(I left this summary in from my notes because I think it might help orient you. This is a draft chapter from my upcoming book on neuroplastic workouts)
Summary: understand and apply the modes of attention “modeling” and “direct action”; understand the concept of flow (practiced alignment, direct action); understand that the “self” lives in the model as a character that is the hero in most of the models, unhappiness is the process of trying to have a happy “self” instead of just being happy — hence the value of the phrase “non-doership”. Neuroplastic workouts as the process of being in flow with positive values — and avoiding “assigning” the values to the self, but rather somatically imprinting them for flow, and the focusing outward on their expression. “Feel loving” vs. “Give love”.
The point of neuroplastic workouts is to have a better life, to update maladaptive patterns, to be happier, more contributory, and more successful. In order to do this, it helps to understand the “ironic effect” of conscious intentional effort as pioneered by psychologist Daniel Wegener. This effect can be generalized to say, most of the time, “trying” is counterproductive.
RWOT and FWIH
We humans developed a capacity for building abstracted models of the outer world that gives us enormous predictive and adaptive power. We also developed a capacity for self-consciousness, or a way to look at inner world and know ourselves.
Looking at the diagram above, you can see the RWOT, or “real world out there”, pronounced “ARE-wot” and the “FWIH”, or “fake world in here”, pronounced “fwee”. The FWIH is a cartoonish, abstracted mind-world of categories and relationships that serves as a model of the RWOT.
The advantages of maintaining a FWIH are huge:
• We can compare input from the RWOT and make it mean something instantly, without expensive reflection
• We can do rapid predictive simulations using symbols for categories, enabling us to navigate the RWOT effectively
• We can communicate to other FWIH’s using language
• We can learn from other FWIH’s and benefit thereby
These miraculous capacities also come at a cost — the more complex a system, the more that can go wrong with it. You might spot what the most common mistake: a FWIH is so compelling, so efficient, so valuable, so expensive to build and maintain in our brains, that we become enamored of it, and begin to take it for reality. This mistake is the source of all prejudice, denial, bias and disagreement.
Add to that our evolution as social creatures, and the fact that language, being made up entirely of abstractions and categories of things, is the backbone of the FWIH, then every time we talk to another, or think in words, we socially reinforce our FWIH. Think about Facebook.
Our capacity for self-consciousness has us add an element to our FWIH, which serves as a central organizing principle: the “I-concept”. To maintain a FWIH which has enough consistency for good-enough rapid predictions, categorical prejudices, and heuristic biases, we imagine an “I” to which meaning is happening and who is the author of actions. Inserting our FWIH-hero has a huge payoff in terms of organizing our personal narrative, and also organizing ourselves socially. The “self-image” central to the FWIH governs our understanding of “who we are” and “our place in the world”.
Daniel Wegener made some famous, convincing experiments from which he concluded that both doership and free will are, at the very least, much more imagined than real.
Attention, RWOT and FWIH
Attention, although often occupied with the FWIH — whenever we are daydreaming, reflecting, or thinking of ourselves — is very often not at all focused in the FWIH-mode.
We can also focus on the RWOT directly. This is because consciousness, however much we may pretend, is not bound to the FWIH. I call this “direct perception”, meaning perception without intervening meaning.
Very much has been made lately of “flow” states, popularized by the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow has been called the “secret to happiness”, an elusive but desirable state of being, which also has roots in Chinese thought around the concept of wu-wei.
Lots of these eastern philosophies talk about “self-forgetfulness” as the key to happiness. They even tell their followers, “forget yourself and be happy”. Which, if you actually know how attention works in the brain, is simultaneously true, but because of the “ironic effect”, the worst advice possible to someone trying to be happy.
When we think in terms of where attention rests, all the woo-woo around flow, wu-wei, even “overcoming the ego” and all that stuff suddenly becomes very clear and simple.
If you rest your attention on your FWIH, which is pretty much resting your attention on “yourself”, since the main role of the FWIH is to answer the question “what does this mean for me?”, then you are generally going to be miserable. If you “try” to “forget yourself”, you will suffer the “ironic effect” and start “working on yourself”.
What’s horrible about this trap is that in “working on yourself”, you are trying to perfect a “self-idea” in your model of reality. That “self-idea” can never, ever be truly happy.
If you are wondering about this difference, just imagine for a moment, using your super-powers of reality-modeling that come for free as a human — imagine someone “trying to be kind” to someone else. Now imagine kindness, displayed before your eyes.
Feel the difference? This is the difference between fake, irritating bullshit, and profound, sublime humanity. When you are “trying” to be a good person, you are the fake, irritating bullshit.
Does this mean we can’t “try”? Not at all, in fact, that is not a great question. A much better question would be, “how should I use my attention, which through the force of habit determines my future self, to happier, better, more successful?”
Attention has a quality of effort to it. Consciously choosing where to put your attention involves an act of will.
Looking at the diagram above, if you are interacting with the RWOT (that includes other people, even though they might be looking at you through their own FWIH) via the RED track, which filters your attention through the FWIH, then your actions are going to be jerky, like an overloaded computer.
The reason is, the cognitive load is SO high!
You have to process the RWOT input, then make it mean something, then relate it to yourself, then compare to an ideal, then compose a response that tries to bring the RWOT and the ideal in the FWIH into closer alignment…a desperate and effortful act!
This cognitive overload is particularly apparent in sports. Imagine a basketball player going up for the three-point shot at the buzzer, thinking “If I choke on this, everyone is going to hate me, but if I make it, I’m a hero!”. If that thought enters his awareness, even fleetingly, then his coodination and flow are interrupted, and he’s going to miss. In the diagram, he went from the direct purple flow to the “red track” of attention. Choke!
How to “try without trying”, or how to apply your attention for happiness
• Do neuroplastic workouts to prime positive values
• Keep returning your attention on the feeling of those values in your body
• Let your focus be outward, to give those values to those around you un-selfconsciously
• If you notice your attention straying to yourself, either positively or negatively, don’t resist the thought in the least — allow it to continue
• But neither allow your attention to rest on yourself. Keep returning your attention to notice outward opportunities to express and evidence of these values around you
• Rest your attention on your most general outcome to avoid “micromanaging yourself”
Eventually, your whole apparatus of “self-reference” might exhaust itself spontaneously. This is called “non-dual awakening” because you begin to experience the world directly, and the “false self” you invented to organize your FWIH withers from non-use.
I’m not suggesting “non-dual awakening” as a goal. You have zero control over it anyway. I’m just warning you that if you wake up one morning and you’re not there, don’t freak out.
External vs. internal focus
There’s on other point I want to make, also scientifically validated in the domain of motor learning, but which I would like to generalize to integration of neuroplastic workouts.
It’s intuitive that “trying” can interfere with something natural that could do it better. It’s as though conscious attention, being this huge, expensive, slow apparatus, injects itself where it does not belong — too low of an executive level. Think of a CEO micromanaging his production team and you get the idea.
Conscious attention is best placed on the highest outcome — because the whole subconscious and unconscious organism aligns with that outcome. This is illustrated in athletic training.
Internal focus is any instruction that refers to a body part. “Keep your hips level”. External focus is anything that focuses outside the body, “aim at the red dot”. In study after study, external focus on results is shown to work better than internal focus on what one ought to do with the body.
Internal focus is “too close” to work. It doesn’t loop feedback from the RWOT into attention. It’s a misuse of attention; focusing on an intermediate step rather than the goal.
Similarly “working on yourself” is focusing on an intermediate step. What you get when you are theoretically done “working on yourself”? Hopefully, a better experience, inner peace, success, and whatnot. What the sports research is telling us is: put your attention on the result you want. Meditate “inner peace” and not “I’m trying to become a peaceful person”.
Two kinds of trying
There are two kinds of trying. One of them never works — the kind of trying that involves your FWIH, in which what you are “trying” is to improve yourself. Internal focus.
The other kind of “trying” in when you expend effort toward a result in which you “forget yourself”. You can’t “try” to forget yourself, all you can do is gently move your attention toward outcomes, other people, the RWOT, and, without suppression, simply ignore yourself without making any kind of big deal about it.
Even if you consciously engage your conceptual world, your abstracted world, you can still relax your tendency to make it all about you.
The moment you move your attention off your self-image, the moment you stop worrying about your experience, or being right, or living up to your ideals, at that moment your experience improves, your ideals are expressed in relationship, and you find a deeper rightness.
One last thought: there is noting wrong with having a FWIH, or a mind-model of RWOT. The only problem is when we take the feeling of certainty generated by the FWIH and mistake it for truth. Relax that habit, and not only will your FWIH operate much more smoothly, without your interference, but also you will have more energy, accomplish more, and be happier.