Thursday, March 22, 2007

People Mechanics, Part 2

Of course, there is the “Knowledge is power,” contrasted with “ignorance is bliss.” I always think that a mediocre individual came up with that last saying. The first statement, however, holds some interesting ramifications with it…if we look a bit deeper.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, unless energy is added to it, the amount of chaos will increase and eventually take over the system.

In this context, when I think energy, I think power. What do you want to do today? If you are a “blissfully ignorant” person, how much energy will you need to exert in order to accomplish said task? The larger the task and the less energy you have to devote to it, the more time it will take to apply the proper amount of energy to the task at hand.

Now, I’m using metaphors: Your competencies or talents; skills; level of awareness of yourself, your surroundings, and of others; those things that give you a unique differential advantage when compared to others in your environment. This is your power, this is from where your energy exudes. Power can simply mean commanding respect when you walk into a room. It can mean being able to reconcile an account better than anyone else. It can mean having the necessary components in yourself and your life to go into business.

Take, for example, a guy that works in construction. After a while he grows unhappy with his construction job and wants something in more of an office environment. Maybe only a college class or two in his personal portfolio but a high level of desire to see to the satisfaction of meeting his goal of getting out of construction and into an office: He plans, prepares, and produces. Plan how to get from where you are now to where you want to be: Have a goal in mind and plan with that end in mind. Prepare yourself to meet this goal. Produce the results necessary.

In physics there are two kinds of energy: Potential and kinetic. If kinetic energy is the energy of motion, then potential energy is the energy that might be there but hasn’t been realized yet. Traits such as desire and motivation are potential energy: The planning and preparation stages are when this potential energy begins to manifests itself as kinetic energy. By the time that you are producing what you want to happen there is likely enough momentum built up to help you get ahead.

Another physics principle there: Inertia. An object at rest will tend to stay at rest, an object in motion will tend to stay in motion. How do you change either? Exert energy!

Are you satisfied with where you are now? Perhaps you are or you know people that are, and this prohibits them from realizing their full potential. Their satisfaction has manifested itself as the maladaptive behavior of complacency.

In the past you or people you know may have reacted or behaved in certain ways that may have been destructive, unhealthy, or just plain bad. Because history has taught people who use maladaptive behaviors that they can often get away with them, they will have a tendency to use them over and over again—probably making them a habit. On the other hand, there are adaptive behaviors that are psychologically healthy alternatives that will often give better results to their users than their maladaptive equivalents.

Take, for example, the person that orders something and is delivered the wrong thing. Experience teaches us that most disagreements stem from misunderstandings. In this case, there was probably some barrier to communication or other flaw that caused the misunderstanding. The maladaptive way of dealing with this situation is probably to yell, scream, and otherwise berate the order-taker; the adaptive way of handling is in understanding that there was probably a misunderstanding and mutually searching for a way to remedy it.

Which kind of person would you rather day with?

Skipping directly from expecting your order to angry takes little energy and can couple the feelings which you’re presenting to those that witness your anger. The emotion that is going to be coupled with this dilemma is probably not going to be the one you want to have them take away about you. However, taking a deep breath and exerting a bit of energy into the situation will not only increase the quality for that interaction, but could also have spillover effects such that the order taker may be less likely to make such a mistake in the future.

Your power, therefore, is represented by your knowledge, skills, and abilities in relation to your environment. Recently decide that you like skim milk over two percent? It is likely inside your scope of influence, inside your power, to stop purchasing two percent milk for the lesser fat variety. Are you unhappy with a municipal ordinance that your town or city just passed? It could very well be within your power to get elected to your local governing body, increase your scope of influence by various means, and change the law.

I can’t emphasize it enough: Find ways to assimilate new knowledge, new data, into the context of your life and it will be more effective for you.

Think Macguyver: The guy that can take a set of seemingly mundane parts from a variety of sources that, in and of themselves, wouldn’t be able to accomplish a task outside of their primary area of expertise and make them into extraordinary devices: Take, for instance, when he disarms a bomb with hockey tickets or starts the truck in a recent commercial with a pocketful of things that he purchased at a local store, including a tube sock, a rubber band, and a tool to baste a turkey with.

Finding the place where you can make things relevant to you not only increases your ability to absorb new information, it also increases awareness. The ancillary effects of this could be countless.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

People Mechanics, Part 1

Human Mechanics: Awareness, Learning, and Context

I have recently found myself picking apart the mechanics of fundamental human processes: Decision-making, learning, adapting, dealing with change, etc. To mention nothing of the psychology involved, it certainly has been a multi-disciplinary approach. Fields ranging from Information Theory to physics have found their way into my process and analysis of this academic study: One that I hope will have practical applicability.

Where to start?

General wisdom through the ages has passed on the adage that people have a tendency to do two things: Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Fueled by advancements in current technology this has been challenged. Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University has dug more into the “what do humans want?” question. If pleasure is a sensational emotion that only happens occasionally then, it stands to reason, that something more substantive must exist along the way. Take from this that the ideal place to be is somewhere between pleasure and pain: Satisfaction. Let’s first examine this by looking at the definition of pleasure with a simple “define:” search in Google.

· a fundamental feeling that is hard to define but that people desire to experience; "he was tingling with pleasure"

· joy: something or someone that provides pleasure; a source of happiness;”

Two definitions stand out, yes: The second pointing at joy, or a source of being happy. The first one points to the simple abstraction and how difficult it is to pin down the true meaning of pleasure. Of course, it’s a subjective term, but pleasure is always a positive thing—therefore finding a definition across a sampling of many individuals, many subjectivities, shouldn’t be impossible.

Next, satisfaction:

· The human experience of being filled and enriched by their experience.”


· act of fulfilling a desire or need or appetite”

Imagine moving up a hill: The hilltop represents the completion of the task, winning the prize for the effort that you’ve exerted. Although this supersedes satisfaction into pleasure, pleasure—especially in this context—is fleeting. There is also the downside that exposure to too much pleasure could desensitize its recipient to all but the most intense forms of it. Satisfaction, on the other hand, is achieved as a feeling of atonement for the accomplishment of component tasks of a larger pleasure-bringing project. In the long run, the seeking of satisfaction is better than the seeking of pleasure.

As with all behavioral mechanisms—satisfaction-seeking and pleasure-seeking, for instance, there is a “spectrum” to be observed. On one side of the spectrum of satisfaction there is complacency. Complacency is the maladaptive form of satisfaction. Destructive pleasure-seeking is the maladaptive form of pleasure. We’ll re-visit this topic later.

When we are trying to remember something one way of increase retention levels is to couple the proposed memory with something pleasurable. I’ve heard this recommended as coupling things you want to remember with thoughts of sex; while this might work (especially as a pleasurable form of memory utilization) , it fails to get to the heart of the matter and how memory really functions. Research into how people store memories show that the brain doesn’t store discrete pieces of data—such as the way a hard drive stores data as “1’s” and “0’s”. Instead the human memory is contextual in nature: When a topic was brought up by a person you were having a conversation with, did it make you remember something else? People have different types of memories. Among these are procedural and episodic. As you would imagine, episodic memory deals with the types of memories from your personal experiences and your past. Procedural memory, then, is what I often refer to as “drill memory,” or the type of memory that you utilize when you are doing something that is a set series of steps like brushing your teeth, combing your hair, arming a landmine, or formatting a report.

I read somewhere that people will remember about a third of what they read, half of what they see, and all of what they feel. Why does the “remember something alongside sex” trick work so well? Sex, generally, makes a person feel good: Thoughts that are coupled with satisfying or pleasurable feelings are well-retained. That is not to say, however, that data coupled with painful feelings doesn’t get remembered: It’s just that painful memories can be more easily forgotten and replaced with bad memories or otherwise repressed.

You might be asking yourself: “Which is better…episodic or procedural memory?” The simple answer: Procedural. I recall hearing an interview of a psychologist in which he took an Alzheimer’s patient to a golf course once. This patient was, once, a very avid golfer. Upon getting to the golf course and getting his hands on some golf clubs everything about golfing came back to the man. However, on the way back from the golf course the gentleman saw the golf course and the beautiful day and remarked how “beautiful the day was” and that they should go golfing.

I’ve long held to the belief that this is the reason that the military emphasizes battle drills. Just as you have probably seen soldiers, marines, sailors, or airmen march (although it is more likely to be one of the first two), you probably noticed that everyone performed a series of precise, discrete series’ of movements along with other members of their formation that can amount to some very spectacular sights to see. The same can be said for rifle drills: Everything in these drills and ceremonies is nothing more than a number of actions, one after the other. They can be repeated until perfect, able to be memorized to the point where someone can do it in their sleep.

The concept of drills does not stop at simply marching troops or inspecting their arms: Battle drills are used for many team maneuvers from building a bridge to constructing a mine-laying system. The more that drills are repeated and “drilled” into memory, the less a person needs to think about them when it comes to doing them. The concept of drilling removes the need to consciously thinking about performing a task when it matters, rather it is made a “second nature.”

Now, the talk about the emotional component earlier is not lost to the battle drill. The feeling of being a part of a team, that one has purpose, a sense of urgency: These are both satisfying emotions, adding to the effectiveness of the battle drill and why it can be remembered so well.

So, memories are often not simple bits of information stored in your brain. Rather, they are often embedded in a web of context. Data coupled with more data, random bits of different memories and types thereof comprising a larger set of data, eventually linking all thoughts in the brain together to form the sum of your experiences. Context is the key.

I’ve met people who have difficulty, for one reason or another, learning new data because of the lack of context it has in their everyday life. Of course, not everyone is going to find an essay on “Ode to a Grecian Urn” important, or even satisfying or pleasurable, to fit into their worldview. A person who has an affinity for history, art, literature, teaching, or to just broaden their perspective on the world at large is, however, going to take note of the Keats piece. People are often not compelled to expand their horizons with new sorts of information that don’t directly apply to their immediate world, though. How is one to combat this?

Log in tomorrow for Part 2!