Thursday, December 22, 2016

Four hurdles in self-discovery

It is widely accepted in cognitive sciences (psychology, neuroscience) as well as in spiritual literature that our thinking process sustains various forms of illusions. Self-discovery is a process of learning through introspection about the process of thinking especially about how it creates and sustains cognitive illusions. It has been emphasized in some form or the other by various spiritual masters such as Buddha (Mindfulness), Jiddu Krishnamurti (self-investigation), Ramana Maharshi (self-inquiry) etc. If the learning process has been around for a few thousand years, why are most of us still trapped in conflicts, be it personal, religious, global? While it is easy to get started into self-discovery journey, anyone who has dabbled in this would know that the approach has several challenges. In this article I would like to mention, from my experience, what the top four challenges in self-discovery are.

Lack of urgency: Every day we are tackling so many tasks at home and at work that keep us busy.  In the midst of all this, self-observation doesn’t appear that urgent. At times, it feels as though it may be important but then something urgent comes up and self-discovery takes a backseat. Every day we are navigating life by evaluating dangers associated with various events – some real ones like a possible car accident while crossing the street or some imaginary ones like losing the job etc. We perhaps also sense a danger associated with cognitive illusions such as illusion of understanding. However, we don’t see that it the cognitive illusion is THE danger we are facing every day, perhaps every moment. To use Jiddu Krishnamurti’s words, we don’t see that it is like having your house on fire. He refers to it as a “skill” to see the danger. Unless we see the largeness of the looming danger associated with the cognitive illusions, there is no urgency in self-discovery.

“In order to” attitude: Every day we see unfairness around us – poverty, corruption, social injustice etc. We also see our own deficiencies or inadequacies – our inability to help or our mistakes that may hurt us or others etc. We are also busy safeguarding our interests – security, health etc. Every activity we do, we are doing it “in order to” improve things – my health, wealth, social inequality etc. We carry forward this “in order to” attitude to self-discovery and say that I want to pursue self-discovery “in order to” become better, perhaps enlightened. However, we don’t see that “in order to” attitude may be preventing us from learning about the thought process. It is like using an anti-virus software to locate the virus on your PC and not seeing that the anti-virus program is also infected with the same virus that you are trying to locate. If “in order to” is not the right attitude, then what is the correct attitude? The right spirit is that of “learning”. Learning for the sake of learning, not for improving or changing anything. However, the “process of becoming” is so deeply embedded in us that we easily slip into “in order to” mode.

Electrochemical smog: Imagine driving in dense fog. You can’t do it safely even if you are driving a BMW with all its navigation technology. Unless we see things clearly, it is difficult to get our act in order. Unfortunately, our thinking process is generating huge amount of smog – electrochemical smog – that is preventing us from seeing what’s going on. Why does the brain create this smog? Because it is operating on pain-avoidance principle and not on correctness principle. All addictions are of this nature. Overeating, anxiety or even addiction to positive thoughts is of similar nature. Positive thoughts secrete endorphins which cover up the pain receptors. “I will work hard, then I will get promoted, then I will buy that house… Aha…it feels good.” Even meditation may also generate smog, “I will meditate, then I will have an awakening experience, then I will reach a state of Turiya.” And that releases endorphins to cover up the pain caused by the sense of incompleteness. The first step is to learn to stay with the pain and say, “Let’s see if we can investigate the source of the pain.”

Fear of uncertainty: There are times when thinking process isn’t generating dense smog. The vision starts to get some clarity. But then what we see may be scary. For example, we may have lived all along with a self-image and its associated elements like educational degree (say a PhD) or the job title or the wealth etc. And suddenly the clarity of vision may show that these are not important. It may feel like somebody is pulling the rug under our feet. Out of fear from seeing “what is” we go back to the smog world. It needs some kind of resolve to see “what is” no matter what.

In summary, we need to see that our house is on fire (urgency), we need to learn about the thought process for its own sake and not in order to get somewhere, we need to stay with the pain and locate its source otherwise we are generating the smog and finally we need a resolve to see “what is” no matter how fearful it looks.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Five minutes innovation manager

In my innovation workshops with managers, one challenge that shows up consistently is that of “no time”. Managers genuinely feel that their plate is full and they find it difficult to get time to do additional activities that might enable innovation in their teams. As a response to this situation, I started facilitating a short exercise a few years back which I call “Five minutes innovation manager”. The idea of this exercise is to suggest that you don’t have to dedicate a lot of time for innovation, just five minutes a week is enough. There are always a few participants in each session for whom this is the key takeaway.  What can you do in five minutes to enable innovation? Let’s explore in this article.

Here is what I tell the participants: Suppose you have to budget five minutes of your time every week to foster innovation in your team. What would you do? Mention What, When and Where. Their responses can be put into following categories:

1.      Publicize a challenge-book: One of the most effective interventions is to identify your team’s topmost challenge and write it in a prominent place – say the whiteboard in your office, the wall in your corridor, or the intranet page of your team. And do nothing else. A challenge which gets due attention has a life of its own. You can also solicit challenges from your team members which you can collate and publicize.

2.      Listen to ideas: You can budget five minutes a week to listen to at least one idea / proposal from one of your team members. If nobody comes to you, you can walk around and poke them. Make sure you don’t look at the watch while the team member is talking about her idea. Listening is hard, especially for managers. One response which helps the idea authors is, “Good idea, show me a demo.”

3.      Solicit ideas: In your weekly team meeting, you can dedicate five minutes for brainstorming on a specific challenge. You will be surprised how many ideas get generated in five minutes.

4.      Appreciate the effort: It doesn’t take much time to mention in the team meeting that you appreciate a prototype built (or demo shown) by one of the team members or a blog or white paper written by someone.  It can send a subtle message that these activities are appreciated.

You might think that activities like these done in five minutes may not make much of a difference. But you won’t know this until you try. Once you realize that it is not so difficult and doesn’t eat too much of your bandwidth, you may extend the time.

This method is inspired by a chapter called “Shrink the change” in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers give several examples to illustrate that a five minute regime can go a long way bringing about a change.

Why don’t you give it a shot and see?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Empathy as understanding the assumptions behind the rigid reflexes

Do you get upset about somebody’s behaviour? Say, a public figure such as a politician or someone close to you, your spouse, kids, parents, friends? Then that is an indication that you haven’t empathized with the person enough. Well, that is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this article.

Easterine Kire Iralu’s book “A terrible matriarchy” begins with a childhood memory of the protagonist, Dielieno, a girl coming of age in Kohima, Nagaland, an eastern state in India. She remembers an incident when her granny is serving chicken curry to Lieno and her brothers. Lieno, who is four-five years old, tells her granny, “I want a leg piece”. Granny says, “Who is asking you, stupid?” and serves the leg piece to Lieno’s brother. Then comes the sermon from granny, “Leg pieces are for the boys, girls should eat the other pieces.”

When Lieno is six/seven years old, she is sent to stay with her granny who continues to make Lieno work hard, e.g. fetching the water from nearby stream, getting the stove ready, feeding the chicken etc. Granny believes that girls don’t need education or affection or time to play or even a good piece of meat with gravy! They need to become docile and hardworking in order to become good housewives. More importantly, on every opportunity, she makes it a point to tell Lieno that boys are more important than girls. Naturally, Lieno grows up hating her granny.

After Lieno’s granny expires, for the first time, Lieno talks to her mom about granny’s tyrannical behaviour. Her mom feels bad about it but also gives the background as to why granny would have become like that. Granny’s mom didn’t have a brother and she had to lose all the ancestral property to other relatives because only boys inherited property. That had a deep impact on her and she favoured boys all her life. After hearing this story, Lieno felt that she understood granny better. Her grudge turned into compassion. That is the beginning of empathy. What exactly is happening here?

To understand this process of empathizing, it helps see thought as a system of conditioned reflexes. A reflex fires automatically when touched. When the knee bone is hit, it jerks. That’s an elementary reflex. When the vehicle in front slows down, we break automatically. That’s a reflex. Our thought process is governed by millions of such reflexes that help us carry out our daily activity. As we learn new skills such as driving or form new opinions, we form new reflexes and over a period they fire automatically.

Some reflexes carry a special property of “necessity”. For example, we assume that the ground will hold firm as we walk or the cycle will turn left when we turn the handle left. However, sometimes the result doesn’t match our expectations. For example, a cycle may turn right when we turn the handle left. And then we realize that we can’t ride the cycle (check out the video “The backwards brain bicycle” above). Because the reflexes fire automatically, we turn the handle in the same direction where we want the cycle to turn. This happens in spite of the knowledge that we ought to turn the handle the other way for this cycle. Destin had to practice riding the backwards-brain cycle every day for 8 months to change the reflex. That’s the power of a conditioned reflex.

Some of our beliefs and assumptions are far more deeply and tightly ingrained than the cycling reflexes. For example, for Lieno’s granny, boys are more important than girls is one such assumption that has become a rigid reflex. So, no matter how much you try to explain to her, she will resist changing her opinion. Granny has almost no choice in her behaviour in this matter.

Once we see that the behaviour of a person is a result of almost mechanical and rigid reflexes, it becomes difficult to sustain grudge against the person. You don’t get angry with a computer or a car, do you? Empathy is that understanding of rigid reflexes. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree or like the behaviour. When Lieno felt she understood granny better, she still didn’t agree with her behaviour. She just didn’t feel the need to hold a grudge, that’s all.

Whenever you feel upset about somebody’s behaviour, you may want to ask yourself, “Could this behaviour be a result of a rigid reflex? If so, what might be the assumption(s) behind such a reflex?”

Thought as a set of conditioned reflexes is explored in detail in David Bohm's "Thought as a system"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Plastic paradox and brain’s business of building highways

 For most of 20th century scientists believed that brain develops during a critical period during early childhood and then remains relative unchanged. However, in the last few decades it has been shown that many aspects of the brain can be altered (or are “plastic”) even into adulthood. And yet, we find it difficult to change our habits. We see that people don’t change their views especially their core beliefs easily. This is what Norman Doidge refers to as “Plastic paradox” in his book “The brain that changes itself”. Doidge considers this riddle one of the most important lessons of the book. If our brain is really like a play-doh, then why is it so difficult to change? Let’s explore this riddle in this article.

One of my favourite stories from the book revolves around the neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita. In a now-famous experiment in 1960s he demonstrated that vision can be substituted by other sensory input such as stimulators touching the back. Bach-y-Rita published his result in Nature in 1969 and coined the term “You see with your brain, not with your eyes”. In this experiment, he had a blind person sit on a dentist-kind-of chair. The back of the chair was replaced with a matrix of mechanical vibrators. There was a camera mounted on top. Depending on the object captured by the camera, certain set of vibrators would touch the back. (see the picture) It was found out that the visual cortex of the blind person’s brain began to process the input coming from the skin (back stimulators) and the person began to “see” the objects. This demonstrated that brain could reorganize itself.

Subsequently scientists have found that brain undergoes massive reorganization when one falls in love for the first time and when one becomes a parent for the first time. At the microscopic level, it has been shown that every learning experience involves lasting changes to the brain. In fact, every thought is changing the brain synapses at a microscopic level. Assuming we have 50,000 thoughts a day, your brain is undergoing 50,000 microscopic changes in a day. That’s a lot of change. Ideally, we should be in a good position to change anything – quit smoking, follow a diet, stop worrying unnecessarily etc. But that’s not our experience. What’s happening here?

To explain this “plastic paradox”, Doidge uses a metaphor originally from the neuroscientist Pascual-Leone of Harvard. It says that the plastic brain is like a snowy hill in the winter. When we slide down the hill for the first time, we will create a small path. When we come down the second time, we will find it easier to follow a path closer to the first one. And if we repeat this enough, it would create a speedy track, kind of a highway. The highways serve a useful purpose as we carry out umpteen tasks on auto-pilot such as walking, talking, driving etc. However, the highways also pose a drawback. As the brain gets used to using the highways, who wants to pave a new path? It is too much of effort. That’s how we get stuck with our habits.

So what does one do? Well, Doidge doesn’t offer any solution in his book. However, this is what I feel based on my experiments and I could be wrong. A paradox gets resolved when attention is paid to the inherent inconsistency. Perhaps a good place to start may be by paying attention to the thinking process as it is sliding down the “speedy tracks” especially when it is not serving any useful purpose such as the case of worry, guilt, blame etc. Who knows? This might open up alternate paths. And that might take us to the uncharted territory and lead to creative insights.

I found the book helpful in understanding various ways in which neuroscience is exploring the boundaries of brain's plasticity.

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