Mind productivity

The Science of Internet Addiction & Willpower

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on April 12th, 2017.

In September of 1848, a 25 year old named Phineas Gage was working on a railroad in Vermont when some explosive powder ignited prematurely and sent an iron rod flying through his cheek and out the top of his skull- demolishing his prefrontal cortex. The rod was later found about 30 yards from the explosion, smeared with blood and… brain. Remarkably he was able to get back to his life only two months after the accident, reporting that he felt better in every respect with no lingering pain. 

His personality however, was not the same. The physician that attended to him, said: the balance between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. Devising many plans for future operation which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned. Before the accident he was described as having an iron frame and iron will, but the damage to Gage’s prefrontal cortex resulted in a total loss of social inhibitions and self control. 

Virtually anybody without brain damage would have better self control than Phineas Gage, but most of us are not always 100% in control of ourselves. If we were, life would be significantly easier. Going on a diet? All you need to do is make the decision to no longer want or like cheesecake. And come tax season, just dial up your excitement to make a due diligence checklist. 

Let's Honor the Best Cheesecake Moment in Pop Culture History - E! Online
Cheesecake scavengers afflicted with the pathological desire for cheesecake – 2001

Most of the time, we wish our prefrontal cortex would call the shots. The prefrontal cortex’s job is essentially to bias the brain toward doing the harder thing. It’s your prefrontal cortex that pushes you out of your warm bed to go to the gym. 

One of the reasons things like this aren’t always that easy is that your brain’s reward center tries to get you to do what it has decided is excellent for survival or reproduction. The general message from the reward center is “Do what feels good!” So while your prefrontal cortex may be trying to keep you on the diet you committed to, the reward center brings up the strong argument of “Yea but Pizza tastes good right now.” Your reward center is kind enough to supply you with cravings that lead to impulsive action. 

In a continuum with willpower on the left and impulsiveness on the right, Phineas Gage would be on the far right, and on the left you’d have people like disciplined athletes, accomplished writers, or well trained musicians. Then, it’s safe to say that those with a drug addiction would be quite far to the right. This is because one of the effects of addiction is that it simultaneously gives more power to the reward system and decreases functionality in the prefrontal cortex, undermining willpower and enhancing impulsive behavior. That is, long term goals begin to suffer at the expense of instant gratification. 

Anything that isn’t quickly rewarding takes some level of motivation, willpower or focus. For example, you need to be more to the left on this continuum to read a book than watch a TV show, and you’d have to be even farther to the left to start practicing the piano. So, the question of this video is: can certain aspects of the internet lower prefrontal cortex function and enhance the reward system just enough to make you less able to do certain challenging things? 

Narcotics are so strongly addictive that the negative effects are obvious. But what about things that are less addictive and cause more subtle changes? For example it might be hard to realize that where you could sit still and read a book for two hours before, now you get fidgety and bored after 45 minutes. Or you could slowly have more and more days where you feel like you’re too tired to do personal projects after getting home from work.

But why? 

Well the key neurochemical behind addiction is dopamine as all addictive drugs cause a massive rise in dopamine. And as we’ll talk about later, certain ways of using the internet can cause a particularly strong release of dopamine. You’ve probably heard about dopamine as it is a key player in the reward center. What isn’t explained too often is the fact that dopamine isn’t mainly for pleasure or “liking,” it’s responsible for “wanting” and the two don’t always go hand in hand. 

In 1989, Kent Berridge and his colleagues did an experiment to test the hypothesis that dopamine demonstrates wanting and therefore liking. A chemical compound was used to destroy dopamine neurons in rats’ brains, and this destroyed the rat’s capacity for motivation or “wanting.” The rats had no interest in food even if it was right in front of them, to the point that if the researchers didn’t feed the rats through a tube, they would starve to death. 

Like humans, Rodents actually make facial expressions which researchers can monitor to understand whether a rat enjoyed the taste of something. They found that chemically destroying the dopamine neurons in the brain had destroyed all motivation, but Berridge and his team were surprised to find that rats showed all the signs of liking when they got a sugar solution, even after depletion of nearly all brain dopamine.  The conclusion was that the dopamine system controls  “wanting,” but not “liking.”

A follow-up study in 1991 that used electrodes to stimulate the dopamine system found that they could quadruple a rat’s “wanting” to eat food, but their “liking” of the food stayed exactly the same. 

In certain situations however, dopamine is released in response to receiving a reward. However, the purpose of this dopamine is not to make you feel good, but to learn how to get that reward again. Dopamine is released in response to receiving unexpected rewards. When an unexpected reward comes along, the brain says “Whoa I didn’t see that coming. Hold up, what did we do to get that reward? And how can we get it again”  

In a 1993 experiment in Switzerland, monkeys were put in a situation where if they pressed the right lever after a light came on, they got rewarded with some apple juice. At first, dopamine went up when they got the juice. After they got the hang of the task however, dopamine began to rise when the light came on. What was happening was that the monkey’s brain took note of everything that happened before getting the juice. The monkey understood that the light indicated that it could press a lever to get a reward, and dopamine was linked to the light- the cue for the reward.

In this way, dopamine is important for learning and motivation. Dopamine keeps track of what behaviors done in what situations will get you rewards, and then motivates you to do those behaviors. And If you block the dopamine rise, you won’t get the behavior, even if the cue is present.

This way of initiating learning when getting an unexpected reward was very useful for say remembering how to get back to a water source or a berry bush you stumbled across by accident.  This also explains why cues like seeing a bar where they drank alcohol before can trigger strong dopamine rises and therefore strong cravings in addicts.  

While the prefrontal cortex’s job is to get you to do the hard thing, the main job of the brain’s reward center is to get you to do the thing that produces the most dopamine.

Neurotransmitters like dopamine work by binding to a certain receptor which will produce an effect or feeling. Drugs work by causing an artificially strong activation of these receptors. For example, the feeling of runner’s high comes from the natural neurotransmitter endorphin activating your opioid receptors. (*Update December 2020, anandamide may also be at play here) The drug heroin works by very strongly activating these same opioid receptors. People who have experienced runners high and have used heroin will report that while the effect of heroin is of course much stronger, the experiences are somewhat similar. 

Our bodies are constantly trying to remain in a state of balance- this is called “homeostasis”. Things like your blood sugar levels, ph level, your temperature and blood pressure are all finely regulated. Stimulation is also something your body tries to regulate. For example, heroin users constantly activate opioid receptors to get a euphoric body high. To maintain balance and regulate stimulation, the brain “downregulates” or decreases the number of opioid receptors available and the user gets less and less of a high. 

One particular receptor frequently found to be down regulated as a consequence of addiction is the dopamine receptor. Less receptors available means less dopamine signaling and it becomes harder for everyday activities to provide enough dopamine to motivate the addict. The loss of motivation of course isn’t as bad as the mice who wouldn’t exert the energy to walk to their food, but the drug user becomes primarily motviated by what will lead to that strong dopamine rise.

Because of this, they will start to lose interest in hobbies and long term goals which require much more effort and don’t provide as much dopamine. Receptor downregulation decreases general wanting and motivation to do everyday things. However, craving or wanting for the drug drastically increases.

Precisely why motivation to obtain the drug increases despite dopamine receptor downregulation is unclear, but as Dr. Kent Berridge explained to me in an email: “some targets win more at the expense of others. In many nucleus accumbens and amygdala stimulations in rat studies, what was ‘wanted’ most before becomes winner takes all, and much more intensely ‘wanted’  while competing targets decline in attraction.” Essentially the brain comes to favor the thing with the highest dopamine payout. 

From an evolutionary perspective, this phenomenon of most dopamine wins makes sense. If say a hunter gatherer found a new stimulating area with much more food, it would be best for his brain to raise its standards and much prefer that new area. If his old hunting or foraging grounds with less food could still excite him, he wouldn’t capitalize as much on the new area. It would be in his best interest to be motivated only by the food-rich area and ignore other areas.

Now you see dopamine receptor downregulation appear in cocaine users, alcoholics, obese people, and… behavioral addictions can cause this same downregulation even though the person didn’t actually ingest anything. Documented cases of internet addiction have shown the same dopamine receptor downregulation like you see in substance addiction. 

But how can simply using the internet cause changes in the brain similar to that of substance addiction? Well, as mentioned earlier a property of all addictive substances is that they cause an abnormally strong release of dopamine. Everytime you use the drug, the brain interprets this dopamine rise as an unexpected reward signal. That is- the brain continues to misinterpret the drug experience as having been much better than it predicted, and the brain begins to value that experience more and more. 

Depending on how you use it, the internet can also elevate dopamine to unnatural levels. This is because the internet is a novelty machine, and novelty is something dopamine is particularly reactive to. We are wired to crave new information, and new information is interpreted like a reward. If we weren’t curious about new things, we wouldn’t find new sources of water, food or shelter. This is why it’s so easy to find yourself scrolling through social media websites, swiping through apps like imgur or tinder and clicking through reddit for way longer than you intended. Each of these reward you with some level of novelty for a very easy behavior – scroll, swipe or click. 

Like the monkey reacting to the light switch and getting a rise in dopamine which motivates him to press a lever, your brain interprets your smartphone as if you were in a specific environment where moving your thumb gives you the reward of new information. So being in that environment acts as a cue which stimulates dopamine release and your thumb moves. But… it doesn’t end. You can still swipe for the chance to get another cool picture so your dopamine remains elevated. This never ending novelty is what leads to the abnormal elevation of dopamine. 

Ironically, the aspect of this that raises dopamine the most is that you might get a new interesting piece of information. As Robert Sapolsky explains – with monkeys if you go from “light goes on, push lever, get reward” to “light goes on, push lever, maybe get reward” – you get a much higher dopamine rise. In the case of the internet, every swipe means maybe you’ll see something funny or interesting. The first ten tweets on twitter might be boring, but the 11th one might be something good. And that keeps you going. 

The addictive nature of these content platforms  is no accident. Nir Eyal points out in his book ‘Hooked’ that the key to a successful content platform is having the cue to use the website or application come from within the user. For example when the user feels a specific feeling, they’ll reach for their phones and open the app. In particular, a negative feeling is most effective – being bored might be a trigger to use reddit and being lonely would be a trigger to use tinder or facebook. This is very powerful because the cue can come at almost any time . 

The effort necessary to acquire drugs and the risk associated is very high, which shows how powerful drugs are: they can train the brain to release enough dopamine to motivate the person to perform risky behaviors in pursuit of the drug. Each time they use the drug, this circuit is strongly reinforced and motivation to get the drug becomes greater and greater causing the person to do more and more reckless things to get the drug. While the dopamine elevation you get from the internet can’t compete with the massive surge of dopamine that narcotics provide, smartphones allow you to very frequently engage the loop of dopamine – behavior – reward. Moving your arm a bit and flick of the wrist are all that is necessary to gradually reinforce to your brain that using the net is a valuable experience .

The other important consequence of drug or behavioral addiction, is inhibition of the prefrontal cortex, the same area of the brain that was damaged in Phineas Gage.  So the reward center provides the addicts with strong cravings for the addictive substance or behavior and the poorly functioning prefrontal cortex can’t provide the willpower necessary to resist these cravings.  

This loss of function in the prefrontal cortex is seen in all types of addictions. Studies found that the dendrites in the prefrontal cortex of rats were actually misshapen and deformed after regular cocaine use. And this kind of effect isn’t limited to substances. Executive function, the type of function the prefrontal cortex is responsible for has been consistently shown to be severely inhibited in people with pathological internet addiction. 

In Gary Wilson’s book “Your Brain on Porn,” he explains the science behind why internet pornography can lead to a pathological addiction. In the book he says prefrontal cortex inhibition “weakens willpower in the face of strong subsconscious cravings. Alterations in the prefrontal regions’ grey matter and white matter correlate with reduced impulse control and the weakened ability to foresee consequences.” 

Gary makes the case that pornography wasn’t particularly addictive until the advent of high speed internet. Again, the big factor here is novelty. Now that high speed internet means videos and pictures load almost instantaneously, users can find themselves constantly clicking and chasing novel pornographic media for hours at a time. The exciting sexual nature of pornography enhances activation of the dopamine system, but again it is the hunt for novelty that keeps dopamine levels elevated as long as the clicking continues. Studies of internet addiction consistently show that it is this constant novelty at a click that can cause addiction and the negative brain changes associated with addiction.

So this is how letting yourself be controlled by the internet’s novelty appeal can take power from the prefrontal cortex and give it to the brain’s primitive and impulsive reward center. In short the brain becomes wired to seek out instant gratification, and becomes less capable of pursuing long term goals which require the willpower to delay gratification.  

As Robert Sapolsky points out in this lecture, what is unique about humans is the ability to tolerate more delay between behavior and reward. You can get a monkey to pull a lever to get a banana, but a human can work hard for four years to get a degree. It’s our prefrontal cortex’s ability to stay vigilant in the face of impulsive demands from our reward center that allows us to accomplish such things. 

If you use your smartphone for several hours a day but are comfortable with how you operate – great. There are functioning alcoholics and addicts, of course people can function well despite heavy use of their smartphones. However if you’re not satisfied with your level of general willpower, productivity or focus, you may want to simply try modifying your smartphone usage rather than looking for the next productivity hack. 

Also, functioning addicts function well as long as they can get their fix. You might want to try not using your smartphone for just a couple days. If you feel restless or irritated when you can’t immediately dissolve uncomfortable feelings like boredom with quick shots of entertainment, that’s a good sign that maybe you should change how you’re using your smartphone.

Earlier I mentioned how a monkey came to understand that a light turning on was an indication that it could do something to get a reward. With smart phones in our pockets, it’s like that light is always on. 

What I’d I’d recommend is to limit this kind of aimless checking or looking at novelty at a click websites to certain times of day. You want to stop boredom being a cue to get your phone out. If you set certain times of day for using these kinds of websites or applications, that time of day will become the new cue instead of those very frequently occuring feelings of slight boredom. The point is to simply make the conscious effort to engage less and less in this type of instant gratification. While the appeal of “maybe” I have a new notification or “maybe” there’s a new update on such and such app is very enticing, chances are you will survive if you wait until your next designated internet time. If you need to do something purposeful like contact someone or read that blog post you bookmarked then go ahead, using the internet with a specific purpose is very different from passively absorbing information.

The internet has made positive changes in the world that we couldn’t even have imagined 20 years ago, so the message of course isn’t to just give up the internet. You don’t necessarily even have to give up things like twitter either, a couple scrolls isn’t going to put a figurative rod through your head. However understanding how it affects you makes it easier to adjust the way you use the internet to avoid getting caught in the gears of the novelty machine. And you’ll be able to walk away willpower and focus in tact. 

Mind productivity

Improve Willpower in 5 Mins | How Heart Rate Variability helps Brain Function

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on April 2nd, 2017.

On March 3rd , I found myself in a quite ironic situation: 

While listening to “The Willpower Instinct,” by Kelly McGonigal, I was lining up to buy something that would end up undermining my willpower. 

The problem was that the new Zelda game was way better than I anticipated.

I would set aside 30 minutes to play which would quickly turn into an hour then two hours and so on. I was still able to fulfill important obligations of course, but I started to think it was affecting my focus when I was trying to read a research paper about internet gaming addiction, but couldn’t focus because the words “gaming” kept giving me a craving to play Zelda. Now you could probably break down what makes this particular game potentially addicting like…  the endless unpredictable novelty of the game environment stimulates an abnormal release of dopamine, leading to similar changes in the brain as addictive substances. But it’s easier to say the game is just too good. It’s like what Louis CK said about drugs. 

Louis C.K. telling his kids not to do drugs : standupshots

OK So after investing way too much time into finishing the game and finally starting to shift back into my creative and productive mode, I noticed I had less capacity for willpower in general. It wasn’t so much that Zelda was preoccupying my mind, it was just more difficult to get to work and stay focused in general, and a lot of times I would diffuse that uncomfortable tension by zoning out on my smartphone or on social media websites.

So, in these uncomfortable moments of really not wanting to do the harder thing, I started using this breathing technique I picked up from the Willpower Instinct. Basically you just breathe in one breath for 10 seconds and breathe out that breath for 10 seconds. This slows your breathing down to about 4 to 6 breaths per minute. Five to ten minutes of this was usually enough to dissolve that tension and give me the willpower to focus on work. This kind of breathing is significant because it improves something called heart rate variability. 

When people talk about heart rate they are actually talking about the average heart rate over one minute. You know the kind of scene on House where they inject the dying patient with some unexpectedly effective thing like snake venom and then the heart monitor shows a pulse and you hear a ping ping ping. The ping is when the heart contracts, this generates a bit of electricity which the machine can read. So heart rate variability refers to variations in the time between these pings. If there is precisely one ping every second, your heart rate is 60 beats per minute but you have virtually no heart rate variability. If there’s .85 seconds between the first two pings and then 0.90 seconds between the second two and then .95 seconds then .90 seconds again and so on, then you have some heart rate variability. This is a good thing. 

Everybody’s heart rate changes throughout the day and even moment to moment. Your heart speeds up a little bit when you inhale. It slows down again when you exhale. A smooth variation of heart rate is good and means that your heart is getting signals from both branches of your autonomic nervous system: one is the sympathetic nervous system, which speeds you up and is responsible for things like the fight or flight response, and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and engages during processes like digestion. 

Studies show that people with higher HRV are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, dealing with stressful situations and are less likely to give up on difficult tasks. HRV has been called the body’s “reserve” of willpower.

This is because Heart rate variability is the single best physiological measurement of something called the pause and plan response.

Pause and plan is essentially the opposite of the body’s fight or flight response. 

When your environment presents you with stressful situation, the brain switches on the fight or flight response, and as much energy as possible is directed to the body to help you run or fight. This means energy is directed away from the brain.  

The pause and plan response starts when the prefrontal cortex identifies that another part of your brain is asking you to do something that may benefit you now but is not helpful for long term goals. It could be something like wanting to drink a beer at lunch or eating cake for breakfast. To generate the self control to slow down and make the decision to not do these things, energy needs to be transferred from the body to the brain. To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and other automatic functions. Then all these processes slow down and self control improves. 

When people successfully exert self control, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm stress and control impulsive action. Heart rate goes down, but heart rate variability goes up.  

Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, observed this physiological signature of self-control when she asked hungry students to not eat freshly baked cookies in front of them. As they sat there resisting the cookies, their heart rate variability went up. Variability in other participants who were free to eat the cookies stayed the same.

HRV is such a good indicator of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist cravings. For example, recovering alcoholics whose HRV goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics whose heart  rate variability drops when they see a drink – have a greater risk of relapse. 

In fact, your body, brain and mental willpower are so well connected that people with strong self control can actually stay a bit more sober on the same amount of alcohol when they need to.  A report from the University of Kentucky compared alcohol metabolism in a group of men with similar body compositions. The men went through an evaluation process to assess their ability for self control, then they drank the same amount of alcohol and their blood alcohol content was measured afterwards. They found that the men who ranked higher in self control were actually less drunk. 

The study gives an example where two men with different levels of self control each have two drinks “Then, their supervisor from work arrives unexpectedly, and they spend the next 30 min regulating their behavior so as to appear sober. All else being equal, the present results suggest that the man with high trait self-control will likely have a BAC around .026, and the man with low trait self-control will have a BAC around .032 – approximately 20% higher.”

 So why do some people just have better heart rate variability and better self control than other people? Many factors influence your capacity for self control- things like anxiety, anger, depression, poor sleep, loneliness and even poor air quality are all associated with worse heart rate variability. Things like regular exercise and proper diet can improve HRV. 

Practicing meditation or the controlled breathing technique I mentioned earlier also increases heart rate variability. One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing improved HRV and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and PTSD. 

But whether you’ve been practicing this or not, at any time you can take a moment to slow your breathing down to manually improve your heart rate variability and self-control in the moment.

In this presentation, Dr. Alan Watkins actually demonstrates how breathing like this can quickly improve your HRV.  A volunteer is hooked up to a device that measures the change in his heart rate and as you can see when he first walks up on stage his heart rate is quite erratic, but after he begins to breathe in a slow rhythmic fashion, you start to see nice smooth waveform. 

The main thing that’s happening when you breathe like this is: you’re simply destressing yourself and creating the physiology of calmness. As mentioned earlier, the stressful fight or flight response diverts energy from the brain to the body. When this happens activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases- that is the cautious, rational, planning and thinking part of the brain begins to shut down. This is good in some situations, you don’t want to have to slowly decide to run from a bear, but some situations you really don’t want your prefrontal cortex shutting down. It lowers your willpower and you become more impulsive, but other forms of self control suffer. With less prefrontal cortex activity, you may yell at your spouse, forget how to use words during a job interview, and you might find yourself saying “Hi, my name is come here often?” to an attractive woman at the bar. 

This slow and controlled breathing engages the pause and plan response and directs more energy to the prefrontal cortex giving you better control over yourself. 

This brings me to my favorite point in Dr. Watkin’s talk: At the root of behavior is physiology. If you want to improve your behavior, you need to change how you think- and if you’re in a negative emotional state, you’re angry, worried, sleepy, anxious, it’s quite hard to change your thoughts. This is why telling someone don’t worry doesn’t do much and why telling someone not to be angry would just make them angrier. 

And Most emotional states are determined by feedback between the brain and the body- your physiology influences emotion. This is why you feel jittery or anxious when you drink too much coffee, you don’t just calmly observe your heart rate rising. 

The hard thing about having a powerful imaginative human brain that comes with abstract thought is that we can turn anything into a source of stress. An offhand comment from your boss or simply the absence of a text message from a person you’re attracted to can be interpreted by your brain as a threat to survival. This causes your body to express the physiology of stress which affects your emotional state which affects your thoughts which affects your behavior. If you want to better control your behavior, one thing you can do is invest a couple minutes into controlling your breathing and changing your physiology which is the root of your behavior.


Science of How OCD Works (Dealing with Brain Lock)

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on February 23rd, 2017.

My first encounter with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was Nicholas Cage’s character in the movie Matchstick men who apparently has a combination of OCD and tourette’s syndrome. The jerking motions and vocal outbursts were due to the tourettes and the obsessive cleaning and things like locking the door multiple times was due to the OCD. Though we only see these behaviors when he forgets his medication, and otherwise he’s a smooth and successful conman. 


Now, I personally don’t have OCD and frankly the term seems to be used lightly too often. Anyone who actually has OCD most likely does not openly admit it. A lot of people don’t realize how serious OCD can be. Lightheartedly saying “I’m so OCD!” because you like to keep your desk really tidy is almost like like saying “I’m so leukemia!” because your nose is runny. 

What I’m interested in is how the brain of somebody with OCD works so I can figure out how to deal with a less dire but very annoying behavior of mine.

Some mornings, I’ll already be 5 minutes away from my apartment and will suddenly think “Wait, did I lock the door?” usually followed by “Oh crap I probably left the coffeemaker on too.” I know I just have to rush back and check or it will bother me for at least the next hour or so. This happens maybe three times a week and every single time I go back to check, the coffeemaker was off and the door was indeed locked. 

Luckily going back and checking like this is enough and I can get on with my day after that. But I was curious, what happens in my brain that makes me do this, and how is it different from someone who has for example the compulsion to lock and relock their door 50 times just so they can feel comfortable?

Well, there are three parts of the brain that come into play here. A part of the frontal lobe called the orbital cortex is responsible for detecting when you think you’ve done something correctly and when you think you’ve made a mistake. E.T. Rolls, a behavioral physiologist at Oxford University found that the cells in rhesus monkeys’ orbital cortex would fire when the monkey performed a task properly and was expecting some juice as a reward. However, when the monkeys performed the task properly as they were instructed but got salt water instead, the orbital cortex lit up much more intensely and stayed lit up longer. The conclusion was that the orbital cortex is your brain’s error detection system: In general the strong firing of the orbital cortex gives you a feeling of “something is wrong”.

After the orbital cortex fires, it sends a signal to another area called the cingulate gyrus which triggers an anxious feeling that will make you uneasy until you do something to correct the mistake. Then, once the mistake is corrected, a third area called the caudate nucleus activates and acts like an “automatic gear shift,” allowing you to switch gears, forget about it and get on with other activities. In my case, I thought something was wrong and felt anxious until I went back and checked on the door, then my gear shift and I got on with my day. 

Brain scans of OCD patients show that all three of these brain areas are hyperactive. This means the “something is wrong” feeling and the anxiety that comes with it are abnormally strong. So even with incredibly trivial imperfections in something like say the fibers on a carpet, the OCD afflicted person feels that a terrible mistake has been made and the consequences will be absolutely horrible unless something is done. This is why OCD can result in such irrational obsessions like “If I don’t vacuum the carpet 5 times, my parents will die.”  

As Norman Doidge explains in The Brain that Changes Itself, what happens in people with OCD is that their gear shifter, “the caudate [nucleus] becomes extremely ‘sticky.’ “ He says that “The malfunctioning caudate [nucleus] is probably overactive because it is stuck and is still being inundated with signals from the orbital cortex.” This means that even if the person does something to correct the mistake their brain is detecting, that feeling doesn’t go away – their brain can’t shift to the next gear and they stay very anxious. Most people who have OCD are actually aware of the fact that their worries and behaviors are completely illogical, but since the orbital cortex and cingulate gyrus are stuck in the ON position, they are strongly compelled to repeatedly attempt to correct the imaginary mistake.

UCLA Research Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz calls this situation “brain lock,” and in his book titled Brain Lock he describes a very effective behavioral therapy for OCD. 

To understand it, let’s look at hand washing, a common OCD obsession. In someone without OCD the caudate nucleus will register that you have solved the problem of dirty hands by washing them and will then automatically “shift gears” so you can forget about it.

In the behavioral therapy, when an OCD patient has the urge to wash their hands again even though they’re already clean, they are to first mindfully acknowledge that the urge to do this is simply a result of a faulty circuit in their brain, and that nothing bad will actually happen if they don’t wash their hands again . They then have to manually shift their gear by right away doing some other constructive activity for as long as they can. The urge to give into a compulsion is usually overwhelming so Dr. Schwartz recommends to start by waiting at least 15 minutes before giving into it and then expanding that time day by day. With consistent practice, this manual gear shifting becomes an automatic habit to where when the urge to do some compulsive behavior arises, their immediate reaction is to first identify the compulsion as simply the result of brain lock and then move on to another activity. 

Brain scans of OCD patients’ who used this behavioral therapy showed that after a while the problem causing hyperactive caudate nucleus in the brain had actually become less active compared to before therapy. As Dr. Schwartz says “We can now say we have scientifically demonstrated that by changing your behavior, you can change your brain.” 

I didn’t realize it at first, but this was essentially the strategy I used back when I was quitting sugar. Whenever I got an urge to go buy some sweet garbage from the convenient store, I stood up, set a timer for 20 minutes and started reading something. Sometimes I would give in and buy the snack after the 20 minutes were up, but I just made sure to increase the time on the timer each day. Pretty soon I was setting the timer for an hour; and after a while the immediate message in my head transformed from “I want sugar, time to get some snacks” to “I want sugar, time to stand up and read”. 

Alright, so back to my door double checking issue. As someone with a properly functioning caudate nucleus, what’s the solution to keep me from wasting my time? As Norman Doidge explains, “we often check and recheck [things] without really concentrating,” so he suggests to perform the very first check with the utmost care. 

If you’re moving so fast during your morning routine without paying attention and being distracted by something like an audiobook as I often am, the “problem solved” circuit doesn’t get processed when locking the door the first time and the gear in the brain doesn’t turn. By simply taking a moment to slow down and be aware of what I’m doing as I check the coffee maker and head out the door, I now no longer get the urge to go back and check again later. Getting my lost 15 or 20 minutes a week back is nice, but more importantly for me it’s nice to no longer be asking “what the hell is wrong with me?


Everything wrong with the “System” (Trust yourself) [Transcript]

In the Movie “Catch me if you can,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s character plays the role of Frank Abagnale – a fugitive who is running from Tom Hanks’ character, an FBI agent. There is one scene where Tom Hanks finally gets to the hotel where Leonardo DiCaprio is staying, and instead of running, Dicaprio pretends to be a secret service agent who actually just caught Frank Abagnale. Hanks doesn’t believe him at first but DiCaprio confidently hands him his wallet as proof that he is indeed a secret service agent. Tom Hanks accepts the wallet and takes it as reason enough to believe DiCaprio. After a while he decides to actually open the wallet and he sees it’s just filled with random soft drink and condiment labels.

So… What this channel is is an invitation to open up the wallet. And to explain what I mean by that and what this has to do with taking the time to research things by yourself, let me tell you the story of Jeff:

As per conventional practice, Jeff’s life starts out with his mother lying on her back attempting to give birth to him. The position she’s in makes it harder to push Jeff out so she’s having a lot of difficulty with the birth, is in a lot of pain and an epidural is recommended. The epidural relieves her pain but makes it even harder to actually give birth. It’s getting pretty late in the day and this whole process is taking far too long so a C-Section is recommended. The surgery is completed without complications, and Jeff comes out a healthy baby boy.

A little while after the birth, he is to be circumcized, and since you can’t give a baby anaesthetic, Jeff has his first taste of sugar in the form of a pacifier dipped in a concentrated sugar solution called “sweet ease” . This activates Jeff’s endogenous opioid system, providing an analgesic effect and the procedure is completed without too much fuss.

At home, Jeff’s mother takes great care of him, and after 6 months puts him on Nestle’s good start baby formula. When he begins to eat solid foods, his Mom makes sure it’s a low fat diet with plenty of heart healthy whole grains as recommended by the USDA. His usual breakfast before school would be maybe an egg, some toast, yogurt, cereal (but not the sweet cereal), and a glass of orange juice- which Jeff will get refills on.

While Jeff is a pretty good kid at home, he can’t quite behave and focus properly in school so his teacher tells his Mom that he may have ADHD. They have all these commercials for Ambien, Celebrex, Lamisil, Mirapex, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Rozerem and Crestor that all end with “Ask your doctor about…” [Ask your doctor, ask your doctor, ask your doctor, ask your doctor, ask your doctor today, ask your doctor, ask your doctor] so she decided to ask her doctor about Jeff’s ADHD, and he gave her a prescription for him. At the pharmacy she picks up adderall for Jeff and some Oxycontin for her back pain.

Thanks to the adderrall, Jeff’s behavior and grades improve and he quickly develops a skill for rote memorization and keeping information in his head just long enough to pass the standardized tests. Come senior year of high school he is told he needs to decide on what he will be majoring in college. He’s informed that this decision will ultimately determine the path of his entire adult life so he needs to consider it thoroughly. This is a little bewildering considering he spent the past 10 years learning that disobedience means punishment, and that authority figures should make the important decisions for him. So during 3rd period, he raises his hand to ask permission to go to the bathroom and think about this in private.

After high school, the cost of college is steep but he needs an education to get a good job, so he takes out some loans, gets a part time job and he even got a grant, so it works out. Although he is kind of pissed that half of his classes require the newest edition of each textbook which cost more than a hundred dollars each. There’s barely any difference between the newest one and the 4 preceding editions which are less than half the price, but the class requires the new edition.

College was tough but he got through it and he even landed a reasonable job. Adult life isn’t too bad, he’s making enough money to handle his student loans and live comfortably. He meets a great girl, saves up for an engagement ring and proposes to her. Now that he got that step out of the way, he has to figure out how to finance the wedding. He doesn’t quite understand why it has to be so expensive, but it’s a very special occasion so he tries to make it as extravagant as he can.

“Meet Vicki Howard – she’s the author of Brides Incorporated and an expert in wedding commercialization. Weddings used to be simple affairs but then bridal magazines encouraged brides to marry like the wealthy. It was the birth of an entire industry and now the cost of weddings keeps sky rocketing. The wedding industry systematically overcharges young couples, just because they can. One study found that a majority of flower shops, photographers charged more for a wedding than they did for a birthday party of the same size.”

Over time Jeff gains a bit of weight so he starts counting calories, makes sure to reduce the fat in his diet and he even picks up jogging. He had been hearing that he should reduce his sugar consumption, so he avoids sodas and candies. “Much of the sugar we eat is hidden in foods we don’t necessarily think of as sweet. This oatmeal, 3 and 3 quarter teaspoons of sugar a bowl. You can find sugar added to bread, soup, all kinds of condiments, hot dogs…” He loses a little bit of weight, but he feels hungry and tired all the time. He sticks to it, but isn’t losing weight as fast as he’d like so just in case, he checks with his doctor about any health risks coming from his weight. Jeff’s cholesterol is not super high but his doctor recommends he take a statin just in case. Jeff says “Yea sure doc, give me the Lipitor”

“all of the long term data on the statins show that you will die sooner if your cholesterol is lower, particularly if you are over 55 if you are female or male. There is no benefit to the drugs. The sickest people I have ever seen in my 32 years of practice were people who’s cholsterol was too low. Without enough cholesterol in your system, your immune system can’t work properly.”

A couple weeks later his wife complains about his performance in the bedroom so he gets some viagra for that.

“What is one of the major side effects of cholesterol lowering drugs? Impotence is one of the things that is complained about most frequently. Well guess what the same manufacturer’s number 2 selling drug is that makes lipitor? Viagra. Viagra! Heyyyy!”

He’s also feeling a little foggy in the head so he consults his doctor and his doc reassures him he’s just getting a little older and probably just under stress. The doctor finds out Jeff used to have ADHD as a kid, so he recommends Jeff to get back on some ADHD medication. He gives Jeff a prescription for the ADHD and a painkiller for some pain in his back from slipping on the stairs the other day. Jeff swings by the pharmacy to pick up his ADHD medication, the oxycontin, a refill of lipitor and some Listerine for his Halitosis.

Jeff was then getting a lot of relief from the pain killer, but he started to worry about becoming dependent on it. On the weekend he met up with his friend Tony who said he got off the Oxycontin and started using Marijuana to treat his pain instead. Jeff was very wary of illegal drugs, courtesy of Nancy Reagan “say no to drugs.” and the 1987 egg in a frying pan commercial. “this is your brain on drugs, any questions?” When Tony started talking about how Oxycontin is essentially legal heroin and substances like Marijuana only became illegal to benefit Richard Nixon’s political campaign, Jeff politely changed the subject.

“He said quote: The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: The antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Later Jeff and his wife have a beautiful son Jack, who has an upbringing similar to Jeff’s. In primary school, Jack’s teacher tells Jeff that his son has trouble focusing so medical attention may be necessary. Jeff recently had gone off the ADHD medication and the Oxycontin because it was making him feel weird and he didn’t want his son to have to go through that. He starts doing some research and learns that Jack’s ADHD may stem from a couple things, one of them being Jack having been delivered via C-Section. Apparently the procedure doesn’t allow the healthy bacteria in his mother’s vaginal canal to be transferred to the baby, making it hard for Jack to develop a healthy gastrointestinal microbiome. This sounded a little cooky to Jeff but it would explain his own difficulties with ADHD as a child. Considering the recommended treatment to improve Jack’s GI microbiome was just to make some changes in his diet like adding fermented foods and probiotics, he figures it’s worth trying before giving his kid prescription methanphetamine.

“The drugs that the doctors are giving us are the same as the drugs being sold on the streets? Take adderrall and ritalin which are made from the same stuff as meth. So basically, those pills that you have your children popping are street legal meth.”

A while after changing Jack’s diet, Jack’s teacher mentions to Jeff that his focus had noticeably improved. They continued Jack on the diet and he kept getting better little by little without any bad effects at all.

At this point Jack is kind of pissed off that he didn’t learn things like this earlier as it could have saved him a lot of trouble as kid. He starts to question other things like whether or not he really needs to be on the statin. Some articles he read suggest that his low fat diet and the sugar in all these things he’s been consuming virtually ever since birth could be causing his weight troubles and some other health problems. The calories in calories out thing never really quite worked for him so he gives that low carb thing a shot even though he’s worried about heart disease. Then he starts to lose weight without feeling like crap and his bloodwork actually shows better numbers. He starts to think that all these potential diseases linked to being overweight are certainly not prevented by and could even be caused by the USDA dietary guidelines.

Later, his son Jack seems to be frustrated with school despite having good grades. After seeing the kind of homework he has to do, Jeff starts to think he might as well save his kid 10 years and a just teach him how to use an Encyclopedia. Then he finds out he doesn’t technically have to have Jack in public school and there are other school systems like ISD’s or Montessori School or Sudbury schools or Charter Schools that are actually more conducive to creativity, critical thinking and better financial achievement later in life.

What Jeff realizes is that more often than not, organizations don’t always have the best methods, and are just saying and doing whatever best suits their interests and their profits.

“In 1971, then president Richard Nixon began the war on drugs. Since then, the war on drugs has cost the US over 1 TRILLION dollars. And the prison population has risen over 700%.”

“But in 1996, a company called Purdue Pharma released a new drug: OxyContin. Purdue spent hundreds of millions of dollars to convince doctors that OxyContin was safe and not addictive.”

“Just yes or no, do you believe nicotine is not addictive? I believe nicotine is not addictive, yes. Mr. Johnston? I don’t believe that nicotine or our products are addictive. I believe nicotine is not addictive. I believe that nicotine is not addictive. I believe that nicotine is not addictive. And I too believe that nicotine is not addictive.”

“You know, there were imminent scientists of the time saying this is nonsense, there is no good scientific evidence that either fat or cholesterol y’know is at the root of heart disease. And I have pleaded in my report and will plead again orally here for more research on the problem before we make announcements to the american public. I would only argue that senators don’t have the luxury that a research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in.”

“Does the money that students put into their tuition, do they actually get it back? A lot of this extra money that students pay for tuition is not going into the classroom to improve their education but is going for administrators.”

So… Back to Catch me if you can. In that scene, Tom Hanks could have looked inside the wallet DiCaprio gave him much earlier, found that it was filled with a bunch of garbage and catch Frank Abagnale on the spot. So this is what I am encouraging people to do: be like Jeff. Take the time to look inside the standard systems, conventional practices and mainstream products we’ve been asked to buy into, because you may start to find that most of them are filled with random soft drink and condiment labels.