On The Better Angels of our Nature

I recently finished reading The Better Angels of our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined – by Steven Pinker.

Below are excerpts from this book that I found particularly insightful:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history…No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.

Systemic cruelty was far from unique to Europe. Hundreds of methods of torture, applied to millions of victims, have been documented in other civilizations, including the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Chinese, Hindus, Polynesians, Aztecs, and many African kingdoms and Native American tribes. Brutal killings and punishments were also documented among the Israelites, Greeks, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks. Indeed, as we saw at the end of chapter 2, all of the first complex civilizations were absolutist theocracies which punished victimless crimes with torture and mutilation.

He then outlined his three conditions for perpetual peace. The first is that states should be democratic. Kant himself preferred the term republican, because he associated the word democracy with mob rule; what he had in mind was a government dedicated to freedom, equality, and the rule of law…Kant’s second condition for perpetual peace was that “the law of nations shall be founded on a Federation of Free States”—a “League of Nations,” as he also called it…The third condition for perpetual peace is “universal hospitality” or “world citizenship.”

An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy.

The vulnerability to civil war of countries in which control of the government is a winner-take-all jackpot is multiplied when the government controls windfalls like oil, gold, diamonds, and strategic minerals. Far from being a blessing, these bonanzas create the so-called resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty and fool’s gold. Countries with an abundance of nonrenewable, easily monopolized resources have slower economic growth, crappier governments, and more violence.

Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition…Another causal pathway is an increase in invitations to adopt the viewpoints of people unlike oneself.

Dangerous ideologies erupt when these faculties fall into toxic combinations. Someone theorizes that infinite good can be attained by eliminating a demonized or dehumanized group. A kernel of like-minded believers spreads the idea by punishing disbelievers. Clusters of people are swayed or intimidated into endorsing it. Skeptics are silenced or isolated. Self-serving rationalizations allow people to carry out the scheme against what should be their better judgment.

On a closing note:

Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.

A highly recommended read in the areas of sociology and psychology.

Thinking Fast and Slow

This book, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, has been on my reading list for quite some time. It has been referenced countless times in earlier readings of mine around decision making, human behavior, thought process, intuition and reasoning. It is also on nearly every reading list of must-reads within its category. Despite the very high expectation I had of this book, it has delivered far beyond them both in terms of depth and breadth in addressing the topic of human thinking.

This is a book about cognitive biases:

When you are asked what you are thinking about, you can normally answer. You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is that the typical way. Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. You cannot trace how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a hint of irritation in your spouse’s voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid a threat on the road before you became consciously aware of it. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind…Much of the discussion in this book is about biases of intuition. However, the focus on error does not denigrate human intelligence, any more than the attention to diseases in medical texts denies good health. Most of us are healthy most of the time, and most of our judgments and actions are appropriate most of the time. As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.

Daniel goes on to explain how the research, both in terms of hypothesis and associated experiments, Amos and him were conducting was different:

Historians of science have often noted that at any given time scholars in a particular field tend to share basic assumptions about their subject. Social scientists are no exception; they rely on a view of human nature that provides the background of most discussions of specific behaviors but is rarely questioned. Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, people are generally rational, and their thinking is normally sound. Second, emotions such as fear, affection, and hatred explain most of the occasions on which people depart from rationality. Our article challenged both assumptions without discussing them directly. We documented systematic errors in the thinking of normal people, and we traced these errors to the design of the machinery of cognition rather than to the corruption of thought by emotion…The use of demonstrations provided scholars from diverse disciplines notably philosophers and economists—an unusual opportunity to observe possible flaws in their own thinking. Having seen themselves fail, they became more likely to question the dogmatic assumption, prevalent at the time, that the human mind is rational and logical. The choice of method was crucial: if we had reported results of only conventional experiments, the article would have been less noteworthy and less memorable. Furthermore, skeptical readers would have distanced themselves from the results by attributing judgment errors to the familiar fecklessness of undergraduates, the typical participants in psychological studies. Of course, we did not choose demonstrations over standard experiments because we wanted to influence philosophers and economists. We preferred demonstrations because they were more fun, and we were lucky in our choice of method as well as in many other ways. A recurrent theme of this book is that luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome. Our story was no exception.

The author then goes on to summarize the structure of the book and the areas covered:

The book is divided into five parts. Part 1 presents the basic elements of a two-systems approach to judgment and choice. It elaborates the distinction between the automatic operations of System 1 and the controlled operations of System 2, and shows how associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant. I attempt to give a sense of the complexity and richness of the automatic and often unconscious processes that underlie intuitive thinking, and of how these automatic processes explain the heuristics of judgment. A goal is to introduce a language for thinking and talking about the mind. Part 2 updates the study of judgment heuristics and explores a major puzzle: Why is it so difficult for us to think statistically? We easily think associatively, we think metaphorically, we think causally, but statistics requires thinking about many things at once, which is something that System 1 is not designed to do. The difficulties of statistical thinking contribute to the main theme of Part 3, which describes a puzzling limitation of our mind: our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events. The focus of part 4 is a conversation with the discipline of economics on the nature of decision-making and on the assumption that economic agents are rational. Part 5 describes recent research that has introduced a distinction between two selves, the experiencing self and the remembering self, which do not have the same interests.

Throughout the book, two systems of thinking that humans possess are referenced, so Daniel takes a moment to define each:

I adopt terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, and will refer to two systems in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

Below are selected lessons from the book that I found particularly perceptive: Noting that System 2 has a particular attribute when it comes to managing its capacity:

System 2 and the electrical circuits in your home both have limited capacity, but they respond differently to threatened overload. A breaker trips when the demand for current is excessive, causing all devices on that circuit to lose power at once. In contrast, the response to mental overloaded is selective and precise: System 2 protects the most important activity, so it receives the attention it needs; “spare capacity” is allocated second by second to other tasks. In our version of the gorilla experiment, we instructed the participants to assign priority to the digit task. We know that they followed that instruction, because the timing of the visual target had no effect on the main task. If the critical letter was presented at a time of high demand, the subjects simply did not see it. When the transformation task was less demanding, detection performance was better.

On one of the focal interplays between System 2 and System 1:

One of the main functions of System 2 is to monitor and control thoughts and actions “suggested” by System 1, allowing some to be expressed directly in behavior and suppressing or modifying others. Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs. A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact. But it was psychologists who discovered that you do not have to repeat the entire Statement of a fact or idea to make it appear true.

On cognitive ease:

These findings add to the growing evidence that good mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 form a cluster. At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together. A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors. Here again, as in the mere exposure effect, the connection makes biological sense. A good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down. A bad mood indicates that things are not going very well, there may be a threat, and vigilance is required. Cognitive ease is both a cause and a consequence of a pleasant feeling.

On seeing causes:

Experiments have shown that six-month-old infants see the sequence of events as a cause-effect scenario, and they indicate surprise when the sequence is altered. We are evidently ready from birth to have impressions of causality, which do not depend on reasoning about patterns of causation. They are products of System 1.

On the brain as a machine for jumping to conclusions:

Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, there is no time to collect more information. These are the circumstances in which intuitive errors are probable, which may be prevented by a deliberate intervention of System 2.

A summary of the characteristics of System 1:

  • generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; when endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions

  • operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control

  • can be programmed by System 2 to mobilize attention when a particular pattern is detected (search)

  • executes skilled responses and generates skilled intuitions, after adequate training

  • creates a coherent pattern of activated ideas in associative memory

  • links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance

  • distinguishes the surprising from the normal

  • infers and invents causes and intentions

  • neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt

  • is biased to believe and confirm

  • exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)

  • focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSLATI)

  • generates a limited set of basic assessments

  • represents sets by norms and prototypes, does not integrate

  • matches intensities across scales (e.g., size to loudness)

  • computes more than intended (mental shotgun)

  • sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one (heuristics)

  • is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory)

  • overweights low probabilities

  • shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity (psychophysics)

  • responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)

  • frames decision problems narrowly, in isolation from one another

On the law of small numbers:

  • The exaggerated faith in small samples is only one example of a more general illusion—we pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify. Jumping to conclusions is a safer sport in the world of our imagination than it is in reality.
  • Statistics produce many observations that appear to beg for causal explanations but do not lend themselves to such explanations. Many facts of the world are due to chance, including accidents of sampling. Causal explanations of chance events are inevitably wrong.

On anchoring:

Anchoring effects are threatening in a similar way. You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different ( absent). However, you should assume that any number that is on the table has had an anchoring effect on you, and if the stakes are high you should mobilize yourself (your System 2) to combat the effect.

On representativeness:

The combination of WYSIATI and associative coherence tends to make us believe in the stories we spin for ourselves. The essential keys to disciplined Bayesian reasoning can be simply summarized:

  • Anchor your judgment of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate.
  • Question the diagnosticity of your evidence.

On the challenges of our two-systems to incorporate the regression to mean view:

Extreme predictions and a willingness to predict rare events from weak evidence are both manifestations of System 1…Regression is also a problem for System 2. The very idea of regression to the mean is alien and difficult to communicate and comprehend. Galton had a hard time before he understood it. Many statistics teachers dread the class in which the topic comes up, and their students often end up with only a vague understanding of this crucial concept. This is a case where System 2 requires special training. Matching predictions to the evidence is not only something we do intuitively; it also seems a reasonable thing to do. We will not learn to understand regression from experience.

On the illusion of validity:

Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct. Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.

On when we can trust the opinion of experts:

  • an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable
  • an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

On lessons learned from a failed project:

The first was immediately apparent: I had stumbled onto a distinction between two profoundly (labeled the inside view and the outside view). The second lesson was that our initial forecasts of about two years for the completion of the project exhibited a planning fallacy. Our estimates were closer to a best-case scenario than to a realistic assessment. I was slower to accept the third lesson, which I call irrational perseverance: the folly we displayed that day in failing to abandon the project. Facing a choice, we gave up rationality rather than give up the enterprise.

On the forecasting method that Flyvbjerg devised to overcome the tendency to neglect the base-rate:

1. Identify an appropriate reference class (kitchen renovations, large railway projects, etc.). 2. Obtain the statistics of the reference class (in terms of cost per mile of railway, or of the percentage by which expenditures exceeded budget). Use the statistics to generate a baseline prediction. 3. Use specific information about the case to adjust the baseline prediction, if there are particular reasons to expect the optimistic bias to be more or less pronounced in this project than in others of the same type.

On the premortem technique to improve our decision making:

Organizations may be better able to tame optimism and individuals than individuals are. The best idea for doing so was contributed by Gary Klein, my “adversarial collaborator” who generally defends intuitive decision making against claims of bias and is typically hostile to algorithms. He labels his proposal the premortem. The procedure is simple: when the organization has almost come to an important decision but has not formally committed itself, Klein proposes gathering for a brief session a group of individuals who are knowledgeable about the decision. The premise of the session is a short speech: “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.”

On prospect theory:

  • In mixed gambles, where both a gain and a loss are possible, loss aversion causes extremely risk-averse choices.
  • In bad choices, where a sure loss is compared to a larger loss that is merely probable, diminishing sensitivity causes risk seeking.

On rare events:

  • People overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events.
  • People overweight unlikely events in their decisions.

On framing:

Skeptics about rationality are not surprised. They are trained to be sensitive to the power of inconsequential factors as determinants of preference—my hope is that readers of this book have acquired this sensitivity.

On the two selves:

The evidence presents a profound challenge to the idea that humans have consistent preferences and know how to maximize them, a cornerstone of the rational-agent model. An inconsistency is built into the design of our minds. We have strong preferences about the duration of our experiences of pain and pleasure. We want pain to be brief and pleasure to last. But our memory, a function of System 1, has dived to represent the most intense moment of an episode of pain or pleasure (the peak) and the feelings when the episode was at its end. A memory that it neglects duration will not serve our preference for long pleasure and short pains.

On the role of behavioral economists, and the sensitivity around individual freedom:

But life is more complex for behavioral economists than for true believers in human rationality. No behavioral economist favors a state that will force its citizens to eat a balanced diet and to watch only television programs that are good for the soul. For behavioral economists, however, freedom has a cost, which is borne by individuals who make bad choices, and by a society that feels obligated to help them. The decision of whether or not to protect individuals against their mistakes therefore presents a dilemma for behavioral economists. The economists of the Chicago school do not face that problem, because rational agents do not make mistakes. For adherents of this school, freedom is free of charge.

On a concluding note, three additional lessons I wanted to highlight:

  • The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2…Unfortunately this sensible procedure is least likely to be applied when it is needed most. We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions. The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble. The upshot is that it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors. That was my reason for writing a book that is oriented critics and gossipers rather than to decision makers.
  • Organizations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures. Organizations can institute and enforce the application of Useful checklists, as well as more elaborate exercises, such as reference-class forecasting and the premortem. At least in part by providing a distinctive vocabulary, organizations can also encourage a culture in which people watch out for one another as they approach minefields.
  • Ultimately, a richer language is essential to the skill of constructive criticism. Much like medicine, the identification of judgment errors is a diagnostic task, which requires a precise vocabulary. The name of a disease is a hook to which all that is known about the disease is attached, including vulnerabilities, environmental factors, symptoms, prognosis, and care. Similarly, labels such as “anchoring effects,” “narrow framing,” or “excessive coherence” bring together in memory everything we know about a bias, its causes, its effects, and what can be done about it. There is a direct link from more precise gossip at the watercooler to better decisions. Decision makers are sometimes better able to imagine the voices of present gossipers and future critics than to hear the hesitant voice of their own doubts. They will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decision to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.

An absolute must read, in the areas of thought, decision making, reasoning and behavioral economics. As Professor William Easterly best articulated it on the cover of the book: “[A] masterpiece…This is one of the greatest and most engaging insights into the human mind I have read.”

Wired For Story

In line with my plan to improve my communication skills, I recently finished reading Wired For Story – The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence – by Lisa Cron. As the title indicates this is book about storytelling. More specifically, Lisa unveils how writers can leverage cognitive secrets of the brain to better engage their readership through powerful stories. Below is a summary of the main points of the book. On the importance of stories:

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it. In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.

What’s the role the writer can play?

Writers can change the way people think simply by giving them a glimpse of life through their characters’ eyes. They can transport readers to places they’ve never been, catapult them into situations they’ve only dreamed of, and reveal subtle universal truths that just might alter their entire perception of reality. In ways large and small, writers help people make it through the night. And that’s not too shabby. But there’s a catch. For a story to captivate a reader, it must continually meet his or her hardwired expectations. This is no doubt what prompted Jorge Luis Borges to note, “Art is fire plus algebra.” Let me explain. Fire is absolutely crucial to writing; it’s the very first ingredient of every story. Passion is what drives us to write, filling us with the exhilarating sense that we have something to say, something that will make a difference.

What’s the “algebra” part then?

But to write a story capable of instantly engaging readers, passion alone isn’t enough. Writers often mistakenly believe that all they need to craft a successful story is the fire—the burning desire, the creative spark, the killer idea that startles you awake in the middle of the night. They dive into their story with gusto, not realizing that every word they write is most likely doomed to failure because they forgot to factor in the second half of the equation: the algebra…It’s only by stopping to analyze what we’re unconsciously responding to when we read a story—what has actually snagged our brain’s mention—that we can then write a story that will grab the reader’s brain. This is true whether you’re writing a literary novel, hard-boiled mystery, or supernatural teen romance. Although readers have their own personal taste when it comes to the type of novel they’re drawn to, unless that story meets their hardwired expectations, it stays on the shelf.

How can we learn the “algebra” component of the equation? This is where this book comes into play:

To make sure that doesn’t happen to your story, this book is organized into twelve chapters, each zeroing in on an aspect of how the brain works, its corresponding revelation about story, and the nuts and bolts of how to actualize it in your work. Each chapter ends with a checklist you can apply to your work at any stage: before you begin writing, at the end of every writing day, at the end of a scene or a chapter, or at 2:00 a.m. when you wake up in a cold sweat, convinced that your story may be the worst thing anyone has written, ever. (It’s not; trust me.) Do this, and I guarantee your work will stay on track and have an excellent chance of making people who aren’t even related to you want to read it.

BUT, there is a caveat:

The only caveat is that you have to be as honest about your story as you would be about a novel you pick up in a bookstore, or a movie you begin watching with one finger still poised on the remote. The idea is to pinpoint where each trouble spot lies and then remedy it before it spreads like a weed, undermining your entire narrative. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, because there’s nothing more exhilarating than watching your work improve until your readers are so engrossed in it that they forget that it’s a story at all.

So What are the secrets?

Secret #1: How to Hook the Reader: From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next. Secret

#2: How to Zero in on Your Point…To hold the brain’s attention, everything in a story must he there on a need-to-know basis.

Secret #3: I’ll Feel What He’s Feeling…All story is emotion based – if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

Secret #4: What does your Protagonist Really Want?…A protagonist without a clear goal has nothing to figure out and nowhere to go.

Secret #5: Digging Up Your Protagonist’s Inner Issue…You must know precisely when, and why, your protagonist’s worldview was knocked out of alignment.

Secret #6: The story is in the specifics…Anything conceptual, abstract, or general must be made tangible in the protagonist’s specific struggle.

Secret #7: Courting Conflict. The Agent Of Change…Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.

Secret #8: Cause of Effect…A story follows a cause-and-effect trajectory from start to finish.

Secret #9: What Can Go Wrong And Then Some…A story’s job is to put the protagonist through tests that, even in her wildest dreams, she doesn’t think she can pass.

Secret #10: The Road from Setup to Payoff…Readers are always on the lookout for patterns; to your reader, everything is either a setup, a payoff. or the road in between.

Secret #11: Meanwhile Back at the Ranch…Foreshadowing, flashbacks, and subplots must instantly give readers insight into what’s happening in the main storyline, even if the meaning shifts as the story unfolds.

Secret #12: The Writer’s Brain On Story…There’s no writing; there’s only rewriting.

Other highlights from the book, include:

So, What Is a Story? “What happens” is the plot. “Someone” is the protagonist. The “goal” is what’s known as the story question. And “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about.

What Is This Story About? 1. Whose story is it? 2. What’s happening here? 3. What’s at stake?

Don’t Bury Your Story in an Empty Plot…A Story Is About How the Plot Affects the Protagonist

Knowing what the focus of your story is allows you to do for your story what your cognitive unconscious does for you: filter out everything extraneous, everything that doesn’t matter. You can use it to test each proposed twist, turn, and character reaction for story relevance.

That’s what readers come for. Their unspoken hardwired question is. If something like this happens to me, what would it feel like? How should I best react? Your protagonist might even be showing them how not to react, which is a pretty handy answer as well.

Adding External Problems Adds Drama Only If They’re Something the Protagonist Must Confront to Overcome Her Issue That’s why, when writing your protagonist’s bio, the goal is to pinpoint two things: the event in his past that knocked his worldview out of alignment, triggering the internal issue that keeps him from achieving his goal; and the inception of his desire for the goal itself. Sometimes they’re one and the same.

Six Places Where the “Specific” Often Goes Missing: 1. The specific reason a character does something…2. The specific thing a metaphor is meant to illuminate…3. The specific memory that a situation invokes in the protagonist…4. The specific reaction a character has to a significant event…5. The specific possibilities that run through the protagonist’s mind as she struggles to make sense of what’s happening…6. The specific rationale behind a character’s change of heart.

Unless They Convey Necessary Information, Sensory Details Clog a Story’s Arteries.

There are three main reasons for any sensory detail to be in a story: 1. It’s part of a cause-and-effect trajectory that relates to the plot—Lucy drinks the shake, she passes out. 2. It gives us insight into the character—Lucy’s an unapologetic hedonist headed for trouble. 3. It’s a metaphor—Lucy’s flavor choice represents how she sees the world. And that, my friends, is what makes stories so deeply satisfying. We get to try on trouble, pretty much risk-free.

Withholding Information Very Often Robs the Story of What Really Hooks Readers

The Importance of the Highway between Setup and Payoff: Three Rules of the Road…Rule One: There must actually be a road…Rule Two: The reader must be able to see the road unfold…Rule Three: The intended payoff must not be patently impossible.

On a concluding note:

Here’s a secret: when you’ve tapped into what it is we’re wired to respond to in a story, what we’re hungry for from the very first sentence, it is your truth we hear. As neuroscientist David Eagleman says, “When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum…The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.” What emerges is your vision, seen through the eyes of your readers, experienced by your readers. So what are you waiting for? Write! Although they may not know it yet, your public is eager to find out what happens next.

A must read book on story-telling and writing. For another recommendation within this subject area, I suggest Storycatcher, and The Story Factor.

On The Power Of Habit

I chose to read The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg, given my inherent belief in the power of habits and also the strong review/ratings this book has received. Let me start by saying this book did not disappoint in delivering both in terms of content and delivery.

There are three parts to this work, as summarized by Charles, that cover the power of habits in three contexts from the most specific (individual) to the most general (society):

This book is divided into three parts. The first section focuses on how habits emerge within individual lives. It explores the neurology of habit formation, how to build new habits and change old ones, and the methods, for instance, that one ad man used to push toothbrushing from an obscure practice into a national obsession…The second part examines the habits of successful companies and organizationsThe third part looks at the habits of societies. It recounts how Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement succeeded, in part, by changing the ingrained social habits of Montgomery, Alabama—and why a similar focus helped a young pastor named Rick Warren build the nation’s largest church in Saddleback Valley, California. Finally, it explores thorny ethical questions, such as whether a murderer in Britain should go free if he can convincingly argue that his habits led him to kill. Each chapter revolves around a central argument: Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.

Recent research in neurology and psychology has allowed us to advance our understanding of habits and their impact on our lives:

In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications. We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick. It isn’t always simple. But it is possible. And now we understand how.

Habits are necessary shortcuts for our brains:

But that internalization—run straight, hang a left, eat the chocolate—relied upon the basal ganglia, the brain probes indicated. This tiny, ancient neurological structure seemed to take over as the rat ran faster and faster and its brain worked less and less. The basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep…Millions of people perform this intricate ballet every morning, unthinkingly, because as soon as we pull out the car keys, our basal ganglia kicks in, identifying the habit we’ve stored in our brains related to backing an automobile into the street. Once that habit starts unfolding, our gray matter is free to quiet itself or chase other thoughts, which is why we have enough mental capacity to realize that Jimmy forgot his lunchbox inside. Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

Habits are a process loop consisting of three steps a cues, a trigger and a reward:

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges…Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people. Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some habits, such as those related to emotions, are measured in milliseconds). Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation.

Marketing was among the first functions to leverage the power of the habit from a commercial perspective:

“I made for myself a million dollars on Pepsodent,” Hopkins wrote a few years after the product appeared on shelves. The key, he said, was that he had “learned the right human psychology.” That psychology was grounded in two basic rules: First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards. If you get those elements right, Hopkins promised, it was like magic…And those same principles have been used to create thousands of other habits—often without people realizing how closely they are hewing to Hopkins’s formula.

Sport teams/coaching leverage habits as well:

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy would explain. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

How can we effectively change a habit? The golden rule of habit change:

His coaching (Dungy) strategy embodied an axiom, a Golden Rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tools for creating change. Dungy recognized that you can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same

The other key ingredient to successfully changing a habit? Belief:

It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

What about for changing corporate habits? The key there is to tackle a keystone habit that sets a chain reaction of changes:

‘I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill told me. “But you can’t order people to change – That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.” O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything…If you focus on changing or cultivating keystone habits, you can cause widespread shifts. However, identifying keystone habits is tricky. To find them, you have to know where to look. Detecting keystone habits means searching out certain characteristics. Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins.” They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.

Corporate habits are necessary shortcuts, just as our individual ones are for our brains:

Or, put in language that people use outside of theoretical economics, it may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. And these habits have more profound impacts than anyone previously understood…These organizational habits—or “routines,” as Nelson and Winter called them—are enormously important, because without them, most companies would never get any work done. Routines provide the hundreds of unwritten rules that companies need to operate. They allow workers to experiment with new ideas without having to ask for permission at every step.

In some cases, a crisis is needed to remake or changes some of these organizational habits:

Good leaders seize crises to remake organizational habits…In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.

On social movements, and the role of habits to make them self-propelling and help them achieve critical mass:

A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. Usually only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass. There are other recipes for successful social change and hundreds of details that differ between eras and struggles. But understanding how social habits work helps explain why Montgomery and Rosa Parks became the catalyst for a civil rights crusade.

On a concluding note:

Habits are not as simple as they appear. As I’ve tried to demonstrate throughout this book, habits—even once they are rooted in our minds—aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function. Hundreds of habits influence our days—they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager. However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it—and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real.

A must read book, and quoting Daniel H. Pink‘s advance praise of it – “Once you read this book, you’ll never look at yourself, your organization, or your world quite the same way.”

On Phantoms In The Brains

I recently finished reading Phantoms In The Brain – Probing the Mysteries Of The Human Mind – by V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., and Sandra Blakeslee. This book was recommended to me by Goodreads based on an earlier reading of the same genre – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Trials by Oliver Sacks, M.D.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “I mention this episode to emphasize that a single medical student or resident whose mind is open to new ideas and who works without sophisticated equipment can revolutionize the practice of medicine. It is in this spirit that we should all undertake our work, because one never knows what nature is hiding. I’d also like to say a word about speculation, a term that has acquired a pejorative connotation among some scientists. Describing someone’s idea as “mere speculation” is often considered insulting. This is unfortunate. As the English biologist Peter Medawar has noted, “An imaginative conception of what might be true is the starting point of all great discoveries in science.” Ironically, this is sometimes true even when the speculation turns out to be wrong…Every scientist knows that the best research emerges from a dialectic between speculation and healthy skepticism. Ideally the two should coexist in the same brain, but they don’t have to. Since there are people who represent both extremes, all ideas eventually get tested ruthlessly. ”

2-“The famous saying “May you live in interesting times” has a special meaning now for those of us who study the brain and human behavior. On the one hand, despite two hundred years of research, the most basic questions about the human mind—How do we recognize faces? Why do we cry? Why do we laugh? Why do we dream? and Why do we enjoy music and art?—remain unanswered, as does the really big question: What is consciousness? On the other hand, the advent of novel experimental approaches and imaging techniques is sure to transform our understanding of the human brain. What a unique privilege it will be for our generation—and our children’s—to witness what I believe will be the greatest revolution in the history of the human race: understanding ourselves. The prospect of doing so is at once both exhilarating and disquieting. There is something distinctly odd about a hairless neotenous primate that has evolved into a species that can look back over its own shoulder and ask questions about its origins. And odder still, the brain can not only discover how other brains work but also ask questions about its own existence: Who am I? What happens after death? Does my mind arise exclusively from neurons in my brain? And if so, what scope is there for free will? It is the peculiar recursive quality of these questions—as the brain struggles to understand itself—that makes neurology fascinating.”

3- “But before we begin, I think it’s important for you to understand my personal approach to science and why I am drawn to curious cases. When I give talks to lay audiences around the country, one question comes up again and again: “When are you brain scientists ever going to come up with a unified theory for how the mind works? There’s Einstein’s general theory of relativity and Newton’s universal law of gravitation in physics. Why not one for the brain?” My answer is that we are not yet at the stage where we can formulate grand unified theories of mind and brain. Every science has to go through an initial “experiment” or phenomena-driven stage—in which its practitioners are still discovering the basic laws—before it reaches a more sophisticated theory-driven stage…My point is simply that neuroscience today is in the Faraday stage, not in the Maxwell stage, and there is no point in trying to jump ahead. I would love to be proved wrong, of course, and there is certainly no harm in trying to construct formal theories about the brain, even if one fails (and there is no shortage of people who are trying). But for me, the best research strategy might be characterized as “tinkering.” Whenever I use this word, many people look rather shocked, as if one couldn’t possibly do sophisticated science by just playing around with ideas and without an overarching: theory to guide one’s hunches. But that’s exactly what I mean (although these hunches are far from random; they are always guided by intuition.”

4- “First and foremost, they suggest that brain maps can change, sometimes with astonishing rapidity. This finding flatly contradicts one of the most widely accepted dogmas in neurology— the fixed nature of connections in the adult human brain. It had always been assumed that once this circuitry, including the Penfield map, has been laid down in fetal life or in early infancy, there is very little one can do to modify it in adulthood. Indeed, this presumed absence of plasticity in the adult brain is often invoked to explain why there is so little recovery of function after brain injury and why neurological ailments are so notoriously difficult to treat. But the evidence from Tom shows— contrary to what is taught in textbooks—that new, highly precise and functionally effective pathways can emerge in the adult brain as early as four weeks after injury. It certainly doesn’t follow that revolutionary new treatments for neurological syndromes will emerge from this discovery right away, but it does provide some grounds for optimism.”

5- “When we experience pain, special pathways are activated simultaneously both to carry the sensation and to amplify it or dampen it down as needed. Such “volume control” (sometimes called gate control) is what allows us to modulate our responses to pain effectively in response to changing demands (which might explain why acupuncture works or why women in some cultures don’t experience pain during labor). Among amputees, it’s entirely possible that these volume control mechanisms have gone awry as a result of remapping—resulting in an echo-like “wha wha” reverberation and amplification of pain. Second, remapping is inherently a pathological or abnormal process, at least when it occurs on a large-scale, as after the loss of a limb. It’s possible that the touch synapses are not quite correctly rewired and their activity could be chaotic. Higher brain centers would then interpret the abnormal pattern of input as junk, which is perceived as pain. In truth, we really don’t know how the brain translates patterns of nerve activity into conscious experience, be it pain, pleasure or color.”

6- “This simple experiment not only shows how malleable your body image is but also illustrates the single most important principle underlying all of perception—that the mechanisms of perception are mainly involved in extracting statistical correlations from the world to create a model that is temporarily useful.”

7- “For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your “self is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death. Indeed, the “loyalty” of yourself to your own body is so axiomatic that you never have to pause to think about it, let alone question it. Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite—that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks. It is merely a shell that you’ve temporarily created for successfully passing on your genes to your offspring.”

8- “So the first step in understanding perception is to get rid of the idea of images in the brain and to begin thinking about symbolic descriptions of objects and events in the external world. A good example of a symbolic description is a written paragraph like the ones on this page. If you had to convey to a friend in China what your apartment looks like, you wouldn’t have to tele-transport it to China. All you’d have to do would be to write a letter describing your apartment. Yet the actual squiggles of ink—the words and paragraphs in the letter—bear no physical resemblance to your bedroom. The letter is a symbolic description of your bedroom.”

9- “In making these judgments, the brain takes advantage of the fact that the world we live in is not chaotic and amorphous; it has stable physical properties. During evolution—and partly during childhood as a result of learning—these stable properties became incorporated into the visual areas of the brain as certain “assumptions” or hidden knowledge about the world that can be used to eliminate ambiguity in perception.”

10- “Bear in mind that the filling in is not just some odd quirk of the visual system that has evolved for the sole purpose of dealing with the blind spot. Rather, it appears to be a manifestation of a very general ability to construct surfaces and bridge gaps that might be otherwise distracting in an image—the same ability, in fact, that allows you to see a rabbit behind a picket fence as a complete rabbit, not a sliced-up one. In our natural blind spot we have an especially obvious example of filling in—one that provides us with a valuable experimental opportunity to examine the “laws” that govern the process.”

11- “An important distinction must be made between perceptual and conceptual completion. To understand the difference, just think of the space behind your head now as you are sitting on your chair reading this book. You can let your mind wander, thinking about the kinds of objects that might be behind your head or body. Is there a window? A Martian? A gaggle of geese? With your imagination, you can “fill in” this missing space with just about anything, but since you can change your mind about the content, I call this process conceptual filling in. Perceptual filling in is very different. When you fill in your blind spot with a carpet design, you don’t have such choices about what fills that spot; you can’t change your mind about it. Perceptual filling in is carried out by visual neurons. Their decisions, once made, are irreversible: Once they signal to higher brain centers “Yes, this is a repetitive texture” or yes, this is a straight line.” what you perceive is irrevocable.”

12- “If I’m right, all these bizarre visual hallucinations are simply an exaggerated version of the processes that occur in your brain and mine every time we let our imagination run free. Somewhere in the confused welter of interconnecting forward and backward pathways is the interface between vision and imagination We don’t have clear ideas yet about where this interface is or how it works (or even whether there is a single interface), but these patients provide some tantalizing clues about what might be going on. The evidence from them suggests that what we call perception is really the end result of a dynamic interplay between sensory signals and high-level stored information about visual images from the past. Each time any one of us encounters an object, the visual system begins a constant questioning process. Fragmentary evidence comes in and the higher centers say, “Hmmmmm, maybe this is an animal.” Our brains then pose a series of visual questions: as in a twenty-questions game. Is it a mammal? A cat? What kind of cat? Tame? Wild? Big? Small? Black or white or tabby? The higher visual centers then project partial “best fit” answers back to lower visual areas including the primary visual “best fit” answers back to lower visual areas including the primary visual cortex. In this manner, the impoverished image is progressively worked on and refined (with bits “filled in,” when appropriate). I think that these massive feed forward and feedback projections are in the business of conducting successive iterations that enable us to home in on the closest approximation to the truth. To overstate the argument deliberately, perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input. But if, as happens in Charles Bonnet syndrome, the brain does not receive confirming visual stimuli. it is free simply to make up its own reality. And, as James Thurber was well aware, there is apparently no limit to its creativity.”

13- “The idea that the right hemisphere is a left-wing revolutionary that generates paradigm shifts, whereas the left hemisphere is a die-hard conservative that clings to the status quo, is almost certainly a gross oversimplification, but, even if it turns out to be wrong, it does suggest new ways of doing experiments and goads us into asking novel questions about the denial syndrome.”

14- “One can make a list of the many kinds of self-deception that Sigmund and Anna Freud described and see clear-cut, amplified examples of each of them in our patients. It was seeing this list that convinced me for the first time of the reality of psychological defenses and the central role that they play in human nature. Denial…Repression…Reaction formation…Rationalization…Humor…Projection.”

15- “His Story offers insights into how each of us constructs narratives about our life and the people who inhabit it. In a sense your life—your autobiography—is a long sequence of highly personal episodic memories about your first kiss, prom night, wedding, birth of a child, fishing trips and so on. But it is also much more than that. Clearly, there is a personal identity, a sense of a unified “self” that runs like a golden thread through the whole fabric of our existence. The Scottish philosopher David Hume drew an analogy between the human personality and a river—the water in the river is ever-changing and yet the river itself remains constant. What would happen, he asked, if a person were to dip his foot into a river and then dip it in again after half an hour—would it be the same river or a different one? If you think this is a silly semantic riddle, you’re right, for the answer depends on your definition of “same” and “river.””

16- “There are some questions about the brain that are so mysterious, so deeply enigmatic, that most serious scientists simply shy away from them, as if to say, “That would be premature to study” and “I’d be a fool if I embarked on such a quest.” And yet these are the very issues that fascinate us most of all. The most obvious one, of course, is religion, a quintessentially human trait, but it is only one unsolved mystery of human nature. What about Other uniquely human traits—such as our capacity for music, math, humor and poetry? What allowed Mozart to compose an entire symphony in his head or mathematicians like Fermat or Ramanujan to “discover” flawless conjectures and theorems without ever going through step-by-step formal proofs? And what goes on in the brain of a person like Dylan Thomas that allowed him to write such evocative poetry? Is the creative spark simply an expression of the divine spark that exists in all of us? Ironically clues come from a bizarre condition called “idiot savant syndrome” (or, to use the more politically correct phrase, the savant syndrome). These individuals (retarded and yet highly talented) can give us valuable insights about the evolution of human nature—a topic that became an obsession for some of the greatest scientific minds of the last century.”

17- “According to Wallace, as the human brain evolved, it encountered a new and equally powerful force called culture. Once culture. language and writing emerged, he argued, human evolution became Lamarckian—that is, you could pass on the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime to your offspring. These progeny will be much wiser than the offspring of illiterates not because your genes have changed but simply because this knowledge—in the form of culture—has been transferred from your brain to your child’s brain. In this way, the brain is symbiotic with culture; the two are as interdependent as the naked hermit crab and with culture; the two are as interdependent as the naked hermit crab and its shell or the nucleated cell and its mitochondria. For Wallace, culture propels human evolution, making us absolutely unique in the animal kingdom. Isn’t it extraordinary, he said, that we are the only animal in which the mind is vastly more important than any bodily organ, assuming a tremendous significance because of what we call “culture.” Moreover, our brain actually helps us avoid the need for further specialization. Most organisms evolve to become more and more specialized as they take up new environmental niches, be it a longer neck for the giraffe or sonar for the bat. Humans, on the other hand, have evolved an organ, a brain, that gives us the capacity to evade specialization. We can colonize the Arctic without evolving a fur coat over millions of years like the polar bear because we can go kill one, take its coat and drape it on ourselves. And then we can give it to our children and grandchildren.”

18- “The moral of all this is not that we should have blind faith in the “wisdom of the East” but that there are sure to be many nuggets of insight in these ancient practices. However, unless we conduct systematic “Western-Style” experiments, we’ll never know which ones really work (hypnosis and meditation) and which ones don’t (crystal healing). Several laboratories throughout the world are poised to launch such experiments, and the first half of the next century will, in my view, be remembered as a golden age of neurology and mind-body medicine. It will be a time of great euphoria and celebration for novice researchers entering the field.”

19- “I won’t pretend to have solved these mysteries, but I do think there’s a new way to study consciousness by treating it not as a philosophical. logical or conceptual issue, but rather as an empirical problem.”

20- “It seems somehow disconcerting to be told that your life, all your hopes, triumphs and aspirations simply arise from the activity of neurons in your brain. But far from being humiliating, this idea is ennobling. I think. Science— cosmology, evolution and especially the brain sciences—is telling l us that we have no privileged position in the universe and that our sense of having a private non-material soul “watching the world” is really an illusion (as has long been emphasized by Eastern mystical traditions like Hinduism and Zen Buddhism). Once you realize that far from being a spectator, you are in fact part of the eternal ebb and flow of events in the cosmos, this realization is very liberating. Ultimately this idea also allows you to cultivate a certain humility—the essence of all authentic religious experience.”

21- “Paul Davies, who said: …”This can be no trivial detail, no minor by-product of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.” Are we? I don’t think brain science alone, despite all its triumphs, will ever answer that question. But that we can ask the question at all is, to me, the most puzzling aspect of our existence.”


Omar Halabieh

Phantoms In The Brain

On Think And Grow Rich

I recently finished reading Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “Whatever THE MIND OF MAN can CONCEIVE and BELIEVE it can ACHIEVE.”

2- “There is a difference between wishing for a thing and being ready to receive it No one is ready for a thing until lie believes he can acquire it. The state of mind must be believe, not mere hope or wish. Open-mindedness is essential for belief. Closed minds do not inspire faith, courage, and belief. Remember, no more effort is required to aim high in life, to demand abundance and prosperity, than is required to accept misery and poverty.”

3- “I believe in the power of desire backed by faith, because 1 have seen this power lift men from lowly beginnings to places of power and wealth; I have seen it rob the grave of its victims; I have seen it serve as the medium by which men staged a comeback after having been defeated in a hundred different ways; I have seen it provide my own son with a normal, happy, successful life. despite Nature’s having sent him into the world without ears.”


5- “The amount is limited only by the person in whose mind the thought is put into motion. Faith removes limitations! Remember this when you are ready to bargain with life for whatever it is that you ask as your price for having passed this way.”

6- “Every adversity, every failure and every heartache carries with it the Seed of an equivalent or a greater Benefit.”

7- “Back of all ideas is specialized knowledge. Unfortunately, for those who do not find riches in abundance, specialized knowledge is more abundant and more easily acquired than ideas. Because of this very truth, there a universal demand and an ever-increasing opportunity for the person capable of helping men and women to sell their personal services advantageously. Capability means imagination, the one quality needed to combine specialize knowledge with ideas, m the form of organized plans designed to yield riches.”

8- “Ideas are intangible forces, but they have more power than the physical brains that give birth to them. They have the power to live on, after the brain that creates them has returned to dust.”

9- “The Major Attributes of Leadership. The following are important factors of leadership:— 1. Unwavering courage…2. Self-control…3. A keen sense of justice…4. Definiteness of decision…5. Definiteness of plans…6, The habit of doing more than paid for…7. A pleasing personality…8. Sympathy and understanding…9. Mastery of detail…10. Willingness to assume full responsibility…11. Cooperation.”

10- “History is filled with evidences that leadership by force cannot endure. The downfall and disappearance of dictators and kings is significant. It means that people will Dot follow forced leadership indefinitely.”

11- “The “system” denies no one this right, but it does not, and cannot promise something for nothing, because the economics which neither recognizes nor tolerates for long. getting without giving.”


13- “Those who reach decisions promptly and definitely, know what they want, and generally get it. The leaders m every walk of life decide quickly, and firmly. That is the major reason why they are leaders. The world has the habit of making room for the man whose words and actions show that he knows where he is going.”

14- “HAPPINESS is found in DOING Not merely in POSSESSING.”

15- “You may voluntarily plant in your subconscious mind any plan, thought, or purpose which you desire to translate into its physical or monetary equivalent The subconscious acts first on the dominating desires which have been mixed with emotional feeling, such as faith.”

16- “ANYBODY can wish for riches, and most people do, but only a few know that a definite plan, plus a burning desire for wealth, are the only dependable means of accumulating wealth.”

17- “There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another. Most people are fortunate if they do not suffer from the entire six. Named m the order of their most common appearance, they are:— The fear of poverty,  The fear of criticism, The fear of ill health, The fear of loss of love of someone, The fear of old age, The fear of death.”

18- “Men and women have been burned at the stake for daring to express disbelief in ghosts. It is no wonder we have inherited a consciousness which makes us fear criticism. The time was, and not so far in the past, when criticism carried severe punishments—it still does in some countries.”

19- “Kill the habit of worry, in all its forms, by reaching a general, blanket decision that nothing which life has to offer is worth the price of worry. With this decision will come poise, peace of mind, and calmness of thought which will bring happiness.”


Omar Halabieh

Think And Grow Rich

On Stumbling on Happiness

I recently finished reading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. As the author best words it: “Despite the third word in the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy…Instead, this is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy…Weaving together facts and theories from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, this book allows an account to emerge that I personally find convincing but whose merits you will have to judge for yourself.”

Daniel ends the book on the following note: “There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.”

A very highly recommended read for anyone trying to better understand how we remember our past, see our present and imagine our future. A truly creative masterpiece.

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.”

2- “Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions, and those actions can cause those feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively.”

3- “Our experiences instantly become part, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see. This lens is not like a pair of spectacles that we can set on the nightstand when we find it convenient to do so but like a pair of contacts that are forever affixed to our eyeballs with superglue.”

4- “…the act of remembering involves “filling in” details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously.”

5- “When they (people) are asked to judge the dissimilarities…they tend to look for the presence of dissimilarities and ignore the absence of dissimilarities.”

6- “The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out…No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening. As such, we tend to accept the brain’s products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details – and with only the details – that the brain has imagined.”

7- “…most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now.”

8- “We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.”

9- “…if we want to predict how something will make us feel in the future, we must consider the kind of comparison we happen to be making in the present.”

10- “A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it.”

11- “Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely times, the wealth of experience that yound people admire does not always pay clear dividends.”

12- “This tendency to think of ourselves as better than others is not necessarily a manifestation of our unfettered narcissism but may instead be an instance of a more general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others – often for better but sometimes for worse.”


Omar Halabieh

Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness

On Emotional Intelligence

I just finished reading the book Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence is loosely defined by the author as a set of “abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustration; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” Daniel argues that Emotional Intelligence is as important, and at times more important and powerful, than IQ. The good news is that unlike IQ, which many argue is innate and cannot be changed considerably during the course of one’s life, emotional competencies and skills can be learned and improved upon through education and experience.

This book is a true journey into the emotions that we experience from both the physiological and psychological perspectives. It is divided into 5 main sections: Part 1 focuses on the physiology of the brain and the associated “emotional architecture”. Part 2 presents the concept of emotional intelligence, as defined above. Part 3 shows how this intelligence can be applied in everyday life both personal and professional. Part 4 discusses childhood and it’s importance in “setting down the essential emotional habits that will govern our lives.” Finally, part 5 shows what awaits those who “fail to master the emotional realm”. The author also presents pioneering research and educational methods being implemented to educate children on key emotional and social skills required to succeed in life.

This is a true bible on Emotional Intelligence. The book presents the subject, its importance, its challenges and finally suggestions/recommendations. Daniel was able to present this topic from a scientific, physiological, and psychological angles. His work was based on extensive research and analysis – and applications in a variety of areas and settings. On the critical side, I wished that the section discussing EI and the workplace had been expanded further – as I found the material presented in that section to be extremely interesting.

Below are some excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “The emotions, then, matter for rationality. In the dance of feeling and thought the emotional faculty guides our moment-to-moment decisions, working hand in hand with the rational mind, enabling – or disabling – thought itself. Likewise, the thinking brain plays an executive role in our emotions – execpt in those moments when emotions surge out of control and the emotional brain runs rampant.”

2- “Socrates’s injunction “Know thyself” speaks to this keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.”

3- “When emotions are too muted they create dullness and distance; when out of control, too extreme and persistent, they become pathological, as in immobilizing depression, overwhelming anxiety, raging anger, manic agitation. Indeed, keeping our distressing emotions in check is the key to emotional well-being; extremes – emotions that wax too intensely or for too long – undermine our stability.”

4- “To the degree that our emotions get in the way of or enhance our ability to think and plan, to pursue training for a distant goal, to solve problems and the like, they define the limits of our capacity to use our innate mental abilities, and so determine how we do in life. And to the degree to which we are motivated by feelings of enthusiasm and pleasure in what we do – or even by an optimal degree of anxiety – they propel us to accomplishment. It is in this sense that emotional intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.”

5- “Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal. An, in terms of managing our own career, there may be nothing more essential than recognizing our deepest feelings about what we do- and what changes might make us more truly satisfied with our work.”

6- “In a sense, criticism is one of the most important tasks a manager has. Yet it’s also one of the most dreaded and put off. And, like the sarcastic vice president, too many managers have poorly mastered the crucial art of feedback. This deficiency has a great cost: just as the emotional health of a couple depends on how well they air their grievances, so do the effectiveness, satisfaction, and productivity of people at work depend on how they are told about nagging problems. Indeed, how criticisms are given and received goes a long way in determining how satisfied people are with their work, with those they work with, and with those to whom they are responsible.”

7- “Harry Levinson, a psychoanalyst turned corporate consultant, gives the following advice on the art of the critique, which is intricately entwined with the art of praise: Be specific…Offer a solution…Be present…Be sensitive.”

8- “A child’s readiness for school depends on the most basic of all knowledge, how to learn. The report lists the seven key ingredient of this crucial capacity – all related to emotional intelligence:  1. Confidence…2.Curiosity…3.Intentionality…4.Self-control…5.Relatedness…6.Capacity to communicate…7.Cooperativeness.”

9-“As behavioral geneticists observe, genes alone do not determine behavior; our environment, especially what we experience and learn as we grow, shapes how a temperamental predisposition expresses itself as life unfolds. Our emotional capacities are not a given; with the right learning, they can be improved. The reasons for this lie in how the human brain matures.”


Omar Halabieh

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence