The Ocelot Blues

What happens when you let your mind wander? Studies have shown when a human mind has nothing specific to think about, it becomes chaotic, flitting from one thought to another in a random way. But if any mind — your mind, my mind — keeps wandering, before long, our thoughts will land on something that grabs our attention: some fear or frustration or unfinished business. 

You know what this is like: Your mind sticks there, like a tire spinning in the mud, dwelling on the worrisome or upsetting thought, and it ruins your mood. This is what happens to a mind without a purpose.

Having a purpose on your mind keeps your thoughts from devolving into chaos and bad moods. You can’t stop your mind from thinking, but when you have a goal to think about, your mental resources are less likely to drift randomly into upsetting thoughts. They have someplace to go.

That’s why studies show that people are more often in a good mood while working than they are in their free time. It seems unbelievable at first, but it is easily explained by the need for purpose. Most people are more likely to have clear purposes at work than at home.

It is common knowledge that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” but the important factor, the factor that gets you out of the devil’s workshop, is something you need to do that compels your attention.

Remember that: Something you need to do that compels your attention. That’s the key — think of it as vitamin P.

The human mind needs a purpose. It’s like the ocelot scratching off his fur at the Seattle Zoo. The zookeepers didn’t know what to do about it. They gave him a female, but he kept skinning himself. They changed his diet. They changed his cage. But he kept clawing at himself.

Finally, someone realized that in the wild, ocelots eat birds. So instead of giving the ocelot meat to eat, they threw an unplucked chicken into the cage. Sure enough, the ocelot — using the same clawing movements he was using on himself — plucked the feathers out of that chicken and stopped skinning himself. Your mind is like that. It needs a bone to chew or it’ll chew the furniture. It needs a purpose. And not just any purpose, but something that challenges you, engages you, something you intend to accomplish, something you want, something real and concrete. Your mind aligns around that goal instead of being pulled into negativity, and you’re happier.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

How to Stop Arguing in a Relationship

During a conversation with your spouse, when your heart rate rises over 100 beats per minute, you are no longer reasonable. After decades of experiments with couples, this is one of the conclusions of John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington.

I'm sure you've already discovered that the more upset you are, the less reasonable you are. That is, you hold onto your position more firmly and more rigidly, and you are less open to information or other points of view. Your position becomes more and more absolute and one-sided the more upset you get.

But 100 beats per minute is not very high. I invite you to check your heart rate during the next argument with your spouse. I have done this and was surprised to discover that when I felt only a little upset my heart rate was 120 beats per minute!

Now of course if you continue trying to "discuss matters" with your spouse while being unreasonable, it is very difficult to resolve anything. An escalation of the anger is a more likely result, leading to hurt feelings, a drop in affection, and so on.

That's where meditation (a very easy process to learn) can really make a difference. Experiments have shown that people who meditate regularly don't get as upset during arguments and get over it more quickly. Specifically, their heart rate doesn't rise as high and returns to normal more quickly. That means they don't spend as much time in the "unreasonable zone."

That means during disagreements with their spouses, they would spend less time saying things they'll regret later and there will be less hard feelings between them. And that is good for their marriage and good for their mood.

You don't have to meditate very long to see a change. If you're interested in trying the experiment yourself, here's how to meditate: The Physical and Psychological Benefits of Mantra Meditation.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

The Cold Indifference of Memetic Evolution

When Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, the book presented a new perspective on genes. Up until that time, genes were looked at from the organism's point of view. In other words, the point of genes was to make a successful organism. If the weather was getting colder, genetic adaptations created a thicker coat. This served the organism.

The problem with this way of looking at genes was that over time, scientists have found many genes that do not serve the organism, that may even harm the organism, and yet still get passed on to generation after generation.

Dawkins proposed that we look at genetic evolution from the gene's point of view. Instead of the genes serving the organism, it made more sense to think the organism served the genes.

In the book, Dawkins makes an interesting point: Evolution will happen whenever you have something that can make copies of itself. As soon as something makes copies of itself (like genes, for example), if there is any variation in those copies at all, then some variations will eventually copy themselves better than other copies. They'll copy themselves faster, or with more fidelity (making more exact copies of themselves), or in some way increase their proportion of the population.

That's evolution. Some things copy better than others.

In the last chapter of the book, Dawkins says something startling. He said genes aren't the only thing that makes copies of themselves. We know of one other thing that makes copies of itself.

The English language had no name for it, so Dawkins made up a name: meme.

Anything that can be copied from one mind to another is a meme. The custom of shaking hands is a meme. At one time in your life, it was not in your mind. Then someone else showed you or told you about greeting someone by shaking hands, and that meme made a copy of itself in your mind.

A tune is a meme. And idea is a meme. The word "meme" is a meme, and if you've never heard it before now, that meme has just copied itself successfully into your mind.

Because memes make copies of themselves, they evolve. Remember, anything that makes copies of itself will evolve. Some memes copy better than others. They copy faster or with better fidelity or whatever. Somehow they get more copies of themselves into other minds.

One way memes have gotten better at copying is by joining with other memes in what is known as a "memeplex." A religion is a memeplex, for example. It is a collection of memes that more or less work together to get copies of themselves into other minds.

From a memetics standpoint, a religion is a collection of memes. One of the memes might be, "This is a holy book." And the holy book itself is, of course, a collection of memes. And in this case, because it's a book, the memes have found a way to copy themselves with extraordinary fidelity: The printer pumps out thousands or millions of identical copies of the memeplex.

Let's look at this for a minute, and then I'll get to my point. Let's say you had a religion going already (a memeplex). You already have a book and millions of people already have a copy of the memeplex in their minds. And then there is a slight variation.

Up until now, the memeplex had a kind of "live and let live" attitude. But then someone comes up with the idea that if you can persuade a non-believer to become a believer, you earn some sort of merit.

Okay, now you have two variations on the same memeplex: One says live and let live. The other motivates people to sell the memeplex to others.

Then let's say a thousand years go by. What do you think would happen? After a thousand years, which of the two variations will have more copies in the minds of people? I'm betting on the persuading version.

Now here's my point: A successful gene doesn't necessarily benefit the organism. It is "successful" in the sense that it has made lots of copies of itself and is found in many organisms. But it may actually be harmful for the organism. For example, if there is a gene for alcoholism, and if that gene causes the organism with that gene to have even slightly more offspring that those without the gene, then over thousands of years, the alcoholism gene will be more successful than the non-alcoholism gene even though it is bad for the organism.

In the same way, the success of a meme doesn't necessarily mean it is good for the person holding that meme. If you have a meme that says you should spend all your spare time trying to talk other people into adopting your memeplex, it may be good for the memeplex but bad for you. It could make you miserable. It could waste your life. You might be so involved in it you neglect your health, so it could be bad for your health. You might want to maximize the amount of time and money you can spend on selling others on the memeplex, so you decide not to have children. That means the very successful memeplex is actually interfering with the success of your genes.

But in all that struggle to get converts, your efforts have made more copies of themselves than a meme that says, "I just want to enjoy my life." So over time, it is possible to have more and more people believing in stupid, counterproductive, and even destructive memes, and perhaps even becoming more and more fanatical about their memeplexes.

There is only one thing that can save the world from this horrible possibility: The memeplex of memetics, of course! I'm only being partially facetious. I think an understanding of memes and memetic evolution and how it works immunizes the brain, at least to some degree, from the tyranny and blindness of harmful memeplexes.

So spread the word. Share your understanding (you will earn memetic merit if you do).

If you'd like to increase your understanding of memetics, there are a few good books. I've read every book on memetics that has so far been published, and I think the best one is The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. It is readable and interesting and clearly articulates the meme of memes. If you've already read that one, Thought Contagion: When Ideas Act Like Viruses is also good. It's not as easy to read, but it has really good examples.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.