[Big Ideas – Special] Understanding Markets via “Narrative Economics”

The secret of effective market game-playing is to recognize that the market game hinges on the Narrative, on the strength of the public statements that create Common Knowledge.

Epsilon Theory Manifesto

Nobel-winning economist Robert Shiller recently published Narrative Economics, a book on “How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events“. Shiller gave a talk at LSE on the big ideas (video, audio, related 2017 paper).

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This article is a special in the series, because unlike other articles that are synthesized from Discover magazine expert interviews, this piece is largely inspired by a public lecture.

What is a Narrative?

Let’s start with definitions. According to Shiller:

  • Narrative = a telling of a story that attaches significance, meaning or emotions to it;
  • Story = a chronology of events.

What is Narrative Economics?

Shiller makes a key distinction between narrative economics as defined in the dictionary vs. defined by himself. The textbook definition of narrative economics is “economics research that takes the form of telling a narrative about economic events”.

For Shiller, narrative economics should have a narrower focus, i.e., only investigating popular economics narratives that “went viral”, “changed things” and “became contagious”.

Shiller thinks economics narratives are powerful in affecting (& shaping) economic decisions. He identifies 9 perennial economics narratives:

  1. Panic vs. confidence narratives – e.g., the Big Depression is a panic narrative;
  2. Frugality vs. conspicuous consumption – e.g., Trump’s book “Think Like a Billionaire”;
  3. Monetary standards – e.g., the Gold Standard vs. Bimetallism debate;
  4. Technical unemployment, i.e., labor-saving machines replace many jobs;
  5. Automation & AI replace most jobs;
  6. Real estate booms & busts;
  7. Stock market bubbles;
  8. Boycotts, profiteers & evil business;
  9. The wage-price spiral & evil labor unions.

Broadly speaking, the 9 narratives above focus on the macro economics momentum / “culture” (1-3), employment (4-5), investment (6-7) or actors in power (8-9).

Shiller argues that data sources are at the root of economics evolutions. He believes the recent “digitization of search” is and will bring shifts to narratives. Moreover, Shiller claims that big events occur often not because of a single narrative, but because of a “confluence of narratives“, i.e., as a result of the chemical reaction of multiple narratives.

With an interesting twist, the word “narrative” appears less frequently academic articles in economics & finance compared with other subjects – see this analysis of JSTOR articles below:

Studying Narrative Economics via the Virality Model of Epidemics

If we think of a narrative as a disease, then we could study its spread by borrowing patterns from research on epidemics. In other words, we could leverage research on how viruses “go viral”, and try to figure out how narratives get popular.

The Kermack-McKendrick (1927) mathematical theory of disease epidemics is a breakthrough in medicine, because it “gave a realistic framework for understanding the all-important dynamics of infectious diseases” in the words of Shiller.

The Kermack-McKendrick model divides the population into three groups: susceptibles, infectives, and recovered. Importantly, the model suggests the curve of the number of infectives to take a “humpback” shape, i.e., rising sharply before declining at a similarly fast speed:

We could see similar “humpback” shaped curves in data that could serve as proxy measurements for how popular an economics narrative is.

Here’s an example on how frequent the phrase “stock market crash” appears in news & newspapers:

Here’s another example on how frequent the phrase “Great Depression” appears in news & newspapers:

The Future of Narrative Economics

Shiller is hopeful that ” the advent of big data and of better algorithms of semantic search might bring more credibility to the field”.

Meanwhile, narrative economics faces challenges, including:

  • On data collection, we need to move beyond “passive collection of others’ words, towards experiments that reveal meaning and psychological significance”, e.g., via focus groups or social media – though the proper design & implementation of such experiments is not easy;
  • Dealing with the overlap & “chemical reactions” of multiple overlapping narratives is difficult;
  • Causality is tricky. As Shiller says, one challenge is in “distinguishing between narratives that are associated with economic behavior just because they are reporting on the behavior, and narratives that create changes in economic behavior.”

Nevertheless, the challenges make the field more interesting. I am particularly interested in predicting which narratives will gain momentum. Perhaps the narrative machine will serve, to some extend, as a crystal ball that offers a narrow glimpse into the future.

The Best Relationship Advice: “When People Tell You Who They Are, Believe Them”

The golden rule for relationships – any type of relationships – is encapsulated in 9 words: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”

Such are the words of wisdom shared by Dr. Maya Angelou in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. Oprah added onto what Dr. Angelou said: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Don’t wait until the 29th time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you.

Here is a great story to illustrate this Golden Rule for Relationships. In the memoir Educated, Tara Westover shared her struggles living with her abusive brother Shawn. A brother who called her a whore. Broke her toe. Dragged her on the floor. Pushed her head into the toilet.

Tara recalled the day when she was assaulted again by Shawn:

That night, with a heavily wrapped wrist (hurt by Shawn), I scratch out a journal entry. I ask myself questions. Why didn’t he stop when I begged him? It was like getting beaten by a zombie…like he couldn’t hear me.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Tara struggled to find an explanation for Shawn’s abusive behavior:

I began to reason with myself…I decide that if I had asked (him to stop hurting me) differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Such is the paradox of fabricating an excuse to explain why someone mistreated us: on one hand, excuses serve as a painkiller – by telling lying to ourselves that he/she is neither crazy nor hurting us on purpose, by telling pretending to ourselves that he/she still cares about us, we numb the pain with a false sense of control. We feel as if we could not control what happened to us in the past, we could at least control how we feel about it at present – even at the cost of ignoring the discrepancies between reality and our perception of it.

On the other hand, the excuses we fabricate are the deadliest poison that kills our self-esteem, the tightest chains that defines our slavery. The excuses are the reasons we stay, even though we would like to be treated better. Because somehow we tricked ourselves into believing the pain of staying & withering a little every day is better than the pain of leaving & tearing apart. We think we are hiding in a safe haven by staying, but in reality we are digging our own graves by not leaving.

As Tara continued to reflect and replay the assault scene in her head, she had a sudden revelation:

His expression is unforgettable: not anger or rage. There is no fury in it. Only pleasure, unperturbed. Then a part of me understands, even as I begin to argue against it, that my humiliation was the cause of that pleasure. It was not an accident or side effect. It was the objective.

This half-knowledge works in me like a kind of possession, and for a few minutes I’m taken over by it. I rise from my bed, retrieve my journal, and do something I have never done before: I write what happened. I do not use vague, shadowy language, as I have done in other entries; I do not hide behind hints and suggestion. I write what I remember.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

And here comes my favorite part of Tara’s reflection. She wrote in her journal: “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you...He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.” The illusion of empowerment brought by our excuses always dies down. In its place, at its core, is the erosive power that feeds on our self-esteem.

It is not easy. It is damn hard to walk away from the people you love and care about. But to get the relationships we deserve, we must abide by the 9-word rule: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” Believe that they are not who you think they are (or would want them to be). Believe that they are not meant for you, nor compatible with your identity. Believe that leaving is an easier & better option than you imagine it to be.

It is the truth – truth of the world, truth with ourselves – that always sets us free.

I end with this quote by Dr. Maya Angelou:

When a person says to you that “I’m mean” or “I’m selfish” or “I’m unkind” or “I’m crazy” – believe them. They know themselves better than you do.

Dr. Maya Angelou

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The Tastiest Pizza is often the Messiest One

Splitting a city into residential, commercial and business zones is like throwing dough, cheese and pepperoni into the different compartments of a bento box and calling it a pizza.” In this article, Uber product manager Florent Crivello write about what he calls the “efficiency-destroying magic of tidying up”.

Florent shares this picture that he calls “an urban planner’s dream pizza” – I bet it’s not what you have in mind as your perfect pizza:

The word chaos has a negative connotation in most contexts. In fact, the Oxford dictionary defines chaotic as “in a state of complete confusion and disorder“. Chaos tends to stir up emotions of being lost, not knowing what to do.

When we are at a loss of what to do, more often than not it is because we do not truly understand. The flip side of that is, in the words of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “To understand is to know what to do.”

This was echoed in Florent’s article:

If outsiders complain, but people living inside the system seem happy with it, it probably means that the chaos is serving them right, and that it’s just foreign eyes who are unable to perceive its underlying order.

The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up, by Florent Crivello

It is tempting to equate a lack of order (or at least lack of what we perceive to be order) with a lack of value or quality, which justifies a need for intervention. This is not ill-advised in some cases, with the emergency of rule of law as a case in point. A complete lack of any legal order in a community threatens the safety of its members.

In contrast, some corrections of chaos could produce outcomes that go against our wishes instead of in their favor. Apart from the pizza example above (I assume 99.9999% of the population prefers a ‘messy’ pizza where the ingredients are mixed instead of separated), another example is the free market vs. central planning: a “chaotic” free market is magically more efficient than central planning, in terms of the total sum of outputs produced. Of course, free market is not without its limitations – which is a separate topic.

The point here is: the presence of chaos does not automatically equate a need for correction. If chaos should warrant anything, it should warrant a drive to understand the underlying order, the “invisible hand”, the hidden structure that are yet elusive to our foreign eyes.

Resisting the urge to “correct” chaos may not be that easy. As Brian Arthur, pioneer of complexity theory & complexity science, mentioned in an interview, subjects such as economics seek “equilibrium, a place of statis (stability) and simplicity”. In a sense, equilibrium is (perceived to be) at the opposite side of chaos.

Brian Arthur points out what seems to be in equilibrium could be different from what is actually in equilibrium – this depends on how macroscopic vs. microscopic our view is. For example, the sun seems to be in equilibrium when we look up at it in the sky – it is a beautiful sphere held in place by gravitational forces. Yet, the sun close up is full of plasma bursts – what you could call “chaotic” reactions.

Instead of viewing chaos & equilibrium as opposing concepts, we could view them as relative concepts instead. Instead of being either chaotic or in equilibrium, an object could be both – depending on the context & our level of understanding.

So give chaos some credit – just as the tastiest pizza is not the orderliest one, the best scenario may not necessarily be the most organized one. The next time you find yourself anxious about a chaotic environment? Think about how delicious that bite of pizza littered with messy toppings is – then sit back & relax.

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“All models are wrong, but some are useful”: Man’s Journey to Make Sense of the World

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

George Edward Pelham Box, British statistician

This quote by a British statistician is, arguably, not limited to describing statistical models. Every thought we have shapes our map (mental model) of the territory (how the world works).

An article on the rationalist blog Less Wrong believes the “abstract concept of ‘truth” is better thought of as “the general idea of a map-territory correspondence“.

The map is not the territory” is a core mental model:

The map of reality is not reality…If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us.

Farnam Street blog, “The Map Is Not the Territory

This is the paradoxical takeaway: the flaw & value of the map both lie in it being a reduction of reality. On one hand, every reduction is a conscious decision to be imprecise – some information is inevitably lost. On the other hand, compression is what makes it of use to us: focusing on what is the most important (or per the 80/20 rule, focus on the 20% that yields 80% value) allows us to maximize the value density of information we have, i.e., think of it as value per “unit storage space” of information.

I could not attribute the source of this – but someone said: the world always makes sense. If you think something “does not make sense”, what really does not make sense is your model of the world.

For those who are into rationality & critical thinking, I highly recommend this fanfiction: Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality – after all, what could be a more fun way to learn about something than mixing it with magic? 🙂

Here is a quote from the fiction: “I ask the fundamental question of rationality: Why do you believe what you believe? What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?

As the author wrote in another post: “We need the word ‘rational‘ in order to talk about cognitive algorithms or mental processes with the property ‘systematically increases map-territory correspondence‘(epistemic rationality) or ‘systematically finds a better path to goals‘ (instrumental rationality).

Striving to be rational means striving to improve map-territory correspondence, while acknowledging we could aim to be less wrong but never completely right. This recipe of curiosity plus humility combo is what powers us to build a model that is inevitably wrong, but hopefully helpful.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

【寻找黄金屋】R.Girard《自世界建立之日起便隐藏的事物》卷1章节1——替罪羊制度是宗教的基础

“寻找黄金屋”播客系列介绍:书中自有黄金屋,书中自有颜如玉——这个系列的初衷是探寻和总结文字中隐藏的“黄金屋”。在选名字的时候,也有那么一瞬间考虑过“寻找颜如玉”,但想到潜在歧义(咳咳)所以还是叫“寻找黄金屋”吧!欢迎将评论和想法发送至fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com或通过领英LinkedIn与我联系。

本期为大家总结和点评的是法国哲学家勒内·吉拉尔(Rene Girard)1978年的作品:《自世界建立之日起便隐藏的事物》(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World)。这是一本受到Paypal联合创始人彼得 · 蒂尔(Peter Thiel)大力推荐的书。

吉拉尔提出的模仿理论(Mimetic Theory)被蒂尔称为洞悉过去、现在和未来的通道。我在这篇英语博文里对此有所介绍,详见Life Is The Ultimate Imitation Game。以下是对卷1章节1:替罪羊制度是宗教的基础(The Victimage Mechanism as the Basis of Religion)的总结和点评。

Heal With Herbs & Honey

Context: I attended a workshop on herbs & honey in Hong Kong this week, featuring Peggie Zih, a certified nutritionist & herbalist from Zenses in Health. Special thanks to The Hive co-working space for hosting. In the post below, I share some key takeaways below, supplemented by secondary research.

What honey should I buy?

Peggie recommends going for raw honey, which could be defined as honey in its original state taken from beehives. A more technical definition is:

Raw honey also contains bee pollen and bee propolis, which is a sticky, glue-like substance bees use to hold their hive together.

What are the health benefits of raw honey?” Medical News Today

How does raw honey differ from ‘regular’ honey? The latter goes through additional processing, including pasteurization, “a process that destroys the yeast found in honey by applying high heat. This helps extend the shelf life and makes it smoother.” (Healthline)

So take note – the next time you go shopping for honey in a store, don’t pick the jar with the smoothest texture. Instead, embrace raw honey that may not have the clearest color, but is free from commercial processing and preserves nutrients better.

What are the benefits of raw honey?

Raw honey provides benefits including:

  • Antioxidant effects
  • Antibacterial and helpful for cleansing wounds
  • Contains vitamins & minerals
  • Cough relief
  • Helps with digestion and eases diarrhea

What are watch-outs for taking raw honey?

Peggie mentions infants less than 1 year old should not be fed raw honey, as their digestive system is not mature enough to properly break down & absorb raw honey. The Center for Food Safety of HK Government recommends something similar:

Honey including raw honey can contain the spore forming bacterium, Clostridium botulinum, that causes intestinal botulism (also called infant botulism). Intestinal botulism mainly affects children less than one year old. Early symptom is constipation, followed by lethargy, difficulties in feeding, generalised muscle weakness and weak cry.

The Risks of Eating Raw Honey“, The Center for Food Safety of the HK Government

What are some herbal honey combos?

Here are some recipes for mixing organic herbs with honey to create tasty drinks as raised by Peggie:

  • Digestion: cinnamon
  • Digestion: fennel seeds (could add some chamomile flowers)
  • Cooling in summertime: hibiscus & rose
  • Calming: catnip, chamomile & lemon balm

Peggie also recommends sourcing organic herbs for health benefits.

What are some health tips you have come across? I’d love to hear from you! Reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

[Big Ideas 003] Role of Museums in Education & Science vs. Religion

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Former Head of Chicago’s Field Museum John McCarter

John McCarter is the CEO & president of the Chicago Field Museum. He “oversees the work of 200 scientists” on diverse research topics from protecting endangered tropical environments, to molecular evolution. He is also “one of the leading critics of the intelligent design movement (that argues life is created by an intelligent cause, or God)” and “an outspoken proponent of teaching modern evolutionary theory to all students.” Read the original interview in the May 2006 issue of Discover magazine here.

Why it’s hard to sustain kids’ interest in science

McCarter thinks there are two challenges to science education:

First, “kids get turned off to science at some point—fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade —when science is perceived as too hard and too complicated.” He proposes counteracting the problem “by telling stories”:

We try to make the museum experience telling enough that it becomes a conversation with families over the dinner table two nights later.

John McCarter

Second, it’s hard to attract or sustain attention amidst the “competition for time” in the digital age:

Two comedians with light talk on CBS and NBC had 80 percent of the market in that time slot…yet only 2 percent of the population is listening to NPR (National Public Radio). I think institutions like this don’t have a crack at people’s attention and time, so you have to be really good at delivering messages or explaining controversies in a way that sticks in people’s minds.

John McCarter

Museums in the science vs. religion debate

Shortly before the interview with McCarter took place, the Chicago Field Museum launched an exhibit – Evolving Planet – in March 2006. It showcased the 4-billion-year evolutionary journey of life on Earth.

McCarter shares the Evolving Planet exhibit was motivated by a dissatisfaction with current exhibits on evolution “constructed in such a way that visitors rushed through to get to the dinosaurs”.

Yet, he was also challenged on whether this exhibit was intended to promote the evolutionary perspective (that he is a strong advocate of):

Interviewer
What is the harm in telling the other story (of religious narrative)?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think there is any harm, as long as it is not posed as a scientific alternative to the story of evolution.

McCarter believes religion itself has undergone a shift:

The mainstream theological community is already way beyond the literal interpretation of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and seven days of creation. Instead, they are saying that those are wonderful stories, created 2,000 years ago by people who were trying to explain their world, not that they are scientific fact.

John McCarter

For McCarter, the key issues in theology worth focusing our attention on are “applied morality of behavior and guidance”.

McCarter shares that the population that visit museums are skewed to have a higher % of those who subscribe to the evolution theory (instead of religious explanations on intelligent creation). He cites ~50% of the US public accepts the evolution theory, but this number has grown to 75% amidst museum-goers.

“And for those people who don’t accept it (evolution theory), the exhibit may enable the families to have a discussion about what their 15-year-old saw and how that fits into the overall faith of the family. We are not against religion. We are very supportive of religions and religious institutions. Much of this museum is a celebration of the impact of religion on cultures. But we do that in anthropology. We don’t do that in paleontology.”

Museum as a powerful storytelling platform

I particularly like this Q&A snippet in the interview:

Interviewer
It seems museums have switched from being repositories of artifacts and information and history to being advocates for a specific viewpoint?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think I’d call it advocacy…I call it storytelling…You would see an object, but there was no contextual story around that object. What we are doing now is using the artifacts to tell a story.

Museums don’t just lay out facts – they use facts to present a story, a narrative. Museums could be another powerful form of storytelling or propaganda.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

Reach Union in Sound & Energy Centers: On Nada Yoga and Chatra

Context: I tried Nada Yoga meditation for the first time and enjoyed the mindful experience it brought. The teacher guided us to tap into the 7 Chakra (energy centers) in the body via sound. I researched on the basics of Nada Yoga, shared below.

Share an interest in yoga or mindfulness? I’d love to hear from you – reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Nāda yoga (नादयोग) is an ancient Indian metaphysical system.
It is equally a philosophical system, a medicine, and a form of yoga.

Wikipedia

Nada Yoga: Unify the Individual Mind & Cosmic Consciousness via Sound

“Nada” stands for sound (vibrations) and “yoga” for union. Put together, Nada Yoga refers to “the union of the individual mind with cosmic consciousness through the flow of sounds”:

When the river of consciousness is impeded by the ego, Nada or special sounds can remove the obstruction, allowing the river of individual consciousness to unite with its source, the ocean of pure consciousness.

…Space is connected with the ear, and the ear is the receptacle to sound…sound is the primal experience of all in comparison to smell, taste, vision and touch. It is also the most accurate and more precise than the others.

What is Nada Yoga? – The Sacred Sound on the Nada Yoga Blog

Nada (sound) could be grouped into inner vs. outer music

Nada (sound) comes from:

  • Anahata = inner music, i.e., our own sound vibrations. Anahata is considered to be (a) inseparable from the self, i.e., I cannot share my Anahata with someone else, and (b) sacred – with the potential to hep individuals open their Chakras, i.e., energy centers. Chakra is introduced in more detail below. Nada Yoga believes we receive Anahata not from our ears, but from the anahata chakra – this is also explained below.
  • Ahata = outer music. We receive Ahata via the sensory organ of the ear.

The aim of Nada Yoga practice is to help us better listen to and receive Anahata, our inner music – the music that carries “spiritual weight”.

Inner music is mentioned as the key to achieving Enlightenment in some Buddhist literature

In the Shurangama Sutra, a buddhist sutra, it is recorded that the Buddha gave praise to Avalokitesvara, who claims to have been enlightened by his inner music:

All the Brothers in this Great Assembly…should reverse your outward perception of hearing and listen inwardly for the perfectly unified and intrinsic sound of your own Mind-Essence, for as soon as you have attained perfect accommodation, you will have attained to Supreme Enlightenment.

The Buddah’s praise of Avalokitesvara

Chakras: Energy Centers Vital to Harmony of the Body

To understand Chakra, we need to go back to a medieval-era theory of human life that originated in India. This theory believes that there are two dimensions of human life – the physical body (mass) and the subtle body (energy).

The subtle body is thought to be made up of nadi (energy channels) that are interconnected by chakras (energy centers / nodes). There are different claims as to how many chakras each person has – below I introduce the popular 7-chakra system, which is also taught during the meditation practice I attended.

1. Root Chakra (Muladhara, “Root”): Trust

Located at: base of spine

When open, we feel: grounded, secure, stable

Lotus: Red with 4 petals

2. Spleen or Sacral Chakra (Swadhisthana, “Where the Self is Established”): Creativity, Sexuality

Located at: lower abdomen

When open, we feel: creative, pleased, high sexual energy

Lotus: Orange with 6 petals

3. Navel or Solar Plexus Chakra (Manipura: “Jewel City”): Power

Located at: upper abdomen

When open, we feel: high self-esteem & confidence

Lotus: Yellow with 10 petals

4. Heart Chakra (Anahata, “Unstruck”): Love, Healing

Located at: center of chest

When open, we feel: full of love, peaceful

Lotus: Green with 12 petals

5. Throat Chakra (Visuddha, “Purest”): Expression, Communication

Located at: throat

When open, we feel: expressive, articulate, keen to communicate

Lotus: Blue with 16 petals

6. Third-Eye or Brow Chakra (Ajna, “Command”): Intuition, Awareness

Located at: middle of forehead

When open, we feel: imaginative, intelligent

Lotus: Indigo with 2 petals

7. Crown Chakra (Sahasrara, “Thousand-Petaled)”: Spirituality

Located at: crown of our head

When open, we feel: connected to a higher consciousness

Lotus: Violet with 1,000 petals

Linking back to the spiritual theory introduced at the beginning, the first three Chakras are the Chakras of Matter, the last three are the Chakras of Spirit, and the middle one (Heart Chakra) is the connection in between.

Nada Yoga practice aims to help us unblock the chakras to achieve better harmony and spiritual enlightenment.

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[Big Ideas 002] Psychotherapy

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Neurobiologist Eric Kandel: Studying Fear vs. Happiness; How to Make Psychotherapy More Robust

Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize for research on the memory of sea slugs – yes, you read that correctly, sea slugs indeed. He co-edited Principles of Neural Science, “the book every medical student in America is required to read—all 1,414 pages”. Read the original interview in the April 2006 issue here.

Fear and happiness are two basic emotions Kandel studied:

  • We could categorize fear into 2 types depending on how it originated – instinctive fear and learned fear. “Fear comes to a certain neural circuit…you can turn that circuit on and off with specific genes.”

    For example, when researchers knowcked out the stathmin gene in mice, they saw both types of fear reduced. Kandel sees the application of this gene in anti-anxiety agents, and may help to “open up a biology of security and comfort”.
  • Fear is an emotion that is produced in animal experiments using “tone and shock”, i.e., play a tone while subjecting the animals to electric shock. In contrast, it is unclear “whether we can behaviorally—without manipulating genes—produce the opposite, and that is happiness.”

Kandel received training as a psychiatrist, and is also interested in psychoanalysis. When asked about the psychology-neurobiology split, Kandel says: “I am proposing a demanding criterion (for psychotherapy): that you be able to detect abnormalities in patients beforehand by such brain-imaging techniques as functional MRI [which measures blood flow in the brain], and then use (brain) imaging to see whether or not there is a change in those markers for the disease as the therapy progresses.”

Related Reading: Types of Psychotherapy & Measurements of Effectiveness

In 2014, the US Department of Health & Human Services published Strategies for Measuring the Quality of Psychotherapy: A White Paper to Inform Measure Development and Implementation. This paper gives an overview of the types of psychotherapy, and comparison of common measurement methods.

There are 3 dominant types of psychotherapy, amongst others:

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): short duration of 6-16 weeks, focuses on specific, current problems;
  2. Interpersonal therapy (IPT): slightly longer duration of 12-16 weeks, focuses on the connection between mood & stress, most commonly used to treat depression;
  3. Psychodynamic therapy: longer duration that could stretch years, focuses on how past experience relates to the present.

The white paper summarizes the research into effectiveness of psychotherapy:

There are 3 key ways to measure the effectiveness of psychotherapy:

  1. Structure measures: focuses on the capacity of the service provider, “most often used in accreditation or certification programs”. KPIs could include info on staffing, data systems, and treatment procedures;
  2. Process measures: focuses on “whether individuals receive care or treatments that have evidence of improving outcomes”, typically measured based on claims (e.g., track frequency of visits), medical records or self-reported content of therapy;
  3. Outcome measures: focuses on “whether individuals receiving psychotherapy experience improvements in their symptoms and functioning”. This is also the category that the authors of the white paper recommend doubling down on.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

Witch Hunt 2019 Version: On What Grounds Do You Stand?

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution?”

Find this question provoking?

Check out the eye-opening answer of Professor Timur Kuran in an interview with Eric Weinstein on “The Portal” podcast. I don’t think the show notes are exaggerating too much by saying “(t)his could well be the most important economist you’ve never heard of.” This episode is especially relevant given the current political discourse & climate.

Note: For podcast lovers, I highly recommend The Portal – I have found each and every episode thus far to be of consistently high quality. The podcast is thoughtfully named “The Portal”, to refer to different portals (ways) of looking at the world.

The 1st guest on the show was Peter Thiel, who spoke highly of the Mimetic Theory proposed by French philosopher R. Girard. I have written about it in Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game.

Fake Your Ground via “Preference Falsification”

Question: You go to your friend Emma’s birthday party. She greets you at the door with a hug, takes a step back and spins in her green dress with gigantic, yellow polka dots. Emma smiles up at you and asks: “My brother bought this new dress for my birthday! What do you think?” Honestly, you find the dress to be shockingly hideous (or hideously shocking). How do you react?

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Honesty Brutality is the best policy. Say it to Emma’s face that you find this dress to be an utter disgrace, and she should dump it in the bin right now and change before more guests arrive at the party – so as not to embarrass herself.

(B) Be the best lying friend you think you should be. Say it with a forced big smile that you find the dress to be gorgeous.

(C) Bring out your dark human side. You remember Emma told you last Christmas that pair of purple socks with snowman icons were adorable. You wore that to your first date with your crush, and she found it absolutely incredible laughable. It is time for revenge. You tell Emma with the most sincere smile and starry eyes you could put on, and encourage her to wear the dress all the time.

I would wager most people would go for option (B), i.e., what you say is different from what you really prefer. This is what Timur Kuran refers to as preference falsification, i.e., “misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures“.

Fake Ground Protects You in the Modern “Witch Hunt”

Question: You live in a neighborhood where durian is treated as a sacred food that everyone should love. Durian is everywhere, e.g., durian flavor is the only flavor of ice-cream allowed. However, you secretly find its smell vomiting. One day, a tourist new to town stops you on the street and asks you about what this “durian” thing is, as she has never heard about it before.

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Tell her (in secret) that while everyone else says durian is awesome, you find it disgusting, and she should run away from it.

(B) Exclaim with enthusiasm that durian is the best food out there – just like what all of your community members would say – and recommend her to check out the durian ice-cream shop around the corner.

Before you decide, you weigh your options carefully. If you go with option (A), you are aware of the risks that words get out – if any of your friends know that you whispered slander against durian, they would immediately cut all ties with you. They would unlike all your Instagram pictures, and unfollow all your social media feeds. You risk your date dumping you. You risk your parents signing you up for “durian acceptance” workshops. You risk opening up your mailbox and discovering 10 books on durians, sent from “Durian Anonymous” group.

As Professor Kuran illustrated, a common type of social pressure that leads to “preference falsification” is the presumption of one & only one orthodox preference – and the rejection of the rest as heresy.

Durian is tasty and everyone loves durian. Case closed. You are simply not allowed to have a different preference. By claiming yourself openly as a “hater of durian”, you immediately declare yourself as the “enemy of the people”.

The minute you voice a different preference, you subject yourself to a modern version of the Witch Hunt – and be prepared for “reputational violence” as punishment, if not something more severe. Just like those labelled witches in the Middle Ages, expect yourself to be the outcast in your circle and consider a cold shoulder as the mildest form of sanction you would get.

Preference falsification – applauding the orthodox view in public while rejecting it in private – is a tactic to stay safe in the modern version of witch hunt. A milder tactic is to remain silent – and saves you the pain of the schizophrenic pressure to balance between a fake voice vs. your true self.

Note: There are two concepts related to preference falsification – chilling effect (i.e., self-censoring for fear of backlash) and strategic silence (i.e., purposefully silencing others or information, usually with the intent to control the narrative). I’ve written about these concepts in What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence. In this case, the chilling effect is in sharp contrast to preference falsification – the former keeps silent, the latter shouts out loud though in a “fake” voice.

And speaking of being open-minded to different opinions, I took a stab at what the word “open-mind” means in this article (that features delicious pictures of ice-cream & durian): “Are you open to durian ice-cream” & an Open-Minded look at Open-Mindedness.

The Witch Hunt in the Middle Ages scarred communities – people lived in fear and dialogues were stifled. Likewise, the modern version of Witch Hunt has its negative consequences. When a large percentage of society practices preference falsification, our political system could produce an outcome that “very few people actually want”:

You open up the possibility that because people are not openly expressing what’s on their mind, the system of knowledge production & knowledge development…(the system) of solving problems…that gets corrupted.

Eric Weinstein

When preference falsification is prevalent, you end up with the weird scenario where everyone in the room wears a pink shirt, although the majority actually prefers the blue one. The irony here is everyone thinks they are wearing pink because everyone around them prefers pink. Hence you are stuck in this weird lose-lose “equilibrium” where as if the collective solved for the wrong problem (or opted for the wrong solution) of how to “minimize utility”. We end up with a schizophrenic world where everyone struggles with the conflicts between their private preferences vs. public preferences.

Middle Ground = Underground?

The two extremes, both are playing this game of “you are with us or against us”, reinforcing each other. They are completely agreed on that.
* * *
There is no middle position. And having a middle position, having the media pay attention to people in the middle, would hurt them (the extremes) both.

Timur Kuran

In this “Economy of Deception” littered by falsified preferences, the middle ground – a nuanced and open-minded stance – has to seek shelter underground. As Professor Kuran points out above, the extreme ends on either side of the spectrum do not want to entertain the possibility of a 3rd option, i.e., seeking compromise and resolution.

Eric Weinstein calls this a “black market (in the marketplace) of ideas“, i.e., underground concepts, ideas, fears that “can’t be discussed in a curated market managed by institutions“. Going back to the durian-lover-community example, think of this as forming a secret club that meets discreetly underground every month to discuss your shared detest for durian.

Occasionally, you have seen brave friends who declare their distaste for durian in the open and advocate for plurality-of-fruit-choices. You admire their bravery, and you relate deeply to this quote:

“We are dependent on people of integrity who risked everything, when it was least popular to do it. We could hold these people in reserve, so that when the madness becomes too great, we could turn to them.”

Eric Weinstein

Where We Go From Here

I leave you with this excerpt from the preface in Professor Kuran’s book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference:

(D)espotic government is not the only source of fear the only obstacle to overt and candid discourse. A more basic factor is public opinion. For one thing, despotism is unsustainable without at least the tacit consent of public opinion. For another, public opinion is itself a determinant of people’s willingness to reveal their innermost selves.

To be sure, time and again the courts have ruled that unpopular views, no matter how outrageous, are protected by the law. Yet a person may be free under the law to enunciate despised views without enjoying the same esteem, in the eyes of others, as people with widely accepted views. However strictly enforced, freedom of speech does not insulate people’s reputations from their expressed opinions.

My preoccupation with the darker side of human nature was not without reward. I became more sensitized to the independent streak in the human character, to the spirit that gives on the courage to say ‘no’ when the pressures of the moment demand a ‘yes.’ With a heightened appreciation for the complexity of the human personality, for the tensions we all endure in trying to mediate between our needs for social approval and those for self-assertion, I gained more respect for the nonconformist, the pioneer, the innovator, the dissident, even the misfit. It is my hope that the reader will come to share in this appreciation.

It is also my hope that the reader – you – will come to share in this appreciation. The consistency in aligning one’s public preferences with one’s private ones. The audacity in listening to one’s innermost self and reach peace with the outer world.

May we all have a mindful journey.

What are some good materials you’ve come across on public discourse? I’d love to hear from you – please reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here.