Category Archives: thinking


I’ve been reading Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness (for some of the key arguments, see this video), and thinking about the idea that our level of satisfaction depends on our expectations. 

Gilbert quotes a startling experiment that shows how important our expectations can be. One group of participants was promised a reward (e.g. £3) for their participation, but then told that there was a mistake and they would receive less (say £2). The second group were promised a lower amount (e.g. £1) and received exactly what they were promised. A rational argument would say that those receiving £2 were still better off and so should be happier than those receiving £1. But in practice the first group were more unhappy than the second – because they didn’t receive what they had expected to receive. One group thought themselves £1 better off than nothing, the others felt they were £1 worse off than £3.

It’s one of those ideas that starts to apply itself to all sorts of areas of my life and thinking.

One of the most difficult aspects of my current work situation is that people feel that they were promised more (by my predecessor) than I am able to give them. So unfortunately what I am able to offer, although generous if considered objectively, is deeply unsatisfying to them because it’s less than they were expecting.

It’s also relevant to relationships. Before my last relationship, I was getting along fairly happily as a single person, having been single for several years. Yes, I wanted a partner, but my life was interesting and fulfilling and overall I was happy. During the relationship I became used to all sorts of things that were better than in my single situation – having my self-image reinforced by compliments and attention, opportunities to discover new things, someone who was always there (by mobile if not in person) when I wanted to talk, and all sorts of other benefits. I didn’t need all those things – I’d got on perfectly happily without them. But their sudden withdrawal was a shock. And while I knew that I could be happy as a single person, it took me some time to get back to that state of mind, because I had expected that the relationship level of comfort would continue. Again, it was harder to cope with the withdrawal of something than it was to cope with its absence.

It also occurs to me that this may be why some religious people view the life of an atheist as necessarily miserable. If you have been promised, and come to believe, that you will meet your loved ones again, it must be difficult and painful to accept the idea that you will not. Whereas if you always felt that death was final, you simply don’t feel the same level of disappointment, because you never expected anything more. Obviously the belief in heaven can help to make the initial grief easier to bear, and will continue to do so so long as you continue believing that. But there’s no real evidence for that belief, so it’s a risky basis for comfort. If that belief ever falters, dealing with the withdrawal would almost certainly be far more painful than it would have been to deal with the initial grief without this apparent consolation.

My experience of having never believed in heaven is therefore vastly different from the experience of someone who has believed in heaven and has ceased to do so. But Gilbert also argues strongly that we also tend to strongly underestimate how well our coping mechanisms help us deal with disappointments like this. Over time, the de-converted seem to get used to the idea that there is no heaven, that they will not see their loved ones again. But a religious person trying to imagine what it would be like not to believe in heaven, is likely to completely overestimate the impact of losing their faith, let alone the experience of a life-long atheist like myself.

Somewhere in the blogosphere I came across someone describing how angry they felt with someone who told a child that there was no Santa Claus, feeling that shattering the child’s illusions was cruel. But I was mystified why they were angry at the person that shattered the illusion – rather than the person who set up the inevitable disappointment by telling that child the original lie that there was a Santa Claus. The experience of living in a world without Santa Claus is completely different depending on whether we were told that a world with Santa Claus was possible.

So what does this mean in practice? It should be reasonably straightforward to avoid making promises that can’t be kept in a work situation, and I’ve definitely had a very clear lesson in why this is so important. It’s harder in relationships – because the nature of a long-term relationship is the hope that it will continue, and the mutual commitment to trying to do so. But still, I think being aware of this will help in future relationships – to know that the horror with which the mind contemplates being single from within a relationship is not a realistic perception of the actual experience of being single. And finally this understanding might come in handy in trying to explain to religious people why the non-religious life is not, in fact, as dark and miserable as they have been told.

The mind does work strangely at times – but it does help to get to know its peculiarities!


Physics, pizza and pineapple

As a distinctly arts-oriented child growing up in a household of physics teachers (my brother also now has a physics degree!), mealtimes could be challenging.

I particularly remember the time when I burnt my tongue on the pineapple on my pizza, which led to an interrogation about why the pineapple burnt my tongue when the ham didn’t (for the curious uninformed, it has to do with the high specific heat capacity of water.) I think my parents must also have expressed sympathy, but I don’t remember that quite so clearly….

This was certainly not the only time that I was asked to think through the physics of everyday life, when I’d probably rather have been writing a novel or playing music. Though I certainly enjoyed doing experiments… like making hydrogen in the sink with my mum (to my dad’s horror when he discovered us in the middle of this potentially explosive activity!), or dying flowers two colours by dipping split stems in different dyes. I loved playing with my microscope and my chemistry set.

As it happened I didn’t study science beyond the age of 18. I was a creative wordsmith, but a careless mathematician and rather incompetent experimenter. I doubt I’d have contributed much to the world as a scientist.

But my upbringing did made me think about the physical world that I live in, and see how it could be understood as the product of simple rules. And it gives a richness to my life that I value. Every time I whizz round a corner on my bike, the exhilaration is enhanced by the dim memory having once worked out, using in a simple diagram of forces, the relationship between the vehicle’s speed, the radius of the curve and the angle of tilt needed to turn without skidding.

I’m not sure I could reconstruct that calculation now – my trigonometry is distinctly rusty with lack of use. But that’s not the point. I know it’s possible. I have a rough feeling for how it works. If I needed to, I could go and look it up. More generally I also learnt a respect for experimentation – for the ideas of repeatability, exclusion of observer bias and significance. (I’m not sure even at my most mathematically skilled I was any good at calculating significance, but at least I understand why it’s important!)

It’s sad that not everyone has the same exposure to this kind of basic science in its most practical and immediate form.  It’s even sadder when people seem to be proud of their ignorance of basic science and maths. As if it’s unreasonably, wilfully difficult, designed to exclude all but eggheads.

I’m not ashamed not to be a scientist. Not everyone can be, after all. I only have one life, and science was never the thing I was best at. But I have a respect and interest in the way the world works, and a basic grasp on some of the excellent tools that humanity has developed for finding out.

As a child I respected science, but was rather scornful about sport. I was fairly incompetent at throwing and catching, and succumbed to the natural human tendency to despise disciplines I’m bad at. Which was a shame, as for many years it blocked me from discovering that actually I could learn to be good at physical skills. While I’m no great athlete, I can enjoy performing at my level and watching others perform at higher levels.

Most people are brought up in a way that reverses these attitudes to sport and science. They’re happy to be an interested, informed spectator of sport, and respect the expert participants. They don’t feel inadequate because they can’t participate on the same level – and they celebrate rather than denigrate the effort and talent required to perform at that level. Their childhood games of five-a-side or ballet classes gave them a feeling for physical activity, which helps them to understand and appreciate what it meant to be an athlete.

It’s never going to be possible to raise a nation of scientists. But it would make a huge difference if we could raise a nation of people whose attitude to science is similar to their attitude to sport – so that even if they’re not experts, they can understand and appreciate expertise. 

For me the key to achieving that is focussing on the practical, simple questions that confront us every day. Giving people the opportunity to find out that investigating the world around them is entirely possible. And often fun as well as satisfying. That science is not something to be learnt but something to be done – an act of investigation, not of accepting on authority. Using the principles of experimentation to investigate everyday issues is a great way to develop confidence that these same principles will also work when applied to more complex and less everyday issues.

And if nothing less, we may have a population less prone to burning their tongues on unexpectedly hot chunks of pineapple….

Truth and fear

(A wordle cloud based on the top 100 words in this post)

I realise that I’ve been writing a lot of posts that in some way relate to the truth – to the struggle to see what is true rather than what we wish to be true, and to be honest with ourselves and with others. I thought it might be a good idea to explore what I feel about truth.

I am in the slightly odd position of being deeply committed to an end goal of personal and spiritual growth (tolerance, honesty, compassion, freedom from fear etc) that is similar in some ways to that which is praised by religions. But at the same time I find the supernaturalism of religious and new-age beliefs fundamentally alien, and their approach to key issues like truth and fear unhelpful at best. Which doesn’t leave me much in the way of reliable guidance for the personal growth that I am seeking. Or indeed any help with defining what exactly I aspire to.

But let me try anyway. One of the things I am seeking is a resilience in the face of the problems that life throws at me – not a permanent happiness, but an emotional buoyancy. A state of mind that deals with problems and obstacles with the minimum of pain and misery. (This ideal owes quite a bit to the non-supernatural elements of buddhism)

Part of that process is about overcoming fear, which is often both unnecessary and counterproductive, and replacing it with a confidence and acceptance. And another part of it is about truth – seeing things the way they are. Because I’m curious to know the truth, and because I feel that honesty, integrity and openness are all valuable characteristics of the person I aspire to be. And because if our beliefs lead us to make false predictions about the world, we’re in danger of being unnecessarily prepared for the problems that arise, or of dealing with them inappropriately.

I also value truthfulness as a great tool for identifying and overcoming fear. From my experience, it’s almost always fear that makes me reluctant to see or speak the truth, so working to overcome that reluctance, or at least defy it, can help me to overcome that fear.

For me the work of moving away from fear and towards truth is a vital part of my life at present.

When I feel I am tempted to lie, I try to ask myself, what am I afraid of? When I feel afraid, I ask myself, why am I afraid, and what is the worst that can happen? And I try to decide whether the fear is of something real, or something imaginary. If, as mostly happens, it’s imaginary, I try to do exactly that thing that I’m afraid of. I don’t always manage it – it’s amazing how easily the mind dreams up excuses why it’s not necessary on this occasion! But step by step I am working on my fears.

And similarly I am trying to eradicate the prejudices, biases and fears that are the biggest obstacles to seeing what is real. I keep trying to remember that, although I believe that every one of my beliefs is correct, is is, in practice, certain that I believe something that is not true. Which doesn’t help me to identify which one it is, but it’s a useful principle. (It would be great to be able to swill out my brain with some sort of epistemological plaque detector, which would stain the areas of false belief so that they could be removed with energetic brushing). But it’s a useful way to counter the pride of having to be right about everything all the time.

It’s also helpful to remember all the different ways in which we can be wrong about things, and how difficult it is to really get at the truth. I’ve recently watched several youtube clips of Derren Brown (e.g. this one) which demonstrate very neatly how easy we can be to fool, and how misleading our own experiences can be. (I recently tried dowsing with a pendulum, and it’s quite shocking how strongly it appears that an invisible external force is involved, even when you know intellectually that it’s nothing of the kind!) It seems that humans work in such a way that we arrive at beliefs easily and quickly, and change our minds reluctantly and slowly – I can’t help feeling the reverse would be more useful!

One of the most inspiring websites I know is The World Question Center, which includes a collection of short accounts from 165 people about issues on which they changed their minds. Some of the changes are really significant, others smaller. But what I find inspiring is the courage with which they have been prepared to put their beliefs to the test and say “I was wrong”. And in reading their accounts, I don’t think the less of them for being wrong – I think more of them for admitting it. Which encourages me to try to feel the same about the scary idea of being wrong.

One of the most important ways in which I’ve changed my mind over recent years is this: what people believe really does matter, because it affects their behaviour, and a “live and let live” relativistic attitude to the beliefs of others is dangerous. It also cuts us off from putting our own views to the test – indeed, as I argued in a previous post, I think one of the attractions of relativism is that we don’t have to put our own views on the line and accept that we might be wrong.

For me discussion is a crucial way of putting our beliefs to the test and learning more about ourselves and others. But for a discussion to be real, all parties have to be willing to discover that they’re wrong. And that is a rare attitude for people to have, particularly on issues that matter to them. Pride and fear all come into play and bias our view of the evidence despite our best efforts. Which, yes, brings me back to fear – indeed it seems hard to separate them!

Moving towards truth and away from fear is a daily challenge, and some days I feel I’ve made no progress at all. It’s a hard slog. But it seems to me that it’s a fascinating and important journey.

Though, I could be wrong, I’m afraid….

Maiden Voyage

Saturday saw the first voyage of the Carnival of the Elitist Bastards. Despite the name, they’re more inspiring than nasty, and while elitist, are elitist in a very inclusive way. They refuse to accept dumbing down, and proclaim the virtues of intelligence, curiosity and expertise in a most inspiring way.

Definitely worth checking out…

(Happy to say that I was a member of the crew – “Playing Small doesn’t help the world“.)


What is it about growing up and liking bitter things? The olive is perhaps the classic example of this… the sort of thing a child would immediately turn up her nose at and start making “yuck” noises. And yet adults politely nibble and derive genuine pleasure. I wonder if our tastebuds change, or whether it’s a shift towards more complex pleasures? A recognition of the sour that goes alongside the sweet in life, and often makes it taste better.

I love olives. I am immediately drawn back in my mind to a sunny day in a market in a small French town, to a stall where wooden tubs and wooden scoops proudly present their wares. From the deepest black olives (wrinkled, tart and intense), to the springlike green set off by flashes of red pepper. Going via the slightly unreal purples of my favourite Kalamata olives, sweet and piquant at once. Even tiny ones, bright as jewels – just a thin covering of flesh over the stone but such an intense flash of flavour. Not to mention the green-gold nectar of virgin olive oils gleaming in the sunlight. Such a pleasure to select a mix of all these different types, run them home, spill out the glistening nuggets on a plate or just munch them from the bag. Nibbling the flesh off the seed, then finding a place to spit it out. Not the politest of food, when properly enjoyed, but all the better for that!

Strange how olives are often quite a social food – in any pizzeria the chances are someone will have olives on their pizza that they don’t want – and the olive vultures at the table circle and pounce to be allowed their taste of the salty goodness.

Beautiful trees, too. So gnarled, and yet with such delicate silvery leaves.

I heard once that the fruit of the olive tree is actually virtually inedible… until it has been pickled and salted and generally run through a complicated process that results in the fruit we enjoy. I wonder how anyone came across the idea of doing that… if you taste a fruit and it is initially vile, it takes persistence, or serious hunger, to devote so much effort to finding a way to make it edible.

Maybe that’s another dimension of adulthood… finding a way to take things that are initially unpalatable and turn them into something rewarding. A determination. A willingness to push through the difficult times and the bad flavours. To make something happen, because you believe that it can. There are sweeter, lower-hanging fruit. But there’s something satisfying in making a bitter fruit into something which is, perhaps not yet sweet, but still profoundly satisfying. Our lives need their olives.

Though I sometimes wonder whether the times we live in are not conducive to creating olives. We’re not hungry enough to need to make the offered fruit into something edible. There is so much low hanging sweet fruit around us that it is easy to become lazy. The opposite of Tantalus, the grapes fall so close to our lips that we become too lazy to reach for different fruit. The routines of contact with the world around us in its most basic form, to draw water, to cultivate the food we eat, to be physically part of the ecosystem… for most of us, this is so far away. And so perhaps it is too easy to stay in a perpetual childhood, eating sherbet lemons rather than real ones. Yet life would be very dull without the piquancy of a fruit as complex and as well-earnt through labour as an olive.

This is a 15 minute writing practice inspired by Red Ravine – to write for 15 minutes about olives, without censoring or correcting.

Photo credit – Olives, originally uploaded to flickr by steve green.

Patterns, intelligence and the present

In response to a post over at Cafe Philos, I commented that:

“I think one of the crucial parts of intelligence is the ability to make links and detect patterns – which is vital for experiencing the present as well as predicting the future .”

Paul responded:

“I’m very curious about what you said there. Would you elaborate please on how making links and detecting patterns is vital for experiencing the present?”

And as often happens when someone asks you to elaborate on something you’ve said, I was to begin with stumped to know how to explain what I meant, and took a while to work my way through to it. But here, Paul, is my answer:

Perhaps the best place to start is a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I found it a fascinating book. One of the key points it makes is that the way we perceive the world around us, normally, is not by seeing shapes and lines, but immediately interpreting those shapes and lines as things. Which isn’t very useful if you want to learn to draw… so the book encourages us to learn to look without interpreting. A fascinating and challenging exercise, that shows how fundamental making connections and interpretations is to our perception of reality. (A similar effect comes from trying to do a mindfulness meditation, where we just notice sensations without attaching any interpretation to them.)

If you want to draw accurately, you need to focus on the detail of what you are actually seeing, not what you think you see. But mostly we don’t have the time or the need to focus on detail – we need to get a quick gist of the forest. I look out of the window now and I see a hillside covered in houses. If I focus, I can see the red and black and green colours that make up those houses – the shadows and perspectives that make me see them as on a hill. And would help me draw them. But mostly all I need is to know, ah, there are houses on that hill.

So as we watch people and things I feel we unconsciously look out for patterns – something as simple as the cadence of someone’s speech, or as complex as a personality trait. Visual patterns – verbal patterns. We can’t process the details individually, so we have to find some way ofrelating to them as a pattern. Like a computer’s zip utility – that looks for repeated sequences of characters that can be captured more simply. Or, as a former music teacher used to say, “don’t listen to the notes, listen to the music”.

But that quote also brings out the fact that what we look for is more than a mechanical pattern. The patterns we find often have a deeper meaning than the details. Emergent properties. We not only look for patterns in the present, but with things in our memories… so I see a poorly built house and remember what it is like to be in a house like that, and a little bit of that remembered discomfort sneaks into my perception.

Let me give you an example to show how this shapes your present. I imagine there’s a cup of coffee (half empty, half full or steaming hot and ready to drink;)) somewhere near your computer right now. Your perception of that cup of coffee is shaped by your associations with coffee, your memory of how long ago you made it, where you got the cup from, the colour and texture…. all these things brought together shape your experience of that cup. If you forgot those associations, or were someone else who had different associations, it would be a different experience.

It’s like every single thing that we experience is the centre of a kaleidoscope of associations. It’s true of simple objects – but even more so of people. People are even more resonant with links and memories – memories we have of those people themselves and of others that were similar in some way.

By contrast, imagine being an amnesiac, or someone who couldn’t make associations. You’d be experiencing the world in black and white, compared to our normal technicolour! Indeed some descriptions of autism I have come across suggest it is this inability to reduce detail to comprehensible pattern that makes the world so difficult for an autistic person to process.

For me that complexity is an intrinsic part of our perception of the present, though so instinctive that we normally don’t notice.

To go beyond that, then, to link it to intelligence… Firstly, think of a standard IQ test – so many of the tests, whether verbal, numerical or patterns, are about detecting patterns and then applying that pattern. To decide what is the next number or pattern in the sequence, or the word that is to x as y is to z, we must find the pattern that we have been given. Once we have found that, the next step is easy.

I also feel that this sort of pattern-making is crucial for problem-solving. To apply what has been learnt in one situation to another is often the best way to make a breakthrough.

Making links is also vital for creativity – particularly when they’re unlikely links. Metaphor. Imagery. Association.

I suppose what I come down to is that the more intelligent we are, the more patterns we perceive, and the richer our perceptual world becomes. I’m not necessarily talking about a cultivated, educated intelligence here – education can often limit us to seeing a certain set of patterns, where a spontaneous intelligence can see a wider range. But the ability to interpret, see patterns, and make links, is for me a vital part of our connection with the world and of our existence as intelligent beings.

Does that answer your question, Paul?

(the beautiful photo is by James P Blair and is included in National Geographic’s gallery Patterns in Nature)

Playing small doesn’t serve the world

For me intelligence is one of the most beautiful things there is. To see that spark in someone’s eyes that shows they’re alive to the world, that they are dedicating themselves and whatever capacities they have to living life to the full. The delights of one of those conversations where two minds dance together in a world of ideas – serious or plain silly, it doesn’t matter – what matters is that living intelligence. The essence of humanity.

That light seems to shine brightest in young children, with their endless curiosity. I think it’s sad that, for some people, that light gets turned off as they grow up. They learn to feel stupid, or are told that certain interests are not for them. They are told not to ask certain questions, or give up asking questions because they never get answers.

Some types of elitism do have the effect of stifling that interest. But actually I think anti-elitism has a far more serious effect. In a society where knowledge and learning is valued but kept for the few, it is still there to be aspired to, and the excluded can fight for their just deserts. In a society where knowledge and learning is not valued, people learn to hide their intelligence in order to fit in. (I remember crying my eyes out on receiving the results of a school chemistry test – because I felt that everyone would hate me for getting full marks!). And this limits everyone. It strikes me as very patronising to dumb down for someone because it says implicitly or explicitly that their intelligence is insufficient to go any further.

Yes, some artforms or fields of study do require quite a bit of time and effort before you can really appreciate what is going on. But I do believe that often the difference between people who enjoy “elite” artforms and those who don’t is twofold – a feeling that it’s “not for people like them” and a lack of the experience needed to get into it. That’s not to say that they “ought to” enjoy these things… but I think it’s sad when people are cut off from things that they might enjoy for such limiting reasons.

I would like to live in a society filled with adults with the curious and unselfconscious fascination with the world that children have. A world where intellectual enquiry and pursuit of excellence is valued – not just because of the results, but because of the journey. Where everyone, regardless of their basic intellectual capacity, is inspired to become more, to bring their own special qualities to fruition.

For me this is expressed beautifully in the very famous Nelson Mandela quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure….

“It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?…

“Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This post was inspired by the various posts on En tequila es verdad and Cafe philos about the new Carnival of Elitist Bastards.

I encourage you to follow up the links above – I think Dana’s still looking for more contributions now and in the future. In the meantime I thought this quote from Dana rather neatly explains what the carnival’s about:

“…Elitist Bastards, who have no trouble simultaneously being common as muck and smart as all get-out. We’re not a pretentious elite, but a more populist one. We think intelligence is something to be celebrated, but I doubt any of us think it’s something reserved to a select few, and we certainly don’t think it has to make you a stuffy, proper, boring git. Calling ourselves bastards is a joyful way of announcing we’re out to have fun with our elitist tendencies.”

The beautiful photo was taken by Jose Maria Tan and uploaded to flickr.