This is a wonderful read to kick off the New Year, if you’re into reflecting on arbitrary milestones.
Flourishing involves how we live more than what we feel: engaging life whole-heartedly – which includes responding to adversity to the best of our ability – and treating other people honorably. We thrive when we realize the best within ourselves, while enriching the lives of other people.
Or just keep up with the mindless self-antagonism and the band-aid of useless motivational aphorisms.
[If you haven’t already, read Part I and Part II of this series before diving in here.]
It’s All So Fuzzy
Let’s take the question of muscle and what makes it grow. We can answer this question fairly well with some simple observations. Namely, you can go to any gym and you’ll notice that the people with well-developed muscles all tend to lift weights. That’s an anecdotal observation, but fortunately various research studies, both observational studies watching athletes and more direct interventions in the lab, have validated this “no kidding” conclusion.
We’ve got a lot of data that tells us yes, lifting weights makes your muscles grow. That’s an objective fact, in as much as we can ever define objective facts about exercise. If you want to get bigger, you pick up a barbell, or a dumbbell, or at least go to a cable station. You wouldn’t want to start running 10 miles a day. Extremes like this are easy to pick out — and they often tell us nothing interesting.
We turn to science in hopes of more detail. Case in point: it’s more or less true that all the people with big muscles lift weights, so we have that, but notice that little Jimmy also lifts weights and he doesn’t have big muscles. There’s obviously a relationship between “big muscles” and “lifts weights”, but the opposite — that all people who lift weights get big muscles — doesn’t hold true. We’re missing something.
I’m fascinated by the human mind. The mind, such as there is a thing we can refer to with that word, is where all the interesting things about humankind go on. It’s also poorly understood, even by the legions of bright people who have studied and reflected upon it for thousands of years.
Vagueness aside, you’ll notice that we’ve got a Pretty Good intuitive grasp of thoughts and sensations, such that we can communicate reasonably well most of the time. The fact that you can read my words and (hopefully) understand what I want to convey attests to that. Sometimes, Pretty Good is good enough.
Knowing how people operate is a crucial skill in any instance that involves other people. Case in point, fitness training and nutrition. These fields are applied science, and on paper at least we should be able to craft perfect workout programs and diets — at least, you’d think that according to much of the internet.
Often, though — likely more than not — these perfection-seeking schemes fail. Why can’t people just do what we know is right? Why do all these pig-headed people disagree with my perfectly-designed workout? Why do people not eat according to these scientifically-derived principles that ensure success?
Links of interest: The Belief Engine by James Alcock — A nice look at the confabulation powers of the brain which lead to bias and irrationality. Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation — Your belief in free will influences voluntary control over movement. More evidence that abstract beliefs and … Read more
In the 1930s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf argued that language shapes thought. Language, wrote Sapir, can be considered “the mold of thought.” Languages doesn’t simply latch on to pre-existing concepts. The words themselves define the concepts available to us and provide the raw building material for our thoughts. There can be no thoughts without the words to define them.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as this argument became known, itself went on to influence social theories and, perhaps most famously, the ‘newspeak’ in George Orwell’s 1984.
I’m no linguist and I won’t try to argue over the correctness of linguistic relativity. What I find interesting is the premise that words can influence our thoughts, if not outright shaping them.
The first chapter of Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath (link to my review) tells the story of Jerry Sternin, who came to Vietnam in the 1999 with a big mission and a small budget. Sternin had the task of fighting child malnutrition in poor villages, without government … Read more
What is the ‘perfect program’? Could any of us, educated and experienced, define perfection? What does ‘perfect’ mean in the first place? The thinkers among us might be able to cobble together a definition based on abstract concepts, maybe a little handwaving about goals and efficiency and other assorted trinkets of philosophical pontifications. In the … Read more
Sports are highly competitive. I know, I get the Nobel Prize for Obvious Statements, but we take it on faith that we must push to be the best. And why not? Why go into a sport, or any activity, if you don’t plan to win? Winning is the whole point, no? I’m being sensationalist with … Read more
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” -Albert Einstein* Every time I go to a store with a large parking lot, I always see cars hovering around the front waiting for a space near to open up. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of … Read more
Years ago in one of my criminology classes, the professor introduced us to various theories on social deviance. Criminologists want to know what makes people act up and steal, or rob you in the street for crack, or stab their neighbors in the face. That’s social deviance. Lots of theories have come and gone over the years, thanks to the mysterious wiles and real difficulties of doing quality sociological research.
Lots of ideas came out of the literature, ideas on social strife, class struggle, even plain old boredom. One of these in particular stuck with me over the years, thanks to my budding interest in cognitive neuroscience. The theory goes that some people are natural stimulus-seekers. For whatever reason, this group lacks something in their brains, or they have some dysfunction that leaves them feeling under-stimulated, and this leaves them with an itch. These people are always in search of a fix, always looking for the next hit of neurochemical reward, and as a consequence they’re more likely to go out and get mixed up in naughty things like drugs, sex, and, you guessed it, crime.
At the time, I didn’t think much of the idea. Not because I don’t agree with it, but I didn’t have nearly the interest in behavioral psychology and neuroscience back then. With my current investigations into the neurological factors behind exercise performance, the concept of the stimulus-seeker brain-type stands out. To understand why, we need to look at how neurological activity creates behavior.
I recently finished Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. I found it a brilliant read, but I didn’t wind up doing a full review on it because I didn’t have a clear way to relate it to exercise or performance. As you could imagine from the title, the book examines the concept of happiness–where does it arise in the brain, what causes it, and what are the circumstances that maximize that feeling of ambiguous bliss? An interesting topic, but there was no direct application to exercise, minus the vague connection to neuropsychology.