Creativity is Fragile

Some people think great creative works fall from the sky abundantly, like rain, rather than being being the unique and irreplaceable products of literally years of preparation, training and work, that means each one can never be replicated ever again.

We treat creators with such callous, cavalier indifference, not recognising the gifts that have been laid at our feet, imagining that if this creator perishes, another one of equal quality will be along any minute. We fail to acknowledge and appreciate how special each creation is and cherish each artist for their own personal perspective, in showing us how to see differently.

My son and I witnessed one of the very last live performances of the late Chester Bennington. The band was tight and well-rehearsed, the sound quality was superb and the performances as impeccable as they were passionate and authentic. Listening to him sing, he would have been the last person you would imagine would take their own life, in despair, a few short weeks later. The music he made was sublime.

Some members of the audience, far from soaking up their good fortune for being able to witness a moment that can now never be repeated, saw it instead as an opportunity to get drunk and cause offence to other audience members, resulting in their bodily removal from the arena, by security. What a waste. What a missed opportunity. The artists put an elaborate show on the road, with care and expense taken to present great sound, staging, lights and video and they travelled thousands of miles to present it, on these nights, but these audience members were wholly absent at a moment of precious artistic performance, the like of which we shall never see again. I wonder if they even paused for thought at the news of a rock singer’s untimely death.

Creativity and creators are fragile and ephemeral. You never know when they might be gone, forever. Each of their creations is a gem. You can’t imagine their works will continue to be cranked out in indefinitely, like some automated, robotic production line. Each batch of songs could be their very last.

Appreciate beauty for what it is. It’s the short-lived blooming of a delicate mind-flower that can easily be destroyed and lost. Be mindful and grateful that people struggle to fill the world with works that soothe, understand and reach your emotions. Be thankful that all the ugliness in the world is counterbalanced to the extent that artists are able to create aesthetic delights. 

Were it not for artists, the world would descend into venal, nasty, squalid brutality, with no relief or respite from the constant assault. Some, of course, don’t care how debased your existence is, so long as theirs is opulent, but artists do. They seek to uplift and edify everyone. Can there be a greater act of generosity, especially when the personal cost is often so high?

Thank you for the music, Chester Bennington. Thank you for sharing your gift and your pain, so that others didn’t have to feel so alienated and alone. Rest in perpetual peace.

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Creativity and Efficiency

In art, as in most things in life, creativity and efficiency co-exist in tension. If you optimise on creativity, it often isn’t very efficient. On the other hand, if you’re obsessive about efficiency, that can easily drive out creativity. The essence of efficiency is standardisation, repeatable process and reduction of deviations. Ironically, you can get very efficient at making the wrong thing. Only an injection of creativity can break the deadlock, helping you see the right thing to build, or even replacing a seemingly efficient process with a much more efficient alternative way.

Economies fixate on efficiency, assuming creativity will always be there to rescue it, even if nobody is prepared to pay for it. I submit that this fixation is because efficiency is easier, in some senses. There are fewer unknowns. You just apply method and perseverance. It’s easier to measure. Type one thinking, our gut reaction and instinctual response, is very efficient, but frequently wrong. Type two thinking, with its sceptical introspection and evidence-based conclusions, can be highly creative.

The fact is, you need both creativity and efficiency. One without the other is sub-optimal.

The way to combine the two is through purposeful play. Make time to explore, but set a deadline, so that you gravitate toward some kind of focussed conclusion, without prejudging what that conclusion will be. Play is learning. Learning can feel stressful and challenging, making you feel inadequate and lost, breaking you down and humbling your spirit, so approaching it playfully makes the discomfort of not knowing feel more like excitement and fun. The only time you are actually growing is when you’re uncomfortable. The secret to success invariably lies in the very thing you’re avoiding.

Together, creativity and efficiency define innovation. Innovation is the dialectic that is present throughout nature. It’s a dynamic equilibrium and a circular interaction. Creativity plants the seeds, saying yes to more new ideas, while efficiency thins out the seedlings, removing the less viable and saying no to ideas that look less promising. This spiral nature of innovation illustrates that creativity—ironically—is a key route to efficiency, and efficiency can lead to creativity.

The greatest innovators are rarely individuals, but rather groups that embody this tension between creativity and efficiency. Artists need editors as much as the commercial business of art depends on iconoclastic creators. A band of engaged musicians in creative tension frequently produces better music than the individual band members do, as solo artists. It’s difficult (though not entirely impossible) to be both creative and efficient at the same time. Your head space is either one or the other, at any given time and context switches take time and effort. 

In particular, one potentially powerful pairing, inside an ecology of innovation, is the novice and the expert. The novice is unconstrained because they have little idea of what is and isn’t possible, unafraid of asking questions and hence, producing surprises. The master brings the benefit of experience and judgement, helping to sift good questions from less useful ones. The two, in tandem, are a formidable team.

Is your artistic practice in balance? Do you alternate between creativity and efficiency, or are you stuck in one mode or the other?

Think how economies, public policy and companies could be transformed, if they deliberately and consistently balanced deviation and conformity. Imagine if both mindsets were equally valued and respected. That would be innovative.

We can but dream.

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Moving the Overton Window

We all look through it, but like glass, we don’t see it. We don’t even see the width of the frame or how it is centred, but it constrains what we see and how we see it just as surely as any ordinary window does. I’m talking about the Overton window.

What is the Overton window?

The late think tank policy formulator, Joseph P. Overton, made the observation that in a given public policy area, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable, in the current climate of public opinion. The “window” of politically acceptable options is not defined by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they think they can support (or get away with) and still retain power. The window changes when ideas change in the constituency that keeps them in power. Sometimes, that’s the electorate, but increasingly it’s corporate donors and lobbyists.

Actually, Noam Chomsky talked about controlling the bounds of acceptable debate years ago, long before Overton, but let’s skip that technicality. In the diagram above, the two arrows are typically pointing toward more or less freedom. On the one side, we have benign anarchy, and on the other, authoritarian totalitarianism.

Who moves the window and what their motives are for moving it matters crucially. What’s their agenda? Is it transparent? Does it benefit us all, or is it predatory, rooted in a barely-concealed death machine project?

The greatest source of power of the elite is to convince others that what suits them is just common sense. For this reason alone, they spend literally billions on supporting the mainstream media and fake grass roots activism, buying up politicians to obtain legislative endorsement and taking ownership of media companies of every imaginable stripe. They propagate their point of view via entertainment, such as popular music, Hollywood movies and computer games and via advertorial content presented as objective, unbiased reporting. Their (usually unstated) aim is to keep public opinion firmly centred and aligned with their selfish corporate interests.

They carefully select their on-air, public spokespeople so that they seem plausible, trustworthy and independent, but who, in reality, have already accepted and internalised the elite agenda as common sense. We are saturated in exposures to a world view that suits these billionaires, until we convince ourselves, irrationally, that it also suits us…somehow. It’s not accidental and it’s quite purposeful. We think what we think because billionaires spend lavishly on making us think what they want us to think. Pure propaganda.

Austerity is an example. It is a con. Bankers and investors, who own us and everything else, want to extract exponentially more value from the workforce, through interest charged on money they create, from thin air, on behalf of governments. Granting a monopoly to create money to a cartel of private interests is such a corrupt sweetheart agreement, riddled with conflicts of interest, it is a wonder it persists. It persists, of course, only because reasonable, fairer, more equitable alternatives are kept well outside the Overton window by those who benefit most from the crooked deal. In effect, this cartel holds governments and the citizenry of entire nations to ransom by the simple expedient of refusing to issue any new money, unless public, common wealth is transferred upward, from those who produce it to the privileged, elite classes, who do nothing to earn it, other than creating the debt as a book keeping entry, using their monopoly position to do so, as enshrined in crooked laws now over a century old. Meanwhile, the vulnerable die of want.

What an impoverished, sad, lonely, narrow mindset, lacking humanity, compassion and empathy, is that of the corporate political donor and lobbyist. They consistently misidentify what is in their own long-term best interest and remain rigidly fixated on what they perceive to be their short term goals (i.e. unsustainable growth). Their minds are totally blind to (and absolutely closed to) wider possibilities, which would permit everybody to thrive. To their way of thinking, based on conventional, conservative traditionalism, it’s not enough that they win. Everybody else must lose. They inflict pain on themselves and their own elite class, in order to ensure the rest of humanity is not “unjustly” rewarded, such is their self-centred world view. For privilege to have any worth, they have to keep it scarce and exclusive.

The problem with the wealthy elite, who spend the most to move the Overton window in their favour, is that they isolate themselves. They live in a sterile, hermetically-sealed bubble of their own making, which locks them out of experiencing the stimuli and challenges that are necessary for creativity and a healthy brain to survive and thrive. Their remoteness from the concerns of humanity results in a form of cognitive suicide, where their brains become increasingly prone to bad ideas, which they adhere to doggedly. They lose the adaptability and neural plasticity required to respond to the rapid changes characteristic of an increasingly interconnected, co-dependent ecosystem, remarkable for its massive complexity. Those that move the Overton window most become progressively maladaptive and dysfunctional, as their locus of possibilities narrows.

To add to the perfect storm, public opinion is equally susceptible to bad ideas when communities become isolated and detached from wider humanity. When people have no direct contact or experience with others different to themselves, where diversity and multiculturalism are scarce, it becomes easier to propagate racist, phobic, wrong-headed positions, based on little more than pure prejudice and ignorance. A homogeneous society tends toward brain-deadness, quite literally losing the cognitive capacity to entertain and originate progressive ideas.

What’s the result? Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are the new normal. Barbarism is acceptable and assumed. Violence is blithely tolerated. The concerns and interests of labour have been all but forgotten. Blatant, outrageous usury, property speculation, financial hocus-pocus, wealth hiding, tax avoidance and unearned rentier incomes, based on being the exclusive gatekeepers of contrived scarcities, are celebrated. Actual value-creating activities are considered quaint and antiquated. The validity of proven, established, evidence-supported, scientific facts is flatly denied. We’ve become anti-intellectual, culturally impoverished and hostile to new ideas. We still think other people and the so-called authorities have a sovereign right to interfere with and constrain how we live our lives.

We live in fear of unknown, unseen enemies and accept the draconian excision of our most fundamental civil rights, so that those in power will keep us safe (which, ironically, they singularly fail to do, because that isn’t in their corporate interests). Sure, they sell expensive, elaborate weapons of mass destruction and consumer-grade small arms to everyone that will buy them, and then lobby hard to use them, so that they can be replaced, once destroyed, with something newer and more expensive, but none of this has anything to do with keeping you safe. It has everything to do with unsustainable growth.

As a counterforce to the billions spent by the elite, on behalf of their corporations, to arrange everything to their liking, artists have the capacity to shift the acceptable boundaries of public debate. They have the skills necessary to move the Overton window toward greater sustainability and freedom. Thought constraint takes place when human communication is controlled. This is why control of communication, by the elite, needs to be resisted.

Though oligarchs control the mainstream media, we live in the Information Age. We can choose to turn off the TV and tune into a radical’s Twitter feed instead. We can abandon our worthless New York Times and Daily Telegraph/Daily Mail subscriptions and scour Medium for objectivity. You can find independent media all over YouTube. We can tell our parents and friends that “The Truth Is Out There,” but they won’t find it on Fox News, the BBC, CNN or in the Washington Post and Guardian. We can give our time to ideas that matter and our attention to voices that articulate them.

More importantly, we can courageously create the world we want by talking about the world we want and acting as though it already exists. There is solid neuroscience that underpins the efficacy of this approach. It works.

We can abolish the bad ideas that lie within the Overton window’s current gaze and make them risibly obsolete. Laugh openly and derisively at every corporate-sponsored hack who tries to promote the same old discredited, tired, dangerous ideas, taken as “common sense”, but which have their origins in corporatist agendas. You owe them no respect in return for the contempt in which they have, for so long, held you. They’re taking the piss out of you, so take the piss out of them.

Every piece that gets written, by every unheralded internet writer, blogger or independent media journalist, moves the window a tiny amount. When millions are involved, no amount of corporate money, funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians or complicit media conglomerates, can move it back, so be sure to express yourself. Use whatever artistic medium works best for you. We cannot rely on our failed institutions to change the conversation, but we can articulate it ourselves. We can harness the power and wisdom of the crowd.

Make subversive, defiant, deviant art. Small intellectual steps are better than giant cognitive leaps. Even the most open-minded resist huge leaps of understanding. Brains simply work this way. Make the old, benign, humanistic, valuable, once widely-accepted and socially-contracted ideas new again. Create and interact. Encounter and embrace diversity. Stretch the frame of the Overton window. Forget the false dichotomy between left and right. Think up and down, near and far, width, height and span. Be inclusive of as many innovative, useful, radical ideas as possible. We’re going to need to consider a vast solution space, to solve the world’s many intractable problems, most of which we’ve ignored because they have lain outside the Overton window.

Facts and logic are insufficient, but necessary, to move the window. Appeals to morality and emotions are also required (and are often cynically stage-managed, by those in power). Emotions, facts, logic and moral judgements are all open to manipulation, obfuscation, omission, misrepresentation and lies. The elite can and do twist all of these to suit their purposes. Keep your eyes open.

Events (natural disasters, terrorist attacks), mistakes (a bonfire of regulations, leading to highly flammable and toxic, high-rise death traps) and misrepresentation (for example, much of the UK Brexit/Leave campaign) can be used to stampede people toward new views and into accepting the previously unacceptable. The current controllers of the Overton window know this and have used these happenstances to their advantage. Beware of deliberately engineered false flag events. Call out the railroading and subversion of the aftermath of an event for nefarious purposes. Make people aware that this is how they’re being duped and played.

Because each public policy area typically has its own window, thinking holistically, as a window overseeing all other windows, could help us see the bigger picture and make clearer comparisons. For example, why is it acceptable to bribe a fringe political party with public money to cling to power, but unacceptable to consider pay rises for nurses, or to buy food for the working poor and their children? Provide an international, global perspective to parochial concerns and views. Consider the humanist point of view as bigger and worthier than capitalist concerns.

The weakness of the Overton window is that it treats the population as an undifferentiated, uniform, single, homogeneous average. No member of the included population is ever average. Everybody has their own concerns and perspectives. In trying to produce a one-size-fits-all policy, the centre of the Overton window frequently speaks to and satisfies nobody. It excludes the outliers.

The lingerie retailer, Victoria’s Secret, in promoting the “perfect” body, using stick-thin, genetically-fortunate models to do so, actually offended, alienated and enraged its customer base, because it tried to shoehorn them all into their ideal of the perfect average. Rounder, fuller figures were left out of the equation. The company paid a heavy price in lost customers, as a result. When moving the Overton window toward greater freedom and sustainability, you must include the excluded.

Activists already attempt to change policy and public opinion using petitions, social media swarms and mass emails to decision makers, but artists can organise crowdfunded creative campaigns, like TV ads or billboards, podcasts, animated explainer videos on YouTube, satirical parodies, TED-alike talks live-streamed on social media, a series of related blog posts, meme GIFs, web-hosted white papers, community events (e.g. creative stunts, performance art, flash mobs, silent vigils, peaceful walks for a cause), protest songs and so on. The list is almost endless. Most of us know the work of cassetteboy and banksy.

Artists who stand for a fair society, a thriving environment, social justice, human dignity and global peace can move the Overton window towards transparent, accountable politics. Mobilising for creative, collective action requires nobody’s permission (for the time being, in some fortunate countries). You can and should take action, to counterbalance the billions the oligarchs spend to move the window the other way.

Create your way to freedom and dignity.

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Resolving Uncertainty

What if I told you that the only thing that holds you back from being more creative, living a better life and inhabiting a much better world is uncertainty? What if I also told you that resolving those uncertainties is not only possible, but that it has become an existential imperative?

More correctly, there are two ways to soothe ourselves, when faced with uncertainty. One is to try to control the uncertainties, imposing our will on them. Increasingly, though, this approach fails (if it ever worked at all). The second, more effective way is to change your perceptions, by seeing differently.

Let’s back up a little. In evolutionary terms, caution and fear, in the face of the unknown, was a survival instinct. Don’t go into the dark cave, if there could be an ambush predator lurking within. Don’t eat the berries that mother doesn’t eat. Whenever we encountered uncertainty, it was a potential threat to life and well-being. We extrapolated from this to treat any uncertainty in the same way – with fear and suspicion.

What we fail to realise is that what seems uncertain to us can be fully understood and certain, in another person’s perception. However, because they aren’t us, we don’t trust their grasp on reality. We’re uncertain about them too.

Resolving uncertainty is a unifying principle across biology, and thus is the inherent task of evolution, development, and learning. Uncertainty is at the root of our worst fears. The problem is that we face infinitely more complexity, today, than we did millennia ago. Our response to complexity – to treat it with fear and withdrawal, because we don’t understand it – is, ironically, imperilling us far more than if we took positive steps to resolve our uncertainties.

An increasingly connected world is also inherently more unpredictable. As we become more interconnected, we become more interdependent. We can’t continue to approach our interdependency with fear and denial. That won’t make it go away. All fear will do is create greater tensions and instabilities in the interdependency. Politicians that call for isolation and division are making the problem, the uncertainty and the fear very much worse. They’re not helping; they’re regressing to the dark ages and causing immense harm, holding back our progress toward harmonious co-existence.

We fear the integration only because we’re uncertain of the outcomes. This is not a fear based on good evidence. This fear arises only because of faulty perceptions. The outcomes are, in fact, both knowable and highly satisfactory. The trick is to be able to see them. The uncertainties can be resolved.

How we manage our perceptions constrains how we deal with and shape reality. Perceive badly and you create dystopia.

The biological motivation of many of our social and cultural habits and reflexes, including religion and politics, and even hate and racism, is to diminish uncertainty through imposed rules and rigid environments… or in one’s vain attempt to disconnect from a world that lives only because it is connected and in movement. In doing so, these inherited reflexes—by design—prevent us from living more creative, compassionate, collaborative, and courageous lives.

Changing your perceptions, questioning your most fervently held assumptions, can change your brain profoundly. Due to the plasticity of your brain, new ideas, which resolve your uncertainties, actually change the very structure of your wetware. Different connections and associations are established in your mind, allowing you to comprehend scenarios once intractable to you. You gain the ability to make different inferences and thereby arrive at new insights. You are able to spot new patterns and perceive how things that previously seemed unconnected are part of the same entity. Ideas and actions, previously out of your reach, can be available to you, if you are willing to question your assumptions, and in doing so create a new, unknown terrain of wondering.

People who insist they’re not creative mean they haven’t learned to change how they see. It’s a choice. Consequently, they remain constrained by the certainties they’ve developed and imposed on their own lives, to make themselves feel safe and secure (strong and stable). Creativity requires that you take the risk of confronting uncertainty, without knowing whether you will succeed in your aim, or not. You have to take the chance that you will fail, perhaps humiliatingly. Humiliation, fortunately, need not be a mortal wound.

When people tell you to be realistic, they actually mean they want you to conform to their particular perception of reality. Nothing more. This control that they wish to impose on you is so that they can be certain about you. Control over your perception of reality, in perfect alignment with theirs, removes an uncertainty for them, by putting you in your place, relative to and according to their mental model and world view. You may, in fact, be better served by being what they would regard as delusional.

As an example, there is pressure placed on people to be positive at all times. Negativity is considered to be a threatening contagion, which must be eliminated, so that everybody else feels safe, secure and certain within their positive reality distortion force field. Positive thinking, though, is a double-edged sword. If thinking positively permits you to overcome your paralysing fear, so that you can exercise your intention with purposeful agency, then fine, but if it’s just a way to remove uncertainty by constraining it, so that you ignore reality completely and fail to act, then perhaps not.

Similarly, not all negative thinking is bad. A certain amount of dissatisfaction with how you perceive things to be can drive creativity and innovation, to improve things. On the other hand, a retreat into wallowing and inaction is not a good thing. I find that if I don’t feel a certain amount of dissatisfaction, my creativity and ability to innovate abandons me entirely. I can’t create a thing worth a damn.

The key to living more creative, compassionate, collaborative, and courageous lives is to confront uncertainty with an open mind, be prepared to learn and based on what your curiosity helps you discover, be willing to change your mind, based on new ideas and evidence. In short, changing your perceptions is the best way to resolve uncertainty and take away fear.

See differently.

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The Neuroscience of Armageddon

A cursory study of rudimentary neuroscience makes uncomfortable reading. It suggests, with strong evidence, that the way we think makes us ill-suited to thrive in the modern world. In fact, our thought patterns and mental blind spots imperil us all. We’re not up to the task.

We face an existential crisis, born of our neurological incapacities. It may be that we are too cognitively and intellectually impaired to ever be capable of the task of stewardship of the living world, but there may be societal changes we can make which will take us nearer to the mark. If we’re willing to become aware of our thinking flaws, we might be able to compensate for them.

Democracy is rendered impotent by the ideas we cling to doggedly. Today, many habits and accepted practices, which seemingly don’t matter, are in fact greatly exacerbating our intellectual inadequacies. Being lazy with our thinking makes our thinking worse.

Creativity, it turns out, has a crucial role to play. Far from being a hobby or privileged indulgence, the artist’s perspective holds the key to releasing us from our self-destructive emotional responses and demonstrates amply why truth is so important and manipulation so dangerously corrosive. Our very survival depends on changing our minds and dispensing with our most ingrained prejudices. Unfortunately, one of deepest cognitive flaws is that we don’t recognise the necessity, or our deepest cognitive flaws. We remain blind to our inabilities.

This might come as a shock to you, but we are all flawed, to some degree. As a species and as individuals, we have a poor grasp on complexity, we weigh and understand risks hopelessly badly, and we’re inadequately equipped to fathom science, economics, medicine and technology in sufficient depth or detail. In short, we default to taking people’s word for it and blunder through life, confronting these areas of our incompetence like proud toddlers – clumsily, but trying to style it out, as if we know what we’re doing and what we’re talking about. We don’t.

Even the most learned and well-read grapple hopelessly with information and concepts beyond their comprehension. The wiser we’re assumed to be, the less willing we are to confess our cluelessness on various topics. We think we have to appear to know it all, which is to say we’re all prone to intellectual dishonesty. Saying, “I don’t know”, equates to failure, inadequacy and shame. We have too much ego invested in trying to never look stupid. Unfortunately, stupidity is abundant and universal.

With this mixture of ignorance and denial, we make all our crucial, binding, far-reaching, consequential, collective decisions. That’s right. We are utterly dependent on our flawed thinking and lack of understanding. We’re like helmsmen without navigators.

The Dunning-Kruger effect damningly documents the observation that we lack the competence to be aware of our own incompetence. We think we’re smarter than we are, because we aren’t smart enough to recognise our intellectual limitations.

Recently, several organisations, including the British National Health Service, were subject to a malicious attack, which rendered key computer files into an encrypted state, inaccessible to their owners, unless a ransom was paid. Ransomware is a well known attack vector and engineering solutions already existed, or could be applied, but the people managing the systems that were successfully attacked lacked the will, the funding or the right attitude (or all three) to protect against this threat. Their evaluation of the real risks they faced was hampered by a lack of understanding of the technical issues. Consequently, they got it badly wrong, causing catastrophe.

We like to think that our thoughts are our own, but the facts are that we believe what we’re told. In Daniel Kahneman’s terms, our type one thinking bias leads us to accept information from people we trust, uncritically. We then rationalise what we believe as if we had come to our own conclusions independently. Propagandists, like Edward Bernays, who went on to make a fortune in public relations and advertising, realised early in the twentieth century that, “We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of”. Bernays’ biggest and most notorious success was in recruiting young woman to smoke, thereby greatly increasing the profits of the tobacco companies, while consigning generations of young women to poor health and ultimately, to grisly, painful, early deaths. In short, we’re programmed by other people for their own purposes and we don’t acknowledge the fact.

But that’s not the end of our programming. We’re more than complicit in brainwashing ourselves. Since the 1980s, researchers were aware that there are ten basic personal values that are recognised across all cultures and age groups, in all countries. These are:

1. Self-direction

2. Stimulation

3. Hedonism

4. Achievement

5. Power

6. Security

7. Conformity

8. Tradition

9. Benevolence

10. Universalism

When it comes to nurturing human nature, three things stand out in their findings:

1. All ten basic values are present in us all and each one of us is motivated by their full array, but to widely differing degrees, that vary between cultures and individuals. We weight the ten differently to each other.

2. Each of the values can be engaged in us, if it is triggered. Remind us of security, for example and we’ll likely take fewer risks. When power and achievement are brought to top of mind, we are less likely to care about others’ needs.

3. The relative weights of these different values changes in us not just over the course of a lifetime, but many times a day, as we switch between social roles and contexts (e.g. work, home, in a social setting). Just like muscles, the more any one value is engaged, the stronger it becomes.

We follow social norms, as we perceive them, typically preferring to do what we expect others will do. If we are in fear or filled with doubt, we especially tend to go with the crowd. Thinking about song popularity, as an example, each song’s popularity is due to social influence; popular songs are the songs people know others like. The more prominent information about other people’s song preferences is, the more likely a song will emerge as a smash hit. However, the harder it is to predict which song the hit will turn out to be. It has very little to do with the quality of the music, once it has reached a minimum threshold of acceptability. This kind of social behaviour is both highly contagious and highly uncertain, which explains why predicting the next chart-topping song or this years’ summer fashion trend is so difficult.

With social media and the Internet, we are more aware than ever before of the opinions, decisions, choices and behaviours of other people, which is why social media tends to become a self-reinforcing echo chamber. Who you choose to notice makes all the difference to your own opinions, choices, decisions and behaviours. Yet paradoxically, our ability to understand how it feels to live another person’s life is limited. We have empathy deficit.

The list of cognitive biases to which we are susceptible, yet unaware of, is long. There is availability bias, where we tend to make decisions on the basis or more recent or more accessible information. We suffer from loss aversion, which is the strong preference to avoid loss rather than to make an equivalent gain (we’d rather not lose, than win). We exercise selective cognition, taking on board facts and arguments that fit with our existing frames of understanding and world view. When it comes to risk bias, we underestimate the likelihood of extreme events, while overestimating our ability to cope with them. Wikipedia lists over 160 different cognitive biases that we all labour under.

Inescapably, the only logical conclusion is that what we assume to be true is probably wrong and we lack the cognitive abilities and intellectual honesty to own up to it and correct it. We are all harbouring epidemic pseudodoxy – the widely held belief in various things as true, when they are actually, demonstrably, provably false. Because these are cognitive deficits, they are actually more like tone deafness than ignorance or stupidity. We can be fully aware of these thinking biases, yet find ourselves utterly helpless to resist them.

When others call us out on our evident cognitive deficits, we tend to behave with shame, denial and violence, doubling down on mistaken ideas, rather than confessing our faulty logic and changing our minds. This is called the backfire effect. We double down and dig our heels in on nonsensical beliefs, in the face of unarguable evidence that disproves them. We can’t stand the shame of being wrong, so we become more stubbornly insistent that we’re right. Facts are ignored. We’ll happily argue that black is actually white.

This is not new and it’s old. In 1620, Francis Bacon wrote: “The human understanding, once it has adopted opinions, either because they were already accepted and believed, or because it likes them, draws everything else to support and agree with them. And though it may meet a greater number and weight of contrary instances, it will, with great and harmful prejudice, ignore or condemn or exclude them by introducing some distinction, in order that the authority of those earlier assumptions may remain intact and unharmed.”

When it comes to childhood traumas that we experience, research shows that we tend to perpetuate and propagate them, rather than curtailing them. We conclude that the trauma didn’t harm us, so it’s ok to inflict the same kind of trauma on somebody else. The truth is that our willingness to pass it on is proof that it did, in fact, harm us.

A lot of people place their faith in gut feelings, but research has shown, time after time, that gut feelings tend to run counter to evidence. We might feel satisfaction in jumping to instant conclusions, but they’re rarely reliable. Today, most of humanity’s biological, ecological, economic, social and political challenges are questions of organised complexity, but our capacity to comprehend complexity is perhaps the realm that is least understood. We’re just not very good at handling things that aren’t simple.

There are essentially two ways we can choose to handle new information. These modes of thinking are likened to being a soldier or a scout. If you are a soldier, some things are probably constant. Your adrenaline is elevated and your actions stem from your deeply ingrained reflexes to preserve the current situation and to protect against invasion. You feel a strong need to protect yourself and your side, and to defeat what you perceive to be your enemy. The scout, on the other hand, is not there to attack or defend. They are there to try to understand. They map the terrain, identifying potential obstacles and trying not to miss anything of significance. They are wary of deceptions and things not being as they seem. The scout wants to know what’s really out there, as accurately as possible. Both the soldier and scout bring essential perspectives in any army.

Using these two roles as metaphors for how we all process information and ideas in our daily lives, it turns out that having good judgement and making good decisions depends largely on which mindset you’re in. The scout mindset, furthermore, has little to do with how smart you are or how much you know. Rather, it is about how you feel. We tend to assign truth to whatever we are emotionally attached to. Open mindedness is hard to accomplish. Being open to what really is is a learned and rare skill. People tend to be soldiers, rather than scouts.

Even the most open-minded, however, suffer from a tendency to punish others for their selfishness, even if it costs us to do so. We’d rather not let anybody have any pie, than let somebody else have a bigger piece than we think fair. Foregoing pie, to punish somebody taking too much, runs counter to our short term interests. This is a deeply ingrained instinct, which served the purpose of ensuring the survival of the greatest number, millennia ago. Today, it stands in diametric opposition to the capitalist doctrine. No wonder we feel so conflicted.

Those that are aware of our cognitive foibles have constructed massive data analysis machines to manipulate us. People like Robert Mercer, Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon are thought to have made most use of them. Using big data computing power, public opinion is micro-influenced to cause the outcomes they desire. We don’t understand their desired outcomes, because their narratives are incoherent and self-contradictory, comprised as they are of a series of hot-button sound bites, carefully designed to manipulate your reactions, derived from big data analysis of which issues get under your skin most. For all we know, they might be influencing us for no other reason than to cause chaos and misery, leaving them free to live opulent lives unopposed. That could be all they want.

Playing us all, by preying on our collective intellectual and cognitive blind spots, ought to be a crime. Demagogues who make use of these methods, such as recent presidents and prime ministers are thought to have, are worthy only of our contempt.

When any mad billionaire decides he knows better than all of us, and so begins to enact his private vision for the world, through systematic global manipulation, you have all the proof you need of the veracity of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They have no sense of being inadequate to the task of ruling the world, yet set about doing so anyway. Blundering, blithering and blowing stuff up. Sadly for all tyrannical megalomaniacs bent on installing themselves at the summit of a new world order, the law of unintended consequences always takes precedence. Hubris is always their Achilles heel.

Credit scoring plays on our fear of exclusion to discipline us into compliance with the wishes of finance. It’s a billionaire scheme for mass manipulation. We change our behaviour to ensure we remain credit-worthy, but we are adjudicated against criteria purpose-designed to protect the power and privilege of bankers. We know they have little interest in rebalancing income and opportunity inequality, nor of protecting the living world which sustains us. Consequently, we are coerced into behaving in ways inimical to our best interests, just to make sure we remain candidates for a loan, when circumstances force us to need one. It thoroughly undermines democracy.

Manipulation for concealed ends is nowhere more apparent than in the mainstream media. What they are trying to accomplish, through the mobilisation of the masses by the expedient methods of lying, distortion, omission, obfuscation and deception, always seems to be at odds with what would be good for those masses. Turkeys are, time and again, stampeded by these organs of the media, into voting for Christmas. The real agenda of messers Murdoch, Dacre and Desmond, appears to be the protection of their wealth and influence, while maintaining access to supreme power and privilege. Their readers are mere pawns in their game.

The irony of the unbridled lust for power is that there is growing evidence that it may cause detectable brain damage. Subjects under the influence of power, in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, it was found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, called “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. This gives a neurological basis to what Is termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. While that may seem like the ultimate example of karma in action, are the power-crazed less culpable, if their brains are demonstrably damaged?

The neurologist and parliamentarian, Lord David Owen, writes about an affliction he labels “Hubris Syndrome.” According to Owen and his co-author Jonathan Davidson, hubris syndrome, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader”.

Its 14 clinical features, evident in a person with hubris syndrome, include:

1. Seeing the world as a place from self-glorification, through the use of power

2. A tendency take action primarily to enhance personal image

3. Disproportionate concern for image and presentation

4. Exhibiting messianic zeal and exaltation in speech

5. Conflation of self with nation or organisation

6. Using the royal “we” in conversation

7. Showing excessive self-confidence

8. Holding others in manifest contempt

9. Showing accountability only to a higher court (history or God)

10. Having an unshakeable belief they will be vindicated in that court

11. A loss of contact with reality

12. Resorting to recklessness, restlessness and impulsive actions

13. Allowing moral rectitude to obviate considerations of practicality, cost or outcome

14. Displaying incompetence with disregard for the nuts and bolts of policy making

Hubris has much in common with narcissistic personality disorder. Owen has founded the Daedalus Trust – an organisation for the study and prevention of hubris. However, businesses have shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools are not much better. Consequently, this malady, seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites, is unlikely to find a cure any time soon.

As a consequence, we suffer the reign of the hubristic. The hubristic, according to Chris Hedges (who I paraphrase below), take over in the final days of crumbling civilisations. Hubristic generals wage endless, unwinnable wars that ruin the nation. Hubristic economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programmes for the poor, projecting economic growth on the basis of pure myth. Hubristic bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on the citizens. Hubristic journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Hubristic intelligence operatives and agents orchestrate the overthrow of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. Hubristic professors, so-called experts and faux specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttresses the policies of the hubristic rulers. Hubristic entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore and fantasy.

It’s an out of control death machine.

In their lust for more, the hubristic are unencumbered by common sense, hoarding wealth and resources until workers can no longer make a living and the common infrastructure collapses. They hide away in gated compounds for the privileged, where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. The state is a projection of their vanity. All empires ultimately crumble because the whims and obsessions of the ruling, hubristic class are law.

These rulers become the face of collective hubris. Behind their carefully cultivated masks, professing civility and rationality, there can be found blowhard, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniacs. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignoring the catastrophic human misery caused by their actions, by global warming and by pillages on behalf of global oligarchs.

To quote Chris Hedges directly, “This moment in history marks the end of a long, sad tale of greed and murder by the white races. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting and polluting the earth in the name of human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone and anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources. They believed that this orgy of blood and gold would never end, and they still believe it. They do not understand that the dark ethic of ceaseless capitalist and imperialist expansion is dooming the exploiters as well as the exploited. But even as we stand on the cusp of extinction we lack the intelligence and imagination to break free from our evolutionary past.”

“The more the warning signs are palpable—rising temperatures, global financial meltdowns, mass human migrations, endless wars, poisoned ecosystems, rampant corruption among the ruling class—the more we turn to those who chant, either through idiocy or cynicism, the mantra that what worked in the past will work in the future, that progress is inevitable. Factual evidence, since it is an impediment to what we desire, is banished. The taxes of corporations and the rich, who have deindustrialised the country and turned many of our cities into [investment-starved] wastelands, are cut and regulations are slashed to bring back the supposed golden era of the 1950s for white American workers. Public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry as rising carbon emissions doom our species. Declining crop yields stemming from heat waves and droughts are ignored. War is the principal business of the kleptocratic state.”

“Magical thinking is not limited to the beliefs and practices of pre-modern cultures. It defines the ideology of capitalism. Quotas and projected sales can always be met. Profits can always be raised. Growth is inevitable. The impossible is always possible. Human societies, if they bow before the dictates of the marketplace, will be ushered into capitalist paradise. It is only a question of having the right attitude and the right technique. When capitalism thrives, we are assured, we thrive. The merging of the self with the capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self-reflection and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character but by the material standards set by capitalism—personal wealth, brands, status and career advancement. We are moulded into a compliant and repressed collective. This mass conformity is characteristic of totalitarian and authoritarian states. It is the Disneyfication of America, the land of eternally happy thoughts and positive attitudes. And when magical thinking does not work, we are told, and often accept, that we are the problem. We must have more faith. We must envision what we want. We must try harder. The system is never to blame. We failed it. It did not fail us.”

“All of our systems of information, from self-help gurus and Hollywood to political monstrosities such as Trump, sell us this snake oil. We blind ourselves to impending collapse. Our retreat into self-delusion is a career opportunity for charlatans who tell us what we want to hear. The magical thinking they espouse is a form of infantilism. It discredits facts and realities that defy the glowing cant of slogans such as “Make America great again.” Reality is banished for relentless and baseless optimism.”

“Half the country may live in poverty, our civil liberties may be taken from us, militarised police may murder unarmed citizens in the streets and we may run the world’s largest prison system and murderous war machine, but all these truths are studiously ignored.” Hubristic leaders embody the essence of this decayed, intellectually bankrupt and immoral world. They are its natural expression. They are the kings and queens of the hubristic. We are their victims.

This is the neuroscience of Armageddon.

Given our susceptibility to our various cognitive deficiencies and impairments, surely it must be the case that undermining, manipulating and confusing people, maliciously and deliberately, ought to be treated as a serious crime. After all, our survival depends on it. Cynically calculated, these deceptions have untold consequences, beyond our capacity to absorb and shrug off. Those that push mind-altering drugs onto the populace, in order to fog their judgement and dissuade them from activism, by inducing an addled, irrational lethargy and insouciant apathy toward politics, are similarly committing serious harm. It’s not like messing with our beliefs and brains is a trivial matter. The lies and manipulations are decisive, in the end. They set us on the road to oblivion.

At least 100 different pesticides are known to cause adverse neurological effects in adults, and all of these substances must therefore be suspected of being capable of damaging developing brains as well. Such adverse effects are likely to be lasting and one main outcome is cognitive deficits, often expressed in terms of losses of IQ points. The combined evidence suggests that current exposures to certain pesticides in the EU may cost at least €125 billion per year, as calculated from the loss of lifetime income due to the lower IQs associated with prenatal exposure.

How can we address our cognitive disabilities and armour ourselves against these being used against us? The artistic approach has some answers. Training yourself to be open-minded, to be curious and free-thinking, seeing differently, through artistic practise, can mitigate against the worst effects of cognitive biases. We must take up the habit of healthy scepticism, synthesising ideas, analysing them and challenging what we’re told. It calls for extreme vigilance and exercising of our more cognitively demanding type two thinking processes, rather than lazily relying on type one. To hold onto your empathy and ability to see things from other people’s perspectives, you need to stay grounded, on purpose, valuing and nurturing your humility and experiencing life outside of your own cocoon of privilege. It takes an active commitment and real work to change your thinking.

Trying to counter these biases in our own thinking and encouraging others to follow suit gets very wearing. It’s the aspect of creating and accomplishing things that I like least – overcoming doubters and their objections. If, as a society, we remain fundamentally conservative and stuck in our ways, we aren’t going to make any progress whatsoever and so will succumb, like sitting ducks, to an Armageddon that has its roots in our own rotten modes of thought.

You might wonder how the human mind got itself into this predicament. We have survived and thrived for millennia, not despite our cognitive biases, but because of them. These so-called biases are the underpinnings of our heuristics, the unconscious mental short cuts we take every time we use a “rule of thumb” to make decisions. Over eons, the human brain has evolved to rely on quick decision-making tools in a fast-moving and uncertain world and in many contexts those heuristics lead us to make better decisions than exact calculations would do. When a lion is stalking you and your trusted elder tells you to run, overthinking the instruction will probably get you killed. Fast reactions are necessary. Is this still true as complexity increases, though?

“We live in the 21st century, surrounded by complex technology, and there are things that we will not be able to anticipate,” argues psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. “What we need is not just better technology, bigger bureaucracy and stricter laws … but risk-savvy citizens.”

The consequences of many modern world problems are invisible, delayed, gradual and distant: four characteristics that our heuristic decision tools are infamously bad at handling well. The aim, therefore, should be to enlarge people’s capabilities – such as to be healthy, empowered and creative – so that they can choose to be and do things in life that they value.

We need to change the way we feel — to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something, or to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive, when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs.

Good ideas exist, but we need to embrace them instead of resisting them on discredited grounds. Changing our ideas is a key survival skill. Getting good at changing our minds, when we know better, is all that can save us.

As Upton Sinclair famously noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Perhaps it is time to break the link between what we think and a salary. It might be time for employers to butt out and let employees think however they want, free to express ideas that might be in direct contradiction to that of their firm or their boss. Conformity and compliance serves us very poorly indeed.

Of course, there’s no point in me trying to prove any of this to you. You’ll stick to believing what you want to believe, because that’s how you’re wired and how you’ve been conditioned to act. I can’t awaken you. You have to come to this realisation by yourself, like a stumbling toddler learns to walk.

Poet Taylor Mali said that,”changing your mind is one of the best ways of finding out whether or not you still have one.” This, indeed, is the very crux of the matter and the only antidote to the neurological features of our brains that will inevitably lead us toward a horrible Armageddon, unless we change them.

“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” says activist Noam Chomsky.

True, perhaps, but not for long.

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What Do You Stand For?

So many people are hypocrites. Politicians, for example, pretend to care about and represent the interests of the people that vote for them, but their real allegiance is always to those hat fund their party most handsomely. Their higher calling is to protect their own personal power and privilege. Ultimately, what they stand for most is feathering their own nests.

Product designers claim to want to serve their customers, making products which make customers’ lives easier. Yet, they are compelled, by convention and law, to place corporate profit above that goal. They acquiesce because their real interest is in protecting the comfort and safety of their family, which is entirely contingent on what they can earn, as a product designer.

Journalists tell us they are there to hold the powerful to account, but all too often they serve as mere mouth pieces for their billionaire employers. These billionaire media tycoons claim they represent their advertisers, but they may actually value their access to corridors of power and opulence far more. Both the journalist and media tycoon are ultimately trying to make a good living from writing their ideas and having people read them. As an edifice, it’s a horrible, self-contradictory mess.

Musicians say they stand for being entertaining to their audiences, but so many are really out there to feed their own egos and to behave appallingly without sanction. Some don’t even care about the quality of the music they make. But some musicians do. Some are so committed to the music they make, they only peripherally hope somebody might find it entertaining, or soothing, or exciting, or inspiring.

What you really stand for matters, because at some level, what you claim to stand for and what you truly stand for can be in stark conflict. At that point, your lie is exposed and you will either create intolerable psychological tensions in yourself, trying to claim the opposite (which is corrosive to health and peace of mind), or your fraudulence will be fully exposed and you may be expelled from your practice.

What you stand for and what you say you stand for ought to be the same thing.

As an artist (and as a human being), you ought to be honest about what you truly stand for and take whatever comes, from your pronouncement. The deceit of saying you represent one thing, while really representing another, is a dangerous, unstable game to play, on which you stake everything. People take that gamble because they think the deception can be maintained indefinitely and their true interests are furthered, while others remain ignorant of their duplicity. That ruse rarely works out for them, in the long run.

You may be punished for your honesty and integrity. People often are. However, living dishonestly, without integrity, is a brutal, miserable way to live.

What do you actually stand for? In whose interests do you truthfully act? What is it you really want from your art? Are you pretending otherwise? These are important questions to answer. Your integrity relies upon it. In the end, your integrity is all you’ve got and it’s hard to get it back, once you lose it.

Choose carefully.

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What Kind Of People Do You Want to Work With?

There’s an old adage: people buy from people. It means that the quality of the relationship is the most important thing, in making a sale. The customer has to trust in the seller and buy into their story. The seller’s story needs to be credible and compelling. Artists that share their authentic narrative with their audience tend to sell more of their art than those that do not.

The quality of human relationships extends to working together. People work with people. The tools and processes are secondary. The materials are not even material, in your choice of who you work with. You don’t have to work with anybody offered. You have a choice. Even when you think you have no choice, you actually do. Working together only happens if there is mutual respect and a joint commitment to cooperate and perhaps even compromise. It’s never one-sided. If it is, it never works.

Given that you always have a choice, who do you want to work with? Will you gravitate toward rigid minds, with fixed, unchangeable viewpoints, or will you seek flexible forward-thinkers? Do you enjoy working with straight-jacketted, conservative rule-followers with an unshakeable belief in their own infallibility, or intellectually-agile, open-minded, innovative, curious, experimental, imaginative folk, willing to revise their views as new evidence comes to light? Do you want to march or dance? Both require co-ordination, but the latter is freer.

When you step forward to do your most important and meaningful work, do you want to do that encumbered by the dead weight of somebody else’s archaic, obsolete, discredited mindsets and systems of belief, or is your purpose better served by joining up with people keen on exploring possibilities courageously? Why would you waste your time working with the wrong kind?

Are you looking for a collaborator or a competitor? Both can spur you on to do better, but which one contributes to your success and which one undermines it? Do you want to burn your productive hours away pointlessly, fighting against what another person says you can’t do (or hopes you can’t), or with somebody sincerely committed to seeing you flourish?

It’s not a very difficult choice, is it?

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