Friday, September 30, 2011

Command and Control

Why do we overeat and refuse to burn it off? Why do we procrastinate; or even burn out despite our passion for a subject? What about the state of the world? Why are politicians so disappointing; what should we trust in when we vote for them—rigid rationalism, protocol; or the feeling deep within our gut? What about the problems that we just think are never going to end—is it willpower, self-experimentation or something else?

I've benefited a lot in recent months by letting go of reliance on two sides of the same coin—declarative knowledge and conscious "willpower." Both are important and play a role in many things, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The way I came to this was through, yes, some changes to how I ate and exercised. I've never had a weight problem, but I have some other reasons, such as asthma, to look after what goes in my body.

Upon investigating these ideas, I saw that there was a general flaw in the arguments about obesity. Moralizing self-help gurus have convinced us everyday laymen have taken the truism that people gain weight because they "consume more energy than they expend" and somehow used some discursive sleight of hand to translate this to the idea that obese people are being weak-willed by overeating and not exercising. To quote one great thinker: what horseshit!

Have we learned nothing from the mistakes of Descartes or the piles of research on the body's effect on the brain? I could even wager that thousands of years of wisdom would back this; but I really don't know and could be wrong about that. We are deeply connected to our bodies; they are the source of emotions, which are by extension the source of our decision making. Don't believe me? How about the fact that even with tons of analytic knowledge ("facts"), severing the connection between our brains and our bodily dispositions disables our ability to effectively make decisions. But I digress.

The reason why this "calories-in/calories-out" argument doesn't work is that our behavior is affected by all the biochemical reactions that are going on in our metabolism. When we eat too much junk food too regularly, our metabolism breaks down and our ability to efficiently process nutrients falls apart; insulin surges through the body at unhealthy rates, we store perfectly good nutrients as body fat and our brain does not get the glucose it needs to stop yelling "I'm hungry!" The result is that we find ourselves crashing and needing more food. So perhaps we just need to burn it off? Unlikely; where would you get all the energy needed if you can't even feel satiated?

Of course, all this could be wrong too; remember that bit about syllogistic knowledge. But I am convinced that these systems work something like this—the world is just too connected and nonlinear. And for this reason I've started to wonder, in light of just how embodied our decisions are; whether we need a whole new way of thinking about how to do things. When we procrastinate, it's likely that our mind is telling us that it doesn't approve of the plan. But couldn't that be irrational? Well, yes; we're not always cut out for the modern world that we've set up for ourselves—but the wisdom of emotions seems to be seriously underestimated. Our emotions really may be what's right when we're procrastinating; an unrealistic plan really can slow us down after all.

And how surprising is this when you look at something bigger like the markets? Sometimes we like to give credit to politicans for saving or ruining the economy; but how much say do they really have? What effect does the average tax policy or stimulus plan have? I'd argue that sometimes they work; sometimes they provide a big enough jolt to shift things into another equilibrium—but that's a big maybe; the fact is, we can't even seem to predict where the markets go.

What does that tell us? That yes, there are things we can do. We have some conscious control over our choices and we certainly have times where we just need to stop making excuses and apply elbow grease. But the parallels become even more striking when we hear about the limits to our willpower; how they can be increased through certain behaviors and states of health—but those behaviors and states must be brought about in some way to begin with. We have a very fragile modicum of control over a system that is highly belligerent and, on top of that (though somewhat related), quite random. We need to understand and appreciate these systems for what they are; not only economics and nutrition, but also our habits, the social interactions of people; and of course the very stochasticity of life.

To do that, we must let go of the command and control model but not think that this is some key to "hijacking" our behavior. We talk about tricks to fool ourselves, but it's hard to believe that we can really just "trick" ourselves into doing everything. Nothing is going gently nudge me to do 8 hours of nonstop work (if only...) No, not a chance. There's something more than that. We need to look at the equilibria of our life; on the harm of deterministic thinking and the benefits of random events; on the anti-fragility behind growth and discovery.

It's hard to say for sure what it all means, but a lot of things have helped me towards this path. Eating and exercising more stochastically, cutting out certain food groups but not worrying if I cheat once in a while; not pushing the serotonin buttons of e-mail and Facebook first thing in the morning (getting bad at that), finding peace and discovery in fiction, walking, meditation and unscheduled activities; not adhering to rules too tightly.

But I'd hardly say that I read fiction for "knowledge" or take walks for "exercise"—more accurately I exercise to learn and read for the sake of my body. Exercise has a specific scent of discovery to it, it resides at the core of so many things in our hunter-gatherer past; reading makes me feel more whole, my body relaxes into a new state—just as well that I run anaerobically and weight-lift aerobically.

Maybe you agree, maybe you disagree. If you agree, how have you applied this to your life? If you disagree, you can have a say too ;)

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