Monthly Archives: May 2016

Thought Is An Inaccurate Description

Reviewing my work on dispelling Upsets, it is remarkable how my stories of reality were the source of my stress. Mismatches between thought and I was observing was always the source of an Upset. I was inspired by a concept presented by Michael Graziano in his excellent book Consciousness and the Social Brain. Using his wording, thoughts are useful, but not accurate, descriptions of reality. What is the implication of this?

Thought Is An Inaccurate Description

Our thoughts help us steer our way through reality, but they are never totally accurate. That means every thought is ultimately wrong. Letting that sink in, what thoughts do you trust and what thought are ignored? The key to the whole concept is the word useful.

I was once told a story by a friend about the backup camera on his car. He was looking at the screen when his car lurched.  He could not understand it because he could not see anything on the screen. He got out and there was a car at an angle behind him. The owner of that car was standing  there and said, “You hit my car.” My friend said, “I couldn’t have, the camera did not show a car.” When the owner pointed out the dent in the car and my friends bumper lodged in the dent, my friend had to accept reality. In retelling the story, he said that for him the camera view was more “real” than the lurch he felt as he bumped the other car. In this case, the camera’s description of reality had not been useful.

Thought Is An Inaccurate Description

So too with thought. A thought is like the camera, an approximation of what is out there, a tool with which to steer by. And sometimes reality is the lurch and bump we feel and we hit something we did not approximate correctly. And every time, we feel that the bump cannot be right. This is the foundation of suffering.


To open the opportunity to reduce suffering I want to continue to train myself to live in the perspective that all thought is an inaccurate description of reality. Hearing this once makes sense, and moments later I can be immersed in a thought as if it accurately describes what is about the happen, or even what is happening now. What would the experience of life be like to grasp this on an ongoing basis. How would it feel to intuitively grasp this as every thought arises?

To do this I have to train myself as a thought comes up to go through a cycle of examining that thought. At first, I will step through it manually, and with repetitions speed up the process until this examination is instantaneous. When a thought comes up I want to step through these questions:

  • Is this thought an accurate representation of reality?
  • What reaction does the thought create?
  • Reverse the thought to show that its opposite is true.
  • Understand the opportunity in the situation regardless of the thought.

This structure combines work I have done previously. To ensure proper attribution, the reversal technique is one I learned from the methods of Byron Katie. If you want to practice reversals in depth I recommend her approach. The glass half full approach that I have married to the reversals I tested in an earlier experiment.

I pulled these four elements into a micro survey that I put on my iPhone. My training plan is straightforward. I will do at least 10 of these surveys a day until I have done 1000 of them. Like painted steps on a dance floor,  I will follow these steps repeatedly until I can do them quickly and instinctively as thought arises.

Thought Is An Inaccurate Description

Announcing last week that I was stepping back from quantification experiments, I now have the time to do a long term training approach and see how my subjective experience changes. It may take up to four months, it likely will take much longer. I’ll report what I find along the way and share tools and techniques as you may have an interest in them.

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Ending Two Years of Quantifying Myself

My first blog post on self-quantification was April 6th, 2014. I went pretty hard at it for the last two years spending a fair bit of money and doing experiments of various kinds to see how my body would react. My favorite was taking heart rate variability readings while having a tooth drilled at the dentist. After a fair number of insights, I’m ending two years of quantifying myself.


Ending Two Years of Quantifying Myself

It is not really a full retirement as I will continue to monitor things as I did before this two year period. As a runner and triathlete, I was monitoring my heart rate many years before entering the QS scene. So monitoring various mood states and body reactions like heart rate variability will continue. I get a lot from it.

What I am retiring is the identity of “scientific publisher of N=1 studies” and being a “quantified-self guy.” As part of this identity I was regularly publishing this blog, tweeting, leading a QS Meetup and attending the big QS conferences. There was a specific discipline around that and I’m going to let that go.

The overall lessons I learned after these two years:

  • You can learn anything you want with the internet resources available. I started as a guy curious about stress readings and got pretty conversant with heart rate variability to the point of being a junior partner in presentations with friends who were PhD’s on the subject.
  • The summary finding on all my outcomes is if we human beings get a good nights sleep, drink plenty of water, eat a modest amount of calories, exercise with regularity and hang out with other people we like, we feel pretty good most of the time. My grandmother told me that years ago but I had to use  science to validate it.
  • A lot of Quantified Self is Quantified Storytelling. At QS EU #15 Doctor James Heathers coined this phrase as he pointed out that the controls are the problem. In a noisy environment achieving any level of control is extremely difficult. And doing the math with any sense of sufficient data can absorb your time for extended periods. With a lot of noise and smaller data sets, we have to push our story a bit more as not having a result is not very compelling, particularly if you are presenting to groups by blog or presentation.
  • The only negative finding I had is that I suspect the entire supplements industry is a massive exercise in commercial placebo. I did not get any meaningful results from any of the supplements I tried that were not overshadowed by sleep, water, and food (see bullet #2).
  • The body is incredibly resilient. Our story that one night out indulging will ruin our health is just wrong. I had several physically stressful periods result in heart rate variability and blood pressure readings that were virtually unchanged from non-stressful periods. The underlying physical system is very stable and completely separate from, our beliefs about it.
  • People want to read about brands and ultimately Google drives traffic to a blog, people don’t seek you out based on the quality of content. The two biggest drivers to this blog were when I indexed posts in Google that talked about Apple Watch and another service that was getting good press. Both drove big spikes in traffic and in my opinion were halfway to product reviews. That Apple Watch mention still drives traffic. It is just the facts on being a publishing type. The people want to read the reviews that helps them buy stuff.
  • Our stories and beliefs about our condition are the entirety of our experience of our condition and thus, are our condition. Quantified Self is a place of stories and beliefs with data to enrich them. Studies have to  be conceived, data gathered and the results analyzed. And if we declare success in altering heart rate variability through head position then we must have the story that a changed heart rate variability is desirable. When you get to that level, it is an arbitrary definition of what is good.  Most of my QS work lived under an umbrella of some form of story. The story is the thing.

I remain a supporter of Quantified Self and its unique place in a history of technical change and its contribution to the continued dynamic way we use technology to shape our behavior. QS as a separate and unique group was big when it was kind of hard to get the data together and you had to rig your own sensors. Now we all are starting to live with easy data capture and quantification. The QS community becomes all of us.

The study I did on my To Do List was one that really altered my perspective. When I let my to-do list go and watched what things I started doing naturally from a place of interest, QS matters were not part of the mix. My interests had moved on, and doing things from a place of fascination and interest is the story I want to write. And the story is the thing.


Reducing Suffering On Way to Airport

Recently I had a chance to use my Quantified Self work in a way that was very effective at reducing suffering from my overreaction to a situation. I was in Ojai, CA and had to drive to LAX for a long haul flight. On getting in the car I saw that I had left myself 2 hours travel time. After a quick estimate of the drive and rental car drop off, I realized that any traffic delay at all would result in me missing my long haul flight. And I was driving through LA which has notoriously bad traffic. Thus the suffering began.

reducing suffering

This suffering was imagination induced. There was no physical pain. I saw images in my head of traffic jams, rental car buses moving slowly and my flight taking off in the sky with me watching it from the ground. I saw images of me on the phone to my wife explaining I would not be joining her on time.  Though I did not measure it my heart rate variability, it was likely low and my prefrontal cortex probably offline. I was in full fight/flight mode.

I knew that enduring two hours of anxiety and worry about whether or not I would make the flight would do nothing to change the outcome. It would just be misery for the sake of misery, so I pulled some techniques from my Quantified Self kitbag.

First, I reversed the thoughts as I had done in a previous study. When I took the thought “I am going to miss the flight” and reversed it, I got “I am going to make the flight.” Looking at the thought and its reversal, I knew that both outcomes were possible. With increased possibilities I calmed down a bit.

I was travelling to a wedding in the UK, but it was not for several days. As I continued to think I realized that I would be able to attend the wedding if I made the flight or missed the flight. I relaxed even further.

I then looked at the opportunity embedded in the situation if I missed the flight, mirroring a study I had done on “glass half full” thinking. I had spent the weekend with friends in Ojai and it happened they were in LA that night. I could have connected with them for dinner. Or called my hilarious cousin in LA and visited her. Both were good outcomes. I now knew that any outcome was going to be positive. I was a pretty happy guy by that point.

reducing suffering

This whole reframing process took about ten minutes. As I drove recalled the many, many times I had not unscrewed myself while travelling. My very first QS post about a Stress Trigger Personal Survey identified travel as a huge source of Upsets. In my quest to measure the change myself and chip away at the bedrock of that stressful self, it seems I had made progress.

In a calm and balanced state, I decided to drive no more than five miles per hour over the speed limit, remain focused on getting to the airport, and see what happened. I was alert, but no longer suffering. The mechanism that decreased my suffering was the reframing the belief that making that specific flight was the only positive outcome possible.

As it happened, I was quite lucky. Traffic was unusually light, and only twice did I have to slow below the speed limit. The drive took an hour and a half and I arrived in plenty of time. I ended up standing at the gate 20 minutes prior to boarding with bags checked and being all ready to go. And I had done it without two hours of unnecessary stress.

These techniques work in reducing or eliminating imagination driven suffering. When the imagination pictures how things should be and that image clashes with what is actually happening, we suffer. With reframing simply how we see our possibilities, we eliminate this type of suffering. 

For me this is a great example of how pragmatic these techniques can be. Looking at a reversal and the opportunities in the situation allowed me to move from fight/flight to an action which put me in an alert, action-oriented state. I had several good outcomes available to me and I let things play out, using my planning for a useful outcome or potential outcomes. And that is the definition of not suffering.