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Friday, July 29, 2011

Pushing Buttons?

Most of this has already been written elsewhere, but I merge it together for the sake of leaving it as a talking point somewhere in the cyber-vomit of this blog. Now and again I feel the need to post here. I mean, when I'm not in Taiwan. I guess today is one of those days.

Anyway, here goes some form of recap and merge of the discussion...

The Original Thought

I listened to a Radiolab podcast the other day, or was it Freakonomics? It doesn't matter which it was, or what the topic was. That's fine, as I don't remember the topic either. What the key point was, is this. A researcher gave 2 control groups sports drinks, and put them on bikes in a lab. The 2 groups had different sports drinks:

1. Real calories for the first
2. No calories for the second

Here's what they did, and what they knew:

1. They rode their bikes (obvious)
2. They did not know if they had a real or fake sports drink
3. They drank the drinks, but spit them out

What do you suppose happened? In theory, you would think that both groups would perform the same. But why would I be writing this if that were the case? In fact, the group with the "real" drink performed better than the one with a fake one. This, even though they did not ingest the sports drink. Odd, right?

So I don't have much more, but the theory is that your subconscious mind and your conscious mind do not, in fact, communicate much at all in this transaction. So when the body tastes the sugar, it releases energy in anticipation of your receiving some energy, even though you spit it out. The fake drink does not have this same effect. Disclaimer: I did not read up more about this. The study may have been proven to be BS. I don't know.

To me, this really begs the question, are eating habits and energy systems somewhat out of our control? At least, are they out of our control as we think of them? What if you could actually trick your subconscious mind into acting a certain way even though you were consciously doing so? I mean, without a miracle pill. Is it possible? Desirable? Does it bother you?

This strikes me in various ways as I listen to more and more Radiolab episodes. Could I control my hunger better? Could I do something that made me less nervous before bike races? Might I find some magic combination to release a flood of energy when it's time to line up? Perhaps some sequence of events that would tell my brain to shut down and sleep better?

I find this all interesting.

Ok, I remember now. It was Radiolab, the podcast was about limits:

As recommended by Eric. It was a good listen. Give it a shot.

The Next Day

Pushing Buttons

We all have these buttons we push, right? Everything can probably be boiled down to that metaphor, or simile, whichever it is, if it's either of them. You can see several of them here. Training & racing, weight loss & appetite control, and social interaction.

The reality is that all 3 are a mystery. What button do I push to affect what outcome? This morning, I went on a bike ride. Or I pushed a button. I pushed a 20 minute button, which is 1/3 of the normal Thursday hard hour. This is a series of buttons we call a taper. Will this series of buttons produce the outcome as I hope? I don't know. History tells me that no, it won't. These peaks and tapers almost never work out as planned. So to expect the button to trigger what you want is probably sheer lunacy.

Yet I push the button anyway. It's good to believe something. If the monkey keeps pushing the button and eventually a peanut comes out, he'll keep pushing the button. This is why you keep hitting New Posts or Get Mail.

Those of us north of 150 pounds seem to always look for the button to push to control our appetite, and lose weight. If I push the right series of buttons and get a cat 3 upgrade this year, then push the button to sign up for Battenkill, I shouldn't even show up to that race unless I can push the right buttons to be 170 at most when that race rolls around.

And social interaction is another quagmire of button pushing. One I'm not even going to talk about.

Eric Replies

For me, the takeaway from all the Radiolab-type neurosciencey bits is this: we are less in control of ourselves than we think we are.

In which case, the corollary might be something like this: If we want to be in control of our ourselves, then we must understand how our conscious and subconscious minds work. And, we must be skilled in the art of mental jujitsu so that we can trick our minds into actually doing the thing we really wanted to do in the first place.

If you like radiolab, read Jonah Lehrer. He's a frequent (perhaps too frequent) guest on the program. I recommend his book "How We Decide" and also his blog on Wired ( In fact, he has a recent blog posting that might be right up your alley in which he discusses a new scientific study about vague information vs. precise data and how they related to performance and weight loss. Rather than trying to paraphrase it I'll just quote the Study's conclusion:

"Is the eternal quest for precise information always worthwhile? Our research suggests that, at times, vagueness has its merits. Not knowing precisely how they are progressing lets people generate positive expectancies that allow them to perform better. The fuzzy boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to distort that information in a favorable manner. This latitude positively influences behavior by affecting outcome expectancies. Conversely, the very nature of precise information prevents people from distorting it and forces them to be objective about their expectancies, which in turn may have a less positive influence on performance."

Toss that into the data vs. no-data debate.

To Which I Reply

And yet, remember the Choices episode about the guy who essentially had his emotion cortex (or whatever) removed in that surgery? Without emotion, he was basically unable to make simple decisions such as which pen to pick up (black versus blue in the example).

Sort of them saying, Do you even really want to do what you think you want to do? I'm not sure what the answer always is.

The data vs no-data idea strikes me as very Alan Watts-ish, specifically in regard to spotlight versus floodlight consciousness. Having a conversation in a car highlights both of these. Spotlight is the conversation, while floodlight is your ability to drive without really paying attention.

I'm *this close* to unifying the world's theories.

In Conclusion

I thought I had more to add. But I don't.I feel that while everything is unique, it's also all connected in a way I don't understand. As it is, maybe this whole discussion begs the question of my really wanting to understand "it all" anyway. Would any of this be fun if I figured it all out? What if I found that series of buttons which would allow me to lose 40 pounds and crush on the bike? What if I got everything I wanted with a series of doing simple things? Would that render the ends less desirable once I actually got there?

Or would it just cause me to redefine my ends? I don't know the answer to that question. Since the buttons appear to be so obscure, or non-existent, I probably don't need to worry about any of that.



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