Friday, May 29, 2009

Complex, unconscious and emotional – moi?

David Brooks nailed it today.

The New York Times op-ed columnist gave a perfect description of how people decide about rebooting:

“When noodling over some issue – whether it’s a legal case, an essay, a math problem or a marketing strategy, people go foraging about for a unifying solution…

“The mind tries on different solutions to see if they fit. Ideas and insights bubble up from some hidden layer of intuitions and heuristics. Sometimes you feel yourself getting closer to a conclusion, and sometimes you feel yourself getting farther away. The emotions serve as guidance signals, like from a GPS, as you feel your way toward a solution.

“Then – often while you’re in the shower or after a night’s sleep – the answer comes to you. You experience a fantastic rush of pleasure that feels like a million tiny magnets suddenly clicking into alignment.

“Now your conclusion is articulate in your consciousness. You can edit it or reject it. You can go out and find precedents and principles to buttress it. But the way you get there was not a cool, rational process. It was complex, unconscious and emotional.”

OK, Brooks was not talking about rebooting. He was talking about the decision-making process used by judges, wrestling with the reality that decisions, including judicial ones, “are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances.”

But from the rebooters I’ve talked to, and from my own experience, this is how the decision to reinvent oneself is usually made. At we try to offer information and suggestions that appeal to your rational side, but we know that ultimately your decision will probably be based partly or mostly on your emotions.

So give them free rein. Your decision will be better for it.

Are we there yet?

No, we’re not. We’re making progress, but “there” is still a ways off in the future.

The “there” I’m talking about is that re-invented, rebooted automotive future that runs on electricity and not on carbon dioxide-producing, smog-creating gasoline.

Case in point: The other day I saw a Tesla truck (Tesla the electric car company), towing a closed Tesla trailer big enough to carry a car inside. The truck was parked – at a Chevron station. Getting gas.

I assumed (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) that inside the trailer was a spanking new Tesla, being delivered to someone environmentally savvy enough to buy an all-electric car, and rich enough to fork over $100,000 for it. And the delivery vehicle had to stop for gas. Old fashioned, petroleum-based, 91 octane gasoline.

Looking at the truck and trailer I thought, there’s a message here: that we have chosen a new direction, tentatively and on a small scale – electric cars -- and we’ve set out in that direction, but we have a long way to go. Tomorrow vs. today. Dream vs. reality.

Also: profound vs. superficial. You decide.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I’m here to speak on behalf of the genie.

What genie, you ask?

The one that everybody’s trying to put back in the bottle. Or more accurately, the one that everybody says can’t be put back in the bottle.

Well, of course not. He didn’t come out of a bottle in the first place. He came out of a lamp, for crying out loud. Give the guy a break!

Another thing: the genie that people want to put back in a bottle is usually something really bad or dangerous – nuclear power, for example, or global warming, or credit default swaps.

But Aladdin’s original genie was good – he would do anything you asked. How – or where – did the genie go bad?

These questions are bugging me. I’m thinking of genie because I keep hearing some policy wonk on NPR bemoaning the fact that he’s out of the bottle and can’t be put back in. If I had three wishes, one of them would be for people to get back to the lamp. Maybe that would work.

And where did the idea of “three wishes” come from? I’m guessing from mythology or a fairy tale, but whatever the source, it’s certainly well entrenched in our culture. We have Three Wishes the movie, Three Wishes the TV show, Three Wishes the book, even a catalog of three wishes cartoons and a genre of three wishes jokes.

A lot of people are looking for genies and three wishes to reinvent themselves these days. “Genie, reboot me as a gifted musician.” “I wish I had gone to law school.” “Reinvent me as a star NFL quarterback.” “I wish I had my 401(k) again.”

Not being granted such gifts, people are doing it the old fashioned way, one step at a time. It’s not magic, but it gets the job done.

So I wish you well in your reinvention journey. Oops, I guess that was my second wish. Well, at least I put it to good use!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Beyond caffeine and No-Doz

Cosmetic surgery for your brain?

Several months ago we blogged about neuroplasticity, the ability of the human brain to grow new cells. Today the subject is neuroenhancement, the use of drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Provagil and other so-called “smart drugs” to improve brain functions.

In a long and fascinating article in the April 27 issue of The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote that more and more college students are taking neuroenhancing drugs to become higher-functioning for exams, writing papers and doing research. They are often getting them from friends with prescriptions.

This “off label” use of stimulants for nonmedical purposes was reported in various studies to have been practiced by 4.1 percent of American undergraduates overall, as many as 25 percent at one school, and 35 percent at another. In addition, some graduates are using them after college to improve their performance on the job.

“If we eventually decide that neuroenhancers work, and are basically safe, will we one day enforce their use?” Talbot asks. “Lawmakers might compel certain workers – emergency room doctors, air-traffic controllers – to take them. (Indeed, the Air Force already makes modafinil [the generic name for Provagil] available to pilots for long flights.”

The question arises, would such drugs be useful, and safe, for staving off dementia and cognitive impairment in older people? The jury is still out – in fact, the jury has scarcely been seated. There haven’t been extensive studies of this possibility, and those that have been done are inconclusive, according to Talbot’s article.

What about the ethical aspects of neuroenhancer use? One user, a researcher at a defense-oriented think tank in northern Virginia, said, “We should have a fair degree of liberty to do with our bodies and minds as we see fit, so long as it doesn’t impinge on the basic rights, liberty and safety of others. Why would you want an upper limit on the intellectual capabilities of a human being? And, if you have a very nationalist viewpoint, why wouldn’t you want our country to have the advantage over other countries, particularly in what some people call a knowledge-based economy?”

Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher specializing in the ethical implications of “smart drug” use, coined the term “cosmetic neurology” to describe the practice. He told Talbot he thinks it will eventually become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery.

“It makes no sense to ban the use of neuroenhancers,” Talbot writes. “Too many people are already taking them, and the users tend to be educated and privileged people who proceed with just enough caution to avoid getting into trouble… Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus.”

Today a lot of people – too many – need neuroenhancement help to focus not on the job, but on looking for a job.