Modern Sisyphus

Sisyphus, Antonio Zanchi (1631–1722)

How COVID-19 and remote working, demonstrated the inherent emptiness of corporate life and the unfairness of who gets paid.

So much of the meaning we get from work, comes from our interactions with each other in the office. The Coronavirus, whilst a boon for some, has brought into stark relief the meaninglessness of modern work for many. Triumphant forecasts of the demise of the office, may turn out to be true, which may only exacerbate the nihilism of white-collar professional life. Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, recently wrote a nostalgic paean to the office, noting, “The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work meaning.” What this period has really driven home, is how once the comforts of office life are removed, what many of us are left with is the maddeningly dull and Sisyphean nature of our work.

Part of this is due to the narrow and restricted nature of so much of the professional services economy, what sociologist Max Weber referred to as the “iron cage” of bureaucratisation. The sticky web of rules and administrative procedures that are required to manage the sheer complexity of the modern economy. A complexity that has spawned what David Graeber calls the bullshit jobs of ‘make-work’. Graeber defines this make-work as well-paying jobs that create a veneer of success, but if stopped tomorrow wouldn’t make a difference to the world.

We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning.

This make-work is a result of the huge increase of professional services over the last century. With a significant amount of this increase being devoted to the administration of increasingly byzantine bureaucratic functions of corporations and governments. The inherent complexity of our global corporations and government functions, requires masses of people, with narrow skill sets to become well-paid cogs in the wheel, with little connection to the final output of their work. Often this lack of connection is due to there being no final output to be connected to, as strategies continually change, and projects are cancelled. This Hyperspecialisation of both industry, service and job, has become so narrow that many of us have lost any conception of how we actually make a difference in our work.

What made this dislocation bearable for much of the last century was the meaning that we got from one another when we were in the office. The ability to make friends (or lovers), share ideas, perform in front of our peers, develop the political rivalries and alliances that simultaneously infuriate and sustain us. We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning. A dread that is likely to only increase as the professional emptiness of remote work becomes clearer.


The point of all this is that there is a greater evil underlying the banality of this professional nihilism. This is embodied by the cynicism of paying someone almost triple what a nurse gets paid, to stand around holding a traffic sign on government infrastructure projects, whilst these nurses risk their lives to fight the Covid-19 outbreak. A similar example in Australia of underfunded volunteer firefighting crews fighting apocalyptic bushfire conditions last summer is another testament to government fixation on the wrong things. This trend of rewarding bit players, in billion-dollar-white-elephant-projects, whilst undervaluing and ignoring, what is referred to now as “essential workers”, is generally appallingly. It is a function of the preference of governments to be seen to be ‘making progress’, ‘chasing growth’ or ‘balancing the budget’ at the expense of all else. Anything that is not within this framework of quantifiable progress, anything that involves community care or supporting actual people in the community, is equivalently priced as being worthless.

Post-Covid predictions like this one, have already become tiresome and will most likely be wrong. But what might stick is how many people may realise, after peering behind the curtain of their day-to-day professional existence, that there might be more to professional life. If this leads to a collective realisation, it might change our attitude toward how we reward our essential workers, softening the debate about deficit and surplus and move it forward to one of value and fairness. Perhaps we will wake up and realise that the nurse, school teacher and fireman deserve not just our applause and appreciation, but more of the spoils.

The task at hand

Ultime Thule Origins – Karesoid Michal Karz

Runnels of thought, silently slipping away; billowing then dispersing, pulling and repelling, never offering a firm grasp. A sudden splash of insight onto the banks revealing a rare, ephemeral clarity. Clear for an instant, like a droplet of water on a stone, reflecting the morning sun; disappearing under the fumbling grasp of paid attention. The rolling current, passing by, carrying him onward. Carving out time from the rocks it tickles past, the course of its carve, crystallising his form. 

My brother was interested in everything except the task at hand. It was as though his head was on a swivel, spinning and turning from one interest to the next. He seemed to be his most creative when he was unhappy. Often drawing, or writing to soothe himself of what looked like mild suffering, but for him, was a blackened spiral of despair. To me, he always seemed most alive around family and close friends; however if you asked him, he would have told you he was most himself when alone. He loved ideas, but not enough to see any of them grow the fruits that would have sustained him and provided the independence he craved. 

Everyone liked my brother, but he didn’t really like himself. It was though he was always grasping at something and as soon as he had whatever he had been chasing; he would soon cast it to one side, like a spoiled child with too many toys. He once told me that his restlessness came from a desire not to end up in the kind of mid-life catastrophe that our father became mired in. This fear pushed him to try as much as he could, futilely trying to stave off any future regret. What he didn’t realise then, was that we don’t get to choose our catastrophes. Whilst we are so focused on not repeating the mistakes of our parents, we unconsciously blunder on into new mistakes of our own, unaware that we are teetering on the edge of our own future flood. I suppose you could say that my brother was looking for a truth by which he could live his life, a truth that was often tantalisingly close, but faded away under a grasping hand. The truth about my brother was that he was happiest when he wasn’t grasping at all. When he was simply there, living, the grand projects and ideas set to one side. 

Tortured by his lack of conviction there was a trepidation about doing what he needed to live the life he wanted. He had read all the books, had all the experiences, certainly more than most. There wasn’t much more he could have done to come to some deeper level of understanding. His problem was that he was always wondering when he would grasp something solid, something that might free him from the constriction of his rumination. What he hadn’t realised was that he had grasped it on multiple occasions; and that the truth he was searching for, had already been found. Found in the action of his searching. He hadn’t realised that the key to the life he wanted wasn’t to be grasped triumphantly, but was a continual movement. In fact, the grasping would have been in complete opposition to the way he was. He was always open, looking, interested, curious. Any grasping of some perceived truth never would have sustained him, as he would have cast about for what lay behind that truth! The reaching is what sustained him, what kept him moving. The truth he wanted to grasp would have led to the stagnation he feared. 

The truth about him, one that he didn’t realise, was that he had a lot of conviction. He was tortured by his self-consciousnesses and how it presented itself as the only source of knowledge. How it discounted all of the times when his sense of what was right had taken the leap and landed on the other side. He had forgotten that while the landing had always kicked up an initial plume of dust, the dust always dispersed and the path would clear. He was generally vindicated. Vindicated because it was the leaping that continued to sustain him. By reminding him that he was alive and that life was to be lived and that to live required the willingness of faith.

But of course he was vindicated, we almost always are, eventually. Our memories are fallible, our minds flexible, and we have a great ability of re-arranging the furniture of our conceptions to match whatever new position we find ourselves in. When someone tells us that ‘everything will work out’ they are right. Not in some specific, calculable way, where a formula is applied and the hoped for, ‘yes everything worked out’, is weighed up against whatever imaginary benchmark we set. No, ‘everything works out’ because our minds, which are inherently optimistic, reconstitute our frames of reference, tying in a narrative that makes it feel as though this was all part of the plan. That whatever happened, happened for the best. As Dostoevsky said, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything”.

A sense of fate, that everything happens for a reason, is a feeling that many of us hold, which we do so because we are simultaneously shaping it by our actions and having our actions shaped by it. If fate is a path outside of our control, then in some ways we are all governed by a fate. Not one that has some predetermined outcome, but that is constituted by our reactions to events outside of our control. Very few of us are able to rise above this self devouring serpent to the point where we are freed from the cycle of being shaped and shaping the experiences we have. Everything works out, because life would be intolerable if it didn’t. Even in tragic grief, there is meaning found in the suffering that follows, a kind of duty to live, in order to keep a part of a lost loved one alive in you. 

So often our confidence is diminished by our analysis. An analysis that only leads in the direction of whatever has already been decided by our biases and the runnels of our thoughts. Our willingness to change only comes from moments of insight where our focus is taken away from the problem, and we are able to feel for whatever else might be. That ‘aha’ moment might come during a walk, in the bath, or whilst reading a book in the sun. Our analytical rationality is wonderful at processing and manipulating what is already in front of us, but insight and the ability to change direction requires us to look up. It is not something that can be willed. Insight is like a flashing light in the distance, obscured by fog; calling, asking us to look up beyond our blinkered view of the world and to take a leap.

Don’t ignore your gut

I think and compare, see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Have you ever had a ‘feeling’ about something? Or felt a deep understanding or affinity for a piece of music or art that you couldn’t quite explain? A lot of our intuitive and emotional reactions to experiences are like weather patterns in our bodies and minds, unconscious, willful, with a significant impact on how we consciously pay attention to the world. So many of our phrases for emotions; ‘they rose within me’, ‘I lost control, ‘I was swept away’, speak to a sense of these processes having a will of their own and one that has more of an impact on our conscious thought than we realise. 

Over the last ten years there has been an exponential increase in the amount of research into something called ‘embodied cognition’. Embodied cognition is a way of conceptualising how we think and make decisions, a shift away from the predominant, and restrictive, way of viewing thought as only specific to the brain, expanding to incorporate a framework that includes the significance of the body. The dominant view of cognitive science, and therefore of psychology more broadly, is that cognitive processing only takes part in the brain and is devoid of the bodily processes of sensory input and control. The movement of embodied cognition is a way of viewing thinking, in a way that is grounded not only in the biology of the brain, but also in the feedback we receive from bodily sensations in relation to our actions, in our connection to nature and the influence of our social environment. 

The importance of serotonin in understanding ‘thinking’

When considering how thinking is shaped not only by our brain, but by our body, it is important to consider the role of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the central nervous system, and is critical to the regulation of virtually all brain function. Dysregulation of serotonin function has been implicated in major depressive disorder along with other mental illnesses, with most antidepressant drugs working by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. It is difficult to find a human behaviour that is not modulated by serotonin, with it responsible for regulating mood and emotional responses, perception, attention and memory, along with our attitudes to rewards like food and sex.

The interesting thing about serotonin is that the vast majority of it is found outside of the brain. In fact up to 90% of all serotonin in the body is found in the gut, and this network is so extensive that scientists have referred to the gut as the “second-brain”. Often used phrases “I feel it in my gut” or “I have butterflies” in my stomach are not superstitious nonsense, but a critical factor in what drives our cognition. That intuitive feeling of ‘something’s not right’, a feeling that we can’t explain but which we ‘feel’, may have a significant amount to do with the distribution of serotonin in the digestive system. 

This hypothesis is supported by research conducted on mice in 2017, which discovered that serotonin played a key role in behavioural and cognitive flexibility, something the researchers called ‘reversal learning’. Reversal learning can be thought of as the ability to change a course of action, when something in the environment changes, i.e when something no longer feels right. An example of this process malfunctioning, would be someone with low serotonin levels who is unable to adjust their ways of thinking after being made redundant. This inflexibility leads them to ruminate over and over on the fact they were made redundant, leading to a spiral of negative thinking and self criticism. Someone with higher serotonin levels may have had more flexibility in their response and instead of ruminating, re-framed the way they view the situation, taking a new course of action like volunteering their time, or re-enrolling at university. 

Of course our analytical reasoning and conceptual development happens in the most highly evolved parts of the brain, but they are built on a foundation of non-verbal, intuitive processes that begin in the body. 

The Four E’s of Cognition

  1. Embodied – The body

Our bodies are the seat of our intuition, our understanding. Whilst the mind is the centre of our intellect, our knowing.

Historically the body has been viewed as unimportant to the understanding of the mind, even as an impediment to this understanding. Religious ideas of the body as something base, even sinister; with its many temptations being a barrier to salvation, have been common across many religions and philosophical thought for thousands of years. The French philosopher René Descartes was so suspect of any physical experiences, including that of his own body, he decided the only thing we could be sure of are our thoughts. For most of Western philosophical history the body has been something to be overcome, to be tamed by the mind, as though it were separate from the body.

Without the body we would be unable to think. The brain is our seat of conscious experience, however the vast majority of what the brain does and processes is occluded from our conscious awareness. The amount of information that our body takes in from our broader environment, is the input that the brain uses to conceptualise an understanding of the world and to ignite actions within it. Our appetites for food and sex, what draws our attention, our emotional responses, all of these take place from within the body via a complex network of sensory inputs, neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones, long before our rational mind interprets these experiences.

Our bodies then can be seen as the seat of intuition, of our understanding, whilst our mind is the centre of our intellect, of our knowing. A sense of understanding in this context is our visceral, non-verbal intuition of something that we have sensed, without applying a consciousness judgement of how this fits in with our existing knowledge.  An example of this is a mother responding to her child’s cries in a specific way as she understands what the needs of the child are, without necessarily knowing what these needs are. Our sense of knowing then grows out of an initial understanding of the problem. After tending to the child, over time the mother develops a knowledge of what a particular cry entails and so develops more of a conscious response.

The opposite of this is the practice of a physical skill, something like playing the piano. At first, there is a requirement to consciously attend to each specific element of this skill, a sustained focus on which key represents what note, on how these keys combine to create a chord and how these chords create a tune. Over time as this skill is continually practiced, these actions become more natural, and with increasing proficiency the action of playing the piano becomes more and more devoid of conscious attention, in fact conscious attention may even disrupt the ‘flow’ of playing. At this point the skill of playing the piano has essentially become embodied, and it is as though the body is almost channelling the music that has been learned through conscious practice.

  1. Embedded – The environment

Inanimate objects in the world can serve as symbols that jog our memory

The materialist view of the brain is that it must be explainable by the principles of nature. This view is extended by those proponents of embodied cognition, stating that cognition is embedded and shaped by the environment in which we grew up and live. In connection to the above point, our cognition is shaped by the natural environment we are faced with, and what the sensory input of our bodies gleans from this environment. An example of this is how the cognition of two people, one in Iceland and one in Thailand, are likely to be very different based on their experiences of navigating their environments. The skills required to be learnt, and therefore the ways of thinking that need to be utilised in order to develop these skills. 

We are often able to remember more effectively by using our bodies and parts of our surrounding environment to ‘offload’ storage and simplify the processing required. Essentially we map our memories onto elements in the environment, with those elements serving to remind us of what we need to remember when we see them again. Simple examples of this relate to something that psychologists call context effects, which involved experiments relating to test performance of college students. These experiments showed that those who took the test in their regular, weekly lecture hall performed better than those who took the test in a new venue. It is believed that visual cues in the regular lecture hall provided memory cues for specific information that had been learned throughout the semester, aiding recall.

Essentially this is an example of the representation of knowledge in symbolic form. We imbue meaning onto parts of our environment, almost unconsciously, and this allows us to build sophisticated structures of references and understanding. Out of its context a clock in a lecture hall is just an object, however within the context of a lecture hall, during class, the clock may serve as a reminder to a student of a particular piece of information, jogging their memory. 

  1. Extended – The Social World

It is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his.

Our cognition does not develop in a vacuum, or a ‘black box’ as the arch priest of behavioural psychology, B.F.Skinner referred to the brain. Our cognition is shaped by the social environments we inhabit, in fact it is almost dependent on the social environment we exist within. The social environment and our cognition are reciprocal exchanges between us and the groups we are a part of. Our ways of thinking are shaped by family members, educational institutions, work, friends, sexual partners; sculpted by the millions of gestures, actions, words and emotions of the individuals we spend our time with. 

The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero in 2004 was a major breakthrough in neuroscience. This finding represented a paradigm shift for our understanding of cognition and in particular the understanding of the mechanisms for empathy, imitation and language. The paper showed that mirror neurons in the brain ‘fire’ in the same way for an observer of an action, as though the observer had performed the action themselves. This finding was empirical evidence for a statement by the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who stated, whilst talking about the reciprocal nature of communication, that “it is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his”.

The implication of this finding was that it showed how fundamental empathy is to our ability to learn and think via the imitation of others in our social environment. Something that is also critical for language development and production. Without empathy, we are unable to understand another person’s emotional state, meaning that we are unable to develop lasting social relationships. Without the ability to imitate than we would never have been able to learn from one another. A child learns to walk and talk not by thinking abstractly about the concept of language or movement, but by attempting to be like those they hear and see around them.

  1. Enacted – Our actions

So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us.

An interesting way of thinking about how our thinking is enacted and how action supports thinking is by understanding gestures when we talk. In multiple studies, gestures have been shown to aid in the recall of information, particularly detailed visual memory, or memory about particular locations. The way that gesture can aid in the recall of working memory then helps in the production of speech itself. 

We think as much with our hands as we do with our minds. So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us. This notion of grasping is critical to understanding how action and thinking are symbiotically linked. The German’s have a word for all meaningful, goal-directed activity called Handeln, which relates to an individual acting in the world, but also refers to more abstract notions of mental thought. This word of course is derived from where we get the word hand from and relates to our ability to manipulate our environment, to acquire things, including acquiring concepts, which is why we say we have “grasped” something once we understand it. 

Much of the purpose of our thinking is to put thoughts into action. One of the key benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, still the dominant form of psychotherapy sanctioned by most Western health systems and governments, focuses on how your actions can shape your patterns of thought. Clinical depression is often preceded by a life event that leads to a period of withdrawal, isolation and inactivity, and the premise of behavioural therapy is that new ways of thinking can be ‘enacted’ by changing patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour, remove the individual from their isolation, exposing them to activities that bring enjoyment and connection with other people. This activity removes the self-directed gaze of rumination, bringing us back into embodied movement and an extension beyond ourselves back into the social and outside world. The feedback from these actions are what allows us to update our mental representations of what we understand to be the world and how the world works, whilst also enabling us to develop patterns of thinking that emanate from these new frames of reference. 

Bringing it all together

The brain is not a black box pulling the levers on the rest of the body. The brain is the conductor of an orchestra, a body of instruments whose reverberations are influenced by the actions within the environment around them. The brain is our seat of conscious experience and where all our high level reasoning and abstraction takes place, however these mental parts of us that we rightly celebrate do not take place in a vacuum. Our ability to reason is critically dependent on the intuitive, unconscious and non-verbal understanding that comes from the body and its entanglement with the wider world. We appear to often have an intuitive understanding of something long before we develop conscious knowledge and it is critical to remember that this knowledge is built on this foundation of unconscious processes. A hyper-rational way of thinking that ignores intuition is a half-blind way of looking at the world, one that only values abstractions over the importance of context. The embodied cognition movement has major implications for how we view the world and is a promising avenue for developing a more holistic understanding of the mind, an understanding that is built from the body.

Change your lakes for ocean

“The Lake Over The Ocean, Faroe Islands”

There is a narrowness in such a notion,

Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes

for Ocean

Lord Byron, Don Juan

The quote above from Lord Byron was actually in reference to a collection of poets based in the Lake District of England and talks to both a desire for these individuals to push out into the world, to test their beliefs, as well as challenging them to break out of a fixed or narrow view of the world.

A lake is an enclosed space, a place of calm, where the water is predictable and the exploration bounded by the encircling shore. An ocean is an open space, boundless, where it is easy to become lost, where the waves and weather are unpredictable. A lake represents comfort, ease, leisure. An ocean represents discomfort, difficulty and adventure. 

You might say, well, the lake seems pretty good to me, what’s wrong with leisure? Why push yourself into discomfort unnecessarily? And, most people would probably agree with you and do just that. It is easier to sit within your preconceived notions, the lake of immediate experience and thoughts, especially if this way of thinking has been beneficial for you. There is good reason to prefer this to the chaos of the ocean outside. However, like the black dot in the white hemisphere of the yin yang symbol, the lake contains a small part of its opposite, a whisper of the chaos outside, the distant rumblings of the ocean. 

The problems of the lake are contained within what makes it great. The ease and protection of living in this encircled space can lead to a kind of complacency, a withering of skills and strength, an increase of anxiety, or even fear of what lies “out there”. The lake is no guarantee either. It is subject to the outside forces of drought, contamination, conflict and without having the skills to face the open ocean, this puts you at a severe disadvantage when the world shifts, which it will. If that time comes when you need to test yourself against the ocean then it will be better to have been prepared by previously testing your sailing skills on the ocean rather than letting them lay idle, untested, in the lake. A willingness to “change your lakes for ocean” relates to a willingness to be open to what the ocean represents; new people and ideas, uncertainty and discomfort, wonder and awe. Essentially this is a maxim that promotes an open system of thinking in comparison to a closed one. 

Now, it is true that virtually no one says that they are a ‘closed-minded’ person, everyone would likely rate themselves as pretty ‘open-minded’. But as Paul Graham says in his essay, What You Can’t Say, how much of that ‘open-mindedness’ is simply taught? To what degree is it an inherited, rote learnt fixity of what a good person or citizen is? An idea that you have of yourself, as opposed to an actual behaviour? Both the arch-woke-liberal and the alt-right-troll, likely see themselves as ‘open minded’, however in their conflict, they simply reflect each other’s ignorance, a reflection that obscures the awareness of a more nuanced point of view. Both of these people are convinced of their “truth”, and as such, have picked a side, grasping onto the ideological viewpoint of their churches of thought. 

A sense of certainty, is ultimately a fixed way of thinking, solidified by a perceived grasping of some unwavering “truth”.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a truism that is emblematic of what happens when we believe that we are certain. The gap between your own certainty and someone else’s is often filled with disdain for the other point of view and an incredulity of how someone else could think that way. So many of the tragedies and problems that befall the world are the result of a group, acting in a way that they are convinced is right, with those disagreeing often being labelled as dangerous, inferior or inhuman. A sense of certainty, is ultimately a fixed way of thinking, solidified by a perceived grasping of some unwavering “truth”. The grasping of this truth then leads to, in the words of the philosopher Gotthold Lessig, ‘passivity, indolence and vanity’. This represents a return to the lake, with the belief that the lake is all there is, that there is no point stretching yourself to understand any further because the truth has been grasped, paradise found, utopia ensured. A fixed system of thinking is therefore like a piece of domino art, the starting point and the final destination are set, and the sequence from beginning to end is fixed, unchangeable, unless the entire set up is interrupted or destroyed. The advantage of this system is that it allows us to achieve what we wish to achieve, the disadvantage of this system is that the sequence can’t be updated and nor can the objective of what this sequence is marching toward, regardless of what happens in the outside world. 

This is not to say that ‘anything goes’ and that there is no truth at all, but to say that the “truth”, in the paraphrased words of Heraclitus and Nietzsche, is always in a ‘process of becoming’. More a question of embodied searching, rather than of intellectual possessing. The problem arises when the narrowing of our attention, continuously blocks the outside world, muffling our intuitive understanding of the broader context. This silencing of our ability to focus on what we find interesting or valuable can often lead to that feeling of ‘being lost’, or feeling like there is no escape from your rut of thinking and behaviour. When actions become dislocated from the wider context of the person’s values, this is when the grip of depression and despair can take hold.

The often quoted maxim of “an open mind is one that is willing to change” has some challenging, overlooked implications, denoting an element of inherent discomfort and anxiety. If we are to live authentically, then there must be a willingness to be in a process of perpetual change that maintains a kind of psychological homeostasis. In order to dissolve no longer useful ways of thinking, we have to continually update our conceptions, maintaining an openness to our intuitive and implicit understanding. We always have to be willing, and prepared, to change our lakes for ocean.

Opening the door to the hall of mirrors

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing

Blaise Pascal

Anyone watching The Last Dance on Netflix over the last couple of weeks has seen what it is like to be in an embodied state of flow. Seeing Michael Jordan playing basketball is to be reminded of how much the exertion of expert physical skill is devoid of our self-conscious awareness. When watching MJ drive to the hoop, or sink an impossible layup in traffic, it is like watching poetry in motion. A kind of magic connecting body, mind and soul in a symphony of coordinated movement. This state of flow is an immersed engagement in your environment, a oneness between doing and being, a sequence of time, where time itself seems to have disappeared.

This ‘flow’ state has been investigated using neuroimaging and has been shown to represent a decrease of activity in a structure of the brain called the default mode network. This network is responsible for much of our mental processes when we are not focused on the external environment, in other words our internal chatter and mind wandering. These processes include self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (ideas), moral reasoning and it is widely thought to be the network of the brain that contributes to our sense of self, what it’s like to be you, or what Freud called the ego.

In a study investigating flow states, tasks that were rated by participants as ‘boring’, corresponded with neuroimaging data that showed higher activity in the default mode network, whilst ‘flow state’ activities corresponded with decreased activity. That subjective feeling of being engrossed in a task, a feeling of ‘losing yourself’ in the activity, is exactly what is happening in your brain when you are in a state of flow. The network of structures in the brain responsible for creating that sense of what it is like to be you, are essentially switched off in these states of immersion. The default mode network is of particular interest to neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists as there is a belief that a hyperactivity in this network of the brain could be the neurological basis for the development of mental disorders. This hypothesis has been one of the factors that has led to the renaissance of psychiatry and neuroscience research into psychedelic experiences.

In other words the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony

Michael Pollan in his book How to Change Your Mind tells the story of psychedelic research and how it was a promising and legitimate field of inquiry in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, due to concerns relating to the growing counterculture and anti-war movement, the Nixon Government banned these compounds, effectively shutting down a promising line of research. Robin Carhartt-Harris, David Nutt and their team at Imperial College London, are two researchers at the vanguard of this renaissance and some of their theories related to the default mode network have significant implications for our understanding of psychedelic experience, the brain and mental disorder. Carhartt-Harris and his team found that the brain and in particular, those parts of the brain involved in executive function, such as the default mode network, actually exhibited decreased levels of activity, similar to that exhibited in states of flow, which was the opposite of what they had initially expected.

The brain is a hierarchical system, with the more recent, more evolved parts, including key parts of the default mode network, exhibiting an inhibitory or repressive effect on the lower parts of the brain. In other words the default mode network acts like the conductor of an orchestra, repressing the chaos of everyone playing their own tune, keeping the different parts in harmony. The neuroimaging research conducted showed that during psychedelic experiences, this conducting part of the brain essentially switches off, allowing for increased connectivity between different areas which are usually not in communication. 

This research by Carhartt-Harris and his team led to the publishing of a theory called The Entropic Brain Hypothesis, a theory which suggests that our ‘normal’ waking consciousness is the result of a slightly skewed balance between flexible and rigid states. Entropy is defined as the level of uncertainty in a system, and, as can be seen below, high entropy states are associated with flexible thought, like creative or magical thinking, whilst low entropy states are associated with rigid thought, characterised by obsessiveness and addiction. 

The entropic brain hypothesis: spectrum of cognitive states
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020/full

A sustained period of time in a high entropy, flexible state of divergent thinking can lead to behaviours that demonstrate psychosis, whilst a sustained period of time in a low entropy, rigid state of thinking can lead to behaviours that demonstrate major depressive disorder or OCD. The term entropy is often associated with physics and relates to expansion and uncertainty, often used in the context of describing the universe, as a system whose entropy is always expanding.

In the subjective experiences of the psychedelic state, a feeling of expansion, or oneness, what is often called ‘oceanic’ or ‘unitive consciousness’ is often described by those under its influence. The most salient of these experiences, with the biggest impact on patient outcomes in the Imperial College research, involves what is called a complete ‘ego death’ or the expansion of your consciousness to such a point that there is no longer any boundary between what it feels like to be you and the outside world. This ‘dissolution of self’ in turn became rated by the patients who experienced it as one of the most important experiences of their lives and resulted in significant shifts of personality.

In a 2018 paper researching the effects of psychedelics, researchers using neuroimaging, found that LSD induces increased connectivity in the sensory and somatic motor areas of the brain. This network of neurons is mapped to the sensory experiences of our body, indicating that LSD increases these signals, whilst decreasing connectivity in the areas of ‘associative thinking’, which include the prefrontal cortex, responsible for most of our executive function. This increased connectivity also extended to the amygdala, which is heavily involved in the emotional processing of stimulus. So a psychedelic state is exhibited by high sensitivity to sensory information, increased emotional response and the reduced executive functions of mental time travel, mental constructions (the self or ego) and moral reasoning. 

What is interesting about this research is that the psychedelic state is not associated with a higher form of consciousness, but in fact a more primal, or primitive form of consciousness. The quieting of the default mode network essentially opens the door to our subconscious experience, returning us to a state that likely had more in common with our prehistoric ancestors, where instinct ruled. The question then is, why would this state have such positive outcomes for patients? One possibility is that it allows for a ‘circuit-breaker’ in the positive feedback loops involved in the rigid thought patterns of addiction and depression, allowing patients to see the bigger picture. Another possibility is that these experiences, when accompanied with psychotherapy, allow patients to access memories and emotions that are otherwise unavailable, facilitating catharsis and acceptance.

This research appears to show that our mental constructions of ‘self’ can essentially be switched off for a time, allowing for a kind of reset. Mental disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress, all include mental constructions that can become rigid and debilitating. In all of these cases the mind has engaged in a kind of positive feedback loop of rumination, leading to the downward spiral of depression, or the cyclical nature of addiction or OCD.

But why, should an overactive sense of self lead us to become more susceptible to mental disorder? Why wouldn’t this “higher-level” of consciousness, lead us to an improved sense of wellbeing? Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and a prominent researcher into happiness, may have part of the answer. Gilbert refers to the Prefrontal Cortex, a key hub in the default mode network, as an ‘experience simulator’. This simulator re-presents a mentally constructed reality based on our narrative of self and maps this onto the external world. His research details how much of the mental constructions we develop relating to what we think will make us happy, is often overestimated.

Gilbert refers to this as impact bias and shows that major life events often don’t have the lasting impact on our happiness that we think they would. In other words, our states of unhappiness are often caused by a poor ability to forecast what we think will make us happy, whilst the subsequent stress generated by our actions trying to attain those desires can keep us in a state of dissatisfaction. In a sense we are always in a state of wanting, jumping from one imagined pleasure to the next, allowing the goal directed part of the mind to continue calling the shots. In something like depression the experience simulator has essentially gone into overdrive, developing negative mental re-presentations that become overbearing, throwing us out of balance with the broader context.

A sense of balance between competing ways of viewing the world is exactly what is proposed in Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Master and his Emissary. This book, twenty years in the making, detailed the neurological research into the different “views” of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Detailing, in a breathtaking sweep of 2,500 years of western culture, how imbalances and equilibrium between the hemispheres’ ‘views’ have contributed to various pendulum swings of culture and history. McGilchrist makes clear that, despite the burgeoning amount of pop psychology stating otherwise, both hemispheres are involved in what the brain does. Where things differ however, is in how the brain does what it does and how the different hemispheres ‘view’ the world. The left hemisphere’s view is more sequential and fixed, processing information linearly toward some objective that it has picked out of the broader context. In contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader, big picture view of the world, developing implicit understanding (as opposed to knowledge). This includes the understanding of metaphor, imagery, an ability to see patterns and read facial expressions and to appreciate art and the harmony and melodies of music. 

McGilchrist argues that the hemispheres, when operating properly, work together in a kind of Hegelian Dialectic, with a synthesis of the two different world views leading to something that is more than the sum of its parts. The coda of McGilchrist’s thesis focuses on his hypothesis that in the last 150 years there has been an increasing tendency to see our world through the more fixed and machine-like left hemisphere. Much of this he puts down to the increasing levels of machine-like ways of working inherent in modern life. Developments such as bureaucratisation, mechanisation and the view of workers as interchangeable parts are all typical of a left-hemisphere view of the world.

One of McGilchrist’s central concerns and one which echoes Dan Gilbert’s research, is that the left’s fixed, sequential, linear view of the world leads to a re-presentation of reality, one devoid of the broader context. The left hemisphere’s view is a reproduction, essentially a virtual reality, which is mostly interested in objects and ‘things’ as opposed to people and the environment. When our representation of reality becomes detached from the broader context for long periods, our experience can become what he terms, a ‘hall of mirrors’, an oppressive sense of being trapped within the mental constructs of our own thoughts leading to excessive levels of self-consciousness that can result in mental illness.

Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world; a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality

This sense of being trapped in the hall of mirrors maps onto the type of rigid thinking typified by a low-entropy state in The Entropic Brain Hypothesis. Psychedelic experiences appear to open a door to this hall of mirrors, allowing a window to the outside world, a reset and rescue from the matrix of the associating minds representation of reality. There is a clear overlap between flexible or rigid thinking and the left and right hemisphere’s view of the world, between the grasping and sequential processing of the more rigid, left hemisphere and the contextually rich, intuitive understanding of the more flexible view of the right. Thousands of years of ancient spiritual traditions have spoken of the need for balance in the way we view the world and current psychological and neuroscientific research appears to have now caught up.


Whilst our sense of self and our ability to plan and reason are critical to our daily lives, it appears that these elements of our thinking can become counterproductive if they do not take into account a broader context. With the increasing digitisation of our leisure, work and social interactions there seems to be a creeping tendency to allow a more fixed, re-presented view of the world to dominate, potentially contributing to the significant increases in depression globally. Psychedelic experiences have been shown to be an effective treatment for many individuals suffering from intractable mental disorders. Organisations like MIND Foundation in Europe and Mind Medicine in Australia, along with many others, are working to educate mental health professionals, governments and the wider community as to their benefits and risks. By building awareness about these experiences, along with an understanding of who might benefit, we can remove some of the ‘war on drugs’ dogma that has shut down any debate regarding these treatments and begin to build a new paradigm of understanding for mental health treatments.


What Dostoevsky can teach you about a growth mindset

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov

“This was the point, that I blindly believed then that through some miracle, some external circumstance, all this would suddenly extend, expand; suddenly a horizon of appropriate activity would present itself, beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made, and thus I would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels. A secondary role was incomprehensible to me… Either hero or mud, there was no in between. And that is what ruined me, because in the mud I comforted myself with being a hero.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

The Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is widely viewed as one of the greatest writers of all time and one of the greatest psychologists in world literature. His novels, including Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground deeply explore themes of psychology, philosophy, religion, literature and family, shining a light into the darkest depths of the human heart, whilst also gazing up in awe at our capability, despite everything, for transcendence through our love for each other. For Dostoevsky the good life was a kind of embodied, reciprocal exchange, with this reciprocity between self and other, being the foundation for grasping any kind of truth or understanding.

The passage above refers to a sense of superiority. A retreat into grandiose and delusional fantasy, a fantasy whose carriage is a warped kind of rationalism. A vision in a vacuum, dissolving on contact with reality and experience. The anti-hero of the novel holds a preference for the perfect conception of himself, over a potentially stained one in reality. A fixed conception that results in a fear of life and so a retreat from it. A burrowing into a solitary invention, one in which he is the hero, or will soon be. The abyss between his flawed self-conception and the inconvenience of reality, is filled with a despairing envy and hatred of those he encounters, as they represent a hammer to the mirror of his intellectual invention. Unwilling to let go and accept the contradictions and hypocrisies that are involved in living, this individual festers like a bad seed, his potential growth cut off by an unwillingness to expose himself to the fertiliser of experience.

The narrator of Notes from Underground is a disheveled, shambolic, and completely isolated individual, who views himself as a kind of messiah, someone who, if only the right moment would present itself, would be able to demonstrate his genius. Of course there is no such moment, and the narrator’s fixed, warped notion of himself, leads to a belief that the world should present itself to him “beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made”, rather than presenting himself to the world in all the messy reality that entails.

For Dostoevsky, so much of his writing dealt with the dangers of pride and the limits of rationalism. Whether it is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, calculating the personal and moral necessity of the murder of his landlord, the cold and calculating Ivan in The Brother’s Karamazov, or his unnamed anti-hero in Notes From Underground, a detached, cold and prideful way of thinking that carved the world up into fragments and calculated each step out of context with the reality, was persistently shown by Dostoevsky as being a pernicious and ultimately disastrous way to live. Richard Pevear in the foreword to his translation of Notes From Underground reflects on Dostoevsky’s writing as a whole that;

 “The one quality his negative characters share…is inner fixity, a sort of death-in-life…. Inner movement, on the other hand, is always a condition of spiritual good, though it may also be a source of suffering, division, disharmony in this life. What moves may also rise.” 

Pevear refers to ‘inner fixity’ like a kind of narrow mindedness, or blindness, resulting in a spiritual ‘death-in-life’ or the death of potential. In these books we live in the minds of his characters and are shown, through their examples, the catastrophe’s that await us when we let narcissistic pride prevent us from connecting with others. Dostoevsky was very sceptical that we would be able to think our way to a better world and was vehemently against the utopian ideals of the day, including both capitalism and socialism. In The Brothers Karamazov, he captured the utopian thinking of socialism at that time, saying that the socialists wished, “…not to go from earth to heaven, but to bring heaven down to earth”, prophesying that this would lead to disaster. Referring to capitalism, consumerism and the increasing isolation he believed this was causing he said;

“For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in peoples help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles, lest his money and his acquired privileges perish.”

These warnings relate to how the development and over reliance on a kind of wobbly rationalism, stripped from history and context, with a blank slate, a year zero, the projection of a new kind of reality ‘free’ from the constraints of the past would ultimately lead to further division and death. This solitary focus on our own idea of the world, or of our blinkered, solo pursuit of material possessions ultimately would isolate us, disconnecting us from each other and life. Redemption for Dostoevsky’s characters came through an authentic, even vulnerable embrace of life, a dialectical exchange where a kind of embodied (not just intellectual) truth is mutually constituted by the interaction between self and other. 

What does Dostoevsky have to do with a growth mindset? Well, Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychologist, renowned for her work into “mindset”, motivation and how people succeed defined a growth mindset as a belief that our capacity is not fixed and that we can develop our abilities and skills over time. Dweck showed in her research that our fixed conceptions of ourselves had to be constantly updated and transformed by the growth that comes from experience and the insights it yields.

Some of her most impactful research, which investigated praise and its impact on motivation amongst fifth-grade students, showed that those praised for effort started to value learning opportunities, whilst those praised for intelligence were more interested in demonstrating their existing ability rather than stretching to improve. Dweck showed that the reinforcement of an existing way of thinking or viewing your own abilities as fixed can have a detrimental effect over time, leading to stagnation, frustration and a loss of potential.

Growth often involves stretching beyond your existing potential, which often means discomfort and effort. But as Dweck mentions in a revisiting of her initial publication, effort without actual learning is pointless. It is not simply about encouraging effort or resilience but also the encouragement of developing a personal insight into what works, a repertoire of techniques and strategies to learn and grow. In other words, a willingness to fail, which gives you the opportunity to update your understanding of what works by testing your concepts against reality and using this insight to transform skills and understanding. A fear of failure can often lead to the restriction of experience and develop into a kind of perfectionism that over time, if coupled with a fixed-mindset can become restrictive. Dweck, herself a recovering perfectionist, stated in a talk at The School of Life a number of years ago that, “I had to start shrinking my world in order to maintain [perfection].” 

The shrinking of the world to match the conception you hold of yourself, as opposed to transforming your conceptions to match the world, would have been a thread of thought that Dostoevsky would have admonished. What is interesting about Dweck’s personal insight along with her extensive research is how it shows that in order to even maintain our abilities we need to keep challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. A fear of looking foolish or ridiculous, leads to a retreat from experience and a constriction of action. A true growth mindset appears to involve a willingness of being the fool before becoming the master.

Burnout: The long shadow of idealism?

“Almost Once” – Brett Whiteley

In order to burn out, a person needs to have been on fire at one time

Ayala Pines

COVID-19 has shone an overdue light on the indispensability of workers that we often take for granted. Nurses, doctors, social workers, taxi drivers, cashiers, cleaners and many others. Whilst many of us have had to adjust to the comparatively mild inconveniences of working from home, these workers are often putting their health at risk to deliver essential services and care. As this emergency and lockdown continues, these workers will need access to comprehensive support to stave off and manage the effects from burnout. The term burnout is most commonly used with reference to those who exert significant “emotional labour” in their work, which refers to the requirement of managing emotions and feelings whilst dealing with people (i.e patients or customers) with the term becoming ubiquitous across not just healthcare but also professional services occupations.

Burnout, more than just exhaustion

A recent definition by Christina Maslach of the University of California, who originally coined the term and Michael Leiter, currently at Deakin University, provided a concept of burnout as: 

“…the index of dislocation between what people are and what they do. It represents an erosion of value, dignity, spirit and will – an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, pulling people into a downward spiral from which it is hard to recover.” 

For Maslach and Leiter there is a dislocation of what people are and what they do, causing a split where actions no longer reflect values. This split leads to a chasm of meaningless that in turn can become a downward spiral of rumination, self-doubt and eventually depression. The dislocation means that the underlying values that supported an initial devotion or idealism have shifted or dissolved, usually as the result of some perceived or actual failure or a head-on collision with a difficult occupational reality. 

What is interesting about the above is the inclusion of words such as values, spirit and soul. This definition by Maslach and Leiter alludes to the fact that burnout syndrome, cannot be viewed simply as exhaustion but as something related to existential loss of meaning and purpose. Viktor Frankl, the late psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and founder of Logotherapy could have the key to understanding why burnout is becoming more common. Frankl’s overarching philosophy of the “will to meaning” suggested that to avoid depression and existential despair, one had to authentically live out one’s underlying values by paying attention to what is meaningful. These values are not necessarily moral, but are related to a deeper sense of what attracts your attention, focus and sustained, conscious action; an integrated embodiment of an individual’s orientation toward and action within their framework of meaning.  

For Frankl, he believed that the decline in spiritual and religious life, what he referred to as the noetic dimension, had led to a vacuum of meaning which had been filled by a new kind of devotion to work and it is this devotion, which can sew the seed for burnout. In research published last year by Norbert Riethof and Petr Bob, in Frontiers of Psychiatry, the initial stage of burnout actually involves very intense experiences of meaningful life and work, a kind of idealism or devotion that by the end of the burnout process has been lost following a perceived failure to live up to impossibly high expectations. 

A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

There is a counterintuitive element here, which is that burnout appears more likely to affect those that demonstrate a higher level of idealism in their work. Idealism can be a valuable trait for an individual and the organisation they work for as it motivates people to make a difference and go beyond what is asked of them. However, the resulting excitement elicited by this acute sense of meaning, can lead to excessive dedication (perfectionism), a lack of clinical or personal detachment and an obscuring of insight into the knowledge of one’s own limitations. A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

Excitement and stress are two sides of the same coin with both of these emotions releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which the body uses to prepare for action. The secretions of these hormones build up over time and if behaviours and work practices aren’t changed, they can have a serious effect on physical and mental health leading to a potential breakdown and in the most extreme cases, suicide. In the United Kingdom a 2018 study found that the probability of doctor’s committing suicide was five times higher than the general population, with a significant factor being the pressure that doctor’s are under due to a lack of resources. 

The difficulty with the term “Burnout”

The trouble with managing burnout partly comes from the difficulty in its definition and diagnosis. In a recent survey of intensive care health professionals the overall number of those categorised as suffering from burnout ranged from 3% to 40% depending on how the syndrome was defined. Part of the difficulty of “diagnosing” burnout is due to its interaction with other mental health issues like depression, begging the question, how much is the term ‘burnout’ simply a socially acceptable label for someone actually suffering from depression? Some of the key descriptions of burnout; loss of enjoyment in things you used to find enjoyable (such as work), persistent fatigue, apathy and cynicism are actually key diagnostic criteria of the American Psychological Association for major depressive disorder. In addition to this, 2017 research in the Journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, found that there was no distinction between the biological markers in the brain of those diagnosed with burnout compared to those diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

The ubiquity of the term ‘burnout’ leads to a number of issues. Overdiagnosis of the syndrome leads to a perceived normalisation of this as a necessary occupational hazard, resulting in acceptance and no urgency in developing the appropriate support frameworks. This resulting lack of support can lead to declining levels of work productivity, job satisfaction, employee engagement and increasing levels of stress and depression. Finally, it appears as though using the term is becoming a euphemistic veil for what is actually depression, something which could prevent someone seeking help due to a normalisation of this as a facet of professional life.

Beyond burnout

Mindfulness training has recently received a lot of attention from researchers and organisations as a technique for reducing physical and mental stress. Mindfulness meditation, leveraging present moment awareness, can help to create space between thoughts, emotions and actions. This “space” can help to improve cognitive empathy, otherwise known as detached concern, whilst learning to manage and not get caught up in emotional empathy, or taking on the emotional states of other people (patients, customers). This awareness can also provide an insight into an individual’s limits, informing them of when to take a step back and some time out, whilst also providing a positive perspective on purpose and achievements. The practice can act as a kind of ‘reset’ of the mind, a process that un-conceals values and brings awareness of actions, allowing a restoration of meaning through integration of both.

Beyond personal practices, a broader shift in how workplace mental health is dealt with, including the communication and support for those with occupationally specific depression could also have a significant impact. A comprehensive review of burnout treatments in 2010 found that a combination of personal and group interventions provided by organisations had the largest effect on managing burnout in individuals. This was partially due to a greater level of acknowledgement about burnout and its potential as an occupational hazard, in turn providing people with support and also an implied understanding that those suffering weren’t alone in how they were feeling.

Bringing it all together

The after-effects from the strain of this crisis are likely to be felt most acutely when the lives of most of us go back to normal. The present moment is a critical opportunity for us to re-evaluate the importance of these individuals, putting in place the proper resources and support to ensure that we protect those that are under so much strain at this time. By developing the adequate support structures for those in critical care industries, organisations can reduce the number of workers lost to burnout and workplace depression, in turn maintaining continuity of standards, care and service for those that rely on them.