June 16, 2022
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Mind Macros 21: Managing anger, making better decisions, and the mystery of consciousness

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.​

Food for Thought

1. What is consciousness?

"Before posing any questions about consciousness, we must determine what we are talking about in the first place. People use the word in a variety of ways; for example, in referring to a state of wakefulness, a sense of selfhood, or the capacity for self-reflection. But when we want to single out the mysterious quality at the heart of consciousness, it’s important to narrow in on what makes it unique. The most basic definition of consciousness is that given by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his famous essay ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,’ and it is how I use the word throughout this book. The essence of Nagel’s explanation runs as follows:

"An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.

"In other words, consciousness is what we’re referring to when we talk about experience in its most basic form. Is it like something to be you in this moment? Presumably your answer is yes. Is it like something to be the chair you’re sitting on? Your answer will (most likely) be an equally definitive no. It’s this simple difference—whether there is an experience present or not—which we can all use as a reference point, that constitutes what I mean by the word ‘consciousness.’ Is it like something to be a grain of sand, a bacterium, an oak tree, a worm, an ant, a mouse, a dog? At some point along the spectrum the answer is yes, and the great mystery lies in why the ‘lights turn on’ for some collections of matter in the universe.”

— From Conscious by Annaka Harris (View my summary)

Consciousness is thus experience; if an experience is present, then consciousness exists.

The elusive question of consciousness presents one of the greatest mysteries of our time by asking how something could appear out of nothing, or as Harris phrases, “How does felt experience arise out of non-sentient matter?” According to David Chalmers, this line of inquiry is the “hard problem” of consciousness, whereas determining which processes in the brain are responsible for which functions is the “easy problem.”

2. Spirals of violence

Catharsis is a term used to describe a release of emotions that relieves unconscious conflicts.

We've all heard this popular justification for anger: expressing anger calms you down. The logic follows that you need to release anger rather than contain the emotion within. While this is true for the emotional trauma that can be the root cause of anger, it's not true for the petty annoyances we experience daily.

The authors in the book Mistakes Were Made explore the relationship between catharsis and anger further:

"The Damn It Doll reflects one of the most entrenched convictions in our culture, fostered by the psychoanalytic belief in the benefits of catharsis: that expressing anger or behaving aggressively gets rid of anger. Throw that doll, hit a punching bag, shout at your spouse; you'll feel better afterward. Actually, decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: that when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.

"Michael Kahn, then a graduate student in clinical psychology at Harvard, designed an ingenious experiment that he was sure would demonstrate the benefits of catharsis. Posing as a medical technician, Kahn took polygraph and blood pressure measurements from college students, one at a time, allegedly as part of a medical experiment. As he was taking these measurements, Kahn feigned annoyance and made some insulting remarks to the students (having to do with their mothers). The students got angry; their blood pressure soared. In the experimental condition, the students were allowed to vent their anger by informing Kahn's supervisor of his insults; thus, they believed they were getting him into big trouble. In the control condition, the students did not get a chance to express their anger.​

"Kahn, a good Freudian, was astonished by the results: Catharsis was a total flop. The people who were allowed to express their anger about Kahn felt far greater animosity toward him than did those who were not given that opportunity. In addition, expressing their anger increased their already heightened blood pressure; the high blood pressure of those who were not allowed to express their anger soon returned to normal. Seeking an explanation for this unexpected pattern, Kahn discovered dissonance theory, which was just getting attention at the time, and realized it could beautifully account for his results. Because the students thought they had gotten him into serious trouble, they had to justify their action by convincing themselves that he deserved it, thus increasing their anger against him—and their blood pressure.”

In light of this observation, the question of how to deal with anger remains. Perhaps a solution was provided 2,500 years ago.​

Practical Advice

1. Dispelling anger

Drawing on the work of the Stoics, Derren Brown offers a blueprint for reframing anger:

"You have the same faults as those who annoy you. The same genes that give us similar bodies also give us similar brains and therefore similar thoughts. ‘If we are to be fair judges of all that happens,’ writes Seneca, ‘… there is no justice in blaming the individual for a failing shared by all men’. He continues: All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious – why disguise with euphemism this sore that infects us all? – all of us are corrupt. Therefore, whatever fault he censures in another man, every man will find residing in his own heart. Marcus [Aurelius] notes a similar point to himself: When you run against someone’s wrong behaviour, go on at once to reflect what similar wrong act of your own there is.

"Seneca alerts us to how much anger can be avoided if we first say to ourselves in silence: ‘I myself have also been guilty of this.’"

With the exception of extreme situations, we are guilty of identical behavior for much of what angers us. We, of course, have our stories of intentions to rationalize our actions. We never act crazy or illogical; there is always a reason for our behavior, a clear path of logic that precedes it.

However, because we cannot access the intentions of others, their actions seem illogical, crazy even. Their reasoning remains invisible, only visible are the resulting actions. Anger thus becomes a misunderstanding, a lack of ability to follow the logic of another.

Brown suggests a mental framework to deploy the next time we feel that familiar heat rising in our chest. We should ask ourselves, how would someone else react in our place? The idea isn't to adopt the actions of others, but to realize there are more options available to us than simply exploding with rage. Brown explores this idea further:

"The trick of bringing other people to mind is of enormous use in dispelling anger. It is tempting to hold on to our annoyance, to feel entitled to it and justified in every aspect of its expression. Yet, as we have discussed, it does us no favours; we might prefer to untangle our anger from the matter at hand to gain a clearer perspective on it. We might use a friend, an admired luminary, even a fictitious character, as a role model who can spring to mind when we find ourselves incensed. How might they deal with this situation? How would they coolly laugh it off or rise above it? This might give us some distance from our own story and offer a more helpful, convincing perspective.

“Or, if a friend were suffering with this particular problem, how would we advise them? Those calming words of wisdom we would offer – what would they be? By imagining ourselves offering advice on the very topic that is perturbing us, we are made to engage in a different dialogue; our first take on events changes as we are made to consider a more phlegmatic and unruffled response. Having this imaginary conversation brings us out of ourselves, detaches us from the disturbances of those initial emotions, reminds us that our judgement is responsible for our anger and not the event itself, and is enormously effective at stopping the enemy ‘at the very frontier’."

— From Happy by Derren Brown

2. Using opportunity cost to make decisions

Warren Buffet's business partner Charlie Munger describes one of his decision-making principles in the book Poor Charlie's Almanack by Peter D. Kaufman:

"Intelligent people make decisions based on opportunity costs-in other words, it's your alternatives that matter. That's how we make all of our decisions."

One popular approach to making decisions is to “find” the right choice. We search for the silver bullet that will meet our list of requirements. The tendency is to hone in on the correct path forward without anticipating the second and third-order effects that a decision can have. Making any decision is like knocking over the first domino in a series. Each domino knocks over the next, just as each decision influences the following. The consequences of these choices determine the pool of possibilities from which we will draw our future goals.

We can't know how a decision will affect our lives; even a few months out is nearly impossible to anticipate with any certainty. We can, however, predict a range of possible outcomes. After that we can assign probabilities to each prediction and rank them in order from most to least probable. Exercises like this provide a peek at possible futures resulting from today's decisions.

By committing to a course of action, we automatically reject all the other possibilities, a concept known in microeconomics as “opportunity cost.” Munger's meaning is that we need to know what those alternatives are, should we reject them. He’s advising to flip the decision-making equation from which option is best to which options am I willing to miss out on?

Quotes to Ponder

1. Niall Ferguson on learning from the dead:

“The dead outnumber the living 14 to 1, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril.”

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald provides a check against confirmation bias:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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