Years ago, there was philosophy, which was one big field, and people started breaking it into pieces. Psychology was the study of the mind, but it wasn’t the study of thinking – that’s a whole different thing. It wasn’t the study of thinking, it wasn’t the study of learning. Epistemology became the study of knowledge, but it wasn’t the study of how you get it and how you test it and how you make sure it is working. “I think, therefore I am” is a nice idea as a proof about existence, but the question is: Do you say that to yourself? Do you make a picture of yourself being?
Do you just have a feeling about it or do you do all three? In what order?
For what purpose? If there’s a different purpose, do you use a different order to get a different result? This demonstrates the difference between making decisions and remembering things.
If you’re only born with two natural fears, then you have to learn all this other stuff. Obviously, people figured out a long time ago that part of the reason people have personal problems is crappy shit happens to them. Sometimes good shit happens to them and they get bad stuff from it. People end up being afraid of spiders when there are some poisonous spiders that are dangerous, but instead of learning which ones are dangerous, where they are on the planet and getting rid of dangerous spiders out of your house, people are afraid of every spider. They see one in the bathtub and they freak out.
Certainly, a piece of Kleenex will handle the situation adequately. How did they become afraid of that, afraid of trying things, afraid of all of these things? It’s because the machine in the brain that learns goes haywire. It’s not that haywire is bad, it’s designed to make things familiar. That’s what your brain’s built to do, so that you don’t have to repeat mistakes and you can repeat things that work.
They did an experiment with animals when I took my first psychology exam, Psychology 1A. Of course, when I took Psychology 1A and what they teach now should be profoundly different, but the real difference is all the talk about forms you have to fill out for the government. So, you’re taking Psychology 1A and they’re teaching you how to fill out paperwork as a social worker – that’s part of the course. They’re not talking about how people get better or how people get smarter.
THINKING VERSUS REMEMBERING
People go through the history of things, and they always start with the big guy. Certainly, the ideas of Sigmund Freud – the idea that you can have a talking cure for depression or a talking cure for feeling inadequate or a talking cure for melancholia (which later became mental diseases or hysteria or anxiety attacks) – were new at the time.
They gave these things names and tried to diagnose them medically. But instead of treating them medically, Freud thought that there could be talking cures. And he talked about the unconscious. People didn’t know much about neurology at the time – they didn’t know much about anything. With all the books that he wrote as he went along, there’s one big underlying presupposition - something went wrong that has to be fixed.
Unfortunately, the people who went up against him, like Fritz Perls and the people who had created therapies that weren’t just talking, all brought with them this same underlying presupposition - something went wrong that has to be fixed (rather than you learned something and over-learned it).
That presupposition demands that in order to go forward, you have to look backwards. So, all of the therapies that I’ve ever looked at do this thing where you have to look back, either overtly or metaphorically, interpreting dreams etc. It’s all trying to get back to find where our learning went off the rails and became a malady, a complex.
They talk about having anxiety: You have anxiety because your father did X or you were attacked by a snake or you were bit by a shark or saw somebody bit by a shark, so you’re afraid to swim.
There are lots of cases where people fell into a river and they’re afraid of swimming; they were a kid and they almost drowned. Their brain went over the top.
The movie Jaws came out in the 1970s and there were people who wouldn’t swim in lakes in Kansas. That movie scared the piss out of a lot of people. There were people who came to me that wouldn’t get in the bathtub; they wouldn’t go to their own swimming pool. There wasn’t going to be a shark there, but the minute their head was sticking up out of the water, it triggered the feeling they had in the movie that frightened them.
Rather than their brain reassessing at that moment and thinking, it just continued to remember, and it made the memory stronger every time they thought about it, to the point where looking at the pool scared them, looking at a lake scared them.
Even thinking about spiders was terrifying, but most people are not afraid of the actual object, they’re afraid of thinking about the object – it’s the thought that scares them. I bring people in and tell them there’s a giant spider in the next room, that I’m going to bring it out, and they’re going to hold it in their hand. Whether there’s a spider or not, they become afraid. Then, when they’re freaking out, I point out that there’s no spider. They go, “Well, you said there’s one in the next room,” and I go, “Well, I could be lying.”
It’s Schrödinger’s Cat – really! Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian quantum physicist, came up with this hypothetical experiment in which a cat is placed in a sealed box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter detects that the radioactive material has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed. There is no way of knowing whether or not the radioactive material has decayed enough to smash the bottle of poison.
Thus, until we actually open the box the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. There are two possible realities happening. I always loved this because of the question, is the cat alive? Is it dead? You don’t know until you look in the box.
Back to the spider - is there the spider there? It doesn’t matter because you’re already afraid. This means the fear doesn’t come from the spider, the fear comes from thinking about it. So, the way you are thinking is producing the fear. But even then, it’s not really the way you’re thinking, it’s the way you’re remembering because you learned to do this.
You amplified it because our brain is designed to generalize.
You learn what a chair is, and anyone seeing something that kind of looks like a chair has to generalize and say, “Well, that’s close enough. It is a chair. It’s an object that I can sit in.” Some chairs don’t look at all like chairs, but you still know what they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. I remember the first time I saw one of those really modern, avant-garde chaise lounge things. I remember looking at it and going, “What the hell is that? It’s to sit in next to the pool! You don’t fall through those things?” No, it’s just like a chair – well, it isn’t at all like a chair, but it’s close enough.
The learned helplessness experiment in psychology that always struck me as really important is really goofy. They made a C and they made a O, and if the animal touched the C, it got a food reward, if it touched the O, it got shocked. And so, after a while, the animal figured it out: If you run up and hit the C button - bang! - it was fine. But then they started to make the C a little bigger, and opening up the O, and at a certain point, you can’t tell one from the other.
The animals literally went crazy because it was harder and harder to know which button to touch to get the reward. That’s the point when subjects started to go crazy and wouldn’t touch either of them. No experimentation, no learning, no risk-taking – they both looked too close to the C. If the C and the O aren’t different enough, and people can’t tell them apart - that place in the middle where you can’t make the decision - you either become a thinker who finds a way to find out and a way to reduce fear by testing, or you just become immobilized, which is what happened to most of the animals. They didn’t do anything, they worried, they freaked out, and they literally starved to death rather than figure it out.
They told me about that experiment in college and I remember thinking that was a really mean thing to do. Years later, I thought back and said, “Well, they did the experiment, but they missed the point of it.” The point is almost everything in life is like that for us people. There never were Os and Cs to start with, right? So for some things, we make everything into Os: every spider is a bad, scary spider; every snake will bite you and kill you.
Some people can’t get in the car and drive because they could be killed; some people won’t get in an elevator – which it turns out is the safest form of transportation (fewer people die riding in elevators than walking). More people slip on the linoleum walking up to an elevator than die in elevators. Oddly enough, somebody keeps track of this kind of stuff.
It’s not based on experience. It’s funny, people will get in a plane and then be afraid to fly. Some people are so afraid to fly that they won’t get in the plane. I’ve been in airplanes where they’ve sat somebody next to me who’s freaking out before they even start the engines, before we’re even moving.
I’ve had people sit next to me who put blankets over their heads so they couldn’t see they were flying - like they wouldn’t know! I’d literally say to them, “Are you okay?” and they’d go, “I’m fine. I’ll be okay once we’re in the air.” And I’m going, “What kind of sense does that make? ‘As soon as we leave the ground, then I’ll be okay’?” I’ve had some of them who weren’t okay; they’d stare at the wing, watch it going up and down and say, “That could actually break off.” And I’d go, “Yeah, and we could be shot out of the sky by a Martian,” which is plausible, but unlikely.
Planes do crash, but once you’re in them, you really have no control – that’s up to the pilot. You just have to hope he knows what he’s doing and enjoy the flight. If you crash, you’ll know when it’s time to worry. It’s not going to keep the plane in the air. If it did, planes would all be safe, but the fact is most people don’t make the distinction between remembering and thinking.
Psychology doesn’t make the distinction between the past and the future - where you’re actually going.
To me, we haven’t looked at learning as anything other than What. What did you learn? What was wrong with what you learned? Where did you go off the right track and become a fucked-up person? Psychology is looking for the malady. Even in education, when I started studying education in college, it was all diagnosis, it was all about learning disabilities - “They’ve got attention deficit disorder blah blah blah.” It wasn’t “How do you acquire this information and make good decisions about what to do with it?” Nobody’s talking about that.
Nobody’s saying, “How does the person who does this well do it well?” When NLP came along, the anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson, who helped me immensely and who I studied and learned a lot from, kept saying to me that it was paradoxical that you can’t use a pattern to teach a pattern, because there’s Learning 1: learning to name things, Learning 2: learning to generalize from that name to other things (so you’re not only naming this computer, you can call others computer and know what those computers are doing), and Learning 3: learning how to design and build machines that do things.
A MORE INTELLIGENT LEARNING MACHINE
I remember early on, I got a computer for my secretary. She was doing things and I thought, “What’s wrong with this machine is it doesn’t teach my secretary how to be a secretary. We should have a machine where the only programs in it are those that teach her what she needs to know to be a good secretary. It should teach her how to type, it should teach her if she’s making mistakes typing, it should find out if it’s her emotional stuff getting in her way and all those different things. If the phone rings, it should know and go answer the phone and put a message on it. It should be making the stuff that makes it so after she uses it for a while, she could probably get by on a typewriter and be a good secretary.”
In those days, computers didn’t do a hell of a lot more than a typewriter – but they should have. Now we have apps. But we’re still asking people to use these apps and to make these distinctions and to log things in. Now, every time they give a pill to my mother, it gets computerized in so every work station knows she’s taken the pill - that way you don’t get one twice. That’s good use of a machine that networks, if you ask me.
However, I go in and ask her, “Did you get this medication?” and she’ll go, “No,” because the app doesn’t remind people what they’ve had. It should. And then it should red-flag any change to the pattern - “Is this the way it’s supposed to be?” – so that there’s a check system; it should check with the doctor and check with the nurse, because bad things can happen - you can give people the wrong medication.
Machines are supposed to work for us. When they talk about a singularity of thought, they’re talking about machines getting to the point where they make these decisions. They should be presenting them to us. These are tools, because it’s always going to boil down to who designed it and how well they were thinking when they designed it.
Whoever designs a program, it’s a representation of their mind on paper. If they learn to do something well and put it in an app, hopefully it will install in people so after a while, they wouldn’t need it. Your address book app should be teaching you how to remember addresses; it shouldn’t just be keeping them for you, it should make it so when you think about the address, it comes to your head as rapidly as you can find it on your phone.
We’re not using tools to make us smarter. So, are we going to make the tools smarter than we are, or are we going to start evolving? And in order to start evolving, we have to stop diagnosing ourselves by our faults and the things we lack and start modifying ourselves by what we want.
This requires a different mindset than the whole field of psychology has had. You have to stop looking backwards and we have to start looking forwards. We have to get to the point where the best thing about the past is that it’s over.
Everything that works from the past, we get to take with us, and everything that doesn’t work, we find a better way to do it in our mind. Somebody’s mind might have a better way of doing it, or we could make one up. Even better, the stuff we actually do well, maybe we can do even better and get better results, and better kinds of results.
It’s the result when psychiatrists gave people medication for manic depression and chopped off all the highs and all the lows. Well, they were more manageable, but most manic depressives hated the medication because they felt foggy, they didn’t feel alive. They lost the good feelings they’d had from those states and didn’t learn to control their states. So when they got manic, they got too manic, and if they went off the medication, they’d still be just as stupid as they were before.
We’re going to have to make a decision to make ourselves smarter (not just patients, but everybody – every single one of us). And the only way we can do that is by learning to Think on Purpose.
LEARNING TO THINK ON PURPOSE
When we say the term Thinking on Purpose, it’s the “on purpose” part of it that matters the most. If you just think, you can think yourself into problems. It’s really easy. For example, you see a little bug and you think it could be a big bug, so you make a picture of a huge bug in your head to the point where it frightens you.
Then you remember it, you start remembering that bugs can be scary. Next thing you know, when you see a little bug, you see a big picture and you keep remembering it, and the more you remember it, the more you scare yourself. Suddenly you’re afraid of bugs, or spiders, or snakes, or public speaking.
You think somebody could cheat on you and you imagine it and feel as if they did and you remember that feeling, then every time they do something you start acting it as if it was real. You really can think yourself into problems. That’s why you need to Think on Purpose rather than as a reaction to something.
Of course, there are lots of bad things that could happen and some things you need to prepare for, that’s why some people buy car insurance. You could have an accident. If you back your car into somebody, you obviously didn’t do it on purpose, but you also don’t think every time you back up your car, you’re going to hit something. If you did that, you’d never drive.
The more you immobilize yourself by thinking bad thoughts and remembering them (or worse, construct images in your mind worse than life itself) and acting as if those things are real, the more trouble you will create for yourself. Most phobias, fears, and anxieties that we deal with are people who have taken something that is real and blown it out of proportion in their mind. If you blow something up and then remember the blown-up version rather than the real thing, you’re going to have problems.
The purpose of thinking is to think your way beyond difficulty. When people come in and they’re thinking of a giant spider in their head so they’re afraid of little tiny ones, they have to take that picture and shrink it down, make it black and white, or do something other than what they’re doing so they’re not afraid.
We need to use our thinking processes for what they were made for and we need to use our remembering process for what they were made for. Remembering can be a good thing or a bad thing.
I mean, if you remember things that aren’t real as if they are real, you can scare yourself, you can disappoint yourself, you can immobilize yourself. If you remember how you were taught to spell and you were taught to spell phonetically, you’ll always be a bad speller; you’ll be sounding out words in a language like English that has silent letters. You won’t do it accurately.
On the other hand, if you use remembering for what it was made for and you practice it and think of it as a skill, you’ll be much better off. It’s about thinking of it as a skill, an important skill. We’re not just talking about cognitive thinking. It’s about everything we do, every day. It’s our conscious mind interfacing with our neurology, it affects how we feel and how much stress we’re in.
People who have really high levels of stress start running things in the back of their mind over and over again. It’s bad enough you’re in a stressful situation once, but to keep playing it over and over in your head, and running variations of it in your head, so you actually create more stress than the situation did, is far worse.
I’ve had people come to see me and they’re still having arguments with their mother 20 years after her death and stressing about it! I remember when I started with clients in my twenties. I didn’t grow up with a family history where I spent a lot of time with my parents; my parents were working so I spent a lot of time by myself. People would come in and go, “I argue with my mother every day,” and I’d go, “Yeah?”
I’d be talking to someone 60 years old and who’d been in therapy for 20 years. I’d ask them:
“You’re still arguing with your mother?” “Yes, every day.”
“Does she live with you?”
“Well no, my mother died years ago.”
“What do you mean you’re arguing with her?”
“Well, you know, I hear the arguments in my head. When I go to do something, I can hear my mother criticize me.”
So, if she did criticize them, then they’re remembering it; if she didn’t criticize them for this particular thing, they’re constructing her voice over and over again. They’re thinking themselves into more pain. They remember the criticism and they play it over and over again. Our ability to create things in our head is a good thing, but it also can be crazy crippling.
Unfortunately, often people find it easier to remember horrific cases of things that happened, even when they are rare. The brain tends to focus more on disasters and people think they’re more likely to die in plane crashes or being eaten by a shark than whatever is likely to happen. Our brains can create terrifying scenarios and exaggerate things in a way that doesn’t work for us.
Part of it is there’s a reason to start thinking, because if enough people start thinking, it’s going to hit a point where thinking together produces more than thinking individually. This is what happens when you bring groups of people together in the same place, there’s a certain kind of synchronicity – even musically, like when there were so many people in San Francisco, all making great music at the same time in the same place, an explosion of creativity in every way, shape, and form.
The same thing has happened at certain times in New York and it’s happened throughout history. We have a whole lot of talented people together influencing each other. Fortunately, that group of people has always been small. With the advent of the Ethernet in the 1970s, a lot of brilliant people started being able to talk to each other. And then it got taken over by the Internet, which of course watered everything down. I’m sure the world’s most famous physicist Stephen Hawking had a fan page, but it was hard for him to meet people on there who weren’t trying to find him for the wrong reasons. It’s one thing when you have three or four great artists playing off each other; it’s another when someone is coming to tag onto their reputation.
There are points of singularity in history when things have evolved, but we haven’t hit the one where consciousness has done that. We keep talking about it happening to machines – at a certain point of time, consciousness is going to hit a point in machines when they can think for themselves; they will become conscious – but the truth is, to a certain degree, this hasn’t happened with people yet.
HOW HUMOR HELPS US THINK
The biggest inoculation against our mental problems is a sense of humor. The intensity of the feelings when the movie Jaws came out reached ludicrous levels. There were companies which sold diving equipment and did $30 million one year, then $100,000 the next because people wouldn’t go in the ocean. It didn’t suddenly become more dangerous, it’s just people weren’t taking diving lessons because they saw this movie. Oddly enough, people who weren’t anywhere near the ocean were thinking about it, scaring the crap out of themselves, and not swimming in pools at night.
People were not going into creeks and reservoirs with no sharks in them, because when they saw water, their adrenaline response to the movie linked water with sharks. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not just a response to reality, it’s not just that you were in a war zone or a car accident; when people hear about horrific things and see it on the news, they go in and imagine being in it, they don’t play it life-size in their brain, they play it larger than life. If they build really strong responses to it internally, those strong responses have a tendency to do it more, to exaggerate more.
When you’re told about something or you see it on TV or you see it in the movies or you have it happen in real life, the more adrenaline, the more shocking that something is.
Some of the guys who came back from the Vietnam War were literally re-living the experiences they had; some of them they actually had, and some of them weren’t real. They had trouble telling the things that really happened over there from the ones that didn’t, which they imagined could have. Because the experiences were both so intense, so overwhelming, and these guys spent so much time in situations of danger, their adrenaline levels ran higher than they should.
We’re designed to experience stress about once a month, which means our nervous system isn’t prepared for modern life. When our cellphone goes off or we’re late for something, we run much more adrenaline through our system than it’s designed for. You can customize yourself, but if you don’t counter-balance that with humor, you’re in trouble. That’s why it’s the tool I use to get everybody through it.
When I talk to a guy years after Vietnam and he’s having nightmares about it and talking to everybody about it, going to support groups where they re-live it together, it doesn’t get him to get to the point where his brain is going, “This is over.” He keeps these things big and intense, and when he comes back, life doesn’t feel real to him because it’s not as intense. People like him don’t come back and turn up the pictures of enjoyment. When things are in the past, you have to shrink them down and push them away; it’s mechanically what you do in your brain, it reduces the level of these things.
I have to get people to laugh about it first; endorphins and oxytocin are what is needed. All the neurotransmitters that are released when you look at something, when you see yourself in a situation, when you see yourself walking around in the middle of the night in a suburb of California – which is perfectly safe – feeling like you’re still in Vietnam. If you can’t look at that and laugh a little bit, you’re in deep trouble.
When psychologists try to get people to re-live this stuff, they’re not really helping because the problem is the person is already re-living it. And sometimes they make it worse than when they were actually there, which raises the adrenaline that is connected with those past pictures. Instead of getting people to look forward to good things, they’re looking back, they’re running away from bad things. Our nervous system is designed to make things familiar and it will make anything familiar if you allow it.
When you’re making things familiar that make you feel bad, worrying too much and stressing out, you have to be able to stop yourself from freaking out about things that aren’t really happening now; you have to learn to laugh at it. And this can’t be an intellectual endeavor, this has to be a physiological one.
Part of the way I deal with people and get them to start thinking is I mechanically have them make things smaller and see themselves doing it. I ask them, “So how long do you plan to do this?” They always tell me, “I’m not doing it on purpose,” and I go, “Therein lies the problem.” They come right out and say it to me, “I’m not doing this on purpose.” Okay, so who is? The minute they giggle at that, they go, “Well, I just do it.” Just means only, it means you’re not doing something else.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH ALL YOUR SPARE TIME?
So, if you keep looking at this and feeling bad, and you spend an hour a day doing it, that’s 365 hours a year, and over 10 years, that’s 3,600 hours you’re going to spend doing this. Does that sound like a good plan? And they go, “Well, of course not,” and I go, “Hey, wait a minute, it’s your plan. Not mine.” And when you say that to people, they have to stop and consider that they are doing it on purpose; it just doesn’t feel that way.
The ways they’ve tried to stop it haven’t worked. They’ve tried to stop something rather than continuing it - by thinking you go further. Look at the same movie and whenever you get to the end, run it backwards. It looks silly. You put circus music with it. It seems silly. You shrink it down so it’s smaller. It seems silly. You reduce it down and replace it with something you’d rather do for those 10 years.
Look at the next 10 years. If you don’t look at those 58,000 waking hours as if you’re going to do something with them, then you’ll just keep doing what’s familiar, whether it’s depression, whether it’s obsessive compulsive disorder, any behavior that I consider to be stupid. It’s not until people look at it and they feel stupid that they’ll stop doing it. They have to look at the commitment they’ve made to engaging with behaviors that don’t work.
With the Internet, with globalization, the world is in a constant state of change. Suicide rates seem to be going up. We tend to spend a lot of time going over and ruminating over the worst kinds of things and being terrified of the future. We don’t only feel bad about what’s happened, we feel scared of what’s going to happen because we can’t predict it. Helping people think more effectively isn’t simply a case of understanding what to do, it’s also handling the potential problems or challenges that might arise. Most people are pretty good at setting goals, but they’re not very good at the next step, which is understanding what they need to do to get there and what is going to get in their way.
In the area of personal development, often people will say, “Oh, I want to achieve this and I’m going to read The Secret, I’m going to repeat the mantra, ‘I want it, I want it, I want it’, and then go, ‘why isn’t it here?’” That’s because they didn’t do anything and when they tried to do something, something that they could have predicted ahead of time cropped up and they didn’t know how to handle it because they weren’t being strategic.
Thinking on Purpose is also about how to be more strategic.
Understanding not just where you want to go, not just where the trajectory of your life is going at present and how to move it over, but also what are the potential things you need to deal with. You need to plan ahead to be disappointed and you also need to plan ahead to be scared. In order to be scared of speaking in public, you need to be planning ahead for all of these people looking at you a certain way. You need to be able to be ready for that so when you are there, you’re already ready for it and you’re able to overcome it.
Looking at the problem, the problem is that we don’t use our brain to think on purpose. When people say to me – and this is the magic phrase – “It’s just that I thought it would be easier. It’s just that I thought she would like me.” When people do that they’re not really thinking. They make up an idea, they make the memory of the idea and they keep thinking that idea rather than watching what’s going on. The more we spend our time doing this, the more we truly are wasting the currency of our life