The Idea List

Apr 1, 2016

I used to write blog posts using an idea list.

On the list I'd write down things that popped into my mind when I was walking down the street,

waiting for the subway,

or wherever else I happened to be. When I sat down to think of topics, nothing much came to mind. Since I couldn't force them, I had to catch them when they appeared.

When I caught an idea, I'd write it down on my list. Just a few sentences that caught the gist of the idea.  And the list started to grow, and grow and grow.

(My idea list. Okay, maybe it didn't look exactly like this).

It was fun, and it made me feel good that I had plenty to write about. When it was time to write a post, all I needed to do was look at the list. I'd write about the idea at the top, because it had been there the longest. Bit by bit I'd work my way down to the more recent ideas.

But the list of ideas grew faster than I could write the blog posts. Eventually, the idea at the top of the list had been there for a month, six months, a year. The oldest ideas had passed a kind of expiration date, and lost their potency. What was it that had so interested me about the idea?

Exerting self control with a reluctant prefrontal cortex

Mar 20, 2016

When I was younger, I was late more often than not.   During the week before graduating college, my research advisor invited students who had worked in his lab to a barbecue at his house. After we ate he handed us little graduation gifts. Mine was a Mickey Mouse watch to remind me what time it is. I felt bad that he had come to see my lateness as one of my salient characteristics. It's not that he was an uptight guy either.  He was laid-back, with a dog named Pavlov that would roam the hall outside his office. The next year, when I went to grad school at UC, Santa Barbara, I was determined that this would not be the way my new advisor viewed me. (It wasn't.)

In order to be on time, you need to recruit the prefrontal cortex, a brain area that thinks about events in a logical sequential way.  One of the reasons that dreams sometimes involve impossible sequences of events is that the prefrontal cortex is off-line.

But being on time requires something more than knowing what steps you need to take before you leave and how long they will take; it requires self discipline. To be on time we need to stop doing what we're doing at the moment, even if we're enjoying it, and get ready to leave. The prefrontal cortex is important for impulse control, also called 'inhibitory' control, the ability to inhibit our own behavior.

This is how brains would appear if you were looking down at them from the ceiling. The prefrontal cortex is toward the very front of the brain (the boxes are around part of the prefrontal cortex on the right side of the brain). The darkest colors (blue and purple) represent the areas that are most fully developed. The bright green color of the prefrontal cortex in the teen brain shows that it has not fully developed yet.
These brain images show the parts of the brain that reach maturity first.   The prefrontal cortex doesn't become fully developed until after adolescence. So it's not surprising that when we're young we're not very good at stopping whatever we're doing in order to arrive on time for our next appointment. Since I received my Mickey Mouse gift as I was graduating college, I'm happy to see in these images that even the 20-year-old brain lacks a fully developed prefrontal cortex.

Of course being late doesn't necessarily mean that you're lacking the neural machinery to be on time. Even in college, I don't remember arriving late to many movies, or often arriving late to meet a girl for a date.  As is often the case, when our motivation is strong we become very good at tapping into our abilities. 

But arriving on time to see a movie, or for a date, doesn't take a lot of self control. When our actions are guided by our desires of the moment, when we are choosing to do the thing we expect to be most pleasurable, we are not exercising self control. In fact brain imaging studies show that the inhibitory control areas of the prefrontal cortex do not become activated under these types of conditions. Self control comes into play when we choose to do the thing that we do not expect to be most pleasurable at the moment, but which we think will bring us more pleasure (and/or less pain) over the long run. That's really what I was lacking in college, and to some degree lacking today as well.

Then again, self control isn't everything, and, as you can see in the images above, the prefrontal cortex isn't the only brain area. It's just one tool in our mental toolbox.

Pleasure and flexibility

Feb 19, 2016

There was a Chinese restaurant I used to go to in Santa Barbara.  One day, an older formally dressed man and I were the only ones in the dining room.  Decades later, I don't remember what he ordered for his meal, but I remember he asked for "a martini, dry, two olives. Bring it to me before you bring the meal."

He didn't just want a cocktail.  He knew exactly what he wanted. His desire had become finely-tuned. But it also seemed rigid.  His showed the waiter preemptive annoyance at the possibility of receiving a martini with the wrong number of olives, or receiving it with the meal, rather than before. His well tuned desire seemed to have hardened into a shell that could easily be broken.  He seemed on guard against potential disappointment.

Years later, I noticed some of those same qualities in myself.  It had been several years since I'd discovered the upper west side's Hungarian Pastry Shop.  I'd see friends there, sit at an outdoor table and look over St. John's cathedral.  I might have a book with me as I enjoyed a cappuccino and croissant.  When I'd leave NYC, I'd have an eye out for a similar coffee place, and I was disappointed when I didn't find it.  That was true when I visited Philadelphia for a week, and when I lived in Boston for five years. Like the martini guy, my desire had become well defined and rigid. 

I think that novelty seekers may be immune to this rigidity.  When new experiences are pleasurable for the very fact that they are new, you do not seek out a particular martini, or coffee and croissant at a coffee shop with a particular ambiance.  When novelty itself is a pleasure, you're less likely to be disappointed.  Novelty seekers are playing a game with rewards around every corner.  There are few ways to match the exact thing you have in mind, and many ways to find something different. 

How about the Martini guy?  Should he occasionally ask for a vodka martini, one olive, maybe three? I imagine he's tried other combinations over the years and settled on what he likes. If he can fulfill his desire often, good for him.   I think of the line from the National Car Rental commercial where the guy says: "I've been called a control freak. I like to think of myself as more of a control enthusiast."

I still go to the Hungarian Pastry Shop.  I'll take my cappuccino at the outdoor table and look out over St. John's cathedral when the weather improves.  But I noticed that a new coffee place, South American, opened up about five blocks away from the Hungarian.  I went there with my laptop, and had a cup of coffee with a biscotti.  The place may have possibilities.