Reading notes (2020, week 44) — On escaping short-term thinking, what it really means to know anything, and the neurology of flow states
Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s edition: How to become a time rebel; why you understand less than you think; why time vanishes when you are jamming; the need to touch; how you learn the world; a philosophy that values innocent pleasure, human warmth and the rewards of creative endeavour; the beauty of destruction; and, finally, Piet Mondrian and looking below the surface.
Escaping short-term thinking
“Unlike other animals, we have minds capable of imagining a deep future, and we can conceive the daunting truth that our lifetime is a mere flash in an unfathomable chronology,” Richard Fisher writes in Humanity is stuck in short-term thinking. Here’s how we escape.
“Yet while we may have this ability, it is rarely deployed in daily life. If our descendants were to diagnose the ills of 21st-century civilization, they would observe a dangerous short-termism: a collective failure to escape the present moment and look further ahead. The world is saturated in information, and standards of living have never been higher, but so often it’s a struggle to see beyond the next news cycle, political term, or business quarter.”
But how can we explain this contradiction? And why have we come to be so stuck in the ‘now’?
Our early ancestor developed what evolutionary biologists call mental time travel. We can create a complex ‘theatre stage’ in our minds that allows us to play out scenes and characters from the past, as well as hypothetical stories about the future. “It is a tremendously powerful skill,” according to Thomas Suddendorf, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland. “We can imagine situations like what we’re going to do tomorrow, next week, where we’re going to have a holiday, what career path to pursue, and we can imagine alternative versions of those. And we can evaluate each of them in terms of their likelihood and desirability.”
“Yet while early humans had this talent, their concept of a deeper future was rudimentary,” Fisher writes. “Even the medieval builders of cathedrals — often lauded as examples of long-term thinking for creating structures that would last generations — were not imagining radically different futures with any great degree of foresight. The world of tomorrow they pictured was the same as theirs, constant and known.”
It took until the 18th century before a deeper sense of time would emerge, at least in the Western world, starting with the Scottish geologist James Hutton, who showed how the chronology written into rocks extended millions of years into the past. “Over the next 200 years,” Fisher writes, “[the] scientific and intellectual lengthening of the time span we could imagine paved the way for great strides in our understanding of ourselves and the planet. It allowed Darwin to propose his theory of evolution, geologists to carbon-date the true age of Earth, and physicists to simulate the expansion of the universe.”
But despite our mental faculty to look and plan ahead, we have a weakness in our thinking called present bias, which favours short-term payoffs over long-term rewards. And if we are prone to neglecting the wellbeing of our own future selves, it’s even harder to muster empathy for our descendants. There is nowhere this is more apparent than in the world of politics and economics.
“According to historian François Hartog, the author of Regimes of Historicity, we are in the midst of another shortening right now. He argues that at some point between the late 1980s and the turn of the century, a convergence of societal trends took us into a new regime of time that he calls presentism. He defines it as ‘the sense that only the present exists, a present characterized at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of an unending now.’ In the 21st century, he writes, ‘the future is not a radiant horizon guiding our advancing steps, but rather a line of shadow drawing closer.’”
But Fisher believes we need not despair. “If this account is correct, then short-termism is an emergent property of the cultural, economic, and technological moment. It need not last forever, nor is it totally out of our control. The assumption that things must always stay the way they are today is actually itself a form of presentism. But if we understand some of the psychological pressures that nudge us toward short-termism in daily life, we can find ways to combat them.”
During a fellowship at MIT, Fisher studied the psychological pressures which cause us to lose sight of the long term in everyday decisions. He named these pressures ‘temporal stresses.’ Five themes surfaced again and again.
First, salience, which is “a facet of the availability heuristic, a cognitive bias that means people are more likely to imagine the future through the lens of recent events. This means that slow, creeping problems like global warming don’t pop up on the attentional radar until something is burning or flooding.”
Also entrenched yet invisible habits play an important role. “It’s much harder to overcome the shortening effects of salience when we are doom scrolling on our phones through political controversy, crime, culture wars, disasters, or attacks. These events, while important, populate our imaginings of the future to a disproportionate degree.”
Compounding all this is the overload of a connected life. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” the Norwegian-born American sociologist Elise M. Boulding wrote in 1978. She called this ‘temporal exhaustion.’
The “accelerated nature of 21st-century life has also diluted responsibility for our actions. The modern world has made it ever easier to detach ourselves from consequences and accountability. Consider the hamburger. A single consumer in a complex global supply chain shares only a tiny portion of responsibility for the ills involved in getting that burger to the table: carbon emissions, factory farming, water pollution, and more.”
Since metrics dominate all realms of life, the fifth and final temporal stress, targets, is a major one. “Growth statistics. Efficiency scores. Shareholder returns. KPIs, GDP, ROI. If poorly framed, these targets foster presentism or even encourage bad behavior. […] The problem with metrics is captured by Goodhart’s Law, named after a British economist, which is often phrased as: ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’ To escape short-termism, we must reassess the targets by which we gauge success. Do they encourage longer-term thinking, or do they prioritize only present-day gains?”
Fisher suggests we “start by thinking about how companies can do more to balance year-on-year or quarterly targets against long-term aspirations that last — or even exceed — a lifetime, like the commitments some oil companies have made to reach net zero emissions. […] Some attempts are also being made in the political realm to define metrics that extend decades or centuries, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, parts of which have been absorbed into laws and company policies around the world. (Wales, for example, passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act: loosely based on the UN goals, it requires public bodies to factor certain long-term aims into their decision-making.)”
If we want to shake off our obsession with short-termism, we will first need to identify these temporal stresses. It’s the only starting point, according to Fisher. “Our greatest challenge this century is to transform our relationship with time. History suggests that our horizons have shortened before — but they can expand again. During the pandemic, our ‘presentism’ has become even more extreme, but cultural norms have been challenged too. There may never be a better time to ask what future we actually want.”
Fisher isn’t the only one writing about the perils of short-termism. According to the social philosopher and auhor of The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World, Roman Krznaric, failing to value the lives of all these descendants is akin to ‘colonising’ the future — essentially deciding that future generations have no ownership rights there, or any say over how it evolves. “We treat the future as a distant colonial outpost where we dump ecological degradation, nuclear waste, public debt and technological risk,” he told attendees at an event organised by The Long Time Inquiry, an initiative to encourage long-term thinking in the cultural sector.
Krznaric calls this attitude ‘tempus nullius’, drawing a parallel with an idea used to justify acts like the British settlement of Australia in the 1700–1800s. According to the legal notion of ‘terra nullius’ or ‘nobody’s land,’ ownership rights of indigenous Aborigines were completely ignored. Similarly, “we treat the future as «empty time», where there are no generations.”
In an article for The Long Now Foundation, Six Ways to Think Long-term: A Cognitive Toolkit for Good Ancestors, Krznaric explains why it is important to equip ourselves with a mental framework that identifies different forms of long-term thinking. His own approach is represented in the following graphic.
“These six ways to think long are not a simplistic blueprint for a new economic or political system, but rather comprise a cognitive toolkit for challenging our obsession with the here and now. They offer conceptual scaffolding for answering what I consider to be the most important question of our time:
The tug of war for time is the defining struggle of our generation. It is going on both inside our own minds and in our societies. Its outcome will affect the fate of the billions upon billions of people who will inhabit the future. In other words, it matters,” Krznaric writes.
“None of these six ways is enough alone to create a long-term revolution of the human mind — a fundamental shift in our perception of time. But together — and when practised by a critical mass of people and organisations — a new age of long-term thinking could emerge out of their synergy.
Is this a likely prospect? Can we win the tug of war against short-termism?
‘Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change,’ wrote economist Milton Friedman. Out of the ashes of World War Two came pioneering long-term institutions such as the World Health Organisation, the European Union and welfare states. So too out of the global crisis of COVID-19 could emerge the long-term institutions we need to tackle the challenges of our own time: climate change, technology threats, the racism and inequality structured into our political and economic systems. Now is the moment for expanding our time horizons into a longer now. Now is the moment to become a time rebel.”
What does it really mean to know anything?
In 1985, “the philosopher John Hardwig published a paper on what he called ‘epistemic dependence,’ our reliance on others’ knowledge. The paper — well-cited in some academic circles but largely unknown elsewhere — only grows in relevance as society and knowledge become more complex,” Matthew Hutson writes in Why you don’t really know what you know.
“One common definition of knowledge is ‘justified true belief’ — facts you can support with data and logic. As individuals, though, we rarely have the time or skills to justify our own beliefs. So what do we really mean when we say we know something? Hardwig posed a dilemma: Either much of our knowledge can be held only by a collective, not an individual, or individuals can ‘know’ things they don’t really understand. (He chose the second option.) This might seem like an abstract philosophical question. At the end of the day, whatever ‘knowing’ means, it’s clear we rely on other people for it.”
But we not only overestimate our individual ability to amass knowledge, and understate society’s role in possessing, we often also overestimate our ability to explain things. This is called the illusion of explanatory depth. “In one set of studies,” Hutson writes, “people rated how well they understood devices and natural phenomena, like zippers and rainbows. Then they tried to explain them. Ratings dropped precipitously once people had confronted their own ignorance.”
This illusion may draw on what Steven Sloman, a cognitive scientist and the co-author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, calls contagious understanding. “In one set of studies he conducted, people read about a made-up natural phenomenon, like glowing rocks. Some were told the phenomenon was well understood by experts, some were told it was mysterious, and some were told it was understood but classified. Then they rated their own understanding. Those in the first group gave higher ratings than the others, as if just the fact that it was possible for them to understand meant they already did.”
“Several lessons follow from seeing your own knowledge as contingent on others’. Perhaps the simplest is to realize that you almost certainly understand less about just about any subject than you think. So ask more questions, even dumb ones,” Hutson suggests.
“Another lesson comes from [Hardwig paper] on epistemic dependence. The seemingly obvious notion that rationality requires thinking for oneself, he wrote, is ‘a romantic ideal which is thoroughly unrealistic.’ If we followed that ideal, he wrote, we would hold only relatively crude and uninformed beliefs that we had arrived at on our own. Instead of thinking for yourself, he suggested, try trusting experts — even more than you might do already.”
Ultimately, knowledge is about both evidence and trust. What we believe to be true is shaped by face-to-face interactions. Sharing your work in progress is also important.
“Of course, epistemic dependence also has its downsides. Consider the costs of turnover within organizations. If someone who’s a key part of your project leaves, you lose pieces of collective knowledge and capability that you can’t make up on your own,” Hutson writes.
“And perhaps there’s a broader, even philosophical, lesson: You know much less than you think you do, and also much more. Knowledge can’t be divided at the seams between people. Maybe you can’t define photosynthesis, but you’re an integral part of an epistemic ecosystem that can not only define it but examine it at the smallest scales, and manipulate it for the benefit of all. In the end, what do you know? You know what we know.”
The neurology of flow states
“Don’t look at the clock! Now tell me: How much time has passed since you first logged on to your computer today? Time may be a property of physics, but it is also a property of the mind, which ultimately makes it a product of the brain. Time measures out and shapes our lives, and how we live our lives in turn affects how we perceive the passage of time. Your sense of time is malleable and subjective — it changes in response to changing contexts and input, and it can be distorted when the brain is damaged, or affected by drugs, disease, sleep deprivation, or naturally altered states of consciousness. However, a new set of neuroscience research findings suggests that losing track of time is also intimately bound up with creativity, beauty, and rapture,” the cognitive neuroscientist Heather Berlin writes in The Neurology of Flow States.
“During what psychologists call flow states, where one is completely immersed and absorbed in a mental or physical act, people often report an altered sense of time, place, and self. It’s a transportive and pleasurable experience that people seek to achieve, and that neuroscience is now seeking to understand. A great example of flow state is found in many improvised art forms, from music to acting to comedy to poetry, also known as ‘spontaneous creativity.’
Improvisation is a highly complex form of creative behavior that justly inspires our awe and admiration. The ability to improvise requires cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking and discipline-specific skills, and it improves with training.
Not surprisingly, the frontal regions of the brain that have been shown to be involved in time perception and impulse control are also involved in spontaneous creativity. Improvisation appears to take place in an altered state of mind/brain, and studies of the neural mechanisms of musical improvisation have identified a network of prefrontal brain regions linked to improvisation. The creative act of improvisation, at least in the musical realm, appears to be a result of changing patterns of activity in […] key areas of the prefrontal cortex.”
“However, improvising performers are not oblivious; momentary ‘check-ins’ to see how your performance is going can provide necessary environmental (or audience) feedback, helping to revise your approach and optimize performance in real-time. Creative thought also involves the ‘default mode network’ (DMN), a set of brain regions active when attention is directed internally and suppressed when a person engages in externally directed tasks. The DMN is active when you’re daydreaming, but not when you’re filling out an application form, which requires executive control areas like the DLFPC. Improvisation requires a balance in activation between these two networks, reflecting the extent to which creative thought and behavior needs to be responsive to environmental input, and constrained by certain rules to meet the specific goals of the task at hand. But if you become overly self-aware or self-conscious for too long, you can lose the flow state and the performance will suffer. Of course, you don’t need a cognitive neuroscientist to tell you that. Just listen to Eminem:
‘You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime’
Luckily, you do not need to be able to improvise (or take drugs) to achieve flow states. Deactivation of the lateral PFC also occurs during other altered states of consciousness such as meditation, hypnosis, and daydreaming. And a similar pattern of dissociated activation in PFC has been identified during REM sleep, where dreaming usually occurs. Dreaming involves unplanned, irrational associations, defocused attention, an altered sense of time, and a feeling of lack of agency or volitional control (with the exception of lucid dreaming). These same characteristics are associated with creativity when one is fully awake.
The sense of time passing, producing its changes and progressions, is a capacity our brains evolved for adaptive reasons. How long have I been sleeping? How soon do the kids need to eat? How fast will I have to walk to make it home before dark? Keeping track of time is something we do instinctively, and our instincts have recently been supplemented by cultural inventions such as clocks and calendars, which train our brains to map its instincts onto scales and increments. However, we have also evolved the ability to turn off this constant time-keeping, in moments of artistic rapture or contemplation, and that adaptive sense of timelessness gives our lives much of its beauty and meaning. How we choose to spend our time, which remains our most limited and valuable resource, is one of the greatest gifts, and responsibilities, we are given.”
And also this…
“It’s not an exaggeration to talk of touch as a kind of language — one that we learn, like spoken language, through social interactions with our loved ones, from the earliest stages of our life,” Laura Crucianelli writes in The need to touch, in which she explores what happens when touch becomes taboo?
“We use touch every day to communicate our emotions, and to tell someone that we are scared, happy, in love, sad, sexually aroused and much more. In turn, we are pretty good at reading other people’s intentions and emotions based on the way that they touch us. In a recent study, we invited people to the lab and asked them to detect the emotions and intentions that the experimenter was trying to convey to them via touch. The touch was delivered at different velocities: slower, as the touch typically occurring between parents and babies, or between lovers; or faster, a type of touch more common between strangers. We found that slow, caress-like touch was more likely to communicate love, even when the touch was delivered by a stranger. In contrast, participants didn’t attribute any special meaning or emotions to touch delivered at fast velocities. Interestingly, in the case of brain damage involving the insula, people have difficulties in perceiving affective touch, as well as disturbances in the sense of body ownership. This suggests the existence of a specialised pathway that arrives from the skin to a specific part of the brain.
We exchange tactile gestures as communicative tokens not only to build social bonds, but to establish power relationships. In professional Western contexts, people typically apply a certain amount of pressure in a handshake when meeting someone for the first time. A handshake stands as a proxy for competence and confidence; we feel the other person touching us, and ask ourselves: ‘Do I trust them enough to offer them a job?’ or ‘Should I let them babysit my kids?’ One study showed how a firm handshake was a key indicator of success in a job interview, perhaps because the handshake is the very first way that we close the physical gap between us and the other. The handshake is also used to seal an agreement, with the force of a signature or contract. The danger and vulnerability that’s intrinsic to touch is part of what allows it to serve this socially binding function; indeed, it’s believed that the handshake arose as a way of ensuring that the two people involved weren’t holding weapons.”
“The language of touch also affects the way that we relate to ourselves and our bodies across the lifespan, with profound impacts on our psychological wellbeing. In another set of studies, we investigated the way in which people with anorexia nervosa perceive caress-like touch as compared with healthy people. Anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder characterised by a distorted sense of one’s own body, but it can also lead to a reduction in social interactions. We wanted to understand whether the fact that sufferers report finding less pleasure in social interaction might be related to the disorder. Across two studies, we found that people with anorexia perceived slow touch delivered with a soft brush on their forearm to be less pleasant, compared with healthy participants. Importantly, we found the same pattern of results in people who have recovered from anorexia nervosa. This suggests that this reduced capacity to take pleasure in touch might be more of a stable characteristic rather than a temporary status, related to the severe malnutrition that we observe in anorexia nervosa. This finding, along with other studies, suggest that there is definitely a close link between social touch and mental health. Throughout our lives, we need touch to flourish.”
“The magic of the brain is that it doesn’t care where the data come from because everything inside the brain is represented by little electrochemical spikes running around. Every neuron in your head is popping off between 10 and hundreds of times per second. The brain doesn’t know if the data come from photons or air compression waves picked up by the ears or mixtures of molecules picked up by the nose and the mouth. It just figures out how to establish feedback loops to send commands to muscles that change the input in particular ways. That’s how I learn the world.” — David Eagleman in Your Brain Makes You a Different Person Every Day (Nautilus, Issue 091: The Amazing Brain)
“One of the tragedies of life in civilisation is that most human work doesn’t require or develop human ingenuity and artistry. Nevertheless, every human being who is not living in conditions of total cultural deprivation can activate them. The traditional pastimes of childhood were activities carried out for their own sake: crafts and puzzles, reading about animals, history, far-off places and the future, exploring the outdoors, and helping adults and younger children. Their adult equivalents are found in kitchens, sewing rooms, garages and workshops, along with libraries and lecture rooms. Making things such as pottery, jewellery, knitted, embroidered and stitched items, and fixing things around the house is a profound source of human satisfaction. In these activities, hands, eyes and mind are engaged with the material world, and it is your own taste and judgment that determine the outcome. You don’t need to win a prize at Cannes,” Catherine Wilson writes in How to be an Epicurean.
“Decades of research have established that wealth above a certain level does not add to an individual’s satisfaction with life, and older people who have achieved considerable worldly success often report that raising their children and enjoying their adult company has given them more satisfaction than any career recognition they obtained. Yet the discoveries of happiness researchers seem to resemble those of nutritionists. They are accepted as true, but they don’t motivate.”
“People know — in principle — what is good for them to eat. If you give them a test asking: Which is better for you: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and animal protein in moderation? Or muffins, cookies, ready meals, fast food and soft drinks?just about everyone will give the right answer. And if you asked: Which is the basis of a better life: friendships, creative activities under your own control, enquiring and learning, tasty food and refreshing drink, and contact with nature? Or status, influence, money and the purchase of as many goods and services as possible? most people would give the right answer, too.
So why is the truth so hard to internalise and act on? In the case of nutrition, you have to fight mainstream culture, with all its propaganda, alluring displays and incentives. The same is true in the case of personal wellbeing.
An Epicurean strategy for avoiding being lured into pointless consumption, despite the curiosity most of us have about the material world and its incentives to buy, buy, buy, is to regard shopping trips as a museum experience. You can examine all these objects in their often-decorative packing and muse on the hopes and fears to which they are symbolically and magically attached. There exist mattresses that can seemingly make boring marriages or miserable solitudes more fun, and of course creams and lotions for eternal youth. You can enjoy looking at or perhaps handling these objects; you don’t need to purchase and store them.
The value of philosophy is that it typically poses a challenge to conventional and socially powerful ideas. At its best, it tries to replace them with more difficult, less palatable, but better ideas. Epicurean philosophy described a material, constantly evolving world without a just and benevolent deity — and a long human history of domination and deception. This seemed harsh to his many critics, and Epicureanism became associated with ‘crude materialism’, ‘reductionism,’ and with a finicky, self-indulgent form of hedonism, associations that only a return to the original writings can fully correct. Rather than making us feel dwarfed, Epicurus’s expansive and objective view can give us insight into our own situation and powers. Like other good philosophy, it urges us to let our decisions and actions flow spontaneously from our understanding of ‘the nature of things’ and how the world actually works.”
Dutch artist Bouke de Vries repurposes broken ceramics into fragmented porcelain sculptures that celebrate ‘the beauty of destruction.’ His artworks highlight his skills as a restorer, breathing new life into damaged pieces that unveil parts of their history.
In a recent interview with designboom, De Vries says “the philosophy behind kintsugi aligns very well with one of the starting points of my practice. I believe that something damaged can still be beautiful. We are happy to accept this in antiquities (the Venus de Milo is famous partly because she has no arms) but in ceramics, damage is generally frowned upon. With kintsugi the damage is considered part of a piece’s history: rather then hiding it, it is celebrated as an integral part of that. I try to express that in my own way.”
“By turning from the surface, one comes closer to the inner laws of matter, which are also the laws of the Spirit.” — Piet Mondrian ‡
‡ From Surfaces by Steve Marshall.