The Science of Craving and Free Will

Why do we crave things that we do not need, or even worse, things that harm us?

As Aristotle once wrote: “It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.” Buddhists, meanwhile, have endeavored for 2,500 years to overcome the suffering caused by our propensity for longing. Now, it seems, [neuroscientist Dr. Kent] Berridge has found the neuro-anatomical basis for this facet of the human condition – that we are hardwired to be insatiable wanting machines.

You likely have heard an abridged “cocktail party” version of some description of the mind’s reward system.  That version probably goes something like this: exposure to certain stimuli (candy, sex, exercise, cocaine) caused a release of dopamine in the mind, which the brain experienced as pleasure.  The brain then “learned” to seek out repeated exposure to that same stimulus so as to obtain the same dopamine release that it craved.  As time went on, each exposure to the stimulus caused the release of less and less dopamine, requiring greater and greater exposure to that stimulus to obtain pleasure.  So went the road to addiction, it was taught.

But Dr. Berridge has a different theory, based on his research beginning in the mid-1980s.

Berridge, a dedicated young scientist who was more David than Goliath, stumbled upon evidence in 1986 that dopamine did not produce pleasure, but in fact desire. […]

The reward system, he then asserted, has two distinct elements: wanting and liking (or desire and pleasure). While dopamine makes us want, the liking part comes from opioids and also endocannabinoids (a version of marijuana produced in the brain), which paint a “gloss of pleasure”, as Berridge puts it, on good experiences. […]

His most telling discovery was that, whereas the dopamine/wanting system is vast and powerful, the pleasure circuit is anatomically tiny, has a far more fragile structure and is harder to trigger.

Berridge’s insight was to distinguish the brain’s wanting from its actual experience of pleasure:

“It’s easy to turn on intense wanting,” he says.[…] “Massive, robust systems do it. They can come on with the pleasure, they can come on without the pleasure, they don’t care. It’s tricky to turn on the pleasure.” […]

“This may explain…why life’s intense pleasures are less frequent and less sustained than intense desires.”

Pleasure, Berridge explains, cannot be pursued relentlessly, as the mind’s own circuits are designed to produce satiety:

Wanting and liking wax and wane like candle flames. The hungry, wanting state before a meal could be studded with moments of pleasure from a social encounter, or anticipation of good food.  Then, as we eat, pleasure dominates, but wanting still crops up – more salt, a drink of water, a second helping. Before long, the satiety system steps in to render each mouthful less delicious until we stop. If we switch to another food – dessert, cheese, petits fours – we can prolong the pleasure until we’re stuffed, although we may regret it.

The applications of Berridge’s research that are most interesting to me are its implications on the current philosophical debates about free will.  This arises from Berridge’s conclusion that “it is possible to want something without liking it.”  Crazy impulse purchases, eating too much cake, continuing to drink or do drugs past the point of pleasure are all examples.  One must ask the question, who or what is making these choices for us?

Discussions of free will have arisen out of Berridge’s work because wanting and liking can happen both consciously and unconsciously. This is why urgent desires can be irrational and inconsistent, and fly in the face of what we know is best for us in the long run. Unconscious wanting can defy our best-laid plans to end an unhealthy relationship or not polish off that box of chocolates.

Berridge and his colleagues point to meditation as one cognitive tool to distance our conscious minds from the unconscious machinery of wants and needs:

[Berridge] was particularly struck by the effectiveness of meditation in taming our dopamine desires – not only among Buddhists.

Sarah Bowen, an addiction therapist in Seattle who was also invited on the Dalai Lama trip, has had significant success in helping recovering addicts by using mindfulness meditation. Over 12 months, this treatment reduced substance use more effectively than cognitive-behavioural therapy or the 12-step programme. It’s not a cure, and won’t work for everyone, because it requires commitment to get the benefits. But mindfulness’s tentacles are rapidly spreading throughout the Western world, perhaps because it’s one of the few palpable antidotes to the dopamine frenzy of modern life.

via Intelligent Life Magazine.

photo: cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark, via Wikimedia Commons


Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Thinking Through the Financial Risks of 2016

Essayist, scholar, statistician, risk analyst, and author of The Black Swan
and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers advice on investment decisions in 2016, via the WSJ:

Asking “How should we think about financial risks in 2016,” Taleb points to (1) increased stability in banking institutions; (2) declining values in asset categories in which low interest rates encouraged speculation; (3) potential negative impact of low commodity prices in certain sectors; (4) poor recognition of emergent physical risks such as epidemic; and (5) acute nonlinear risks associated with climate change:

First, worry less about the banking system. Financial institutions today are less fragile than they were a few years ago. This isn’t because they got better at understanding risk (they didn’t) but because, since 2009, banks have been shedding their exposures to extreme events. Hedge funds, which are much more adept at risk-taking, now function as reinsurers of sorts. Because hedge-fund owners have skin in the game, they are less prone to hiding risks than are bankers.

This isn’t to say that the financial system has healed: Monetary policy made itself ineffective with low interest rates, which were seen as a cure rather than a transitory painkiller. Zero interest rates turn monetary policy into a massive weapon that has no ammunition. There’s no evidence that “zero” interest rates are better than, say, 2% or 3%, as the Federal Reserve may be realizing.

I worry about asset values that have swelled in response to easy money. Low interest rates invite speculation in assets such as junk bonds, real estate and emerging market securities. The effect of tightening in 1994 was disproportionately felt with Italian, Mexican and Thai securities. The rule is: Investments with micro-Ponzi attributes (i.e., a need to borrow to repay) will be hit.

Taleb identifies risk in commodity prices and consequential effects in other energy sectors:

Dubai is more threatened by oil prices than Islamic State. Commodity people have been shouting, “We’ve hit bottom,” which leads me to believe that they still have inventory to liquidate. Long-term agricultural commodity prices might be threatened by improvement in the storage of solar energy, which could prompt some governments to cancel ethanol programs as a mandatory use of land for “clean” energy.

Most interesting to me was Taleb’s concern about areas of concern outside of the financial markets, specifically the physical risks of disease and climate change:

We also need to focus on risks in the physical world. Terrorism is a problem we’re managing, but epidemics such as Ebola are patently not. The most worrisome fact of 2015 was the reaction to the threat of Ebola, with the media confusing a multiplicative disease with an ordinary one and shaming people for overreacting. Cancer rates cannot quadruple from one month to the next; epidemics can. We are clearly unprepared to deal with such threats.

Finally, climate volatility will produce some nonlinear effects, and these will be compounded in our interconnected world, in which disruptions are more acute. The East Coast blackout of August 2003 was nothing compared with what may come.

photo:     Balon Greyjoy (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Prepare for Success Next Year by Reviewing and Reflecting This Year

How was your 2015?  Did you achieve your goals and make progress in the ways you envisioned twelve months ago?  Were there areas in life where you struggled or found distraction?  If your year was anything like mine, you had a wide variety of experiences ranging from fantastic victories to complete failures, and touching upon all varieties of outcomes in between.  Do you know why certain projects went well and why others failed?  Have you set aside any time at year’s end to try and understand the difference?  Have you thought about what decisions you need to make and actions you need to take to achieve the greater levels of success you have in mind?  You should.

At the end of every year, I take the last week or two to review the past year, and think deeply about what I want for the next year.  Achieving the successful outcomes you have in mind for the future requires making time to review your accomplishments against your goals.   It also requires you to set clear and compelling goals going forward.  This is easy to say but requires real and dedicated thought to accomplish.  Why?  Because setting clear and compelling goals requires you to understand what you really want.

This is my process for ending the year positively with a clear understanding of where I am, how I got here, and where I’m headed next.

Reflect on the Past Year’s Accomplishments

The first step in an annual review is to sit down and reflect on the year’s accomplishments.  This takes real time to do properly, because chances are that you’ve done a lot over the past twelve months.  I start with a review of my client-based practice.  I review my year’s calendar, project list, and task list for all of the client projects that I’ve completed, as well as those that remain open at year end.  I consider outcome, revenue, speed to completion, efficiency, and client satisfaction.  I identify key decision moments in each project, and ask myself if the outcomes of those decisions were consistent with or different than my predictions.  I make a list of the successes I had.  I repeat then repeat this exercise for the management of my business, my personal goals, financial goals, and family goals.

Reviewing experiences leads to insight, and this exercise will let you identify the principles and habits that led to success.

Be Honest about Failures, and then Move on

My year wasn’t all success.  I bet yours wasn’t either.  I find it important to think honestly about the places where I didn’t achieve my goals, made bad decisions, or otherwise experienced a bad outcome.  The point here is not to wallow.  Just as with accomplishments, a review of negative experiences will create insight and let you create new habits to strengthen these problem areas as you move forward.  Just as important as identifying failures, though, is moving on after you’ve found insight.  The goal of this entire process is to put you in the right frame of mind to move forward and achieve, not to end the year caught in negative traps.

Express Gratitude

I ask myself two questions after reviewing accomplishments and failures.  First, what am I thankful for this year?  Second, what do I want to be thankful for at this same time next year?

This might be the most important step in the process of reflection.  Regular expression of gratitude is shown to improve relationships, physical health, psychological health, self-esteem, and mental fortitude.  Write down a list of the things you’re thankful for.  I guarantee you’ll be in a better frame of mind when you finish the list.  And you’ll probably have a clearer understanding of what’s truly important to you.

Cut Excesses

Time is our most important resource because it is nonrenewable.  You’ll never get this moment back again.  The key to being productive, fulfilled, and rested is to avoid wasting your time on things that don’t matter and things that you don’t care about.  More difficult to realize is that it also means avoid investing your time in things you do care about, but which are not delivering the results you need or want.  Give some careful thought in this process about whether there are projects or engagements you should cut from your life.  Your decision-making heuristic for projects should be “Hell, yes!” or “No.”  Do not invest yourself in projects that you are 51% excited about.

Set Compelling Goals

Specific goal setting is the key to achieving the results you want.  I think this is where most people encounter the greatest difficulty in the process of finding happiness and success.  It’s not enough to set a vague, conclusory goal, such as “I want to be financially independent,” or “I want to get in shape.”  These are fine visions of a life, but they will not serve you as a goal because they are not specific.  They do not tell you what you need to do each day to succeed.  Instead of, “I want to get in shape,” your goal might be, “I will join a health club and exercise three times each week before work.”  Keep your goals specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

To succeed in this goal setting process, I think hard about the most important values I want to focus on for the coming year.  This lets me visualize the way in which I will interact with the world, my work, and my family.  For example, in 2016, I intend to value presence, mindfulness, health, decisiveness, curiosity, and honesty.  These values form the frame of mindset for the year.

I then look at my top three targets in life, and how I will get closer to them.  These include goals for family and personal relationships, health, and intellectual work.  I then consider what my top three goals are for the next three years.  These goals are more specific and granular than my life targets.

Break it Down

It is awfully hard to wake up each morning and decide what your important tasks are if you only have an annual goal.  Success requires breaking down your annual goals into manageable, measurable, and specific quarterly or monthly goals.  If you do the type of big picture framing described above, it becomes much easier to set compelling and measurable goals for the next calendar year.  Sit down and chart out the year.  What does each season look like?  What does each quarter of the year feel like?  What are the must-do actions that you must take each month, week, and day to keep you on course for the year?  These goals then become the framework for your weekly, monthly, and quarterly reviews as the year goes on (more on that process another day).

Identify New Ideas

It’s a new year.  You’re not limited to your existing project list.  Brainstorm about new ideas. Incorporate them into your goals and plans.  Pick one new habit for the year that you’ll incorporate.

Schedule the Year

How often do you hear someone at the office say, “I really need a vacation but I don’t have time.”  How often do you say the same thing.  Do you know why you don’t have time for vacation?  Because you never set aside the time.  Do it now.  Schedule your year, including time for vacations, reflection, quarterly and annual reviews.  Consider adding a brainstorming day each quarter or “Think Week,” where you shut off all outside inputs and focus on reading, considering new ideas, and fostering creativity for your business.  Think you’re too busy?  Bill Gates makes time for it, you can too.


This process takes me about a week.  Some people can get it done in a day, but it will take time.  It will also take effort and hard work.  When you’re done, unplug from it all.  You should finish the process revitalized, happy about achievements, grateful for much in your life, and excited to begin again.  So take some time to appreciate that feeling.  I take the last week of the year off to enjoy family and rest.

I hope this encourages you to do some thinking and reviewing this holiday season.  It’s an extremely valuable process in achieving what matters most to you next year.

A Zen Buddhist Teacher Explains Death to a Child and Explains That Names Are Not the Same as Things

I am currently working my way through Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, ed. Stephen Mitchell.  Originally published in 1976, the book is a collection of correspondence, lectures, Zen interviews, between the Zen Master and his students in the West.  I do not recommend it as an introductory book on Zen Buddhism (look to Alan Watts for survey materials written for Western audiences for that), but for those with even a small bit of background understanding of Buddhism and the quirky nature of Zen teachings, Dropping Ashes is a treasure of insight and perspective, drawn from the Soen-Sa’s direct words, often hilariously shared.

Reading today, one particular anecdote caught my attention, both for its sweetness and for the broader lesson it contains.  Zen teaching often demonstrates an ability to reduce questions of overwhelming complexity to simple language and demonstrations.  Soen-sa gives an example of that propensity in recounting his talk with a seven-year old girl named Gita at the Cambridge Zen Center after the Center’s resident cat died after a long illness.  The girl was troubled by the cat’s death, even after watching the cat’s traditional Buddhist burial rituals.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

Gita said, “Yes.  What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-Sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa then explains, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing.”  He draws an analogy for Gita between a cookie factory and the universal nature of life force, explaining that all of the different cookies “have different shapes and different names, but they are all made form the same dough and they all taste the same. ”

“So all the different things that you see – a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor – all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names.  But in themselves, they have no names.  When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes.  But when you are not thinking, all things are the same.  There are no words for them.  People make the words.  A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’  People say, ‘This is a cat.’  The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’  People say, ‘This is the sun.’

We often have a tendency to confuse our names and labels for the things we encounter with the nature of the observed object itself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as we’ve all been taught.  Soen-sa applies this insight to show the little girl the difference between the way we label the world and the world’s true nature:

“So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’ how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words.  So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’ what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-Sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God.”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of.  You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard.  Then she laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Very very good! That is how you should answer any question.  That is the truth.”

Soen-sa ends the episode with a humorous observation by Gita that the wonderful Maria Popova described as “a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:”

“Gita bowed and left.  As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school.  I’m going to give regular answers!”

Soen-sa laughed.

Couple this with “A Child’s Advice on Life and Fear.

Musashi Miyamoto on Training to Proper Perspective

Are there ways to prepare for and deal with conflict that will allow you to maximize your chances for positive outcomes?  In both business and personal interactions, we often enjoy finding collaborative and cooperative resolutions to disputes.  Nonetheless, conflict is inevitable.  How do you respond in tense moments?  Do you find yourself overcome with anger, emotion, and anxiety?  Does your judgment cloud and your decision-making suffer?  Why are some people able to stay grounded, maintain a clear, calm view, and make good decisions in the midst of the most chaotic disputes?

Musashi Miyamoto explores this fundamental challenge in The Book of Five Rings.  Musashi was an expert Japanese swordsman and ronin who lived from 1584 to 1645.  After developing an unparalleled skill in swordsmanship and winning 60 duels, he developed the Niten-ryu school of swordsmanship and authored The Book of Five Rings.  On its face, the book is a technical manual of swordsmanship, but read more broadly, it is a masterful piece on strategy, tactics, and philosophy that is relevant today.

Musashi believes that victory in conflict is dependent upon the ability to perceive the entire adversarial situation from multiple perspectives.  By observing clearly the situation from your own point of view, your opponent’s point of view, and a neutral point of view, you place yourself in the best position to act with clear intent and with good judgment.

Statue of Musashi Miyamoto fighting against his rival Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi defeated Kojiro.

According to Musashi, success in battle begins with your own ability to maintain clear vision and perspective in difficult times.  Clear vision will allow you to clearly view your position, your opponent’s position, and where relative advantages may lie on your battlefield.  Musashi instructs:

Where you hold your sword depends on your relationship to the opponent, depends on the place, and must conform to the situation; wherever you hold it, the idea is to hold it so that it will be easy to kill the opponent.

Understanding your best position of advantage requires not only knowledge of your own potential attack, but also the place and the position of your opponent.  Musashi advises us to conceive of our attack in relation to the condition of the environment around us: “Position yourself with the sun at your back.”  In other words, advance your argument or your negotiating position only after you understand the external factors that may impact the correctness or effectiveness of that position is unwise.  This is sometimes easier said than done:

“Observation and perception are two separate things; the observing eye is stronger; the perceiving eye is weaker.  A specialty of martial arts is to see that which is far away closely and to see that which is nearby from a distance.”

Musashi’s lesson is that in every moment, we have blind spots.  In a dispute, we take positions and make arguments.  We believe that those positions and arguments are based on facts.  If our opponent disagrees, we conclude that it is because he or she has misunderstood the facts.  This may or may not be true; we cannot truly understand the strength of our position and the best path for attack unless we challenge ourselves to view our own perspective from afar and the distant perspective from up close.

Become the opponent.”

Good strategic decisions during conflict require an understanding not only of the strengths and weaknesses of your own position, but of your opponent’s position as well. Musashi advises, “The way to win in a battle…is to know the rhythms of the specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect.”  He continues to counsel, “Whenever opponents try to attack you, let them go ahead and do anything that is useless, while preventing them from doing anything useful.”  This is intuitive – to attack in ways that your opponent may not expect, and encourage your opponent to waste energy on fruitless efforts.  It will be impossible, however, to truly understand to succeed in that effort, until you fully understand your opponent’s position.  That takes study.

Shane Parrish, at Farnam Street, wrote a truly excellent piece called “The Work Required to Have an Opinion.”  In his piece, Parrish quotes Charlie Munger as saying, I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”  Munger’s comment echoes Musashi’s points on tactics.  You cannot have confidence in your position until you know its strengths and weaknesses.  This requires you to do the work to question your own position, to attack it, to test it, and to scrutinize it, just as your opponent will.  By doing this work, you will develop an understanding of the perspective of your opponent.  You will learn what your opponent likely believes his or her strengths to be, and what your opponent’s goals are.  From that effort, your own position and plan of strategy will become more clear.

Musashi provides nine specific suggestions for developing this complete strategic perspective:

  1. Think of what is right and true (i.e., check your assumptions).
  2. Practice and cultivate these methods (i.e., train).
  3. Become acquainted with the arts (i.e., learn a wide variety of techniques).
  4. Know the principles of all professions. (i.e., cross-disciplinary learning)
  5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything (i.e., cost-benefit analysis).
  6. Learn to see everything accurately.
  7. Become aware of what is not obvious (i.e., refine your techniques).
  8. Be careful even in small matters (i.e., details matter).
  9. Do not do anything useless.

The ultimate goal, according to Musashi, is to develop an unbiased mental framework, based on practice and repetition, that will allow you to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of all arguments at play in a dispute:

In the science of martial arts, the state of mind should remain the same as normal … let there be no change at all – with the mind open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so that there is no imbalance, calmly relax your mind, and savor this moment of ease thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relation for even an instant.

This flexible framework and detached perspective will allow you the best strategic opportunity to reach your goals, with a robust tactical toolbox.  Perhaps more than any other risk in conflict, Musashi warns of the dangers of inflexibility:  “Fixation is the way to death, fluidity is the way to life.”

Music for Workflow – Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

I love to ask people what they would take to a desert island — one album, one book, one painting, one sweater, one picture, the game can go on and on.  I love the question because it forces us to confront the overabundance we take for granted today.  Any album you want to listen to is at your fingertips on Spotify or YouTube.  Any book is available within seconds from Amazon or a library download.  This allows us to have broad, sweeping tastes, and media that suits our every mood.  But what if it were not so easy?  What if media were not limitless?  What if you had to make a single choice, to find pleasure and inspiration from single source for the rest of your life (or at least until the occurrence of the very fortunate circumstance of a cruise ship passing by your island)?

I’ve spent years pondering this question, particularly for music.  I’ve settled on a firm answer.  It is Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.  This piece was composed by Steve Reich during 1974-1976, and premiered on April 24, 1976 at The Town Hall in New York City.  It’s a meditative, pulsating, shifting, hypnotic, and beautiful work, built on a cycle of 11 chords, and my favorite.

Remembering The Great War

One hundred years ago this past June, a Serbian anarchist named Gavrilo Princip fired his revolver into an open car on Franz Josef Street in Sarajevo, killing the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Duchess Sophie.  The next month brought forth a debacle of international diplomacy, culiminating in the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, with the German invasion of Belgium soon to follow.  9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians would die before armistice four years later, largely due to horrific consequences of armies attempting to conduct 19th century warfare against 20th century weapons.

I have been listening, reading, and viewing a lot of material this summer related to the war.  I don’t contend to be even marginally knowledgeable about this conflict, but I have been fascinated by the metaphorical crossroads that World War One represents – a transition from agrarian to mechanized societies, a transition from the “nobility of war” with its codes of conduct to mass slaughter, a transition from armies of professional cavalry to mass conscription of civilian armies, and a transition from war fought in meadows to war that consumed an entire continent.  It is perhaps the event that most singularly crystallizes the advance into the modern age.  To that end, Gavrilo Princip may be the man more responsible for modernity than any other.

These are links to some of the material that I found most helpful in developing a deeper understanding of the events of 1914-1918.

Dan Carlin’s multi-part podcast, Countdown to Armageddon

Color Photos of World War One

Color Photos from the German Front

The Impact of the U-Boat on Naval Warfare