Lobotomies and imaginary snakes

Snake by Parker Knight

It’s easy to get caught up in an abstract world, and miss what’s happening right around us.

This is because we experience the world in a re-constructed, semi-artificial way.

We don’t “see” a tree. We see a reconstruction of it. Our brain receives information from the outside and reconstructs it in a model which makes sense to us.

It’s an abstraction, removed from the outside world, and yet it feels perfectly real.

This ability to create abstractions and then treat them as real, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to interact with the physical world around us in a meaningful way. We can recognise and manipulate objects and respond to changes in our physical environment. It also allows us to interact with other people both directly and indirectly, sharing thoughts and ideas which are themselves abstract.

In fact, you and I are doing this right now. And we’re not even in the same space (or time) – that’s pretty amazing.

The flip side of this ability is that we can create imagined or potential scenarios in our brain and respond to then in much the same way as we would the real world. We can think about a potential event in the future and it can bring us the same joy and excitement or stress and discomfort as an event we actually perceive in the present.

Since all our experience of the world is via reconstructions, and we often like to switch between levels of abstractions, our brain has little interest in distinguishing between what’s real and what’s made up. To (at least one part of) the brain, it can pretty much seem one and the same.

And this is a problem when it comes to our physical stress responses and how they are wired to be triggered.

We have a number of deeply ingrained, biological warning mechanisms which are designed to fire a stress response when we perceive threats in our external environment. A leopard in a tree or a snake at our feet triggers this response and makes us uncomfortable enough with the current situation that we just want to leave.

Once we get out of the situation, the stress response disappears and we go back to normal. Phew.

But here’s the rub: That same ability to work with abstract concepts as if they are real, can trigger our stress response in exactly the same way – for imagined as well as actual threats. We think about a horrible email we might get in the future – zing – stress response. We imagine a confrontation with our boss – zing – stress response.

The result is that this stress response, which is meant to be an acute, short-term response to a real, immediate threat can be fired in a continuous and relentless way in response to imaginary and less immediate situations.

This can quickly overwhelm us and seriously inhibit our ability to operate normally.

It can also make us feel like shit.

The bad news is that there is no way to turn this off without losing our ability to interact with the real world, or work with abstractions. It would also leave some serious lobotomy scars.

The good news is, we can turn it down, it just requires some time and deliberate attention. We can be much more skilful at managing our responses if we start watching our thoughts and being aware of what’s happening in our brain.

It’s largely irrelevant whether you do this through a formal practice like meditation or just by taking note of how you feel and what you’re thinking about – the important thing is that you do it.

Once you’re aware of what’s going on in your brain, you can then make better decisions about what to do about it.

Sometimes you’re going to want to make changes in the physical world, but other times it might makes sense to just stop thinking about imaginary snakes.

This post riffs on ideas from Tara Brach, David McRaney and Seth Godin.

The king of mistakse

The backspace key must really hate me, I give it such a pounding. Letter, letter, letter, letter, back, back, back. One step forward, 0.99 steps back. My typing is almost Sisyphean.

It’s at the stage know where other people are frustrated just to watch me type. The look at me the same way I’d look at a Grandma with an Xbox controller – eyes welling with frustrating; mouth, swollen with the sentence “just let me do that, I can do it better and faster”.

But it didn’t use to be like this. I could touch type 70 wpm. So what the fuck happened?

COLEMAK happened. And then a lack of deliberate, focussed effort followed.

I changed from the QWERTY to COLEMAK keyboard layout, sometime early last year. And there are lots of good reasons for switching.

They QWERTY layout was designed for typewriters, and more specifically, to minimise the chance that the metal arms (which print the letter onto the page) would collide with each other and jam. To reduce this risk, they needed a layout which would alternate the arms from the left and right hand side, and also keep the typist slow enough so that two arms wouldn’t arrive at the page at the same time.

The arrival of computers obliterated the requirement for keeping typists slow and watching out for colliding metal arms, but we kept the keyboard anyway. We were all used to it, so why change?

Because it’s a shitty layout, that’s why.

The semi colon is on one of the home keys, right under a finger, but the letter ‘e’ is not. Common words like ‘just’ and ‘was’ require awkward finger contortions which are tough on the hand and ever tougher on the backspace key. QWERTY is a shitty option for people who have to type everyday.

There had to be a better way, and it turns out, there are heaps. The only problem is that it requires change. And we fear change more than death and musical theatre combined.

DVORAK, WORKMAN & COLEMAN are just three of the alternate layouts I’ve tried over the years in an effort to make typing easier on the hand and faster on the eye. Each of them carries with it an impressive set of quant statistics about how they are superior to QWERTY and how they will change your life. And they will change your life.

Because, in your life now, I bet it doesn’t make your brain hurt to type the sentence “thank you for the lovely dinner, it was great to see you.” It will in DVORAK that’s for sure.

If you take the challenge, add the new layout to your keyboard and spend a week with any of the three above, your brain will start to ache with the effort required to use and learn a new layout.

And it’s a wonderful ache. It’s the ache of your brain doing something which it hasn’t done in a long time. It’s creating new neural possibilities and connections for things which have been long established. It’s painful and frustrating and slow. But it’s also worthwhile and magical because it’s something which your brain used to do every moment of everyday. But dhis magical process of forging new neural pathways slows down as we age, form habits and put ourselves on autopilot.

Rewiring your brain around something you already know well is slow and laborious, but it helps to maintain the brain’s plasticity. This plasticity, or ability to learn new concepts, is an important factor in the brain’s ability to resist the ravages of degenerative disorders such as dementia.

The big challenge for a human adopting COLEMAK is that it requires a period of deliberate, focussed effort for a sustained period of time. This effort is expensive. If we’re focussing on learning a new keyboard layout, we’re not giving our all to something else. There’s a definite opportunity cost. But it’s a long term play. And in the long run, it will made a difference.

I’ve been typing for over 30 years, and I’m likely to be typing for another 30, so I’m prepared to play the long game.

So back to why my typing has gone backwards when it should be faster and more accurate than ever before. Why am I worse? For the same reason you’re no faster or more accurate at typing than you were a year ago, despite doing it for hours every day: no deliberate effort.

Both your typing on QWERTY and my typing on COLEMAK have plateaued, because we’re not focussing on making it better. We got to a point which was “good enough” and then devoted our focussed attention to House of Cards, learning how to knit, or slow cook a brisket. Unfortunately for me, it seems I stopped, just short of my ability to type better than I did with the old layout. Rookie mistake.

If I’m going to type for the next 30 years, then I’m going to make a better job of it that the mess I’m making now.

It might sap my brain for the next few days while I attempt to power through the plateau (and learn where the fucking “u” is), but I’m sure the other side will be glorious.

If nothing else, I hope my backspace key will stop quivering in fear, in anticipation of the abuse it currently faces whenever I currently sit down to type.