when our emotions are low.

    The Workout

    • Just 10 minutes exercise can lift your mood, but only briefly.
    • For best results, workout for 3-5 sessions per week.
    • Work at a high-intensity, 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
    • As a rough guide, try to burn at least your Body Weight in lbs x 8 Calories per week. You can test yourself on gym equipment to get an idea of the values or use the calculator on this website: http://www.prohealth.com/weightloss/tools/exercise/calculator1_2.cfm.
    • Try to exercise with others too, then you’ll get the benefits of socialising as well. It will also give you the motivation to keep working.
    • Stick at it. Remember that exercise works best in the long-term, at least six months.

    Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

    How to Grow Your Brain with Exercise

    The Theory

    The brain is plastic; it isn’t fixed rigid from the day you were born to the day you will die. Brain cells can grow or die, they can strengthen or weaken throughout your life. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘when neurons fire together, they wire together.’ This is a fancy way of saying that, if you do something over and over again, you’ll get better and better at it and, eventually, you’ll be able to do that something without even thinking about it. Remember when you learnt to ride your bike? It was a nightmare at first, then you had stabilisers, then you were as free as a bird, flying down the road. That was the result of your brain’s neurons firing together over and over again and eventually wiring together so tightly that you didn’t have to think about pedalling or steering or braking any more.

    Only mobile creatures need brains. Brains are very expensive things to run, they cost us a lot in terms of energy. If we didn’t really need a brain, we wouldn’t have one. There’s a particular mollusc that is born with a brain so that it can move across the rocks away from its birthplace. When it has found a new home, it doesn’t need the brain anymore so it eats it. Yum. You could say that thinking is the internalisation of movement, therefore it is only to be expected that exercise should have a profound effect on the brain.

    And indeed it does. Exercise elevates the following chemicals in your brain:

    • Serotonin, which controls your mood.
    • Dopamine, which is your brain’s ‘reward centre’, linked with movement and learning.
    • Norepinephrine, which controls your attention and motivation.
    • BDNF, dubbed ‘MiracleGro for the brain’. This creates new branches of synapses. In other words: it grows brain cells.

    And the more exercise you do, the more it spikes growth.

    The Workout

    The brain can’t learn while exercising, but blood goes to the prefrontal cortex immediately after exercise, making it ripe for learning something new.

    • Both aerobic (e.g. running, cycling) and complex activities (e.g. playing the piano, martial arts) are important.
    • Aerobic exercise elevates executive function neurotransmitters. This will create new blood vessels and new cells.
    • Complex activities increase BDNF, which strengthens and expands synapse networks. 
    • Tennis is a good example of an activity that combines both aerobic and complex activity. Other examples are yoga, pilates and dancing. Dancing to an irregular rhythm, like the tango, is particularly good for improving your brain’s plasticity.
    • Try to hit a least 35 minutes at 60-70% intensity (for women) or at your maximum heart rate (for men).


    Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

    How to beat Anxiety and Fear with Exercise

    The Theory

    If you think about what happens when you become anxious, it is very similar to your response to hard exercise: your heart rate increases and you get out of breath. That’s stress. Because of this, exercise can become a safe place to have a high heart rate and fast breathing. You can learn that a high heart rate and fast breathing does not mean that you are having an anxiety attack. Over time you become more comfortable with arousal and your brain gets reprogrammed to deal with stressful situations without feeling anxious.

    The science of it is that exercise increases levels of something called FFA in the bloodstream. As a result, this lowers the ratio of tryptophan in the bloodstream. To bring the ratio back to normal, the body increases production of tryptophan, which in turn builds serotonin, which is the chemical that makes us feel good.

    Fear is the memory of anxiety

    Fear is the feeling we get when we are presented with a situation that we have faced before and which made us feel anxious: it is the memory of some past anxiety. There is some truth in the saying that ignorance is bliss. Panic is the state we get into when we are paralysed by our anxiety.

    Drown out the fear

    You can’t erase fear completely, the synaptic pathways in your brain cannot be erased. However, you can ‘drown out’ the fear by creating new positive synaptic pathways that strengthen and become the brain’s first response to the stressful situation. Simply doing something in response to your anxiety, rather than being passive, is beneficial. This is called ‘Active Coping’.

    There are a number of ways that exercise tackles anxiety:

    1. It is a distraction, literally, from the stress.
    2. It reduces muscle tension, just like beta-blockers, but unlike beta-blockers, you are totally self-reliant, which will also build your self-confidence.
    3. It builds brain resources (chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and BDNF), making your brain tougher.
    4. It teaches you a different outcome of a stressful situation: your heart rate is up, you’re expecting to panic – but all is good! It reroutes your negative circuits to positive ones.
    5. It improves your resilience to stressful situations. You are in control, not the anxiety.
    6. It is active, not passive, so sets you free. Locked down people get anxious and depressed.

    The Workout

    • Rigorous exercise is the best way of hurting anxiety: 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
    • It’s not just for those with anxiety disorders, exercise will help with everyday anxieties that we all face.
    • Try 3 x 90 minute workouts per week.


    Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

    How to beat Stress with Exercise

    The Theory

    Stress is stress, the only difference is degree. There’s the extreme stress of losing your job, but even standing up from the computer is a stress on your body. The only difference is degree.

    Exercise is controlled emotional and physical stress. Exercise breaks down neurons, just like any other stress, but in a controlled way. The repair mechanisms that kick in after the exercise leave you stronger for next time. A low level of stress is good for you, like a vaccine. Exercise raises your brain’s tolerance for stressful situations and you will be better able to deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life if you exercise regularly.

    There’s no such thing as ‘bad’ stress

    Your body makes no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress. Winning the lottery and being faced with a hungry lion both trigger a stress response in the brain. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are just our opinions and sometimes the same stress can be ‘good’ in one situation and ‘bad’ in another. For example, a soldier trained to suspect car bombs feels stress when he is faced with an unknown car: great in Afghanistan, not so useful in Amersham. Stress is what saves us when faced with the hungry lion by triggering the fight or flight response. When your brain is stressed it boosts levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, increasing your focus and attention, helping you get that essay done on deadline day!

    But of course we all know that too much stress, or constant low-level stress is miserable. Stressed people become obsessed (not emotionally, chemically) with the object of the stress and ignore everything else. Stress inhibits learning as well, making the stress self-reinforcing, as your brain can’t learn from the past mistakes that have caused the stress. It becomes a negative feedback loop.

    Loneliness can become a part of this negative feedback loop as well. Stress makes us less likely to seek out society and, with fewer friends, we have less support through the tough times and the stress persists.

    As we all know, stress can have a serious negative impact on our health. One of the ways it does is poor diet. After stress the brain craves glucose to replenish its stocks. This is fine if we are only occasionally stressed, but if we’re constantly stressed out then this response becomes unhealthy.

    How does exercise tackle stress?

    • Exercise builds more insulin receptors, for more efficient use of glucose.
    • Exercise strengthens the synaptic pathways in your brain by increasing production of BDNF. This makes your brain better able to deal with future stresses.
    • Exercise relaxes the resting tension in the muscles, so the brain can relax too.
    • Exercise lowers blood pressure.
    • Exercise can increase social activity through participation in team sports or social contact at the gym.
    • Exercise is something you can do, it gives you control over the stress. This will boost your self-confidence.

    The Workout

    Exercise has been shown to be more effective against stress than food, alcohol or medication so make exercise a part of your life. Consider the fact that palaeolithic man used to walk 5-10 miles a day. Today, however, a large proportion of the modern Western population (including myself) has a predominantly sedentary lifestyle. This is not the lifestyle that our brains have evolved for.

    I keep exercise in my daily life by cycling around London instead of taking public transport. When I haven’t got any plans to cycle anywhere, I make sure that I take several walks during the day and try to go for a short run as well.

    Team sports are particularly good ways of building exercise into your life because very often there is a constant stream of games and the obligation of not letting the team down compels you to exercise. It’s also good fun!


    Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

    How to Live Longer

    Eat less for a long life

    It has been found that calorie restriction (i.e. eating less) in mice:

    • Extends life.
    • Prevents rapid tumour growth.
    • Makes the mice more active as well.

    Anecdotally, the Okinawans of Japan, one of the world’s longest living and active populations, abide by an old saying, ‘hara hachi-bu,’ which translates roughly as ‘eat until you are 80% full.‘ Of course that is only an anecdote. In reality, they eat, on average, 11% less than the average Japanese diet.

    How does that work?

    It could be because, when you eat, your body produces insulin to metabolize carbohydrates and fats. Insulin also promotes growth. That means it promotes growth in malignant, i.e. cancerous, cells. Diet can change the growth environment of cells, including cancer cells. It changes the nurture, not the nature of cells. Diet does not contain carcinogens. It can just create an environment that cancer cells will flourish in.

    If you restrict rats to 2/3rds of calories then they will live 30-50% longer. Why? Because they have less body fat? Because they have lower weight? No. Obese mice on a restricted diet live longer than non-obese mice on a non-restricted diet and the same as non-obese mice on a restricted diet.

    Eating less is the thing, not leanness.

    Why?

    The popular answer is that it reduces the creation of free radical cells and therefore reduces the oxidation of cells and thus the opportunities for cancerous cells to develop. When food is scarce (i.e. when your body gets a signal that it is not eating a 100% diet) you live longer so that you will survive the starvation period and still be young enough to reproduce.

    This may well be correct, but calorie restricted mice also have:

    • Low insulin resistance.
    • Low blood sugar.
    • Low insulin levels.
    • Low levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF).

    Low-carb for a long life?

    The glucose found in carbohydrates causes IGF and insulin levels to rise sharlply, in comparison to other food groups. So, in 2004, Cynthia Kenyon asked: could a low-carbohydrate diet lengthen lifespan in humans?
    By reducing carbohydrates and glucose she was able to reduce:

    • Blood pressure.
    • Triglyceride levels (a fatty acid linked to incidence of heart disease and strokes).
    • Blood sugar levels.
    • And to increase levels of HDL (High-density lipoprotein, ‘good’ cholesterol).

    While she is not able to conclude, after just six years, that a low-carbohydrate diet will lengthen the human lifespan, it seems to be promising data.


    This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p218 onwards)

    How to be Amazingly Happy!

    Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

    • Have sex.
    • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
    • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
    • Learn something new.
    • Go shopping!
    • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
    • Do some gardening.
    • Cook.
    • Sit in silence.
    • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
    • Play or listen to music.
    • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
    • Trust others.
    • Have a nap.
    • Dream (including lucid dreams).

    Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe!

    Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure).

    Cool, now I sound like your dad.

    This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.

    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.

    See Jennifer Dumpert’s Liminal Dreaming for more hypnagogic dreaming exercises.

    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

    Online Polyphasic Resources

    Here are some useful online resources if you want to find out more about polyphasic sleeping patterns.

    About Polyphasic Sleep

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphasic_sleep

    Real life experiences

    Steve Pavlina’s experiment in 2005: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/10/polyphasic-sleep/
    PureDoxyk’s ongoing polyphasic life: http://www.puredoxyk.com/index.php/about-polyphasic-sleep/
    Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion sleep pattern: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,774680,00.html

    The Science

    Take a Nap! Change Your Life by Sara C. Mednick – Very interesting and accessible book about the joy of naps.

    See Sara in this Google Author Talk in which she addresses the whole scope of the book and also a lot of very pertinent questions from the audience – including one about Uberman.

    Community Resources

    Polyphasic Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/Polyphasic

    Cognitive Testing Resources:
    Reactions Test: http://cognitivelabs.com/alz_assoc_refertestpage2.htm
    Simon Test: http://www.thepcmanwebsite.com/media/simon/
    Typing Test: http://www.typingmaster.com.au/java/ttapplet.htm

    Polyphasing Experiment: Conclusions

    Things I achieved in the week:

    • Cleared out the loft.
    • Cleared out my bedroom – wardrobes, desk etc.
    • Threw out a load of clothes, books and general crap.
    • Sorted out my computer filing system.
    • Gave my website a complete overhaul.
    • Started a new money making venture.

    Lessons learned:

    • I can sleep for 2 hours a day and still operate (more or less).
    • There are no serious side effects (I think!).
    • The limits of my endurance are much further than expected. I feel like I would be able to operate on 14 hours of sleep a week in extreme circumstances.
    • Sleep is something that can be trained and it can be modified to my own requirements: it’s not just a case of going to bed and waking up.
    • Naps are more important than I gave them credit for. The ability to nap every few hours to get through a night of work was a great feeling.
    • Without the habit of going to sleep for 8 hours straight I lost the sense of days passing. Time flowed constantly, not in fits and starts. It made me realise that every minute is sacred. 
    • With 22 hours in a day there’s far too much time to spend it on frivolity – that gets boring pretty quickly. I found that the more time I had, the more I wanted to spend it on something worthwhile.
    • It’s nice splitting the day up into more segments: it focusses the mind on achievement during the waking periods. Under this system of 20 minutes every four hours, however, I become something of a slave to the segments.
    • Beds are not necessary – and in fact I found it much nicer not to have a bed in my room. The bed, that huge piece of furniture, forced my room to be a BEDroom. This is counter productive both for working in that room and then for trying to sleep in that room after having worked there. It was really liberating to use a blow-up bed that I brought out only when required. It meant that I had a huge lump of space for other daytime activities. It meant I could put my rocking chair beside the window – I had never before realised how pleasant the sun was coming through there. The absence of a bed in my workspace lead to a healthy demarcation of day and night activities.
    • I like doing things that make me unique. I like to push myself into unusual situations that change my perception of the world – and then to encourage others to do the same. I like living with imagination and courage, not conformity and fear.

    Positive aspects of polyphasia

    • Time for EVERYTHING – including complete and utter boredom!

    I will have to let that time go on a monophasic schedule.

    Negative aspects of a polyphasic pattern:

    • Socially it is difficult at best, antisocial at worst.
    • I found it difficult to perform creative work, in the adjustment phase at least. I got a lot of dross work done, but not much creative work – my novel suffered by about 2800 words over the 6 days of the experiment.

    Negative side effects of polyphasia

    These, I concede, could have disappeared if I had persisted through the adjustment period of about 30 days.

    • Hot flushes in the early phases.
    • Numbness in the extremities.
    • Cold sensitivity.
    • Digestive problems.
    • Brain freeze/fog.
    • Creativity blockages.

    Action points to be taken away:

    • I don’t need a bed. Perhaps I should investigate buying a Japanese bed roll.
    • When I feel tired, I’ll sleep! I won’t feel guilty about sleeping or just ride through the rough period. I’ll take a nap. I know now that I don’t have to get undressed or brush my teeth or anything – I can just lie down and take 20 minutes out.
    • Evangelise the benefits of messing with your sleep to learn about yourself.

    Finally, I exhort you: Experiment and Learn.

    Thank you for reading.

    Polyphasing Experiment: Day 6

    01:51: Revenge of the Nap

    I have had a change of tactics. Naptics you might say. Taking Pavlina’s idea and combining it with Buckminster Fuller’s technique: I’m just going to take a 20 minute nap every time (well, maybe not every time) I get too tired.

    I just had one and it was unquestionably more successful than other naps. I am still scarcely able to keep my eyes open, but I did have vivid dreams and woke up before the end of the nap. These are good signs. I am still hunting the holy grail of refreshment, however. But at least I’m not tired!

    Alertness rating: 4

    03:20: Naptastic?

    I’m not sure if I’m winning or losing. I think I feel better, although my eyes are having trouble adjusting to sight again.

    Alertness rating: 4

    06:40: Serial Napper

    My schedule for this past night has been naps every 2 hours, rather than every 4. so that’s naps at 11pm, 1am, 3am, 5am and, coming up next, 7am. It has made it somewhat less painful to get through and I have achieved things, but I am still far from rested.

    Alertness rating: 4

    Disgusting: a 1 hour oversleep after initial wake up. Actually that’s not quite correct: I woke up an 20 minute intevals at 7:20, as planned, at 7:40 and then at 8:20.

    18:34: Thoughts on Napping

    There are some things that I have not been describing because I have not been sure. But I think now they are pertinent. A week ago I played cricket and did not stretch beforehand. Normally any strains would be gone in three days at most, but the pain in my back seems to have got worse.

    Secondly, this sleeping pattern seems to have been playing havoc with my digestive system. This could be due to lack of an enzyme that is produced during deep sleep. Having said that, after two bike rides I am feeling pretty good – but that could just be thanks to watching Liverpool trounce Aston Villa 5-0!

    Tonight is something of a test for the system: it is the first day that I have been able to socialise. Two of my friends are in town and we’ll probably go somewhere this evening. I obviously can’t go out until my 7pm nap, can’t drink and have to be back in bed by 11pm. I shall report back on the irritation this causes.

    I have to confess that this experiment has been both easier and harder than I expected. I was expecting much more acute symptoms of sleep deprivation: hallucinations, narcolepsy and so on. I had none of these. But I have been really dragged down by the minor side effects: the dullness of thought, the hot flushes, the digestive problems, weakness when performing physical exercise. I have the time, but not the strength.

    I do feel like today has been an improvement, however. Perhaps that is due to my oversleep earlier. Perhaps it is because my friends are here and I have someone to share it all with. Am I fed up with it though? Is it too much already?

    Reading Dr Mednick’s book I am even more concerned with the long term effects – this was only meant to be an experiment, but is it worth the heartache just for an experiment? This 30 days could be spent productively – it’s not as though there aren’t a million things I need to be doing, but if I don’t have the strength then all the hours in the day won’t help me.

    Alertness rating: 5.5

    Still a thick head though, and that just kills me.

    19:38: Sleep Inertia?

    Seriously, waking up from a nap feels like waking up from a high speed encounter with the bull bars of a truck. I can barely focus my eyes, which is worrying – even after repeated shaking of the head etc. I wonder if this is because I am sinking quickly into short wave sleep and thus getting a load of sleep inertia on wake up. But once up and moving I feel fine again.

    Alertness rating: 5.5

    23:57: Nap to the Future

    The evening with my friends was, predictably, terminated by me needing to nap. Post nap was the familiar feeling of being kicked in the face by a mule. As the clock ticks towards midnight I have trouble holding a conversation without feelings of great irritation and discomfort. This experiment is over.

    Alertness rating: 4

    Polyphasing Experiment: Day 5

    3:00 Please let me recover!

    Not the worst nap ever. But I’m still waiting to wake up refreshed. I’m lurching from nap to nap with my body just getting enough to keep going. It’s like I’m topping up to the level of sleep deprivation that I built up over the first night of not sleeping. Like the 20 minutes gives me just enough energy for the next 3 hours 40 minutes, no more, no less.

    One other observation about this is that I really can’t read whilst in this phase. It makes me too sleepy. I can manage a few pages during the day, but even then I’m not really concentrating so I’m pretty sure it’s not very productive reading.

    05:09: Testing

    Cognitive tests:

    • Typing: 61 WPM
    • Simon: 9
    • Reactions: 82.38

    Simon has taken a bit of a battering – concentration not great. But the others are fine.

    Physical tests:

    • Weight: 65.2kg
    • Blood pressure: 112/72
    • Heart rate: 48 BPM

    Absolutely normal physical tests.

    08:56: Interdiurnal Nap?

    I experimented with a nap between naps. I feel more rested, but have a feeling that it is only going to make things worse. I napped from 7:00 to 7:20 as normal, then got up and had a shower and napped again from 7:40 until 8:00. I then did a silly oversleep thing until 8:45. It really is odd that my sessions of oversleep are 40-45 minutes, not 90+. I wonder if this means that a 45 minutes Dymaxion would be possible for me?

    Alertness rating: 4.5

    17:34: Keep on napping

    And hope it works out. I’m a little concerned that I don’t seem to be dreaming so much. Both the 11am and 3pm naps were more like falling into a faint and only rousing when the alarm goes off, what seems like hours later with a brain turned into oatmeal. My condition does seem to improve after waking, but I still struggle to read in my rocking chair. I feel dehydrated a lot of the time and exercise drains me. I’ve been for a long walk and a 15 minute bike ride and both left my head dense and craving sleep.

    Alertness rating: 4.5

    23:16:Torture?

    Is this self-imposed torture? Sleep deprivation is a well-known technique and I have no gone five days without a decent deep sleep, always waking myself before the truly restorative phases of sleep.

    Alertness rating: 3

    Polyphasing Experiment: Day 4

    02:21: Night Walking

    I hope I develop a taste for dark, cold streets because I feel like I’m going to see them a lot over the next month. I find myself looking forward to the 7am nap because it seems like a true rest. When I wake up it is morning, just like for all the monophasers. It is a rare time of day when we are in sync, there is one other at 11pm when we all go to bed, ‘Good night!’ I say, knowing that I’ll be back up again in 20 minutes, but the others will slumber through the night, through to the morning.

    Alertness rating: 4.5

    04:16: Quiet Zone

    That last nap wasn’t too restorative. Apparently night naps are harder than day naps. My body is still used to sleeping at night. But I have to say that I’ve been working on my cycling project quite productively in this quiet zone without too overwhelming feelings of tiredness. Still got two and a half hours to go though before the next nap!

    Alertness rating: 4

    07:22: Grogg

    Dreaming again, but woke up to my alarm. When that happens I feel very groggy, especially if it was during a vivid dream, which it was this time. The dream took place on a film shoot. I was an extra and they needed me to eat a sandwich on camera. But they gave me the sandwich before the shot was ready and I ate it. So I felt bad and they had to make me another one. And I ate it again. Oops.

    My eyes feel like they can’t focus, with heavy lids and a mist shading them from the world. Similar to yesterday morning actually. Not good.

    Alertness rating: 2

    09:20: Testing

    Physical tests:

    • Weight: 64.1kg
    • Blood pressure: 121/61
    • Heart rate: 52 BPM

    Absolutely normal physical tests.

    12:12: Snoozeville

    My 11am nap was the same story. Good long sleep with REM, but the alarm wakes me and I have no idea where I am, what the time is, whether I am just going to bed or should be getting up. I’m still feeling head fuzz.

    Alertness rating: 3.5

    16:12: Experimentation?

    I’m not sure if this counts as valid experimentation, probably not, but I did oversleep again, like I did yesterday on my 3pm nap. Perhaps my excitement over adjusting was waaay too premature. Again, it wasn’t a problem of alarms. I clearly recall switching them all off this time, but I chose to stay in bed. It is interesting that, even after choosing to stay in bed, I am only oversleeping by 40 minutes. That makes my sleep time 20 minutes + 40 minutes. I also never remember dreams from this second 40 minutes so I am definitely indulging in the NREM bit. But what does it all mean?

    I’ve just re-read Steve Pavlina’s blog about the adjustment period and he didn’t feel 100% until Day 6 and even then still used an extra 20 minute nap in the early hours before dawn. I’m pretty sure that my two 40 minute oversleeps are more damaging than his extra 20 minute sleeps for the reason that I am not going straight into REM sleep, which is the purpose of this initial training, adaptation period. Does that mean that my body is ‘reset’ and I have another 6 days of perfect scheduling to get through? Or are two relatively minor oversleeps permissible and my body will be on track for 100% on my day 6 equivalent (which would be next Monday)?

    One thing that I did not do for this nap was to place the alarms out of reach – a policy I implemented after yesterday’s oversleep – the problem is I went to bed about 15 minutes before nap time to adjust and read and I needed a clock to see the correct time to close my eyes. I shall move another clock to viewing distance and keep my alarms out of arm’s reach!

    Alertness rating: 3.5

    20:03: Napping for Napping’s sake

    Well that nap didn’t feel very restorative at all. I woke up about 10 minutes in worrying that I had over slept. It feels like I am getting all the right symptoms of polyphasic sleep, but none of the benefits (yet). I’m going to work tonight on clearing out Liz’s loft so that should keep me wide awake and make the hours of darkness pass.

    Alertness rating: 3
    But after a big meal, Alertness rating: 4

    01:45: Another Day’s Nap

    My 11pm nap was no more than functional. It’s amazing how easily I fall asleep and dream, but they are not restorative. I just get up and resume my zombie routines. I can’t remember the last time my brain felt engaged. Scary.

    Polyphasing Experiment: Day 3

    00:40: Midnight Creep

    The ‘day’ begins with me dragging three huge bags of clothes down to the Salvation Army collection point in the centre of the village. As I stuff the dense black bin bags into the skip I feel guilty, as if they were chopped up bodies and I were a 1920s gangster.

    Alertness rating: 5

    Surprisingly alert.

    02:28: Epiphany

    This really is remarkable. Here I am at half past two in the morning and yeah I don’t feel 100%, but I can function quite well and I do have enough energy and concentration to do the sort of tasks that suck hours out of our days (or just don’t get done at all). And to think that this is the worst of the adjustment period; I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have energy at this time of night on just 20 minutes napping time. I do look forward to the naps now and I think my brain would really love me to forget to set the alarm but I’m on track and loving it.

    03:22: Changes

    I feel as if the nap length is increasing. Of course it isn’t, but that’s the way it feels. It seems like the naps are a few hours, not just 20 minutes. I’m still not awaking refreshed though. Exhausted.

    Alertness rating: 2

    07:59: OUCH

    I feel sick, I can hardly keep my eyes open, I’m very sensitive to cold. This is the pain.

    Alertness rating: 1

    I hope that’s rock bottom, but there is still room for worse I fear.

    08:15: Testing

    Cognitive tests:

    • Typing: 64 WPM
    • Simon: 9
    • Reactions: 69.47

    I’m getting better at the typing! The other worse scores better reflect the way I feel: rubbish!

    Physical tests:

    • Weight: 63.5kg
    • Blood pressure: 108/62
    • Heart rate: 56 BPM

    Absolutely normal physical tests.

    11:27: Rushing Naps

    They seem to be coming quicker. I don’t feel sick any longer: I just needed to eat breakfast. I am still whacked; this seems to be a hangover from each nap. I am groggy apparently. Also worth mentioning: I appear to have a cold, something happened yesterday about 6pm and my nose has been liquid ever since. Probably not making things any easier, but I don’t think it is affecting me too much.

    Alertness rating: 3

    16:00: Disaster?

    I have no idea how, but I somehow managed to oversleep there. The alarms were all switched on and I woke up naturally 40 minutes late. I have a distant memory of possibly turning them off and just lying there for a moment… I’m a little groggy, but otherwise fine. I hope that has not put be back too far!

    Alertness rating: 3.5

    19:18: Back on Track

    And I dreamed and woke up naturally for the first time! Woo-hoo! My dream was based in a middle eastern city (probably because I wrote 1000 words of my novel just before napping) – it could have been Cairo, it could have been Tunis – it was a melange. Anyway, I was there to learn Arabic and I was in a school room and there were two lesbians (I later assumed – but don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreams!) who came in and asked us if we wanted to watch some comedy sketches performed by two lesbians in French. I was surprised and pleased that they were so open about the homosexual content. I wondered if they were rebelling against the society or just determined to live their lives as they felt them, with no shame.

    So: dreams, real dreams. I still don’t feel totally fresh, but this seems to be something of a break-through. And the fact that I woke ‘naturally’ – I use the quote marks because after the 16:00 nap I was worried about oversleeping and I woke in something of a shock thinking that I had overslept again. This also seems to be a constant in ubersleepers’ reports: the impression that sleep lasted much longer than 20 minutes.

    Alertness rating: 4

    And to celebrate my first successful polyphasic sleep:

    White Hot Chocolate!

    22:07: Testing

    But first:
    Alertness rating: 6 – I’m impressed.

    Cognitive tests:

    • Typing: 62 WPM
    • Simon: 17
    • Reactions: 84.67

    Typing speed was up, but accuracy was down. The other scores blown out of the water! If that is in any way indicative of the results of a good polyphasic nap then I’m in for a treat! Reaction speed up 22% from this morning – wow.

    Physical tests:

    • Weight: 64.0kg
    • Blood pressure: 114/68
    • Heart rate: 61 BPM

    Absolutely normal physical tests.

    23:21: Good Night!

    Or not. Dreamt again, but woke with the alarm. Feel very drowsy and just wish I could go back to sleep!

    Alertness rating: 3.5