Friday, January 30, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 6

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

[Quick interjection from Sheila. This chapter deals with mental illnesses, which tend to be misunderstood by the general public. Clinical depression is not the same as feeling a bit down. Clinical depression is to the blues as a bit of a breeze is to a hurricane. There are similarities BUT! If you, or someone close to you is suffering, please, please get much, much better help than this blog post.]

People often joke that “They're really OCD about their kitchen,” but genuine OCD is a nightmare. Still, it's almost like a sensible habit gone ballistic: most of us would rather like to be cleaner, tidier and more hygienic and punctual, as long as it doesn't take over our lives.
In pop psychology, Tourette's syndrome is associated with involuntary swearing, but only 10% of sufferer do that. They feel an urge building and building until they twitch – say, stabbing out an elbow. It's as compulsive as OCD, and the two things often go together. They're both linked to the basal ganglia, deep in the brain, and drugs help both. These tics are sort-of extreme habits, like OCD, only they're social habits, like raising the eyebrows in greeting.
Perhaps surprisingly, psychological therapy also helps. First you have to become aware of the tic. Then you have to try to work out what triggers it (it could be external, like computer games, or internal, like thinking about Batman). The idea is to catch it before the urge becomes irresistible. Then you do something else instead. If you're about to jerk your head to one side, tense your neck muscles.
That works for habits too.
Of course you have to stick at it, which isn't easy. But in one study, over half of the children with Tourette's managed an improvement. You'd think an adult would find it easier to battle a chocolate habit, wouldn't you?

Clinical depression is partly the result of habitual thoughts. Depressed people tend to believe that their problems are a) all their fault b) permanent and c) unfixable. E.g., I lost my job because I'm useless, therefore I will never find another job, and there's nothing I can do about it. Optimistic people tend to believe the opposite – I lost my job because of the recession, I'll get another when the economy picks up if not before, and I'll find one sooner if I apply for lots of jobs, I'll be flexible about which jobs, and I'll get training if necessary.
Perhaps it a good thing that most people believe they're better drivers than average, more charitable than average and smarter than average. (Depressed people are an exception. They don't behave worse, they just rate themselves worse – arguable more accurately.) Clearly we can't all be better than average, but it does tend to protect our self-esteem.
Depressed people also tend to ruminate – to think a lot about how depressed they are – while non-depressed people deal with a bad mood by distracting themselves.
Of course thinking habits aren't the only cause of depression, but they do illustrate how unhelpful habitual thoughts can be.
When Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is used to treat depression and anxiety, it's based on challenging the habitual thoughts. Drag them out into the open and take a good look.
“If I don't do everything perfectly, that means I'm a complete failure at everything. And if anything goes wrong, it's entirely my fault, always.”
“O RLY?”
Both these steps are harder than they might sound.
It's also worth mentioning that some negative thoughts are helpful. Worrying about a problem generally spurs you to go find a solution. Worry about your health -> eat more veggies and less chocolate. Worry about the electric bill -> save up for it. Of course sometimes worry produces very unhelpful actions. Worry about your health -> assume you're dying soon -> picture the funeral in heartbreaking detail -> drink an entire bottle of rum to forget about it. Worry about the electric bill -> picture yourself living in a cardboard box -> go on a shopping spree to cheer yourself up. Pessimism only works if it produces concrete action instead of abstract misery.
And it's not at all helpful to take the concrete action to extremes, like checking that you've locked the door 20 times instead of once or twice.
If you need help, please reach out for it. Help is available. You don't have to be stuck in a depressing loop.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

She's Back!

My enthusiasm came back! She's sitting on my shoulder, with that lovely silky fur snuggled up against my neck. On Sunday morning I read in Writer's News about a competition for page-turning novels run by a writers' agency. Unlike most such competitions, they were prepared to look at "almost complete drafts" as well as finished ones. And I have an almost complete draft of a whodunnit set in the observatory. I've been wanting to finish it for ages, but it's taken a back seat while I did the two books with local government support. So I got it out and looked it over, and (OK, I'm obviously biased, but) I think it counts as a page turner. Of course there was a catch. Entries had to be in "by the 26th of January". I wasn't sure whether that meant midnight Sunday or midnight Monday, so I decided to do what I could an enter by midnight Sunday. I started a mad rush to write the CV and covering letter and polish up my novel to make it at least clear what I plan to put in the gaps. I managed to sort out a glaring continuity errors as well. And my wonderful enthusiasm came back! She does love fiction and short-term deadlines. Before I knew it, it was 1 am. Oops. Well, I'd missed one deadline, right? I just had to hope that they meant Monday night. I went to bed and me and my enthusiasm got back into it in the morning. We fixed another continuity error, and spellchecked and did the synopsis. I finally submitted it at 11:30 pm on Monday. Best case is that I win the prize (£1,000 and they take me on as a writer. The previous winner did very well indeed.) Obviously that would be fantastic, but I'm sure there are lots of good entries and a few excellent ones. Second best case is that I don't win the priize, but they take me on anyway. That would be fantastic too. Worst case is that I don't even make the short list. But even then, I'm a good step further on with the novel. I must go and get my enthusiasm the fresh mango that I promised. She's definitely earned some.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 5

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

I'm going to try to go faster. I want to get to the practical advice, and I suspect other people do too.

In a novel called “The Dice Man” by George Cockroft, the protagonist, Luke Rinehart, uses a drastic method to escape the rut. He writes down six possibilities, throws the dice, and does whatever. It works because he's consciously making a list of options and then adding a random element. Of course he didn't have to put things like “murder” down as one of the options!

So why don't more of us do it? Well, in the novel, other people are appalled by the random behaviour. We find routines comforting. Flying is less scary the more you do it. Surgery is less tiring the more you do it (which is a very good thing when you arrive in A&E near the end of the shift).

Habits tend to be emotionless. You do have feelings while you, say, brush your teeth, but they're feeling about whatever you're thinking about, which is unlikely to be your teeth. We tend not to be proud of our habits, and feel they don't say much about us and aren't very important for reaching goals – we feel we aren't in control and anyway, we hardly notice most of them.

One of the effects of Parkinson's disease is that patients find it very hard to form new habits and may even forget old ones.

Children tend to be happier in families with regular routines like all eating together, sitting in the same places. It can feel weird to go to a friend's house, where they do things differently.

Most of us learn young to be polite to strangers, so people are nice back and it's self-reinforcing. Sadly, some people start out very pessimistic about strangers; they expect rejection, and that makes them behave in ways which makes rejection more likely. A simple habit of not bothering with “Please”, “Thank you” and “Good morning” can all too easily lead to a lonely old age.

Habits are important at work, too. Companies which stagnate tend to bust (not surprising) but companies which innovate too fast also go bust. You need to have most of the workforce to be running on habit most of the time, because habits are efficient.

Much of our eating is habitual. But if you count when to start, when to stop, what to eat, who to eat it with etc. as separate decisions, we make over 200 of them per day, and very few of them are conscious. Food just falls into our mouths by itself. Much of our shopping is similarly automatic – we buy pretty much the same food that we bought last week.

All this repetition is efficient, but it get very boring. So we decide to change, and then we find we're doing the same old, same old again.

The first step to change is to notice what we're currently doing. We don't need to resort to dice to get out of the rut. We can change things around once we know which bits aren't helping, but it's best to go slowly.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 4

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

The author, Jeremy Dean had a power cut. He looked out of the window and saw that the neighbours' lights were off too, so he called the power company and they said that the engineers were on their way. He lit candles, and went to the bathroom. He flicked the switch, and nothing happened. It took a fraction of a second to understand why. Two hours later, the lights were still off when he went to the bathroom again, and flicked the switch again. Still no light.

Derp! What was he thinking?

Absolutely nothing. A habit is what happens when you're not thinking. You might like to look up Skinner's pigeons (Http://

Humans aren't pigeons. For one thing, they have dreams and goals. In theory, our goals decide out actions – dream of a clean house, get out the mop and bucket. But all too often our dream of getting slim doesn´t stop slices of black forest gateau falling into our mouths. It's partly that strong habits pop back up as soon as you stop concentrating, but there's more going on.

Your environment cues habits. Mostly this is a good thing, because it frees up your brain for other stuff. But it's out of conscious control. Give people sneaky reminders of old age and they'll walk more slowly afterwards. Stereotypes can be nastier than you think. Or they can be helpful – remind Asian-Americans of Asian stereotypes before a maths test, and they'll get much higher scores (because they answer more questions). Remind people of intelligence before a general knowledge test and they'll do better at that too.

Which might explain why it's easier to change habits when you've just moved. Your old environment isn't there to cue your old habits.

Direct cuing is when something in the environment elicits your behaviour. In the common room with Pat and Chris = switch the TV on.

Motivated cuing is when the habit becomes completely divorced from the original goal. For example, when you're a student, you go out drinking with friends. You learn to associate alcohol with freedom and good company. Years later, socializing is still associated with alcohol. Give people sneaky reminders of socializing, and they're more likely to pick the “Free beer” voucher than the “Free coffee” voucher. And once you take a drink you're thinking less clearly and running more on habit, so you're more likely to take another and another. It can get out of hand.

This sort of disconnect is common. Once you associate “Go somewhere else” with “Car”, it becomes very hard to walk to the shops. You want a carton of juice and you're behind the steering wheel and halfway there before you remember - “Oh yeah, I was going to start walking.”

It's all too easy for humans to wind up doing things which don't align with their long-term goals. There's far too much going on in the unconscious.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Has anybody seen my enthusiasm?

Has anybody seen my enthusiasm? She's been gone since Blue Monday and I've looked everywhere.

I've a horrible feeling that she's got out onto the Internet. She's larger than most, her fur is a lovely silky cream colour with chocolate socks and snout, and there's a corkscrew at the end of her tail, where it got caught in my twisted sense of humour.

If you see her, please tell her that I'm sorry. Of course she doesn't have to go on eating cat biscuits - I've bought some posh chocolate just for her, and we'll share a fresh mango.

Please help. I can't possibly go on nailing jelly to the ceiling without her.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 3

 Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

People are astonishingly bad at describing what they find attractive in member of the (usually) opposite sex. But they're no worse if the researcher switched photos – they usually go ahead and describe why they're attracted to the person they originally thought less attractive, and they do it just as enthusiastically as people who're looking at the original photo.

Freud thought of the subconscious as something you could dig out with skilled help, and that's the popular understanding. But it seems to behave more like a black box. Ask people which of four pairs of identical tights they prefer, they generally pick the one on the right,. Ask they why, and they come up with all sorts of explanations except the position. If you suggest the position might have influenced them, they give you a funny look. Ask them about their self esteem, and their answer has no relation to what their body language says.

People with damage to the frontal lobes of the brain may have no breaks on their habits. Put a pair of glasses in front of them, and they'll put the glasses on – on top of the other two pairs they put on a minute ago. At the other extreme, there's alien hand syndrome, where the patient's hand is completely out of the patient's control. It grabs doorknobs, undoes buttons, even hits people, without the patient (consciously) wanting to do any of those things. The patient feels as though someone else is controlling the hand. It's like Dr Strangelove, but of course it's not at all funny for the patient.

These are extreme examples, but they show “how our habits are continually bubbling up from the unconscious”. It's just that most of us inhibit the habits sometimes. Not always. Yup, plonk a piece of chocolate in front of Sheila, and the same thing happens every time.

It's no bad thing that our unconscious can recognise faces, catch balls etc. without conscious intervention. It's just weird and slightly disturbing that we can't see the working, even when we think we can. Ask students why they like the drink they're about to get at the canteen, and they make less accurate predictions about how much they'll drink. Ask them why they chose THIS poster instead of THAT one, and they'll be less happy with the poster a week later.

It's a bit like the fable of the fox and the “sour” grapes, or the smokers who insist that smoking isn't dangerous.

This makes changing habits very tricky. The habit is down there in your unconscious, which, by definition you don't understand and don't control. But recognising the problem is an important first step, and the habit itself is a clue to what's wriggling down in the murky depths.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


The Isaac Newton Group (who run the two big British telescopes on La Palma) will be holding a conference in March on the evolution of galaxies. And they want lots of copies of my book to give to atendees.
So that's me happy.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Eccentrics" by David Weeks

Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies.

A recent email conversation reminded me about my much-loved book on eccentrics written by a proper psychologist who did proper research. One of the first questions he tried to answer was whether or not eccentrics are slightly mentally ill. The answer was a resounding "No!" By all the usual measures, eccentrics are both physically and mentally healthier and happier than the general population. He put this down to:

  1. The stress reduction due to not giving a *COUGH* what other people think and
  2. The innocent pleasure of actually doing what you enjoy, whether that's living in a cave which floods at high tide, moving the the staircase of your house every few months, or keeping 6,000 garden gnomes and knitting them little woolly hats. 

 The case studies are hilarious, and make me and my family look positively tame. I really wish that the book was available in Spanish, so I could by copies for all the people who are e.g. mortally offended that I have "weeds" in my garden.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" Chapter 2

"Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won't cost you any more, but I'll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.

We like to think that we chose our habits on purpose. Yeah right.

Habits build up slowly, like learning to back a car into a tight spot, and we're not always aware that a habit is forming. We tend to assume that we acquire habits as a means to an end. That includes bad habits, although the goal might not be a good one – like getting drunk to forget that you’re an alcoholic.

But sometimes it's the other way around. If your daily walk in the park goes past the ducks, you probably think you do it because you like the ducks. You'll think that even if you did it at random the first time, then the second time you did it because you did it the first time, and the third time because you did it twice before, and so on. The thing is, you're not lying; you really believe you chose it because of the ducks. It's rather like being talked into buying a more expensive car than you wanted, and then convincing yourself that it was worth the extra money. Or changing your mind on an issue, and then being convinced that you always held the view that you've only held since last Thursday. We all want to be right, especially about ourselves.

Of course in real life our habits are some combination of intentions and past behaviour. If a habit is weak (you don't do it that often) you tend to do what you intended (drink more water, watch less TV, whatever). But if you have a strong habit, like eating fast food for lunch every working day, chances are the habit will win. Bizarrely, people with strong habits tend to be more confident that they'll change even though there's much less chance that they'll actually do so. We feel we have more control exactly when we have least.

The main difference seems to be the frequency. If you perform the habit a few times a year, you can probably change. If you do it weekly or more, it's going to be harder. If you do it every time you're in that situation (sit in car, turn on radio: walk into Starbucks, order a latte) it's going to be much harder.

For years psychologists have successfully changed people's intentions. People happily committed to low fat diets, wearing sunscreen, getting more exercise etc. They just don't follow through.

Actually many of our habits are fine. We formed them (or our parents formed them for us) for good reason. It's a darn good idea to brush your teeth, and to look both ways before crossing the street, however preoccupied you are. But we tend not to notice these habits. Instead, we notice the minority of habits which are creating trouble.

You haven't failed to change those habits because you're weak. It's because you're human.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Why aren't I writing?

Why aren't I writing? I'm a writer and I should be writing! I've been
reading John Scalzi's “You're not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your
Laptop to the Coffee Shop”, and he often produced 5,000 words in a
day. Welp.

Maybe it has something to do with trying to catch up with cleaning and
laundry after the party season, and the quarterly tax return, and
taking the decorations down, and distributing my books around the
island, and planning my website overhaul and trying to get fitter and
having a minor lurgy. I can see how that might interfere with writing
a bit. Oh, and I knitted myself a new pair of gloves, because I
couldn't find the old ones. Of course the old gloves turned up just as
I was finishing, along with another pair that I'd forgotten about, but
hey, it was quite nice to knit something.

And so far this year I've written 5 blog posts (most backdated) and 500
words of creative non-fiction which is nearly ready to go, and 500
words of publicity for my books (ditto) and further drafts on two
short stories. So I have been writing – just not very much for the
last ten days.

But I haven't done anything about finally finishing the second edition
of Una espectacular ventana al universo or starting a new book. I have
several ideas about new books, but I haven't done any bum-in-seat,
fingers-on-keyboard work on it at all.

Oh well, 260 words of blog post, at least. I hope it knocks some rust
off the wheels.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Making Habits, Breaking Habits

Christmas in Spain doesn't finish until January 6th, when the three kings take their presents to Baby Jesus, and to good children.

So it's sort-of new year today. Or at least, it's the first day of 2015 when I've had time to get off the hamster wheel for some medium-to-long term planning. So I'm reading "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" by Jeremy Dean.
Like most people, I don't do very well at New Year's resolutions, so I thought I'd try some science. Jeremy Dean is a psychologist, and unlike most self help, this books based on research not personal opinions.

Chapter 1 Birth of a habit

So how long does it take to form a new habit?

If you Google it, the answer's always 3 weeks - but nobody seems to quote any actual - you know - SCIENCE. Jeremy Dean never did find out where the "21 days" comes from, apart from the Internet echo chamber. But he did find a 2010 study whgich found that it depends on what the new habit is. No, really?

The bad news is that it seems to take anywhere from 20 to 250 days. The good news is that skipping the odd day wasn't nearly as bad as some websites suggest. And that was students just trying on their own, without any advice.

You spend somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of your waking hours on habits.

  • You're only half aware of doing them.
  • You have no strong feelings about them. 
  • You tend to do the same things in the same situation. You get in the car, and you put the radio on.
This sort of automatic behaviour saves a lot of time and effort. You really notice it when you move house, and all that automatic behaviour has to be done conciously (Where is the damn potato peeler? Where'e the light switch?) It's very tiring. But since your cues for automatic behaviour have been removed, it does at least make it easier to change our habits.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy New Year

OK, so it's a purely arbitrary point on the Earth's orbit, but hey, let's have fun. And getting off the hamster wheel for some reflection and forward planning isn't a bad idea either.