Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Smelling the Fear, Feeling the Future

Recently I've been reading an interesting book called Animals In Translation. The author is an autistic woman who writes about the similarities between animal behavior and autistic traits. I've been finding it fascinating because it has been giving me a lot of insight into my own behavior and traits as well.

While I'm not a diagnosed autistic, I do score pretty high on the Autism Quotient test: almost double an average man's score, albeit still lower than the typical scores of people diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome or autism.

Nonetheless, a lot of the differences that the author explains exist between autistic and "normal" people do apply to me, so they're fascinating to read about. For example, they explain a lot about why things that seem obvious to me are very hard for other people to grasp.

Some of these differences are two-edged swords, of course. My ability to see and hear things with precision and detail also makes it easy for me to get distracted from the big picture, and sometimes inclines me to be overly critical of other people's work (in the sense of having unintended side effects beyond simply communicating the issues I've observed).

Some of the book's other insights will probably make for fascinating articles at a later time, but for right now I want to focus on an interesting topic that the book unfortunately only glances at in passing. In one chapter, the author writes a lot about the purpose of fear in animal motivation. She explains that, for most animals and autistics, fear is a much worse experience than pain, whereas normal people are more likely to prefer being afraid to being in pain.

She goes on to explain that this is because fear is an early-warning system. It's better for an animal's survival to respond to the fear of something, than the actual pain of it. In a sense, the function of pain is merely to provide you with something to later fear, because punishing you for something that has already happened isn't much use. This is also why animals can learn to fear things by observing others of their species behave fearfully: if monkeys had to get bitten by tigers in order to fear them, it wouldn't be very good for their odds of survival.

She then proceeds to go into a bunch of stuff about how animals are designed to fear close-up signs of predators, not far-off signs, and how this again allows animals to make decisions about the future. Smelling the strong scent of a predator means you're in its territory, thus being afraid and then avoiding the area that makes you afraid makes you safer because you're less likely to be discovered by the predator. Smelling a far-off predator may mean you need to watch out, but isn't a reason to take immediate action.

You Can't Decide What You Can't Feel

But the part of this discussion I found most interesting was when she talked about how emotions factor into human behavior, especially decision-making:

A lot of obviously emotional decisions probably are dumb a lot of the time. But the problem isn't the fact that emotions was involved. Everyone uses emotion to make decisions. People with brain damage to their emotional systems have a hard time making any decision at all, and when they do make a decision it's usually bad.

She goes on to write about how emotions are how people and animals predict the future, and therefore how they make decisions:

That's what Elliot couldn't do after his brain damage: he couldn't predict the future, so he couldn't decide what to do about the future. He'd get stuck in endless deliberations instead. One time when Dr. Damasio asked him what day he wanted to come to the office next week, Elliot pulled out his date book and spent a full half-hour going through all the pros and cons of each one of the two days Dr. Damasio had suggested. He went on and on and on, spelling out all the possible consequences of either choice and never reaching a conclusion.... Without visceral emotion, Elliot couldn't automatically predict which day would be better and which day would be worse; he also couldn't tell whether the two days would be equally good or equally bad. He couldn't decide about the future.

I don't know about you, but that sure sums a lot of my behaviors up in a nutshell. I'm not nearly as bad as that Elliot guy, but that's only because I'm highly skilled at getting other people to make enough framing decisions for me that I only have to make the ones that can be approached on rational grounds with limited emotional input! Even when I make decisions based on political reasons or sensitized to the emotions of others, I tend to do this in a fairly analytical way.

But, for fairly simple, stupid stuff like what order to do some tasks in, I'm often a complete mess. Generally speaking, I just wait until stuff just has to be done, or in some other way it becomes sufficiently obvious what to do. Until reading what I quoted above, though, I had no idea why I was so easily bogged down when trying to make even trivial decisions.

So I'm intrigued, because perhaps this insight will let me develop a fix or workaround for the problem. My previous attempts at workarounds have focused on two things:

  1. Getting a bigger problem, and
  2. Moving quickly, to force more decisions to occur at an unconscious level

In a way, these are both just facets of the same thing. By "getting a bigger problem" -- that is, focusing on a higher-level goal -- I tend to end up moving more quickly, and vice versa.

However, these tricks still don't work all that well in the context of my personal goals; they're much easier to apply to goals that come from my work or other external sources, or to personal goals that I've externalized by publicizing them.

In other words, it's almost as if I do have some ability to use my emotions for decision-making, but that the only emotion I'm actually using is shame or embarrassment or something of that sort.

This is a good sign, though, as it probably means that my issue has more to do with either some kind of emotional suppression taking place, or else it's a simple function of being overtrained to a very specific set of cues -- and the book's other chapters have certainly suggested that it's an animal/autistic tendency to over-fixate on very specific training cues.

Indeed, I think it's likely that overtraining is the issue for me, and that I became fixated on social cues as a result of simple fear, mostly of my mother's violent mood swings. It was much more important for me to predict my mother's future behavior than the results of my own behavior!

You could probably say I was the human equivalent of what Grandin calls a "high-fear animal": intensely curious and highly intelligent, but totally motivated by trying to predict the behavior of dangerous predators such as my mother and school bullies, as well as the strange behaviors of fickle "friends" and fawning teachers.

What Your Imagination Is Actually For

Another thing that happened was that I tended to use my mind and imagination as a way to escape from a painful reality -- not as a tool for planning my future. There was no connection between my childhood escape fantasies and what my life was really like, and I had been taught by my father that the way to avoid disappointment was to not expect anything. One of his favorite sayings: "Man appoints, and God disappoints."

So, I ended up having pleasant associations with the act of imagining -- or reading, or watching TV, or any other "escape" activity -- but not with the content of those things, which were never tied to reality. Indeed, I preferred my entertainment to be as unconnected with everyday reality as possible!

In retrospect, it seems obvious that I would have a hard time dealing with both autonomy and the ill-defined goals of other people. With enough constraints provided by well-defined goals, there can be only one "best" answer to a problem, and I've actually developed a good set of visceral reactions to a wide variety of constraint-based issues. These make me a good designer and strategic adviser, but not that great at my personal accomplishments. I envy the people who seem to "have their act together", and work diligently over a long time period to accomplish personally meaningful goals.

This has become even more important to me in the last month, since I realized that there isn't anything I need to wait for in order to start living. I've joined my life "already in progress" and have come to a sudden shock of awareness, like an actor who's just noticed it's his turn to speak but has lost track of what line he's supposed to say next. I thought that I had to achieve various things first, in order to get to where I wanted to be, and now I realize that there isn't anywhere to go; I can do whatever it is that I want, right now, and all I need to do is figure out what it is that I want, and how to go about doing it.

Which of course, I have absolutely no idea how to go about deciding.

Perhaps I missed an important development window, wherein I was supposed to connect emotions to what I imagined, rather than to the act of imagining itself. But that seems too broad a generalization, because when I think about it I can recall lots of examples of emotions I've associated with things I've imagined, both positive and negative.

On the other hand, many of these emotions seem to be things I developed in later life, such as my ability to respond to sexual fantasy or to the elegance of an algorithm - both of which responses I coincidentally developed around puberty. If I try to think back any further than that into my childhood, the main emotions I come up with are (in no particular order) fear, shame, pride, curiosity, and despair.

Unfortunately, none of these emotions are particularly useful in planning one's day, unless it mainly involves sex and programming while avoiding various forms of unpleasantness. And while I must admit that a day of sex and programming certainly sounds terrific, it might get a bit boring if that was what every day consisted of! More to the point, real-world constraints would quickly interfere as well.

So, it seems I have a rather restricted emotional vocabulary when it comes to future planning. I often "feel like" doing a wider variety of things in the present, but when it comes to thinking about the future, programming and sex appear to be the areas I'm best at anticipating future feelings about, in a way that leads to action. (So to speak.)

Actually, if I think about this a bit more I find there's something rather interesting about this. It's not really that I anticipate a future feeling in either of those respects; I experience the excitement or aesthetic appreciation now, even though I'm thinking about something that doesn't exist except in a possible future. I may be thinking about how cool some design will be once I implement it, but I'm feeling the "ooh, that'll be cool!" feeling in the present.

Could the problem be that simple? Maybe all I need to do is to learn how to anticipate what I would feel later, and feel it now.

Feeling The Future

So how do I do that, exactly? When I try to imagine how I'll feel after say, going to a movie, or doing the dishes, I don't really seem to feel anything. I mean, what's to feel? These don't seem special enough to feel much of anything, one way or the other.

I think, however, that maybe the problem is I'm too focused on "meta" feelings - feelings about something. There's not a lot to feel "about" doing the dishes or going to the movies. I might feel either one is a good idea, or not worth the bother, but in neither case is it going to be a particularly strong feeling.

But if I compare this with the way I feel in response to things that do motivate me in the present, then it's easy to see that those feelings aren't "meta". I don't feel something "about" sex or software designs any more than I do about other things -- I just feel them. In the case of design, an elegant design just makes me feel good; I don't feel something good "about" the design. It is attractive in itself, for its own sake.

But when I try to plan things, I seem to try to feel something "about" the things, like how good it would feel to have done the dishes, which is a rather faint feeling at best. For programming, however, I simply envision the result and seeing it usually makes me feel good, and so I do it. Or rather, that's what I usually do when I actually make progress. I don't always envision, and so don't always end up accomplishing anything.

So anyway, the sequence that works appears to be something like:

  1. Envision desirable result(s)
  2. Experience feelings in direct response to the envisioned result
  3. Make a decision to have the result

In principle, I've understood this already, but in practice there are some pitfalls. For example, it's easy to sidetrack #1 into thinking about steps or obstacles instead of envisioning the results, and some results are rather hard to visualize. It's very easy to focus on something that's really only a way to get what you actually want.

#2 is easily sidetracked too, into feelings "about" the vision, instead of simply experiencing the vision. I can also easily get sidetracked into mentally experiencing the steps of getting to the result.

Maybe there's a simple way to fix these distractions. We could call it the "Mmmmm" test. If you can't find a way to envision a goal such that it makes you go "Mmmmmm" (think Homer Simpson and donuts), then you're probably envisioning the wrong thing or not focusing on a direct response to what you're envisioning. When it comes to sex and programming, my thoughts can easily pass the "Mmmmm" test, so that's a good indication that the test is right, or at least isn't wrong.

But when I think about the dishes or the laundry or any number of other tasks, it's easy to see what's going wrong when I apply the "Mmmm" test. For these tasks, I envision myself doing the task - which results in a mild negative experience - a sort of, "maybe later, if I have to" kind of feeling.

So what happens if I shift focus and envision only the result, like clean dishes in the cupboards and fresh clothes in the closet? Hmmm. Well, there's no question it's better; it produces a faintly pleasant feeling, with no negative connotations or any desire to avoid the thought. It's not especially motivating though, and there's still no "Mmmmm, donut" factor there.

What seems to help, though, is if I aggregate the images into a higher-level image. Instead of thinking "dishes done" or "fresh laundry", I can think "clean and well-organized household", of which the dishes and laundry are a component part. That image produces at least a mild "Mmmm" factor, though obviously an extremely mild one when compared to a good software design or a hot sex fantasy!

Planning is not Motivation, Motivation is not Planning

What I find really interesting about this is that it reveals a conflict between motivation and planning. If you want to produce accurate plans and be able to act efficiently, it's essential to break everything down into very small pieces that can be achieved independently. (A process called "chunking down", in NLP terminology.) However, it's also just become very apparent to me that for motivation, it's more important to be able to "chunk up".

 That is, motivation requires that you tie each of the smallest tasks to some larger goal that you actually focus your (emotional) attention on. Thus, paradoxically, the more I try to organize my tasks effectively, the less motivated I may be to do them!

It's a strange thought, yet it seems true. Certainly it meshes with the things I've read about the importance of having "big hairy audacious goals" and how "small goals have no power to move the human heart" and all that sort of thing. It also lines up well with my previous findings that "finding a bigger problem" and trying to challenge myself to accomplish "impossible" tasks are more likely to produce results than micromanaging lists in a PIM or on paper. I frequently make good use of lists and other organizing tools and techniques when I'm already motivated, but the lists and other tools don't actually have any power to motivate me themselves.

Okay, so at least now I have a better idea about linking emotions to possible futures. Will this automatically lead to better decision-making? I mean, mightn't it just mean that I keep chunking trivial things up until they're compelling?

Well, if you can chunk something up into the big picture, it must actually be pretty important to your life. I mean, if something is really trivial, it's not going to be a big enough part of your life to show up when you envision such a large chunk. Instead, your biggest and most personally meaningful goals should actually have a significant advantage when compared to transitory things, so it should actually lead to making better choices for your life as a whole.

But what about simple decisions like "what do I do next?" How do I figure out what order to do my to-do list in?

Ah, but that's the beauty of it! The only reason I have so darn many things on my to-do list is because I chunked them down to little pieces in the first place. If I was looking at larger, more "life-sized" chunks, there'd be fewer of them, and it would be easier to prioritize them. I'd also be more likely to accomplish a bunch of the small tasks at once, due to the "bigger picture" focus.

Of course, being as well-read as I am in the area of time management and organizational techniques, I can now see that I've just come very close to reinventing the Tony Robbins "OPA" system, whose name refers to an "Outcome-focused, Purpose-driven Action plan". (More recently, the system has been renamed to "RPM", for "Rapid Planning Method", but I think the old name describes it better.)

Unfortunately, understanding the idea of a system isn't enough to make it work. In my case, I've used OPA before and liked it, but at the time it seemed like something you needed a big, busy life for. (Like if you're, say, Tony Robbins!) I used it most successfully during the time that I was a manager at Verio with a lot of irons in the fire, but fell out of it when things became less hectic. I later took up use of LifeBalance and a limited form of GTD when my life next became hectic in a different way.

Until I started writing this essay, I had been thinking about resuming my use of LifeBalance, but now it's not as clear to me that it would be useful. I find myself thinking that tools like LifeBalance and GTD are maybe more suited to a reactive life, where a thousand things are coming at you and you need to track and respond and somehow make sure you squeeze some of the "important, but not urgent" things in somewhere.

However, if you realize (as I just did a few weeks ago), that it's actually your life, then it begins to become clear that reacting to "urgent, but not important" matters is and should always be a sideline. If I'm going to actually start running my life, then it seems to make sense that I should use a more proactively-oriented system.

And, thanks to writing this essay, I now know what such a system needs to provide me with, and some of the OPA techniques should be quite useful. Specifically, OPA encourages taking your smaller items and grouping them into "OPA blocks", which are collections of related tasks you intend to accomplish as a unit to satisfy some larger purpose.

Sizing Your Goals For Maximum Motivation

The part of this that I always had trouble wrapping my head around before was that Robbins always seemed to just "make up" the blocks' outcome to fit the tasks. He would frequently describe a block as "Make major progress on X today", even if there was no inherent connection between the tasks selected, apart from being tasks needed to achieve X!

Now, this makes a lot more sense to me, because the point of the exercise is motivation. Doing a bunch of "stuff" obviously isn't going to be nearly as exciting as making "major progress" towards your goals! It makes a lot of sense in hindsight now, but even when I was using OPA before I never really "got" it because I didn't really see the connection between emotions and decision-making that Animals In Translation pointed out to me.

Similarly, I tended to skimp on one of the OPA process steps, which was listing out the purposes (the "P" in "OPA") or reasons why doing a particular block is important to you. It's obvious now in hindsight that the reason to write these out in detail is to focus your thinking on the benefits, and to "juice" your emotions up, as Robbins might say. OPA calls for doing this every day, but I tended to write them only once, if ever, and be fairly sketchy even then.

I think that part of the reason I did that was that I tended to think of attempts at self-motivation as somehow being "cheating". I think I felt that if stuff should be done, I should just do it without having to be "motivated" to do it.

But ever since the discoveries that led to me writing the Multiple Self article, (and even more since The Island Within and subsequent articles), it's been clear to me that the care and feeding of the brain's "animal" aspect is critical and entirely non-optional. Emotions rule our actions, and control what we do and don't learn or even perceive to begin with. Thus, to truly live, we must be able to feel the future, not just think about it.

So tonight, I'm going to dig out my old OPA literature (The Time of Your Life), and tomorrow I'm going to take it for a spin. Wish me luck.