Sunday, August 30, 2009

It's Just a Way of Thinking

Mary and Brian
As I walked into the coffee shop this morning, I told a friend about our friends Mary and Brian.

Mary lives in the Netherlands; Brian lives here in the US. Mary and Brian are both friends of Iris on her Facebook page. One day several months ago, Mary saw Brian's picture among those of Iris' friends and decided that he was the guy for her. So, she contacted him via Facebook.

Mary and Brian began corresponding, then chatting, then Skyping, and fell in love. Last Thursday, Mary arrived here in the US. Brian and she are spending five weeks living at our place as they decide what they'll do together. They've already decided to get married and now are working through the details. It's just an amazing story of seeing what you want and going for it...

As I told this to my friend at the coffee shop, she commented that, "wow, how can you really tell if someone's right for you without actually being with them physically. Doesn't it require pheromones, etc?"

Models, Models, Models
As I thought about this, it occurred to me that there are so many ways to look at and understand almost anything.

For example, you can think about music aurally hearing differences in volume, rhythm and pitch. You could also think about music from a physics perspective in terms of amplitude, frequency and how these both vary over time. Or, you could think about music visually either in terms of notes on a page or in terms of a visualizer such as the ones found in iTunes. Or... you could think about it emotionally in terms of happy, sad, calming, exciting, and so on.

All of these are ways to experience and think about music. None of them is music, each is just a perceptual model of music.

Our Bodies
My friend Jonathan came up with a chip that can block epileptic seizures. Viewing the brain electrically, the chip detects the seizures and then surrounds them. The chip is now coming out of FDA trials and will be on the market soon.

Other people view the brain chemically, treating people with medications. And still others view seizures as a response to heightened emotions and stress.

All of these are simply models for viewing how our bodies, or in this case, how our brains work. However, sometimes when I talk to people about epilepsy, they'll actually talk as though the model were the epilepsy itself, not just a way of thinking about.

For example, since taking medication can result in a decrease or complete cessation of seizures, they'll insist that seizures are therefor a chemical phenomenon, rather than viewing seizures as a phenomenon that can be modeled chemically.

Of course, this manner of thinking limits their alternatives when trying to help themselves or others who are experiencing seizures.

How You Doin?
Consider the pervasive question "How are you?" and all its variants. Let's consider a subset of answers that would reflect our emotional state. "I'm feeling great!" or "I'm depressed" or "I'm really upset" or "I'm anxious".

We could actually model these emotional states in any number of ways, and then based on that model, come up with methods to change our state (from depressed to anxious) or replicate our state (be happy) at a different time.

For example, we could model our state chemically looking at things like blood sugar and serotonin levels. We could model our state electrically seeing what our brain activity looks like. We could model our state in terms of the constellation of beliefs that we hold at that moment. We could model our state cardiovascularly looking at heart rate, oxygen processing, blood pressure and blood flow.

No doubt, all of these models would reveal patterns that correspond to out emotional state. Any of these models would prove valid ways of looking at our emotions.

The Problem with Models
The problem with models is when we don't recognize them as such. We see them as the thing, not as a way of looking at the thing. In particular, many of us are biased to make so-called "physical" models real, and so-called "emotional" models artificial.

They're all artificial.

And better yet, they all interact reciprocally. I can change my emotional state through chemistry, but I can also change my chemical state by changing my emotions. In fact, inputs to any one of the models will always result in changes that can be seen in any other of the models.

Physical Doesn't Mean Real

Over the years I've talked to person after person who insists that a certain ailment is real because it's physical. For example, they'll say that so-and-so is really depressed because someone did a blood workup and his chemistry is that of a depressed person. The chemistry is causing the depression.

Of course, this isn't the case. More accurately, the chemistry and the depression are coincidental. Surely, if one were to change the depressed person's chemistry with medication, his emotional state would change. But, as the models are interrelated, if one were to change his emotional state, his chemistry would change as well.

Either model is valid; the trick is finding the one that works best for him.

Making Models Work for You
Models are powerful tools. They're the basis for different fields in science. They all have strengths and they all have weaknesses. None is right; none is wrong.

The measure of a model is simply how well it works in accomplishing what you want to accomplish.

If you're facing a persistent challenge, perhaps it's time to start building different models, ways of thinking about the challenge.

For example, if you're experiencing a challenge with depression, or anxiety, or lethargy, or procrastination, or whatever, you could model the challenge chemically or electrically or in terms of beliefs. But, you could also model it in terms of what you read every day.... or how often you work out... or what you eat... or who you hang out with... or how many hours of TV you watch... or whether or not you meditate. Any of these might lead you to a solution.

In fact, you could draw a little chart that correlates the degree of challenge with all these factors, and then see the pattern that emerges.

By viewing models simply as ways of thinking and then expanding the set of models we use to include all sorts of parameters, we can overcome challenges that seem impossible otherwise.

Have a great Sunday!


  1. I'm intrigued by this topic, at many levels. I'm thinking many do not get/choose to be, turned on by challange, tend to retrench further, in support of their behavior. Some seem quite comfortable with the thoughts/beliefs which support being depressed, and with taking drugs to try and cover up what one is doing to themselves. Acceptance that each is their own creator, of the flavor of their experience, being sincerely awed by and admiring of what individuals can do to themselves......ahhh isn't that the essence of being a skilled option mentor?

  2. "How are you?" I frequently replace with "How's by you" to stimulate realization of ones creative freedom, and to reflect my own respect, acceptance, and awe towards this gift. bw


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