Sunday, September 19, 2010

Changing Some Things Around Here

There are two important facts that I've been thinking about lately.

1. The very act of observing something changes the behavior of that something. Observation by itself influences behavior.
2. In research study after research study, people who have a strong social network are more successful in accomplishing their goals. They also live longer, and are physically healthier.

I've been thinking about these in light of my own health/fitness goals. I've been doing CrossFit at home for the past year, but it just hasn't been the same as when I went to the CrossFit gym and did the classes. CrossFit is an interesting phenomenom, in that the "group culture" of CrossFit is almost as important as the physiology of it. CrossFit gyms have popped up all over the country over the past 4-8 years, and strong social networks have emerged around these barebones gyms. CrossFit isn't just about working the intense routines, it's also about doing it with others, so that every workout is a peer challenge.
I like to tell myself that I can push myself as much at home as I did in the class, but this just isn't true. Because the fact of having someone watch you workout, by its very nature, changes the way you work out. Being observed raises the ante.

So... tomorrow morning I am going back to the world of gyms. I'm going to try a new gym that does CrossFit classes early weekday mornings - they have a 5:00 am class and a 6:00 am class. This gym is only 8 minutes away from our house, so I can't complain about the inconvenience.
I think this is a turning point for me and I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm also curious to see how much peer pressure will cause me to push myself more.

Stay tuned for a full report tomorrow.

What We Can Learn From Serial Killlers

Mike and I are currently addicted to the show "Criminal Minds." Previous additions include: The Wire, and The West Wing. We get the DVDs from Netflix and avoid all the commercials. We just finished the second season - the show is about a team of psychologists in the FBI, who profile serial killers. We like it because the story lines are pretty interesting, the characters are intriguing and quirky, and the whole show is just very well done, although it is a little dark.

One recent episode profiled a very bizarre sociopath. He was bizarre for many reasons, among them the fact that we kept a rib bone from every person that he killed. But apparently sociopaths completely lack the ability to feel any real emotion, especially love and empathy. One could wonder about the relationship between lack of emotion and lack of morality - does one cause the other? - but that would be a tangent. The interesting comment was made by the FBI team lead, during the investigation. Someone had been speculating about the "trigger" that caused this particular killer to start killing again after a break. The FBI team lead speculated that it was probably something in his environment, and he went on to explain that, "Genetics account for about 1/3 of our behavior, our cognitive psychology accounts for about 1/3 of our behavior, and our environment accounts for about 1/3 of our behavior."

I found this simple summary to be so useful, especially in light of so many recent discoveries about genetics. The more we learn about our genetics, the more confusing it can be to understand how much of our behavior is fate, and how much is open to willpower. The whole concept of "gene expression" is so intriguing, and I believe we are just scratching the surface of neuroscience. Furthermore, there has been a host of research lately, demonstrating the important of early childhood environment for shaping behavior later in life.

So I find this explanation to be right on the money, and more nuanced than the typical nature/nurture debate. It's more useful and accurate because it separates our psychology from our environment. I think of the 1/3 that is our cognitive psychology to be the most interesting 1/3 shaping our behavior, because I think we understand it the least. I also call this 1/3, the "ability the reframe" things in our life. This is how we think about things that happen to us, and how we think about the things that are important to us. Simply by changing how we think about things can change things. This can be the simplest thing, but in reality it is the hardest. It's hard because we don't understand how to do it, and we don't think of it as a skill that needs to be learned.

But I think cognitive psychology skills ARE skills that we could all teach, and learn, and practice. Not just for people who are experiencing dysfunctional behavior, but for everyone. If we could think about thinking as a particular skillset, we could practice it, and we could improve at it.

Unfortunately, our thinking habits are largely invisible to us, and so we overlook these habits.

But if we want to change our behavior, this is the aspect over which we have the most influence.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dear Charly...

(After a two week vacation, the blog is back in regular business!)

Dear Charly,

I just want to say thank you. Thank you for EVERYTHING.

Thank you for NOT pooping at the dog park today, because I didn't have a bag to pick it up. Your dad kept encouraging you to poop but he was just stirring up trouble. Thanks for keeping it all in tonight!

Thanks for being so high energy that you take me running every week. I really enjoy our morning runs, and I really love the new jogging dog leash that connects you to my waist so I can run without holding your leash.

Thanks for playing in the pool with your dad. He smiles more when you two are swimming in the pool than any other day of the week. I think your dad likes swimming with you more than you do.

Thank you for not having stinky dog farts - we love the fact that you don't smell bad like a doggy dog.

Thank you for snuggling next to me on the couch. I love having your head on my lap while you sleep.

Thank you for not jumping up on our bed, but sleeping next to us in your dog bed. That works out so much better for us.

Thanks for gaining weight. When we adopted you, you were pretty scrawny and recovering from health problems. But now you are strong and healthy and you've put on muscle and your coat is shiny and thick. You have recovered so well from your "life before" and we're glad you are healthier now.

Thank you for keeping me company when I'm working in the office. It's nice to have you next to me.

Thanks for taking your dad for morning walks. I'm always inspired when he gets up before dawn to take you to the park. I think his day turns out better after your morning walks. He really loves you.

Thank you for hanging your head out the window when we ride in the car. The picture of your face out the window represents pure bliss and happiness, which makes my heart happy.

Thank you for behaving so well at the dog park. Even when the other dogs took away your frisbee and then they tried to steal your ball, you avoided a fight. You were very diplomatic and well behaved - yeah!

Thank you for sleeping at your dad's feet in front of the TV and keeping him company when he watches golf. He likes it when you keep him company.

Above all, thanks for making us a family. We love watching you sleeping on the couch, sleeping on the floor, we love swimming with you, walking with you and running with you. We love coming home to you after our wonderful vacation. 1 + 1 + Charly = family.

Thanks for coming into our life. We're so glad we can give you a better life and we're grateful to you for making our life better. It's only been three months, but time flies when life is good.