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The myth of "keeping up"


Do you have a stack of books, journals, manuals, articles, API docs, and blog printouts that you think you'll get to? That you think you need to read? Now, based on past experience, what are the odds you'll get to all of it? Half of it? Any of it? (except for maybe the Wired magazine)

So you let the stack of "things to read" pile up, then eventually when the pile gets to high you end up tossing half of it--or worse, moving it to a deeper "stuff to read someday stack. We have selective amnesia about what we'll ever get to, but mainly because most of us keep feeling like we have to keep up! Keep up with what?

You can't keep up. There is no way. And trying to keep up will probably just make you dumber.You can never be current on everything you think you should be. You can't simultaneously be current on:

Current events
Pop culture
Professional practices
Health/fitness/diet trends
And on and on and on...

Why do we pressure ourselves? Why do we constantly feel like we're struggling to keep up, yet never succeeding? I remember when Java 1.02 came out (the first public release), and it had 200 classes. You could fit the entire class library in the same space as Miss January (magazine centerfold). But then 1.1 came out and the API more than doubled, to 500 classes. It no longer fit on a centerfold, but you could get it on a wall poster. With 200 classes, you really could master the entire API. With 500, it took some effort, but you could at least be familiar with just about everything, given enough time. But then... by Java 1.4, the library had swelled to 2300 classes. And today? It's something like 3500 classes just in the Standard Edition (not including the mobile and enterprise extensions). You could wallpaper an entire room with the class library.

By the year 2000, it had become impossible for even a Sun Java engineer--someone creating the API--to be familiar with everything in the standard library. Yet the rest of us were feeling guilty. Like we were falling behind. Like we weren't hardcore Java programmers.

So... it's time to let that go. You're not keeping up. I'm not keeping up. And neither is anyone else. At least not in everything. Sure, you'll find the guy who is absolutely cutting-edge up to date on some technology, software upgrade, language beta, whatever. But when you start feeling inferior about it, just think to yourself, "Yeah, but I bet he thinks Weezer is still a cool new band..."

Besides letting go, what else can we do to combat Information Anxiety? I have just a few tips, but I'm hoping you'll add more:

Find the best aggregators
Aggregators become increasingly more important. Finding the right person, business, web site, etc. who does the best job of filtering (attenuating) in a specific area adds time to your life.

Get summaries
Publisher Joe Wikert recently blogged quite positively about a service called getAbstract, that offers online book summaries. Initially skeptical, Joe found getAbstract to be a tremendous time saver. (I haven't checked it out, but I tend to trust Joe's advice)

Cut the redundancy!
Do you really need three news magazines? Do you have to subscribe to every technical journal? Get with your friends or colleagues and divide up the main ones. Each person is responsible for subscribing to and keeping up with just one, letting the others know IF there's something in a particular issue worth a read.

Unsubscribe to as many things as possible
Like the previous point, you probably have way too much redunancy in both your printed and online subscriptions. Again, if you're using the right aggregators, they'll tell you when something is worth it. For print, you can save some trees if you give up more of your physical newspapers and magazines.

Recognize that gossip and celebrity entertainment are black holes
It's like watching a car accident despite our best intentions... we just can't help look, so the more you can stay away from the publications that document every personal detail of every music and film star the better. Let that be your guilty pleasure for when you're at the dentist's office...

Pick the categories you want for a balanced perspective, and include some from OUTSIDE your main field of interest
Better to have one design magazine (architecture, product design, graphic design, etc.) (regardless of whether you're a designer or not), one news magazine, one arts magazine (music, photography, etc.), and one technology/lifestyle magazine (Wired, Make, etc.) than to get rid of everything but your three software development journals. Keeping up with a different field is sometimes just as useful (if not more) than keeping up with your current one.

Be a LOT more realistic about what you're likely to get to, and throw the rest out.
Don't file it. Don't store it. What you don't have piling up you can't feel guilty about. Some people put little height limits on their "to read" stack. (OK, when it gets as high as that drawer, I must throw out the oldest 50%...)

In any thing you need to learn, find a person who can tell you what is:
* Need to know
* Should know
* Nice to know
* Edge case, only if it applies to you specifically
* Useless

Too many product manuals, tech docs, books, etc. include everything without necessarily giving you the "weighting" for how imporant each thing is.

Finally, are WE part of the problem? Are we overwhelming our users with documentation? Or are we part of the solution to their info anxiety? We're the ones that should be helping our users really focus on the things they need at any stage. While we all recognize that we are stressed for time and on info overload, we tend to think our users have all the time in the world to figure it all out (RTFM).

There's an opportunity for all of us to help our users (or start a business around helping people reduce the info overload/pressure-to-keep-up stress most of us feel).

In the meantime, take a deep breath and repeat after me, "I will never keep up. Keeping up is a myth." And if it makes you feel any better, add, "John isn't keeping up either."

Once we let go of trying to be more-current-than-thou, we can spend more time on things that really matter. Like learning to Ollie.
(And thanks to Miles Davies for the spectacular tip from an earlier post: "stop trying to ollie. get zen on its ass...be point b.")

Posted by Kathy on April 29, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (55) | TrackBack

My passion is awesome, your passion is lame


It's the golfer who spends an entire weekend hitting a little ball with a stick but slams his co-worker for "wasting time with mindless video games". It's the Java fan dissing the Ruby enthusiast. It's the audiophile who paid $8,000 for a home stereo but can't believe you spent $1,000 on that Nikon lens.

While we usually have no trouble justifying our passion to ourselves we have a tough time justifying it to those who don't share that particular passion. We all have passion double-standards. Mine makes sense, yours doesn't. The time and money I spend on my passion is worth it, yours is a waste.

In the past, I've said that one characteristic of people with a passion is that they are irrational about that passion. But by whose judgement? Who decides it's rational to spend an extraordinary amount on the best cooking pans and utensils, yet irrational to buy a digital SLR when "my $200 point-and-shoot Canon takes just as good a picture?" Who decides that you shouldn't watch too much TV, but your cause is judgemental and self-righteous? Who decides that it should be obvious why the iPod is worth the extra money, but come on--spending that much on dog food!?

The point is, one person's irrational zealotry is another person's reasonable passion. It all depends on your perspective. (Of course this is a continuum--with a few obsessed ones out on the extreme edge of the passion curve. And unfortunately, the extreme zealots are the ones that folks like to point out as examples of why your passion is so irrational.)

So, what can we do to help our users explain their passion to others? Sales and marketing people put a ton of effort into providing the "rational justification" for a buying, joining, whatever-it-is decision, but once they've accepted the justifications and paid their money, that's it. Yet as they start to become truly passionate, this is when they may need justifications the most! Not for themselves, but for others. And it's a different kind of justification...

Your passionate users don't need you to help justify the product, they need you to help them justify the passion.

It does me no good to explain the benefits of the $1,000 lens I just bought if my passion for photography makes no sense to you.

It does you no good to justify why you joined rock climbing gym Foo instead of Bar, if I think your passion for climbing is not just irrational but dangerous.

And how can I possibly explain why I spent all that extra money for a Parelli-brand horse halter if you think "natural horsemanship" is nothing but marketing hype?

But this gets to the heart of one of the most important aspects of passion--that it goes beyond the product/service/cause itself. Our passions often represent something about who we are. For many of us, the thing we're passionate about is not just a hobby, product, service, cause, etc... it's a way of life.. Ted Leung explainined to me that as a result of his relatively recent passion for photography, he "sees the world differently now." Passionate golfers have apparently elevated golf to some kind of spiritual status--it is, for them, about much more than just hitting a ball with a stick. Ditto with fly fishing (it's apparently not about the fish or the flys). The guys from 37signals offer much more than software apps... they represent a philosophy (the whole "getting real/it-just-doesn't-matter" thing). MindJet's Mind Manager not a mind-mapping tool, it's a way of thinking.

If we truly want to support our passionate users (or help them to get there in the first place), we need to consider how this passion fits in the context of their work or personal life. If our user's spouse is complaining about all the time they spend doing [whatever it is], can we offer a friends/family free workshop? Educational demos? Create a DVD that helps define some of what this means to people who have a passion for this thing? Case studies? It might be recommending an influential film that speaks to the deeper nature of this passion (I must admit, I got teary-eyed over a golf movie once). At the very least, we should make sure that existing users have access to the same kinds of white papers, product comparisons, technical or financial justifications that we give to prospective users. (Although again, this addresses the THING and not the passion.)

Bottom line: if we want to help our users explain their passion to others, we need to help give them the tools to do so. It may often be unsuccessful--some people will always have a closed mind around things they can't see or feel for themselves--but it's way better than nothing.

Not that I should have to justify my passions, of course, because--DUH--the justification is self-evident to anyone who "gets it." ; )

Posted by Kathy on April 25, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

It's TV Turn Off Week--can you do it?


April 24-30 is the official TV Turn Off Week! I've been TV-free for more than six years, along with my co-authors Bert, Eric, and Beth, and none of us will ever go back.

Imagine what you might do with that time? It's usually a misperception that one is too tired to do anything but television, but many people have to lose electricity or have their TV break before they realize that. [Many researchers claim that people don't watch television because they're too tired to have sex, but rather become too tired to have sex because of television.]

For Turn Off Week, I don't think it's cheating too much if you, say, download a show from iTunes and watch it on your computer while you're waiting for something to render... ; )

Or, get your movie fix by going to a theater. It's a different thing (at least according to film critic Roger Ebert--not an expert on the brain!) who refers to it as something like, Television has a passive hypnotic effect, but watching a film at the theater is absorbing--you are completely engaged. But many of us intuitively feel this--when you finish watching television, you usually feel even more tired. When you finish watching a film, you often feel at least mentally energized--wanting to think and/or talk about it. (There are several different explanations for the difference, including the technology of non-digital film projection vs. television, the environment, the mindfullness, etc.]

I won't repeat everything I said in my earlier post Kill the TV, Keep the Shows, but a few of the quotes from the Scientific American Mind piece on television addiction include:

"Most of the criteria of substance dependence can apply to people who watch a lot of TV."

"...University of British Columbia studied a mountain community that had no television until cable finally arrived. Over time, both adults and children in the town became less creative in problem solving, less able to persevere at tasks, and less tolerant of unstructured time."

"To some researchers, the most convincing parallel between TV and addictive drugs is that people experience withdrawal symptoms when they cut back on viewing."

"Even researchers who study TV for a living marvel at the medium's hold on them personally. Percy Tannenbaum of the University of California at Berkeley has written: 'Among life's more embarrassing moments have been countless occasions when I am engaged in conversation in a room while a TV set is on, and I cannot for the life of me stop from periodically glancing over to the screen.'"

At the Conference on World Affairs, Dr. Thomas Lewis, who I referenced in the Why face to face still matters post, talked at length about how drops in social and community involvement track closely with the arrival of cable to an area with no TV reception (most heavily documented in the Canadian studies mentioned earlier). He mentioned scenarios where a community loses power for several days in a row, cutting off their nightly TV ritual, and they suddenly get to know their neighbors for the first time. (Other factors are at work there as well, but it's not that hard to imagine that the lack of TV played a role.)

Throwing out my television has made a greater difference in my life than anything else I've ever done. But again, I recognize that there are some people who have the discipline to watch only very specific programs, using time-shifting to skip ads and news promos, as opposed to saying, "Let's see what's on TV..." For me, I found television to be too much of an event horizon; the only way for me to break free was to get rid of it completely. Of course, getting rid of TV just means I have more time to obsessively check my email.

So, is there anyone here who isn't already diligent with their Tivo, who is willing to disable the TV tuner (unplug cable/antennas, etc.) for a week and watch DVDs or shows on the computer? (Under the assumption that for most, viewing habits change dramatically when you shift from having television available 24-7 vs. watching specific shows--as mindful choices--on a computer.)
Note: If you have kids who might really struggle with this, there are more resources on how to do this at tvturnoff.org.

Be sure to stock up on Sudokus. Although... I think those evil little number puzzles are far more addicting than TV. That said, they're better for your brain and don't do that whole "orienting response" described in the article I referenced:
"The effects of the orienting response include dilation of the blood vessels to the brain, slowing of the heart, constricting of the blood vessels to major muscle groups, blockage of alpha waves to the brain for a few seconds, etc."

[Bonus link: Communicatrix writes a poem about TV Turn Off Week]

[Picture and video are from Adbusters.org]

Posted by Kathy on April 24, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (57) | TrackBack

Moving up the wisdom hierarchy


If you're an aggregator "harnessing collective intelligence", what are you aggregating? If it's data and information, you're competing with just about everything--Google searches, reference docs both online and printed, the majority of tech books and articles, etc. But if you're aggregating up the hierarchy through knowledge, and especially understanding and wisdom, you're adding huge value to someone's life.

If you're in knowledge management, what exactly are you capturing and managing?

If you're a teacher, what are you teaching? Facts and information, or practical knowledge and understanding? Are you teaching the What and the How but without the Why and the When? More importantly, what are you testing? (Not that in the US most public school teachers have a huge say in this, unfortuntately)

If you're a tech writer, what are you writing?

If you're creating tutorials and docs for your users, what are you focusing on? Remember, kicking ass and creativity usually doesn't happen at the data, information, and even the knowledge level. If you're not taking your users up the top tiers, you might be missing the chance to give them more inspiring (cognitively arousing?) experiences.


The idea (and a zillion variations including mine) of the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) hierarchy has been going around for quite some time (especially in knowledge management circles), but how come everyone isn't paying more attention to it?! Some are, of course--Richard Saul Wurman in particular, has made a point of referring to his work as "the understanding business", rather than stopping with information or even knowledge.

[Other links: Russell Ackoff wikipedia entry, data-to-wisdom curve, WIKID + Power model, a different take on the origin of the DIKW model]

And fortunately, even those focused on information architecture and information design often consider knowledge and understanding as well as information.

The thing is, the demand for tools and services that take us (mere mortals with our slowly evolving brains) keeps increasing, potentially exponentially. According to Wurmans' Information Anxiety (one of my all-time favorite books):
"There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5,000."

There are a gazillion places to get a roundup of basic data/facts and information (which of course we need). It's not tough to find "what to know and how to do" knowledge out there either. But it's not until we get to the higher levels that we start truly getting if and when we should use something. What are the long-term consequences? What are the ethical considerations?

If we could teach kids in elementary school just one thing (besides reading), my wish is that it would be systems thinking. But too much of even our adult training/education (including much of what I create) is focused on short-term "just-the-facts-mam" or how-to hacks and tutorials. We obviously need reference info and how-to's, or everything comes to a grinding halt, but without the higher elements of understanding and wisdom, we might never recognize that the thing we're learning to do is NOT the right choice!

One of the easiest ways to bump something up a level is to simply include a few things like:

When NOT to use something
(Our Design Patterns book, for example, talks about not just how and when to apply patterns but when not to.


How to recognize when it was NOT a good idea to use or apply this [whatever]

Lessons learned from others, real case studies good AND bad

Links/referrals to communities of practice

Simulations (best of all--provide the tools and scenarios that let them discover what the long-term consequences could be)

So, what are you doing to move up the hierarchy... or to move your users (students, customers, readers, members, guests, etc.) up the hierarchy?

[Update: Shawn Callahan left a comment with an alternative perspective that's well worth the read.]

Posted by Kathy on April 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Link roundup

Here are some things I've stumbled on recently that I like, and you might too:

From new media designer David Seah's wonderful blog, check out the Printable CEO (especially if you're a freelancer/contractor).

From Leisa Reichelt's blog, a user-experience post I believe we should all give some thought to. (I strongly agree with it)

I've spent some time on Tim King's blog, which could be considered mostly a summary of common sense, but then in many ways that's what the passionate users blog is. Sometimes it's all about the reminders.

From Jett Atwood's Coding Horror blog (a favorite of mine), I especially liked the recent Best Practices and Puffer Fish.

I've recently discovered the cogdogblog "Alan Levine's place to bark about instructional technology, web development, etc."

One of my absolute favorite teaching blogs is frequent-commenter Vicki Davis' coolcatteacher. (Another one is Judy Breck's goldenswamp)

I've been talking with John Dodds for quite some time (you've probably come across him at Hugh's gapingvoid), and it's about frickin' time he started a blog. It's Make Marketing History "the views of a marketing deviant", and I'm interested in just about anything he has to say.

Finally (and since we're all about the brain here), who better to give you a psychological profile than Hello Kitty? ; )

Posted by Kathy on April 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Miracles and Determination


I was barn-sitting last night for my friend Mary at her new home, Grace Farms. No sooner did Mary leave when one of the mares decided it was a good moment to bring a new little filly into the world. This was my first experience with the birth of a foal, and it seemed miraculous.

The most amazing part was watching just how much a newborn horse has to learn in its first few hours. Hour 1: stand up. Hour 2: walk and eat, rear up. Hour 3: run and kick. Talk about getting past the "suck threshold" quickly...

The photographs are of the little filly (no name yet) last night when she was 10 minutes old.


One thing I'd never realized is that while getting up for the first time is tricky for a newborn foal, getting back down can be even tougher.

The video (1.2 mb Quicktime) is of another foal, Henry, born yesterday as well, trying to figure out how to lie down. It's a lesson in determination and problem-solving : )

He was about 6 hours old when we shot the video.

By this morning, both foals were crossing the "kick ass" threshold, and loving every moment of being alive.

Posted by Kathy on April 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Cognitive seduction (a Typology of User Experience Pleasures)


Is Sudoku seductive? Is chess sexy? Is crafting code a turn-on? To our brains, absolutely. But while most of us don't use the word "seductive" in non-sexual contexts, good game designers do. They know what turns your brain on, and they're not afraid to use it. They're experts at the art of "cognitive arousal", and if we're trying to design better experiences for our users, we should be too.

I'm not talking about using sex to arouse your brain. I'm talking about the kind of "experiential pleasure" that comes from solving a puzzle, overcoming a challenge, exploring new territory, becoming swept up in a narrative, interacting with others in a social framework, and discovering something new about yourself. I'm talking about things that engage the brain in a way that Gregory Bateson describes in The Ecology of Mind, discussing games:

"... they are important emotions that we feel and go through and enjoy and find in some mysterious ways to enlarge our spirit."

In the book Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, game designer Marc LeBlanc defines 8 categories of experiences in a "typology of pleasure". (A slightly different approach also described in the book was developed by Michael J Apter, developer of Reversal Theory.) I took a moment to tweak the "the kinds of experiential pleasure players derive from playing games" to apply it to the NON-game experiences we create for our users.

Typology of Cognitive Pleasures
(in no particular order)

1. Discovery
User experience as exploration of new territory

2. Challenge
User experience as obstacles to overcome, goals lying just beyond current skill and knowledge levels

3. Narrative
User experience as story arc (user on hero's journey) and character identification

4. Self-expression
User experience as self-discovery and creativity

5. Social framework
User experience as an opportunity for interaction/fellowship with others

6. Cognitive Arousal
User experience as brain teaser

7. Thrill
User experience as risk-taking with a safety net

8. Sensation
User experience as sensory stimulation

9. Triumph
User experience as opportunity to kick ass

10. Flow
User experience as opportunity for complete concentration, extreme focus, lack of self-awareness

11. Accomplishment
User experience as opportunity for productivity and success

12. Fantasy
User experience as alternate reality

13. Learning
User experience as opportunity for growth and improvement

I'm going to add this as one of my gazillion checklists to help stay focused on what's going on between the user's ears, and to keep motivating me to think about ways to give users a better experience. Clearly we can't--and wouldn't want to--design a user experience that includes all of those things, but even the best games don't. The point is to see if there are some we can add, or at least tune, to give our users a richer (hi-res) experience.

Given that I spent all of twenty minutes on this, I'm seriously hoping that you'll add to it or refine it for me and my co-author/teacher/developers.

And yes, the picture at the top was a blatant attempt to arouse your brain ; )

Posted by Kathy on April 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain

Everyone's favorite A-list target, Robert Scoble, announced the unthinkable a few days ago: he will be moderating his comments. But what some people found far more disturbing was Robert's wish to make a change in his life that includes steering clear of "people who were deeply unhappy" and hanging around people who are happy. The harsh reaction he's gotten could be a lesson in scientific ingorance, because the neuroscience is behind him on this one.

Whether it's a good move is up to each person to decide, but I've done my best here to offer some facts. [Disclaimer: I'm not an authority on the brain! I have, however, spent the last 15 years doing research and applying it, both in my work and also because I have a serious brain disorder, and my brain knowledge could be a matter of life and death. Another disclaimer: I haven't spoken with Robert about this; I'm simply offering some science that supports the decision he may have made for entirely different reasons.]

A few things I'll try to explain in this post:

1) One of the most important recent neuroscience discoveries--"mirror neurons", and the role they play in a decision like Robert's

2) The heavily-researched social science phenomenon known as "emotional contagion"

3) Ignorance and misperceptions around the idea of "happy people"

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons have been referred to by scientists like V.S. Rmachandran as one of the most important neuroscientific breakthroughs of recent history. This Nova video is a great introduction, but here's the condensed version:

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of "mirror neurons" found in monkeys. It's what these neurons do that's amazing--they activate in the same way when you're watching someone else do something as they do when you're doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that...

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn't need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

"Choose your role models carefully."
"Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better."
"You're hanging out with the wrong crowd; they're a bad influence."
"Don't watch people doing it wrong... watch the experts!"

We've all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone--we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you'll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we've spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session--despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we're around is nearly irresistible.

When we're consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I'm not suggesting that we can't or should'nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don't want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations--where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror--we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around "happy people" and keeping his distance from "deeply unhappy" people, he's keeping his brain from making--over the long term--negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

"If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion."

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it's his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help--it's simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak's book:

"Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions," according to Stonsy. "If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior--resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage."

If you were around one or more people with a potentially harmful contagious disease, you would probably take steps to protect yourself in some way. And if you were the contagious one, you'd likely take steps to protect others until you were sure the chance of infecting someone else was gone.

But while we all have a lot of respect for physical biological contagions, we do NOT have much respect for physical emotional contagions. (I said "physical", because science has known for quite some time that "emotions" are not simply a fuzzy-feeling concept, but represent physical changes in the brain.)

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

"...social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measels or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice."

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on "mirror neurons" helps explain the underlying cause. But it's not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:
"When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines - social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology."

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven't experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven't felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we've watched it happen to someone we care about. We've noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We've all known at least one person who really did seem able to "light up the room with their smile," or another who could "kill the mood" without saying a word. We've all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren't able to articulate.

So, Robert's choice makes sense if he is concerned about the damaging effects of emotional contagion. But... that still leaves one big issue: is "catching" only positive emotions a Good Thing? Does this mean surrounding ourselves with "fake" goodness and avoiding the truth? Does surrounding ourselves with "happy people" mean we shut down critical thinking skills?

Happy People

The notion of "Happy People" was tossed around in the Robert-Lost-His-Mind posts as something ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. One blogger equated "happy people" with "vacuous". The idea seems to be that "happy people" implies those who are oblivious to the realities of life, in a fantasy of their own creation, and without the ability to think critically. The science, however, suggests just the opposite.

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain's fear system--one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure--when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there's no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn't pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes. Many neuroscientists (and half the US population) believes that it is exactly this fear != rational thought that best explains the outcome of the last US presidential election... but I digress.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

"Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people's ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. "

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

"Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol."

And while we're dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let's look at a couple more misperceptions:

"Happy people aren't critical."
"Happy people don't get angry."
"Happy people are obedient."
"Happy people can't be a disruptive force for change."

Hmmm... one of the world's leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe--with laughter--some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective...

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn't believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can't be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

"The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope."

And among the "happy people", there's Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

But then there's the argument that says "anger" is morally (and intellectually) superior to "happy". The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

"People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can't take things in stride, and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake."

Of course it's still a myth that "happy people" don't get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there's a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there's this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation--"if you can't say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can't be authentic and honest." While that may be true, here's what the psychologists say:

"Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that "letting it rip" with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you're angry with) resolve the situation.

It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge."

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

"Be the change that you want to see in the world."

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.


Remember the flight attendant's advice... you must put on your own oxygen mask first.

[UPDATE: I had seen so many blog posts painting "happy" as equivalent to any-synonym-for-brainless, that I didn't really care who used which word--and word "vacuous" was just one more example of what's been said about Robert and the Happy People. But, the author of the post that first used that word was Shelley Powers, who feels this to be a very bad move on my part, so, I'd like to correct that the original post with the word "vacuous", and Shelley's response to my post here.]

Posted by Kathy on April 17, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (132) | TrackBack

Animals love exercise... why don't we?


Want to be a little smarter? Have a better memory? Stay mentally sharp? Improve higher brain function? Run. Those who exercise have a mental advantage over those who don't.

"...exercisers showed significant improvements in the higher mental processes of memory and in "executive functions" that involve planning, organization, and the ability to mentally juggle different intellectual tasks at the same time.

"What we found so fascinating was that exercise had its beneficial effect in specific areas of cognitive function that are rooted in the frontal and prefrontal regions of the brain."

The brain-boosting (and prevention of brain decline) effects of physical exercise have been studied nearly to death. The confusing part is why so many humans do not exercise. And this is where we can learn from our pets.

Take a healthy dog and put it in a confined area (house, kennel, etc.). Then take him out to a park or trail, and remove the leash. What happens? Take a horse out of a stall or small paddock and turn him loose in a larger enclosure (what we call "turning out"). What happens? The photos on this page are an example of what my horses do every single day.

Take a human out of his work cubicle or off the couch and turn him loose outside. What happens? Hmmm... for far too many of us, nothing happens. Or we turn around and walk right back in the door and head for the couch or the chair in front of our computer. The one thing that usually does not happen is the kind of physical exuberance--the sheer joy of being able to run and jump--that so many other animals do.


Where did we lose that overpowering desire to run and jump?

Obviously my lifestyle is quite different from my dog and my horses. But of all the differences, two come to mind first:

1) Dogs don't do television

2) Horses don't run for cardio health, weight loss, brain fitness, blood pressure, or anything else but the love of moving.


I'm not sure how to regain that. I run several times a week, but not because it feels good to DO it, but because it feels good to HAVE DONE it. It's the post-run experience I'm looking for, where I can stop for that double latte on the way home with less guilt, and where I have more energy for the rest of the day. It's for later that night, when I always sleep a little better on the days I run.

And of course it's never too late
"If you think it's too late to get started with a fitness routine, a 1999 study by Kramer and associates found that even previously sedentary people over age 60 could improve their mental processing abilities with exercise. People who took part in the study walked rapidly for 45 minutes three days a week. They significantly improved mental-processing abilities that decline with age, and particularly tasks that rely heavily on the frontal lobes of the brain."

I'm sure you've realized that this entire post was just a barely-plausible excuse to show off some pictures of my horses, but that doesn't mean it's not valid. Every day when I take my dog for a walk or play with the horses, I watch them tear around and think, "Why do I have to force myself to do what they do because they love it?"

I did post a few tips last year in my fitness hacks for geeks post, but I've added one more gadget to my personal toolkit--the Garmin Forerunner 201. I absolutely love it (although I wish it could store your altitude changes; it's great for pace and distance, but while it will display your current altitude, it doesn't save it as part of your run/walk history).


One of these days, remind me to tell you all about how cool and special Icelandic horses are. OK, if you insist...Iceland has no natural predators for horses, so they're far less afraid than virtually every other breed (this is the same bloodline the Vikings brought to Iceland 1,000 years ago, and no horse has ever been allowed into Iceland since then). This lets them use their brains for thinking, so they're shockingly smart and fascinating to be with. It wasTim O'Reilly who got me into these marvelous creatures; he and his family live on a hill overlooking an Icelandic farm, and over time they found themselves falling in love with these horses and getting several of their own. He introduced me to his horses, and it was love at first sight. I spent the entire year after that learning about them and searching for one of my own. They're also the most comfortable horses to ride--they have a special gait called a "tolt" that you could ride carrying a full glass of wine and not spill a drop.

The two in the photos are Andi and Kara, brother and sister, who remind me every day that I should get off my ass and run and leap and cause trouble.

Posted by Kathy on April 14, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack

Why face-to-face still matters!


We email. We wiki. We blog. We IM. We convince ourselves that as long as we can write well, these are all good forms of communication. Perhaps in some ways even better, since we're not distracted (blinded, biased, seduced) by the person's physical presence.

And we are wrong.

According to the neuroscientists, anyway. I've just come back from a couple of days at the Conference on World Affairs, and attended a couple of different presentations where Dr. Thomas Lewis spoke. He has a particular interest in neurobiology (including the neurobiology of love), and what the brain does and does not want and need.

One of the key points he made was that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that text is even half as effective as face-to-face at communicating a message. He rattled off a ton of studies and evidence, but I was too engrossed in the topic to take many notes, so I don't have references to most of them.

We all are aware of the notion that most of the information we get in a face-to-face communication is NOT from the words themselves, but rather from body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. What he finds troubling, though, is how we trick ourselves into thinking that (especially with all our text messaging tech) face-to-face is overrated. How we trick ourselves into thinking that we can truly know someone and experience real communication through text alone.

Although his explanation dove into the chemistry of face-to-face, LIVE interaction with another human vs. any other form of communication, one point was quite simple:

We never had to learn to process body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. We evolved this capability...it's innate. But we had to spend years learning to read and write with any level of sophistication. The brain needs and expects these other--more significant--channels of information, and when they don't come... the brain suffers (and so does the communication). And the problem goes way beyond just an increased chance for misinterpretation.

Of course someone brought up smileys and winkies, etc. and he just gave us that "do you honestly believe that's somehow going to communicate anything remotely approximating subtle emotions?"

Part of the issue they've discovered in research is just how crucial the immediate response is. In still-face effect experiements with infants, for example, they learned that babies become immediately distressed when their mother maintains a "still face" that does not show any response/feedback with what the baby is doing. This makes sense, but what's really interesting is when they experimented with video. In some of these variations on the still-face effect, mothers and babies were on closed-circuit monitors where they could each see each other in real-time, through a television monitor. The babies were much happier when their mother's face was responsive to their own... less distressed than when the mother was right in front of the baby but maintaining a still face!

So, it was the responsiveness that mattered as well as the visual information. But just how quick does the feedback/response need to be? When they took the same experiment but introduced a short delay (I can't recall the amount -- but it was less than a few seconds), the babies became distressed again. Even a small degree of latency killed the feedback/interaction/responsiveness the baby's brains were expecting and needing.

Of course, we're adults, and not babies, but again--Dr. Lewis pointed out that we still have the same basic neurochemistry, and that no matter how much we practice communicating through text, the brain still finds it stressful. He indicated that the only population whose lives have improved through the use of text over face-to-face are those with a serious problem of shyness. In the brains of the shy, he said, a previously unknown face triggers a fear or anxiety response in their amygdala which doesn't happen in text.

He said that video chat is better than any other form of non face-to-face, because you get facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, AND real-time responsiveness. But--he said there's still a very unsettling feature for the brain because there's really no way for BOTH speakers to make eye contact! If you look at the camera, then the other person sees you looking at them, but then your experience suffers. So you can either watch the person you're chatting withwhich helps your experience but causes theirs to sufffer (since you won't be looking into the camera, so to THEM you'll be looking down), OR you can look in the camera and improve their experience. But there's no way to have the camera right in your face, in a place where you can still look into the other person's eyes. Bottom line: You can see the camera or the person's eyes... but not both.

And even with the benefits of adding video to your chat, there's still a lot the scientists don't know about other factors surrounding human communication that can't be captured electronically. Smell, for example, might be far more powerful than we realize--even when below our conscious awareness...

This is just a small taste of the things he talked about, but I wanted to get it down while it was still fresh.

So, what to do if you're like me and work mostly remote from co-workers? Using AV chat is a HUGE improvement for the reasons I listed. But there's no substitution for face-to-face... so anything you can do to try to interact with people IN PERSON is critical. Even if it's just a once a year meeting, the very fact that you've had a chance to see and hear that person and experience them in front of you goes a long way toward helping you when you get back to your remote office and return to text.

But there's more--he stressed that having face-to-face interaction is so crucial to the brain that even if you can't do face-to-face with your co-workers, we should all try to make sure we have a healthy amount of live social interaction. So, join a local user group. Spend more time with friends. Attend conferences. And--he stressed most of all--stop watching television. (more on that in another post, but part of it has to do with the way having television on tricks one part of your brain into thinking you're having a social interaction--all these people having conversations in your living room--but fails to give the brain what it expects and needs from that interaction.

I'll say more tomorrow, but for now I want to add that I'm thrilled to have met many of you in person at conferences and other events, and I'm hoping I'll have a chance one day to meet more of you. For now, you'll just have to trust that I have a smile on my face as I type this : )

[And photos of your face help too, so if you dare (and circumstances permit), you should post a picture of your face somewhere and make sure people have it. Ask the person you're emailing with if you can send a photo so they "know who they're talking to" a little better, and ask if they'll do the same. More on other tips a little later...]

Posted by Kathy on April 13, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack