Locked in a cage by babies: let’s talk Superintelligent A.I.

Some people are better at following instructions than others.

A short while ago, I had a few people around my house to jam, have some drinks and play cards. None of them had been to my house before.

Some of my friends found it really easy to get here and didn’t call once to check how to make it. Others had a bit more difficulty. Some ignored my instructions completely and still got here.

The benefit of talking to people who have background knowledge of London is that my instructions can be pretty vague, yet still successful.

I have some younger nieces and nephews. If I ask them to bring me something, I have to be really clear on what it looks like, when to bring it to me and probably give them a motivation to do it. Sometimes it gets completed. Most of the time it doesn’t. However, I couldn’t blame them for that, they’re young and don’t know how to follow instructions as well as my 20-something-year-old friends.

I used to be friends with a lizard called Ella when I was 13. She peed on me once. That wasn’t even an instruction, she just did it.

What if they controlled us? 

So here’s a weird thought – what if these humans, nieces and nephews, and animals trapped us in a cage and were in charge of us?

When I tell my friends to do certain things and complete tasks, we can have a conversation and gain further clarity on the final goal.

This is what we call a “working relationship“. I mean, it’s still slavery but let’s ignore that for now. (What a strange thing to say…)

When I tell my nieces and nephews to do things, sometimes communication breaks down and I have to resort to different tricks like offering chocolate.  If they don’t understand me, I don’t get any kind of freedom.

This is what we call an “alarmingly frustrating relationship“.

When my lizard friend asks me to do something, I have no bloody idea what is happening because she doesn’t speak a human language. She starves because she doesn’t get any food from me.

This is what we call a “pointless relationship“.

As we progressed down the list of agents, the relationships became more difficult because I was smarter and smarter than them in comparison. Yet they, for some reason, were in charge of me. I want to help but they don’t understand me.

If a lizard controlled my fate, I would need to find a way out of this cage or I’d die.

We are the babies and lizards

Nick Bostrom popularised the term Superintelligence in the book of the same name to describe artificial intelligence that has surpassed human intelligence and capabilities in all domains. They are faster than us, remember more and complete complex tasks with greater ease. And they don’t need food to keep going.

We currently control computers. We tell them what to do, fix them and rely on them in specific domains. Now, what happens when they’re simply smarter than us but we don’t want them to take advantage of us much like we (unfortunately) take advantage of animals?

This is a problem that has, for a number of years, tormented Artificial Intelligence researchers [1].

In the above relationships, the intelligent being trapped in the cage is a waste of talents. But the babies just leave us trapped in the cage because they don’t understand what we’re saying.

I need to teach them the English language, how to read, how to understand complex directions and concepts and, perhaps most importantly, to trust us. This will take too long.

Immensely frustrating. So it’s better for us to find a way to leave the cage. We can help them better than they can help themselves.

When AI researchers talk about problems such as this, it often sounds like a silly fantasy made up as a way to inject more unnecessary terror in the world. Evil computer overlords – ha!

The problem they try to emphasise is that it isn’t evil artificial intelligence that we should worry about. It is capable artificial intelligence.

I can help these babies and animals better than they can help themselves so I when I get out of this cage, I’m going to lock them in this room so I can feed and teach them with greater ease.

We already rely on artificial intelligence in scenarios ranging from helping pilots fly, getting us information from the internet and fighting crime.

This has resulted in crashes [2], injection of fake news articles [3], and unintentional racist profiling [4].

Yet, we continue. Because it’s so helpful and easy. Following A.I is the path of least resistance so it’d take a remarkably quick change to cause a worldwide uprising… if it ever comes.

This isn’t a complaint about the current state of our attitudes towards artificial intelligence. This is to highlight the problem that superintelligent computers may pose to us in the next 50 to 100 years (or never, depending on how confident you are this will ever happen).

Superintelligent computers may not be evil. They may just be very good at what they do. So they should be in charge. Unless we’re happy to let babies run the world?

A.I.D.A.N

This brings us to the end of this short discussion. I want to point you in the direction of some great books because I’ve inevitably missed out a lot of detail here.

Inspiration: Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark

More inspiration: Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

Slightly looser inspiration: Hello World by Hannah Fry

One of the freakiest A.Is in Sci-fi: The Illumnae Files by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman (All of them. It features an A.I named A.I.D.A.N who may or may not go off the rails.)

More Superintelligent A.I. in sci-fi: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman


As always, thank you for reading!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask below.

Twitter: @improvingslowly

Facebook: Improving Slowly

References:

[1] AI Takeover – Wikipedia

[2] Air France Flight 447: ‘Damn it, we’re going to crash’

[3] Facebook Is Changing News Feed (Again) to Stop Fake News

[4] Is Artificial Intelligence Racist?

 

Living with Chronic Pain Pt.2

It’s been over 5 years since I last wrote a piece on what it means to live with chronic pain. I have good news.

I still have fingers with which to write about it.

In this time, I have completed an undergraduate and graduate degree as well as had two stints in the professional workplace. As a result, I have experienced pain in different contexts.

If you haven’t read the first post, please find it here.

 

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Perhaps you’d say this is an Angry Bird? Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

 

I am angry and this calmed me down

A theme in my last post was a sombre nature. I pointed out that there are many things I feel I have lost because I have been in pain for so long. Whether that was friendships, self-confidence or time. These are all true. Yet, I noticed something else – I was really angry.

I hated being in pain.

When you’ve hurt your back or your leg, it’s easy to feel frustrated because it limits you and prevents you from enjoying your day even when you don’t have any obligations. It’s draining and if it lasts for a few weeks, you simply cannot wait for it to leave.

Therefore, it may be surprising that I have taken a while to admit that I have been chronically frustrated at my situation.

Let me explain.

My first approach to being in pain was that being angry was only going to waste my time. It was something that I needed to simply accept and move on with. This was greatly inspired by stoic and Buddhist philosophies.

But this pain was nagging at me like a small child who would simply not stop crying. As composed as you can be, eventually, you just become a little bit annoyed…

…especially if this child is actually 30 years old, is perfectly capable of living an independent life but simply doesn’t. And cries all the time.

This anger grew into chronic frustration. I wouldn’t be foaming at the teeth every day (if I have but simply haven’t noticed, I do not have any friends because they didn’t warn me) but most of my journal entries would be the same – I’m annoyed that I have to push through this pain, otherwise I’d simply never get anything done. Who wants to do that? There’s no glory in a battle no one ever witnesses you conquer, is there?

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I chose to explore these topics. I wondered what anger has done for people in the past and whether anger needs to do anything at all in order to be free from criticism.

I realised that my chronic frustration was simply a reflection of chronic pain. It isn’t always a productive emotion and sometimes it is. That is perfectly fine. In that time, it motivated me to learn how to swim, to take up programming and to pursue these topics in the first place!

In many respects, it has transformed the way that I approach my life. Frankly, I’m not sure I had any choice at all! I am fortunate enough for my chronic pain to not shackle me to the bed every day.

 

Photo by Stefanus Aprilianto on Unsplash
This has no real relevance to my post. I just enjoy doggos.

 

The Talking Problem

When we think back to cavemen and women, we think of very rudimentary communications. “Run”, “Hot!” “Sad!” “Unregulated capitalism is ruining our environment and making the poor, poorer.”

Basic stuff.

Well, a struggle I’ve come to admit is … I’m basic.

Yes, I love Starbucks as much as the next person and, being a 24-year-old male, I now have an interest in the gym and “lifting heavy, grrr”.

The way I talk about pain hasn’t changed much! There’s little nuance to the situation – and trust me, I try to find it. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the same few things. I’m in pain and it’s tiring. I don’t like it and I don’t know how to change it.

The problem isn’t necessarily how I express myself in my head but more so to other people. It’s difficult to express the gravity of chronic pain to those who have never experienced it. The fact that the feeling is never old but the experience just grinds away emotionally and physically.

How do you tell co-workers friends “I’m in pain… all the time” and for it to mean something to them? I have no idea but I’ve been in this situation for 10 years now and I’m not sure it matters much as I thought it did.

My friends and family

One goal I had for this post was to make sure that sadness and disappointment was the primary theme. I don’t want to make the reader sad. There’s enough of that to go around.

The exact way I communicate the problem doesn’t matter because directed compassion from family and friends reduces the importance of helping others be empathetic. Even if others may not be able to step into my shoes, they can still help me get to my destination.

And they do.

Living with chronic pain hasn’t changed that much over the past 10 years. It continues to be a physical and emotional grind, but I am remarkably fortunate to have built the friendship groups I have.

To those who are reading – thank you.

Some achievements

To end on a positive note, I’ll talk about some of the key milestones I’ve experienced…

  • I’ve learned how to swim and now regularly do 2.5km a few times a week
  • I’ve completed 2 degrees to a high standard without dying
  • I’ve stopped using the walking stick
  • I’ve started weightlifting

That’s probably it. But we’re all about improving slowly here anyway…

And with that, I leave you all. I hope you enjoyed this uneventful update on my life. Back to regularly scheduled programming.

(At the rate I’m going, it’s once a year but we will ignore that.)


As always, thank you for reading!

Twitter: @improvingslowly

FaceBook: Improving Slowly

How to achieve anarchy using computers

In the 1970s there was a battle going on in Harvard. It was between two impressively tall men who were sat in their offices trying how to best figure out how the world should work. They wanted the world to be as fair as possible for as many people as possible.

This was ultimately a question of how the government should work.

The most important person (for our purposes, at least) [1] was Robert Nozick who argued in Anarchy, State and Utopia, that we should have a minimalist government. The only reason for government to exist is to provide security to its citizens. Perhaps the main reason why he reached this argument is that the act of taxation is theft. While tax can be helpful because it provides healthcare, education, social services and so on, it doesn’t reduce the importance from the idea that any time the government taxes you, it unfairly takes away something you have earned.

This was for a long time one of the most popular renditions of libertarianism. However, it isn’t taken seriously now because of the consequences such a system would cause. You are probably already thinking of the problems – no universal healthcare, increasing social and economic inequality, fewer education opportunities open to the least well off and so on.

Importantly, it wasn’t anarchy. It wasn’t meant to be a lawless mess but ultimately, the government wasn’t allowed to do more than provide security for its citizens.

Now, what if the government simply couldn’t provide security to its citizens? Or provide any social services?

The difference between the government choosing not to provide social services and being unable to provide them is important.

In the first instance, there isn’t much stopping them providing services past political difference. Usually, tax is still collected but used for minimal things such as security.

The second is much more problematic. It’s scary. And it could be happening sooner than we think.

Enter crypto-anarchy…

Cryptoanarchy is anarchy achieved through technology. People send information to one another using cryptographic software which allows for a large degree of anonymity. Proponents of cryptoanarchy say there are three main benefits of this:

  • It protects from mass surveillance
  • It prevents censorship
  • It provides an alternative to traditional banking

Before we delve more into this topic, let’s clarify what cryptography is:

“Crypto-“ can be translated as “hidden” or “secret”.

“-graphy” can be translated as “to write”.

Together, it means writing private messages or information. Cryptography relies a lot on mathematics and algorithms. This is where you’ve probably heard of computers mining for bitcoins. It requires a lot of processing power. As more bitcoins are mined, it becomes harder to get more. [2]

Let’s move onto some pictures.

Cryptographic communication.PNG

  1. Messages are encrypted with keys that are generated with algorithms.
  2. The public key is shared, and the private key is private.
  3. These keys are similar and mathematically linked.

Now that Oj has encrypted the message using Michael’s public key, the only way to decrypt the message is with the private key. You can try to figure out the message without the key but that may take millions of years.

Right, now we have some understanding of how it works. Don’t worry if you’re still not 100% on it. The basics are enough for now.

What’s the deal then?

Imagine all our communications are done this way. There is no middleman between myself and the person(s) I’m talking to. The government has now lost control over what is said and how it is said. What if our social networks were like this?

Now, Facebook and Twitter act as publishers for our material (although they want to be platforms [3]). They have rules for what can and cannot be said as per their terms and service. With increasing frequency, social networks are struggling to remain as neutral as possible because of the demands on them to remove hateful speech as well as strike a balance between allowing their users to be as active and expressive as possible.

Because they own the servers, they can ban people and follow the requests of the government to disallow certain things being said. However, and you’re probably seeing the trend now, if we remove these centralised networks, we can say whatever we want and be anonymous while doing it.

The most popular use of this technology is through currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Governments around the world rely on taxation to fund social services such as security, healthcare and so on. With a reliable banking system, we can track earnings, force people to pay tax and fines. If there’s a problem with our finances, in the UK at least, the government can protect up to £85,000 of a person’s savings.

A decentralised system used to make payments works to remove the Government’s ability to do these tasks. How do you tax a transaction if you don’t even know who made it? Or who it was sent to? Should we remove the government’s ability to do these necessary tasks, we lose the benefits that come with it.

Returning to Nozick’s minimalist government. He put forward the philosophical argument that the government should not tax us for things beyond security.

In the scenario above, it may not even be able to provide us with that.

No computer should have all that power

A problem with reading books on technology and intelligence in the 21st Century is we may work ourselves into a bit of a frenzy. It seems like the world’s first smarter-than-all-humans-ever computer will appear tomorrow and it’ll be let loose into the world. Then it’ll turn us all into paperclips [4].

There are headlines of computers finally beating the world’s best Go and chess players without any prior data at all [5]. This is exciting stuff within the field of A.I. Surely, they’re only a few years away from beating us in everything?

No. Robots suck at picking things up from the floor [6]. We’re a while away from becoming paperclips.

Yet, the rise of crypto-related technologies forces us to think about and answer questions regarding the reach of the government. Jamie Bartlett rightfully notes that in a mature democracy, we give up certain individual liberties in order to secure collective rights (such as security).

Crypto-related technologies consolidate massive amounts of power into a small population of people who can do large amounts of harm. How many people know how to use cryptographic technologies? (Not many.) Bartlett also says that the Government would likely need more authority to ensure the safety of the public.

And we can already see how Governments across the world are acting in response to technological advancements right now.

On October 2nd, 2013, a couple was arguing in the San Francisco library. They were distracting everyone nearby. One of the distracted members of the public was Ross Ulbricht who as a result had his laptop taken from him.

He was then arrested and taken to federal prison and faced charges of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics.

You see, Mr Ulbricht was the founder of Silk Road. The dark net online marketplace that was famously known for facilitating the sale of nearly $1 billion worth of drugs. He was found guilty and sentenced to 2 life sentences without the possibility of parole.

It’s an interesting case because it seems like a heavy-handed sentence for a person who allowed people to shop anonymously. Additionally, it is somewhat like the cryptographic social network described above.

Having a middleman allows regulation because activities can be seen and impacted. People can be attached to the actions they take. If everyone is anonymous with no central platform, we lose security protections afforded by central non-anonymous platforms.

Should the possibility of cryptoanarchy be taken seriously?

If so, how should democracies around the world respond to the rise of such technologies as they potentially rip control out of their hands?

If cryptocurrencies continue to rise in popularity, how will we manage the inevitable increase in inequality since most of the population have no stake in things like bitcoin?

Will the Government need more powers to ensure our security?

How much liberty are willing to sacrifice for the promise of security?

Final words…

As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe crypto anarchy is something we need to be afraid of right this second. Currently, it is a useful tool to think about how governments around the world should respond to the increasing complexity of technology and, in this case, its direct opposition to how the world currently functions.

However, this isn’t just a thought experiment.

The technology is real. The problems are real. The questions must be answered.


As always, thank you for reading!

I know this is a stray away from my usual personal development posts. I hope it was enjoyable nonetheless!

I’d recommend reading Jamie Bartlett’s The People vs Tech for a much better explanation of the problem. This was heavily inspired by the final chapter.


[1] I think most would rightfully argue that John Rawls had a much greater impact on political philosophy in the long-term.

[2] There was a cap placed by Satoshi Nakomoto at 21 million bitcoins. There are currently about 18 million in circulation.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/02/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-platform-publisher-lawsuit

[4] This is a famous example given by Nick Bostrom in Superintelligence where he argues that a super-intelligent artificial program may just want to develop as many paperclips as possible. We will be those paperclips if necessary.

[5] Artificial intelligence: Google’s AlphaGo beats Go master Lee Se-dol

[6] Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark

I’m 24

Happy birthday to me.

Every year, I write something for my birthday, reflecting on how I’ve developed over the past year and how I hope to improve for the next year.

Last year, I answered two questions – Do I love myself? and what am I grateful for?

I can say I love myself more for the positive changes I’ve managed to make to my health. Even if I’m still dealing with a substantial amount of pain daily, I’ve maintained a regular swimming and yoga habit. There’s still a long way to go with overall self-compassion though.

I was grateful for a number of things. Many of them including friendships, the ability to exercise, charity, vegetables (yes, really) and books.

These still hold true. I believe I am extremely lucky for the friends and family that I have. I still exercise, read and donate to charity. But…

Let me tell you something about vegetables.

One sunny day in July I went to a vegan market in Hackney. It was pretty small considering how large some markets in London can be. However, there were peanut butter blondies so I was sure that all was going to be OK regardless if my lunch sucked (it didn’t).

I had a burger that was remarkably sloppy and literally, everything fell out into the little paper that was holding it. I got some on the floor and I dirtied my jeans. The tiny napkin they gave me barely cleaned my pinky finger.

At the same time all of this was happening, I was slowly, but surely, tipping towards the floor because I weigh a lot and the bench I was sat on was very wobbly. Everyone else on this table, while regular-sized humans, were all smaller than me.

I was in a perpetual state of fear that I’d fall over and embarrass myself.

I did not fall over. However, one of the leaflets I used to clean myself , was a Challenge22+ leaflet (what is shame? I do not know.)

The aim of this challenge was to go vegan for 22 days, join the facebook group and have the chance to talk nutritionists and other people trying out this vegan hype. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to complete the challenge. If I didn’t, I’d just continue on as normal.

22 days came and went and I was transferred to the Challenge22+ graduate’s group. Cool. Nothing special but cool.

40 days came and went. If this was for lent, I’d ironically win a milk chocolate Easter egg or something.

Then 50, 60, 70… all the way up to today. I’m still going and let me tell you – it’s brilliant.

During that time, I’ve learned a lot about the treatment of animals, the impact of animal products on our likelihood for chronic diseases and on the environment.

Last year, when I said I was grateful for vegetables because they’re like an automatic rainbow for your plate, I guess I didn’t know how much I like rainbows.

Cooking in the kitchen is a different challenge now and now my tastebuds are regularly blessed with new flavours and textures. I also get complimented on how healthy my shopping trolley looks in Tesco.

Little do they know, all of the junk food is hidden underneath the spinach.

So thank you, everyone, over at Challenge22+. This is the most significant change I’ve had over the past year and any time I reflect on it, I’m grateful. My attitude toward animals has changed completely and I believe I’m more in line with being compassionate towards others – even if they don’t have big toes or thumbs.

JUST LOOK AT JOSHUA AND HAROUN. JOSHUA IS MY LIFE MASCOT. HE’S JUST THE BEST.

If they make it, we’re all gonna make it.

 

Haroun and Joshua
Pictured: Joshua and Haroun from Kittenxlady on Instagram

I have composed myself. We can move on.

My values and self-improvement

When I first started these birthday posts, I would write about the values that I try to live with and act in accordance with.

Without going into detail of various shortcomings I feel I have had over the past year, I think the overall problem that can be taken from that is that, yes these values are good to live in accordance to. But that’s about it – they’re good and nice to have.

I spent more time thinking about the values themselves than how I’m going to do that.

I can look back on the year but I have nothing concrete to measure it against. My journal entries exist but they are not focused on these values in particular.

This doesn’t mean I will sit down each day with a checklist in my hand saying things like “Did I improve with compassion?” or “Did I give myself permission to be content?” Nah, we all know that isn’t going to happen.

After the first few days, I’d probably misplace my pen by a few centimetres and use that as an excuse to not bother.

I will not try to quantify every aspect of my life because 1) who has time for that, 2) who wants to have time for that, and 3) that won’t help.

However, I think more regular reflection would go a long way. Maybe I’ll share that with you all here. Maybe.

Lastly, a word on self-improvement.

To the extra attentive folk reading, the last post I made was in 2018… for my birthday.

This failure to write started off as standard procrastination. Then it extended into something different. I fell out of love with self-improvement.

I stopped reading self-improvement articles because I felt as though many articles simply lacked context. Both in terms of the author appreciating the context in which they are writing from and the potential context from which their audience is reading from.

If the advice needs to reach as many people as possible, then it needs to be extremely general and watered down. Overall, a lot of it became boring to read and there was nothing for me to contribute to the genre.

I still enjoy writing but haven’t had the confidence to post anything as a result.

I’m not saying goodbye to my blog but I may try to explore different interests. Who knows – if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year – there’s always more to learn about yourself.

As always, thank you for reading.


Me when I was younger:

I’m 23 | I’m 22 | I’m 21 | I’m 20 | I’m 19

I’m 23

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This is me. Photo by George Lucian Rusu on Unsplash

Every year, I publish a post on my birthday looking back on the year and asking myself whether I’ve lived in accordance with my values.

This year, I want to keep it short and ask two questions:

  1. Do I love myself?
  2. What am I grateful for?

Hopefully, there’s loads of life ahead, more people to meet and great food to eat. Let’s begin.


Lovely love

So, I love a lot of people. I’m quite generous with my love. I try to value my friendships with relationships with people because they’re often what makes life worth living.

Seeing my girlfriend laugh at my amazing jokes (if you ask her she’ll say something like “no, he’s not funny… ah his jokes are terrible” then roll her eyes and laugh at the idea that I was ever considered funny, but really, that’s just her way of saying “He really is the funniest guy I’ve ever been around”).

Knowing my friends can rely on me to listen to them in times of need but not get to a restaurant on time. Or getting positive feedback from people on my writing (but only rarely because I rarely write) is all beautiful.

Do I extend that same courtesy to myself? No.

Maybe “self-love” doesn’t need to be as intense as the love we have for other people, but I think it would be helpful to be more compassionate towards myself.

Perhaps I can try being compassionate towards myself with regard to my actions rather than thoughts.

Thoughts come and go. Negative or positive. Actions can be slightly more long-lasting – like eating well and exercising.

By the time I’m 24, perhaps I’ll love myself a bit more.


I am grateful for…

Friends and family

I’ve surrounded myself with a bunch of really dope people and I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t without them. Even those I’ve lost contact with.

Charity

I never posted it here but I recently raised £480 for Cancer Research UK, Marie Curie UK and Diabetes UK.

It involved a lot of swimming (about 25 miles over 3 months) but I was going to do that anyway so why not raise money will doing it?

We (the donors and I) were successful in the end. We helped a great cause and I got fitter in the mean time.

Exercise

I’m always grateful that I simply have the ability to exercise. If my back had been slightly worse, I may not have had proper use of my legs! Even if that happened, I still would have found a way to exercise.

It’s great. It’s like a free way to feel accomplished and non-sluggish.

I recommend you appreciate your body, regardless of its flaws and try some light exercise. When you get into the groove of it – I demand an ultra-marathon.

Vegetables

Ok, I’ll explain.

In short, I’ve been eating more vegetables and they’re bloody great. It’s like free food that makes your plate look like a rainbow.

Vegetables are just dope, man. I feel sorry for those who still say things like “I don’t eat vegetables” because they just remember those sad what-even-is-flavour, I’ve-been-steamed-for-too-long, I-am-pure-trash looking veggies they had in primary school.

Books

Books are the best investment possible. Unless you’re an American college student.

I can read words. That’s really great.

There are millions of really good words in a beautiful order out there and it’s a pleasure to be able to experience the worlds other people create.


There’s probably more but I was meant to keep this short.

For everyone that’s read my work over the past year or longer, thank you. I love you too.

@ImprovingSlowly


I used to be younger:

I’m 22

I’m 21

I’m 20

I’m 19

How Chronic Illness Ruins Your Motivation (and what to do about it)

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If you’ve been ill for any period of time, you know that it’s more difficult to do things you need to do or even enjoy. Usually, when you get better, your energy and motivation levels improve also.

Chronic illness makes that equation slightly more complex.

Even when the pain leaves, the motivation levels may stay as low as they were when you were ill. If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you may wonder why, beyond the clearest answer – “depression”.

How chronic illness ruins motivation

Robert Malenka of Stanford University and his colleagues studied chronic pain in mice. They showed that persistent pain resulted in mice being less and less likely to work for food in comparison to their pain-free friends.

Long-term pain (in this case, a week for the mice), resulted in nerve-cell changes in the nucleus accumbens which is important for processing reward and reinforcement.

When the pain was relieved, the mice were still less willing to work for food even if they were hungry.

The researchers asked if they did not work for food because…

  1. their pain was too severe?
  2. they no longer valued food as much?
  3. they lacked motivation?

More tests showed that they could walk fine and still valued food. Their pain was relieved. They lacked motivation.

Although Dr. Malenka’s study was valuable, it may not be best to directly translate these findings to humans. What we can take from this is that long-term pain seems to reduce motivation even after the pain has left.

There seems to be a slight edge taken off life when you’re in pain because you grow to expect the pain to continue. More tasks appear futile because they were difficult or unable to be completed in the past.

Moreover, we must also be aware of the complex intertwining with depression, fatigue and emotional tiredness that comes with living with an illness for a long period of time. Quite literally, it can change you physically and mentally.

What can we do about it?

Now we know that chronic pain can influence motivation even when the pain isn’t there, we can start with the first tip:

  1. Forgive yourself

There are days when pain isn’t as bad but we still don’t want to do anything. Now we know why.

To stop yourself from falling victim to the useless command of “just snap out of it!”, understand that it’s more important to be on your own team and to forgive yourself if things don’t always go to plan.

2. Start small…

…and stay small.

I’ve long been an advocate of making small, healthier changes that you can do every day. They are more sustainable, more enjoyable, easier to do and easier to fit into the day. Not everything needs to be a 100% effort – and they’re useless if you can rarely put in that effort.

For example:

  1. 5 minute daily walks
  2. 5 minute meditation
  3. 20 minutes of reading

The daily actions vary from person to person. Some people can manage 30 minutes of walking a day, other people find it difficult to walk to the kitchen sometimes. No need to feel ashamed or arrogant about whatever stage we’re at.

What does “stay small” mean?

It means, on pain-free days or simply days that you feel good, you may not want to take advantage of that and do everything you’ve hoped for. It feeds into the boom and bust cycle of pain management.

Pain ratings:

Day 1: 5/10 | Day 2: 6/10 | Day 3: 4/10 | Day 4: 1/10 NOW WE RUN A MARATHON WHILE COOKING FOR 100 PEOPLE

Day 5: 9/10 – We do nothing.

And repeat.

We want to have a reasonable amount of consistency in our days so that we can consistently feel rewarded for our efforts regardless of our pain levels. That is easier said than done but still possible to a degree.

If we feed into the boom and bust cycle, even those days where your body doesn’t feel like it’s on fire can result in us doing very little.

3. Take time to slow down

Some days, all the medication or tips in the world can’t really help us. But we can try our best to take some time to ourselves and slow down just a bit.

Whether that is through:

  • Taking a few deep breaths
  • Stroking our hands lightly
  • Eating and drinking mindfully
  • Hugging a teddy bear (or person… subject to availability, of course)

We can experiment with healthy ways to stop ourselves from getting lost in the self-hatred or anxiety that comes from a lack of motivation and depression.

Why bother?

Chronic pain often makes us ask ourselves – why bother? We can very easily build resentment towards our condition and ourselves. Who doesn’t want to have more control over their lives?

I won’t tell you that you should feel a certain way after reading this. I certainly won’t say that you should feel motivated. However, do take away that small, sustainable changes can be a healthy way to manage pain and our motivation levels.

To end, I quote Toni Bernhard…

May you make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.


As always, thank you for reading!

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter!


Further reading:

12 Ways to Cope with Chronic Pain and Depression

Decreased motivation during chronic pain requires long-term depression in the nucleus accumbens

Study reveals brain mechanism behind chronic pain’s sapping of motivation

The two-week experiment|The Sunday Monday Post

We’re two weeks into 2018.

How many new year resolutions have been broken and revitalised already? How many are still going strong?

That doesn’t matter too much. We all hear the same advice – make it a habit. Shoot for sustainable change rather than drastic alterations to our lifestyle. If you slip up once, get back on track as quickly as possible.

I agree with all of this advice because it’s helpful. However, it doesn’t address the main problem I find with New Year Resolutions.

They’re often boring and create too much pressure for perfection.

Who cares about being healthy when Pringles are £1? or exercise when it’s raining and windy?

2018 isn’t special. Neither will 2019 be. There is nothing grand about the change of year. We all know this, yet depend on it anyway even if we decide not to formally create any resolutions.

Why is this a misleading mindset?

Let’s take a quick look at the term “resolution”:

The firm decision to do or not to do something

“I’m going to exercise more”

“I’m going to eat less junk”

“I’m going to call my parents once a week”

Whatever the form, the underlying philosophy is that “this is the time I finally make a change!” When we make resolutions, we often treat them as though we should make a specific change and if we fail, we are failures. That isn’t true – it’s a misleading train of thought.

Experiments and Projects

I returned to an idea I probably heard from the likes of Tim Ferriss and that is the two week experiment and six month project. 

Experiments are an opportunity to try something new or do something slightly differently. They view failure as a possibility rather than something which must be avoided at all costs.

With New Year Resolutions, we always have the possiblity that we’ll fail but it’s as though we choose to ignore it because we believe we can will ourselves to success (it’s not that easy).

Two weeks is a short enough timeframe for our efforts not to feel unproductive and damaging. If we choose to jump ship early, we haven’t sunk too much time into it. If we enjoy it, we can simply carry on and maybe we’ll stick with it long enough.

It’s also a short enough timeframe for it to stay exciting, I’ve found. It’s like we get to become a slightly different person for a short time! Given how easy it is to get stuck in mundane routines, small changes can be wonderful.

The six month project allows for an overarching theme to come from the experiments.

A six month project: Learn data visualisation.

Two-week experiment no.1: Only utilise data on a sport you know nothing about when creating visualisations.

Two-week experiment no.2: Produce a new visualisation every two days.

Two-week experiement no.3: Work on a detailed visualisation that utilises a new skill and produce a story at the end of the two weeks.

You get the idea?

A current example of mine is the following.

Six month project: Lose weight.

Two-week experiment no.1: Have a vegan meal a day

It’s been going very well actually. They’re fun and a helpful break from the bad and good habits that I’ve maintained for a while.

Try the following:

  1. Write down a goal you’ve wanted to achieve.
  2. Think: six months has passed – what do I want it to look like? That is your new project.
  3. Experiment: what’s an interesting way to make progress on your project? What haven’t you tried before? What has been unsuccessful in the past and how might you make a change to it?

Now, be reasonable. I don’t recommend you try fasting for two weeks or skydiving without a parachute to aid weightloss.


Happy 2018!

What might you experiment with next?

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for updates!

What are you capable of? Probably more than you believe.

This isn’t meant to be an empty motivational post.

There’s a concept in long-distance running called the “second wind”. When athletes are tired and believe it is best to stop, they find they’re able to press on at a perfectly good pace.

If you’ve had a particularly difficult exercise session, you may have experienced this yourself. You challenged yourself to find a limit and found yourself pushing past it.

Although the following will be more difficult to measure, I want to consider this in cases other than exercise. How do we find this second wind?

First, it involves the belief that we can grow. This is often called the “growth mindset”. Briefly summarised, Carol Dweck argued that students perform better if they believe they’re able to get better relative to those who believe their intelligence is fixed by their genetics.

Second, it involves incorporating gradual challenges into our lives. As experiments. Just to find out what’s possible. Treating it as an experiment removes the pressure and invites failure as an honest possibility.

I like to think of practice as failure in a controlled environment.

Whether it is running, swimming, writing, or cooking for the family, test the limits. Believe you’re capable of improvement (because it’s true). Gradually challenge yourself and enjoy the surprise when you realise you’re more capable than you originally believed.

The existence of reservoirs of energy that habitually are not tapped is most familiar to us in the phenomenon of ‘second wind.’ Ordinarily we stop when we meet the first effective layer, so to call it, of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ and desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction, on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed.

William James, 1907

Illness isn’t a performance

The depressed must look sad. Those in pain must look like they’re in pain.

Those who are ill must look like they are ill.

You might want to trace this down to the idea that you have to “see it to believe it” because a person telling you something isn’t as reliable as you simply seeing it for yourself. Unfortunately, this also means that in order for you to believe what you see, it has to confirm your prior conceptions of what you already believe.

To see someone in pain and believe they’re in pain, I have to fall back on my previous ideas of what it means to be in pain. Grimacing. A long face. Crying. Shouting.

These are preconceptions and we must admit they can be wrong.

The ill aren’t obligated to explicitly show they are ill in order for them to be believed. Often times, illness is complex for the person it affects and the other people it involves. The ill can express joyfulness, sadness, wonder and still be ill.

Illness isn’t a performance art even though it often feels like it needs to be.

To the ill, don’t put yourself under pressure to act a certain way in order to prove your illness (either to yourself or others).

To the non-ill, consider believing the word of the ill rather than dismissing it based on prior beliefs about how the ill should behave.

Both these statements are easier said than done but a step in a better direction.


Twitter: @improvingslowly

Facebook: Improving Slowly

As always, thank you for reading.

The Want Monster: Wanting What We Don’t Have

The “Want” Monster.

It’s that little voice in your head which tells you “I want this and that and everything in between!” or “I don’t want this because it’s horrible!”

It isn’t a kind voice but one of consistent temptation. It’s a quiet and smooth voice which can infiltrate your thoughts without a problem. And when we’re bombarded with advertising and deals designed to make you panic, the voice comes out in full force, puts on its lawyer suit and starts justifying everything it possibly can.

Unfortunately, the Want Monster is also dumb because wanting is all it can do. It doesn’t disappear once we have what we apparently desire. Rather, it presses the snooze button and waits for another opportunity to wake up again.

It’s an unquenchable thirst.

Tanha – the Buddhist idea of the self-focused desire to want more and more. We justify it by thinking that we will have a peace of mind after it appears.

But nah. That doesn’t happen.

freestocks-org-187367.jpg
She’d probably go shopping for more. Looking good though, can’t lie.

I Want What You Have

I was eating lunch with my sister when I was about 7. We were having chicken wings with rice and stew. I finished mine, she hadn’t finished hers. And I sat down and ate the rest of my food in peace.

Ok, of course not. I stared at her plate of food until my gran gave me her wings and replaced my sister’s food with a boney piece of meat.

She held a grudge for years. Hell, I’d be mad too because those wings were magnificent.

This somewhat comical example of just wanting what other people have. Kids do it all the time. Adults do it too but with things more ambitious than chicken wings and toys.

Here is the science.

Lebreton et al in Your Goal Is Mine: Unraveling Mimetic Desires in the Human Brain, explores this in a lot of detail but I want to get to the important part for our purposes.

First, it’s really easy to start mimicking the desires of other people. The authors simply showed the participants pictures of sweets that looked slightly different and had an unseen person pick one. Uniformly, the participants preferred the sweet picked by the unseen person.

Second and most importantly, we don’t want something because someone else has it, we value something because someone else values it. This means that we believe the reward given by the item is greater because other people have it and we value highly valued things (sorry for the mouthful).

What does this mean for us?

The Want Monster will always have something to feast on and desire!

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I suppose in this picture, I would have taken the whole plate. Photo by Herson Rodriguez on Unsplash

How can we want less?

I’ll say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting things. Rather, it’s a source of suffering because our desires are ever changing and we can never seem to satisfy them.

Even if we get what we want.

So clearly, giving into our desires every time they pop up, isn’t a healthy way to address them.

What are your values?

When we notice the Want Monster knocking on our door, we may want to ask if what it is offering matches the values we want to live by and the long-term goals we have for ourselves.

We don’t always need to tell the Want Monster to click its heels three times and disappear. Addressing it with some calm can resolve the conflict the quickest.

If you haven’t thought through your values and long-term desires, you may want to take a few minutes from your day to think about it. Here is the example I wrote at 21.

The “If/Only” test

Another helpful pointer from Toni Bernhard (bloody love every word she puts on paper).

It helps us find out – do we think we’ll be completely satisfied if we got this one thing?

If only I had my sisters chicken wings, I’d be satisfied.

If only I wasn’t ill, I’d be completely happy.

If only I had new shoes, I’d feel better with my shoe collection.

If only I had this new job, I’d feel useful again.

Looking over these things, it seems odd to think that one new thing can put an end to the desires that we have. That isn’t to say they can’t help but I suggest we try moving away from believing that satisfying the Want Monster is the way to get it to leave.

After I had my sister’s chicken wings, I went back to the kitchen to look for more. There weren’t anymore.

Our happiness quickly gives way to new wants and don’t wants.

Focus on the desire rather than the object of the desire

The above test helps gently shift our attention towards mindfully thinking about the fact that we’re desiring something rather than what we are desiring.

It is helpful to realise that satisfying particular desires doesn’t lead to sustained happiness because more appear in its place.

When we notice this desire, we can simply let it be. With time, it’ll pass. That’s why it’s said, “if you want something, wait a week and see if you forget about it”. (OK, it’s probably more elegant than that but I’m an amateur.)

Desires aren’t all bad.

To end, I want to clarify something that could be easily mistaken. Don’t take this as me saying all desires are bad.

I’ve used the term Want Monster because unchecked desires can often lead us down a dangerous path.

We begin to follow our desires blindly rather than let our desires be guided by our values. If we want junk food but we also have a greater aim to feed your body good foods, it is the Want Monster guiding us to make decisions, for example.

Generally, the Want Monster is much more focused on the short term rather than the long term.

Mindfully addressing our desires and remembering the unquenchable thirst will allow us to live closer to our personal values and get things that mean the most to us.

If I could go back in time, I would give my sister’s chicken wings back and enjoy my rice and stew in peace.


As always, thank you for reading!

No question for today. All I ask is that you share your thoughts on this topic!

Comment down below :)

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Further Reading:

You want that? Well I want it, too! The neuroscience of mimetic desire

How to Wake Up