Friday, December 31, 2010

More on Dopamine

I feel a bit like Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings having just discovered the miracle of dopamine, but I need to write down more of this great book, "How we Decide" before it goes back to the library. Earlier I wrote about how the author explained how when our expectations have been met, our brains dopamine neurons fire away to give us those warm and fuzzy feelings about our decisions and when we make mistakes, those same neurons make us feel discomfort and at the same time correct themselves to formulate new expectations, which explains how learning from mistakes work.

Well unfortunately there's a fatal flaw with this too. The dopamine hit you get when you've been rewarded is even greater than when you receive an unexpected reward. For example, in the case of Pavlov's dog once he's learned to expect a treat at the sound of a bell, the bigger delight is in receiving the treat before the bell is rung -- hells yeah! This is why gambling is so much fun. You pull the slot and out comes the money, unexpectedly. Our dopamine neurons automatically start trying to form patterns to predict when money will likely drop, but then we soon realize that it is completely random, so we give up. Unfortunately those with abnormal dopamine levels never surrender -- they are in a constant state of blissful reward. This explains why some Parkinson's patients who are administered dopamine altering drugs also become gambling addicts as a side effect. It also explains why that first kiss is so euphoric. Sadly, expectation kills the thrill of newness and surprise.
The fatal flaw is making decisions based on patterns where there are none. We think pro athletes have hot streaks or that we can beat the stock market when really the world is a lot more random than we think. This is the gambler's fallacy -- thinking that something is more or less likely to occur based on whether that event has recently occurred. It also explains stock market bubbles. When the market booms, investors keep investing because they don't want to regret not investing and losing out on potential gains. They keep investing because they think they've figured out the market and they ignore the possibility of loss. And when the bubble bursts (because it is after all random), these same investors can't wait to get out because they don't want to regret staying in -- they panic and run. Lehrer says the best way to beat the market is to accept that it's nothing more than a random walk with an upward slope. Pick a low-cost index fund and wait -- don't fixate on what might have been, just do nothing. You'll beat the average 'active' investor by 10%!
Lastly, the other faulty part of purely emotional decision making is being tempted with instant reward. Our emotional brain has a hard time dealing with long term consequences, so we tend to gravitate to instant gratification. We also over-value loss -- in fact we avoid it like the plague, which is why credit cards are so appealing. You don't really feel like you are spending money. The author quotes research that shows paying with cc's reduces activity in the insula, part of the brain associated with negative feelings. THIS is very telling. I have a hard time saving for my long term goals like paying off my mortgage or my retirement and am often tempted by the immediate reward (did I mention that I really want another pair of boots?). Learning to compensate for the deficiencies of my emotional brain might be my panacea! Perhaps I should try paying with cash this month? Yikes. I do love a challenge though ...

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Having just read "How We Decide", I'm scrambling to jot down a few take-aways for a book so chalked-full of fascinating bits of research. How come Pysch was not this exciting in university?

The author, Jonah Lehrer  talks about the role of emotions in decision-making. Down-played and misunderstood for many years in favour of the rational and logic-based decision model, emotions are finally given the credit they deserve. That gut-instinct can actually be physiologically explained. Here's my "tell it to me like I'm ten" version:
The neurotransmitter dopamine basically controls all emotion, including pleasure. Think of the crack addict who's just gotten a fix -- major dopamine OD. The dopamine neurons of our brains are generating patterns based on experience. We learn what will give us pleasure and it's the expectation that actually fires dopamine, as well as the reward in getting what you expect. I think of Pavlov's dog -- the bell that rang before the treat was given taught the dog to salivate at the sound of the bell. The pattern was learned by dopamine neurons.
When the expectation is false (there is no treat), the brain generates an 'error-related' negativity signal -- also known as the "oh-shit circuit". The anterior cingulate cortex where all of this happens, helps remember what the dopamine cells are learning so that expectations can be adjusted in light of new info (e.g. there is no treat now, so stop expecting it when you hear the bell). That is how we learn from mistakes. Brilliant.

Motion sickness is due to this dopamine prediction error -- there is a conflict between the rocky experience and the expectation of solid ground, which results in nausea. Thankfully the dopamine neurons revise their model and the sensation goes away. Of course there are some of us that never learn from our mistakes ... we continue to make the same bad choices ... sigh. Wait, this is not about me.
One of the best parts of the book was how the author related this to PRAISE. Remember that famous experiment in which young children were administered a test -- half were praised for their effort and the other half were praised for their intelligence? The first group went on to tackle more challenging problems without missing a beat while the ones who were told they were smart choose easier tests and their confidence dropped along with their scores. These children were afraid of failure -- they felt pressure to continue to show they were smart. The smart compliment was in fact detrimental. Whereas the students who were praised for their effort felt the intrinsic reward of success. The 'smart' kids tried to bolster their own self-esteem by comparing their scores to those who did worse. But the kids praised for their effort were interested in those who scored higher. They wanted to understand their mistakes and learn how to do better. OMG, this hits close to home ...
Learning from mistakes is crucial -- unless your brain experiences the discomfort from being wrong again and again, it will never revise its model. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no short-cuts to this process. Brilliant!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Let Down

Today was rough. I kept waiting for that warm Christmassy feeling to come over me and it just didn't happen. I usually get it on the night of the 24th -- an incredible feeling of peace and gratitude. It's so uplifting and comforting. What happened? Maybe I'm just too old to feel the Christmas spirit. I can't help but feel like Christmas has let me down. Hopefully tomorrow will be brighter. Gotta keep looking for that silver-lining, even if it's not there today.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Economics 101

Interest rate ↓, savings ↓, but investment and spending ↑ → how does this impact the exchange rate, inflation and unemployment again?
Christ! I used to have all these economics basics down pat when I was in school. Now I just feel completely ignorant. Obviously I just memorized what I needed to know for the test rather than really learn. It's one of the reasons I ignore my investments and show no interest in financial news. I can't leave it all up to my partner either. The other day he told me that we should stay away from US investments due to 'quantitative easing'. I pretended to know what he was talking about, because I am after all a Business grad. WTF! This can't go on -- I'm almost 40. I fell like I've let parenting define my entire identity. Time to dig deep -- where's my Lipsey, Purvis, Steiner? New goal for 2011 D.


"Hi I'm Robin" he said with a big beautiful smile. It made me weak in the knees -- and not because he was good looking, he was average at best. It was just his name. I would have never guessed in a million years that he was a Robin. What is it about my recent fascination with androgyny? I never used to feel this way -- the sexes were divided. I wanted my men to be men. I thought femininity was just plain gay. My first boyfriend was an alpha male and we were at each other's throats because of it -- too much alike. Fast forward 20 years and I've settled on an incredibly docile and sympathetic partner who is the complete opposite to what I was brought up to believe is manly. In fact it's his gentle nurturing side that turns me on the most. Go figure?
I think this evolution can be explained by my acceptance of my own masculinity. I used to fight it -- the aggressive, domineering male in me. I believed that men desired feminine women and that I'd have to conceal my typically masculine tendencies if I didn't want to end up old and alone. Thankfully, I'm learning to appreciate that 'not so attractive' side of myself. I am unique and wonderful. Those same attributes that I was ashamed of are actually loved and appreciated by others even. That is why I love androgyny. We all have male and female characteristics -- the combination is just beautiful. xx

Sunday, December 19, 2010


By all means, just stay healthy. It's the one thing my partner and I expect of each other because the minute one of us is down, everything falls apart at the seams. Sickness can't be helped for the most part, but then there are certain common-sense precautions that lazy people like myself tend to ignore when we're busy stressing out about every stupid pre-Christmas commitment, as I look at the smattering of used Kleenexes on the floor of my office...
This winter is not off to a good start. And I keep signing us up for more shit too -- like hosting parties and baking cupcakes for the needy (who will probably get sick and die in the streets, thanks to this head cold).  Here's a great idea to help counter the urge to do more -- play it out in your head -- how is this likely to ensue, is this a good move for my family, no? then FORGET IT. Move on, let go of your disappointment, stop trying to be Super Woman for fuck's sakes, it is not worth the stress. I've got to learn how to think like this BEFORE I say yes. This year was bad, next year will be better.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Our mission

A colleague asked me this the other day. And I had to stop and think about it for a minute. What is my Team's purpose, really? Who do we serve? What are we trying to accomplish? Those are simple questions that should direct our every move. But somewhere along the way we've lost our purpose. And now we have a new big boss who sees our role quite differently than we see it. He's helping me realize that we exist to serve our clients -- in the FIELD. We're a small team and there's always been a lot going on at headquarters or even within my branch to keep us busy. We've never really supported the field, other than socially (they're a great bunch of people). And since it's only a functional relationship (they don't report to HQ), it's really not much of a relationship at all.

I used to always mock those corporate mission exercises. Talk about a waste or consulting dollars. The statement is never more than its fancy plaque. How do you actually implement a new mission -- how can you change the culture without changing the players? But maybe we need to take a closer look at this. Right now, we are falling way short of everyone's expectations and that is not a good feeling.
I've been thinking about it all weekend. None of the old priorities -- the EDRMS, Classification Structure or Retention Schedule -- the pillars of our existence up until now, seem to mean anything to our new boss. Good god, he wants us to pitch in and start boxing up legacy records! I know some of our team (myself included to some extent) think we are beyond clerical work. We're stuck in the theory and would rather leave the minions to figure out how to implement it. Well those days are over. I've gotta get all cosy with paper files again and start showing my new value or else we will no longer exist as a Team -- yikes!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Babies need to be HELD!

I don't like getting emotional and opinionated -- I just can't think or express myself clearly and I end up getting all railed up and both villainizing and insulting whomever does not share my view. Here's one such case. Babies are meant to be held -- not left alone for hours on end in their cribs, swings and other plastic baby holding contraptions. Constant human touch -- being carried during the day and slept with at night is what babies need to feel loved and secure. They will cry less when their needs are being met. They will be able to learn more as they get older because they are a part of everything you see and do. They will grow up to be more independent, intelligent, loving and social ... all because of human touch.

When I see a newborn lying helplessly in their crib, I can barely stand it. In fact, in most cases I just pick up the baby. It's such a natural instinct. I don't understand why some people still believe that you can spoil a newborn. They are so small for such a short time and holding a baby is so easy to do (especially with the plethora of baby carriers available today). There are plenty of years to screw them up with bad parenting -- why not start off by giving your baby your best?
I'm grateful that I can use this blog to get these kinds of things off my chest. Hopefully I'll be able to be able to choose my words better now that I've vented. I don't like judgy parents -- we all have our own style and it's not my place to preach. I know people who think my parenting needs improvement (and they are probably correct). But this one is so fundamental -- it's right up there with breastfeeding (if you can) and not hitting your kids. I'm going to try to be gentle in my approach if I have a prayer at influencing my loved one's behaviour .... this is SO not my specialty! Just gotta do it though.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Talking with Passion

Nothing turns me on more than to hear someone speak with passion. They're not reading from a script, they are speaking from the heart. They really know their material because they've internalized it and can deliver it at the drop of a hat. It's no wonder my old man is a televangelist junkie. I too am immediately drawn in by passion.
It was when I first heard my 'then' boyfriend tell me about what the environment meant to him, that I realized he was deeper than I had originally thought and that there something there worth getting to know. I feel the same way today about my friends and colleagues. My mentor had passion about our field -- I would spend hours listening to her talk at length about why information needed to be managed. I fell in love, took up the cause and am still preaching it.
Only like with religion, it's not easy to accept when your passion lets you down. I've been at this long enough to know that IM is not the answer I thought it was. I've drank too much koolaid. My passion has faded. I need something new to believe in, something or someone to give me hope.
Maybe I'm destined to become a motivational speaker ... or join a cult? Whatever my future, I know that I happiest when I surround myself with people who have passion and more importantly when I too believe that what I am doing makes a difference.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Child Abuse is No Cartoon

I'm going to weigh in on this too -- this weekend's FB campaign to change your profile pic to your fav childhood cartoon to show your support for ending violence against children. And yes I did it -- not because I actually thought it would help the cause, but because it seemed like a fun thing to do. And was there ever a backlash. Take this posting for example- I felt awful after reading it -- was I making light of child abuse by messing around with FB? What should I really do about it? There are millions of helpless children who have no one who can save them. And here I sit at my PC lamenting about how stressful XMas shopping is!
Well, with most things lately, the first thing I can do is look in the mirror. What kind of a parent am I? Not in "theory", but in practice. I may not hit my kids, but am I verbally abusive? How many times has my yelling brought them to tears? What about when I'm just a bit too firm when physically removing them from a fight with each other, or hauling their butts up the stairs while they scream and flail? This is what I have control over -- staying in control. And what about neglect? Putting on the TV or signing them up for yet another activity when I should just be playing with them. Feigning interest in my son's stories when I'm too preoccupied with my troubles? Or even not wanting to put in the effort in my relationship for the sake of the kids. *sigh* These are the things that that FB campaign made me think about. I know I can be the parent I want to be if I just dig deep and feel the love. I remember how impressionable I was as a child. I remember being afraid of my Dad and trying so hard to make him happy. I remember my parents yelling and screaming, name-calling, and threatening. Children deserve happy childhoods. If I haven't accomplished anything in my life, I at least want to say that I gave my three babies that much. xx