Conditioning For Better Outcomes

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By Julia Gumm

It’s a seventeen year cicada summer in my neck of the woods and these insects are frickin’ weird. They emit sounds that nothing born of this particular blue green marble suspended in space has any business making. I swear they’re calling the mothership.

I don’t know why exactly they sing a song that sounds uncannily like a phaser on classic Star Trek, but I do know that they burrow underground and emerge every seventeen years as a way to throw off predators. Such a long, prime numbered life cycle makes it basically impossible for predators on even numbered life cycles to expect their arrival. Since these cicadas are big, delicious and have little in the way of a personal defense system, the strategy is to arrive in droves all at once when no one is expecting them. Sure, lots of them will be eaten, but enough will survive to go back underground for another seventeen years when the class of 2030 has their turn to swamp the northeast.

Pretty neat, huh? Other hypothesized reasons like climate factors and avoidance of other cicadas to prevent cross-breeding are probable reasons as well. This stuff fascinates me. These little buggers were conditioned to a certain environment, a certain reality- and they adapted to it in a weird, but apparently successful way.

It got me thinking about people.

You could no more get a cicada to come out on an off year than you could get a typical American to willingly trade out their Sealy Posturpedic for a traditional Japanese floor mat. Even if in the long term, sleeping on a floor mat could improve the health of the American, it would take a painful adjustment period to get used to it- physically and mentally. That American spine is not conditioned to the rigidness of the floor, and that American brain thinks the whole idea is nuts. But after awhile, Mr. U.S.A might very well become quite accustomed to his floor mat. Might think sleeping on a big expensive bed is a gratuitous waste of money and feels like being eaten by a giant marshmallow. It’s just a matter of conditioning.

Everything on earth is conditioned to it’s environment. Everything we do is informed by the experiences we’ve had so far. If a tree lacks sunshine, it bends to find it. If a child is abused, it’s circuits remain on alert to expect it. If you haven’t exercised in months and jump right into your old workout routine, instead of feeling strong and refreshed like you used to, you’ll feel like you’re about to keel over and die. It’s all conditioning. In a very real way, you are literally not the person who used to do that workout anymore. You have to build back up to it. Everything we do, everything we don’t do, affects our daily adaptive response. It’s such a simple concept, but perhaps one we overlook.

If you look at yourself and see ways in which you wish you were different but feel it’s too hard or insurmountable, don’t despair. No really, don’t despair. Because despair is depressing and it just reinforces the brain’s concept of it’s capabilities. The field of neuroplasticity is finding that the brain actually rewires itself to accomodate the thoughts and feelings it’s being bombarded with. If you devote your brain’s capacity to worry, fear and shame, that’s what it gets good at. Just like weight lifting increases your capacity to lift things, getting down on yourself increases your tendency to be down.

On the flipside, thinking good thoughts enhances your brain’s capacity to do so effortlessly. I know it might be hard to start, but once you get the momentum of thinking positively about yourself, you will be training your mind to do that regularly. If you spend your day silently talking down to yourself or thinking anxious thoughts, all you’re doing is
building structures in the brain that facilitate that kind of thinking, which will inevitably become your norm.

When we want to make big changes in our lives, the necessary steps to do them can be overwhelming. I personally am looking to make a sort of 180 degree turn in my own life, and I am totally scared shitless. Not only that, but I’m disappointed in what I perceive as my lack of adaptability. When I was seventeen, I could change paths on a dime, with ease and immediate results. But you know what, the longer we think in certain patterns, exercise daily routines and interact with certain people, the more we become pros at living that life- and not another. Changing things up can be very difficult, even painful. Sometimes your goals seem elusive. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible to give up unhealthy habits, lifestyles, relationships, even if the long-term benefits are obvious.

But take heart. You are a magic machine and you can feed your brain new data and new experiences and it will rewire itself to get good at it- and you’re never too old to change. If you want to be able to hike long distances but are at a point where you tire out after a half mile, do not worry. Don’t wistfully sigh in disappointment, thinking of how you’ll never be able to do that 20 mile stretch in the Appalachians you long to complete. Just keep doing your half mile. Your muscles will strengthen, your lungs will open, your brain will get accustomed to the idea of being a walker. And then a day will come when you complete your half mile and a message calls across your synapses- “I feel like going further!” And you will. And then who knows, maybe you’ll go further yet. Maybe you’ll get into the mountains. But the key is persistence and reprogramming.

Everything you do conditions you to become adept at doing it. Keep that in mind when you spend time with someone who brings you down, spend all day sitting around on the computer or devote hours to trash talking your coworkers. Because whatever you consistently do, that’s what becomes your native talent. You are a machine that redefines its function everyday, simply by what you think and do. You are at the helm, your brain is at the mercy of the conscious will. Within reason, maybe that bit of hopeful elementary school propaganda is true. Maybe we really can do anything we wish, if we just put our minds to it.

What are you putting your mind to today?

(I don’t know if the seventeen year cicada intro fits into this all that well, but I’m really into the little weirdos and had to give ‘em a shout out! Hey cicadas! Don’t be a stranger!)

38 Comments

  1. I must keep coming here at the right time…

    Reply
  2. This is very appropriate to what I’m going through at the moment. Just trying to keep it moving in an upward direction. It’s a lot like getting a rocket off the ground. It’s tough to get going at first but once it gets going it keeps getting easier.

    Reply
    • that’s what she said!

      :)

      Reply
  3. Anyone out there have any good cicada recipes. I hear they are quite nutritious : ) Not long ago the U.N. suggested people start learning micro farming ( how to raise insects for food) due to population increase and food shortages. A lot of people became offended but it may not be that far fetched in the future.

    Reply
  4. I hate to hijack Julia’s awesome post, but not sure where else to throw out this semi-random (ok, really off-topic) issue… so here goes. I’m trying to re-feed but I hate cooking and am generally not that excited about food, which makes re-feeding very difficult.
    I was never interested in cooking when I was young and when I started low carbing and paleo-ing about 10 years ago, I had to learn to cook and do constant food prep— and I never enjoyed it. I feel like I don’t have time for serious food prep and it feels like a horrible chore.

    I realize the obvious answer is to eat out more in order to get my calories in, but I find a couple problems with that: 1) it gets too expensive; 2) I’d like to try and avoid pufa (without being too orthorexic about it); 3) I’m not willing to try gluten yet (because of pain issues) until my metabolism is better; and 4) can’t OD on dairy yet without uncomfortable symptoms.

    I feel like forcing myself to eat enough is just as bad mentally as forcing myself to restrict certain foods or calories.

    Not sure if enough people have this problem that Matt or another contributor might dedicate a whole post about it, or if I’m the only oddball who really isn’t into food or food-prep.

    Reply
    • I hate cooking too! And eating is so boring, to be honest I’d rather not eat at all… but I have to keep going, otherwise my body will never heal and my weight gain stop. I have years of damage from anorexia and after a year of “eating the food” I’m still very tired and don’t have much of an appetite.

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      • I think that not enjoying eating has less to do with food itself and more to do with your mental health. When I go through periods like that, the reason behind it is always something like stress, insecurity, fear- basically anything that dampens the will to live.

        For me, the answer is to go to the grocery store and pick up a bunch of appealing, fun food. Like the other night it was a huge box of cold crab legs, some California rolls, lemongrass chicken dumplings, snap peas, apricot peach juice, port wine cheese and super seedy crackers. Pure pleasure. All ready to eat with your hands, instant enjoyment. I sat on the porch and looked at the moon and chowed down.

        Then the next day, eating on rising was easy because I didn’t have to make shit. Just finished off the crab, had some snap peas and dug into the cheese and crackers. But then, I have no issues with eating non-breakfast food at breakfast. Point is, having fun, enticing, ready to eat food on hand makes eating a lot easier and more appealing. When I go on these grocery trips, I feel like I’m foraging…for chocolate cream pie and seafood…Then I get home and survey all my loot and get really excited. Yep, I get really into it. I’m also a whackjob, so there’s no telling if this advice will help you at all. But give it a whirl. If you have a really excellent grocery nearby, check out the prepared food section and go nuts.

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        • Julia, you’re totally right, it’s probably a mental health thing. Paleo dieting made me cra-zay! All the years of trying to stick to a paleo type diet just made me hate cooking. I have a resentment toward food prep, even if it’s for something tasty. Have to figure out a way to get me out of this mindset.
          Even grocery shopping can feel like a chore… I need a personal chef!

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          • But what if you wait until you’re hungry and just buy really delicious prepared foods? Like do the opposite of what they advise people to do who want to lose weight. Really try and tap into that primal part of yourself that wants to tear apart whole lobsters and like, danishes. Or get the personal chef. Where you live? How much you payin’?

      • Thanks Tasha! Everyone once in a while I’m excited for a meal, but generally I agree, it’s a chore.

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        • I went through a long anti-cooking phase too, and that’s coming from a former chef that would cook all morning for fun and then go work a 10+ hour shift cooking – enjoying just about every minute of it. I think, for some people, it can just be part of the process. Don’t fight it too hard. Maybe just embrace that you don’t like cooking right now and enjoy the modern conveniences that are available to us. Someday you’ll probably get sick of easy food and get inspired. Maybe, maybe not.

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    • Hi, Anna. I used to hate eating and cooking too. It felt like a waste of time.

      But everything changed when I allowed food to taste good, and I allowed me to enjoy it.
      Now I love to cook because I can see exactly what my food has in it and because I can control how yummy it gets.

      It’s a process, you’ll get there.

      But do try to find the pleasure in food flavors and also try talking to a chef. Ask them why they love food, and why they love to cook. It might give you some ideas.

      All the best

      Reply
      • Thanks for your response, Fab. I hope I do get there. Trying to change my mindset to enjoy food again, but it’s a slow go.

        Reply
  5. Julia,

    I do miss the freedom I had as teen. I didn’t care if I was hot, cold, sleeping in a tent, or
    in a plush bed with A/C going. I was content.

    Now at 51, I am a chore to maintain. I want my hot coffee. I want my quiet time. I want
    my hot bath. I want my lotion. I want my supplements. I want my home cooked food.
    I want…….. It drives me nuts. But, I have so accustomed myself to these habits that it
    is quite hard to go without them.

    Some days I day dream about whacking my hair off short, putting on some outdoor wear
    and, hitting a mountain camp site for a few weeks. I am sure I would adjust. I know
    my husband would love it too. Yet, he too has adjusted to A/C and, his plush bed. :)

    It’s true you turn into your parents, content just to stay home. :(

    Reply
  6. Thank you for this post, perfect timing! I get discouraged when I attempt to exercise because I get tired after only a couple minutes. I seem to forget that I haven’t exercised in months, or really most of my life. I like the cicada example, too :)

    Reply
    • Look at you, exercising and stuff! For a few minutes more than you did for most of your life! Atta girl!

      Reply
  7. You got me thinking, that is good. I have some difficulty walking due to orthopedic and neurological problems, but I can ride my bike like the wind. I probably could push myself to walk more, take longer hikes, but at this point in time I’m choosing to bike for at least an hour tomorrow instead of walking or swimming. Another day I might set my goal in a different direction.

    Reply
  8. A few things this article makes me think about and I wanted to share with you Julia,

    First, that Fiona Apple song, where she says ” I’m good at bein uncomfortable so I can’t stop changing all the time!” Well I suppose it’s a guarantee that if we wanna continue to change an grow we’re gonna have to deal with the awkwardness too!

    And also, have you ever read or hear of a book called “the brain that changes itself” it’s about neuroplasticity and the like. Good book! Check it out:
    http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Brain_That_Changes_Itself.html?id=lR4MmAEACAAJ

    Thanks for the great article once again.
    Have a great day :-) I know I will, after I read this. Every time I read one of your articles, I find myself fantasizing about you naked for days on end. No homo.

    Reply
  9. the best thing i ever did to burst out of my comofrt zone in all areas of my life was from my shower. at the end of each shower i turn the coldest temp on for just a couple minutes and it literally puts the life back in you. after a week or so of doing it you just become a bit tolerant to all sorts of uncomofrtable situations. i think it hits some part of the brain. the first time you get the cole water going youl be jumping round grinning like an idiot haha :D

    Reply
    • I agree Catherine. Ever since I was a kid I always enjoyed a good cold blast at the end of each shower…but then I got old and comfortable and too much of a bitch for it. Recently I’ve been reintroducing the icy conclusion segment to each shower and I love it! It’s like jumping in a good cold creek. A little stress is good for ya.

      Reply
      • I’ve also started taking short cold shower and it has improved my health, depression and even food sensitivities. Usually if I eat diary products i get tired and fatigue but if I take a cold shower the symptoms disappear. Doing short sprints has also improved my health. Anything that gets the adreline going for a short while I imagine is good.

        Reply
        • Great points, catherine, Julia Gumm, and Dr Sugar. Pavel Tsatsouline & Tim Ferriss also note the benefits of cold water tempering, ice baths, and so on. Comfort is dangerous. I have noticed many benefits from all-cold or contrast showers. I think hot water is bad, because it makes your pores expand and absorb more toxins (like fluoride and chlorine) through eyes. I noticed tired red blood-shot eyes often after hot steamy showers. I think it’s best to take cold or lukewarm showers and avoid that. I’ve seen benefits to skin, mood, energy, sleep, and health like Dr Sugar and many others have said. I do not want to be dependent on hot water, I’d rather be strong.

          Another thing I recently started using a push reel mower (Fiskars StaySharp). I hate the noise, breathing in smoke or exhaust, and maintenance of gas and electric mowers. The StaySharp is very low maintenance but easy to use, if you don’t let the grass get too long or try to cut off too much at a time. One of my female friends liked it so much she decided to get one as well after I let her borrow it for an afternoon. I will never cut the grass if I have to use a loud gas or electric mower. I would rather breathe natural air and not lose my hearing and be unable to hear myself think. I have a fairly big yard so it currently takes about 75-90 minutes with the push mower, but I just started using it last month. I think I can get down to 45-60 minutes and I feel better using it. It’s like interval training workout if you do hard bursts.

          Get out of your comfort zone and try doing things the hard way sometimes. You might find that the benefits more than make up for it.

          Reply
          • I can also relate to comments about sleeping on a Japanese floor mat. I’m sure that sleeping on a soft bed is bad for your back. People do sleep on the floor in various places and they are stronger, IMO. But most wouldn’t even consider it. “Luxuries once sampled become necessities.” People do not consider how comfort makes them weaker and causes more pain long term. They may feel good at first in the “honeymoon phase” (few months or years), but eventually comfort will make them weaker and they end up suffering more and probably not realize the cause if enough time has passed. I don’t like furniture like couches and recliners. I used to watch movies and use the computer on a one-legged balance stool. I still use it for the computer. It keeps you strong, you have to constantly adjust and balance. You can bounce and lean in all directions and swivel around. I got rid of the office chair with back and arms, because I saw that it was weakening and ruining my body. Use it or lose it.

          • Oh man, I have the manual mower thing. I made my grandmother buy it when I was in middle school because I was aghast at all the fossil fuels that went into our sprawling savanna. Well now I own said sprawling savanna and I’d be manually mowing for a week straight to get it all done. So I ride the John Deere and bear it. I use the push thing for some small sections though.

  10. it’s impossible to get enough calories from eating any food. you have to go for calorie dense food, put lots of cream in a ice cream milkshake youl have so much more energy soon

    Reply
  11. Trying to quit porn and trying to (temporarily) abstain from masturbation/orgasm for as long as I can has been helpful, although it’s been extremely difficult.

    yourbrainonporn.com has a ton of information. Gary Wilson’s a smart guy and he has a lot of videos up about porn addiction from a purely scientific standpoint that I’ve found to be invaluable. He just put a new video up called “Adolescent Brain Meets Highspeed Internet Porn” that gets into why people like me who started going on porn at a young age have a much harder time recovering than people who got hooked after their brains were developed.

    It’s frustrating to want something and at the same time be terrified of going out and getting it. Neuroplasticity does give us hope, though, with the idea that if you start going out and getting what you want, your brain will start to rewire itself and you’ll probably be a lot more satisfied.

    Getting over that initial speed bump is hard as hell. I repeatedly have to force myself with all the willpower I have to do simple things like going out and socializing when I’d rather stay home and be depressed or suciidal. It’s crazy how you can get adapted to a lifestyle that is depressing you and destroying your soul, and how it feels infinitely more comfortable to stay in that hellhole than it does to imagine really getting out of it.

    And I mean really imagine getting out of it. Fantasizing can be a form of escapism — you fantasize about something you want in your life, but in reality you know you’re not going to do anything to pursue it. And when your fantasy has a chance to become reality, you run away back to the hellhole — what’s comfortable, what you know, what you’re adapted to.

    It really does seem crazy, but in the light of neuroplasticity it really makes complete sense. It’s just a matter of being adapted. If you change what you expose yourself to and break through the discomfort you’ll adapt to a new way of living.

    I can say that, but damn. It’s *so* hard to change. So many times I’ve been more willing to put a gun to my head than even think of asking someone for a hug — it feels so impossible to do that. I could say that’s stupid, but again, in light of neuroplasticity, it makes sense. The tough thing is doing something about it, but being aware is the first step.

    Great article here…thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • It’s true Jib, and I think just about everyone in the modern world experiences what you are talking about in varying degrees of severity. Even someone who has never seriously contemplated suicide has probably still experienced that bizarre struggle to do what is going to make them feel good and happy vs. repeating the same behaviors that make their lives dreary and uninspiring. Porn is a great example – trading minutes of pleasure for hours of melancholy.

      Reply
    • jib, i get the most sad about the horrible effects the porn industry has on young women. each one is somebody’s tiny little daughter that they cherish.

      BUT besides that i believe that addiction (depression, and all forms of “not enough feel-good hormones) is a sign of a goofed up gut. as some of the posts here imply, low metabolism gives you this paper-thin-walled gut that doesn’t make the write neurochemicals. you started down that addiction road for a physical reason. yes, you probably did “wear out the groove in that record” but even if you could drop that addiction and be through with it for life, would you have enough feel-good hormones to make sure that you didn’t just start up another?

      a friend of mine just received a new liver because he toasted his old one due to an addiction–alcohol. now, he’s turned into a pot head. russell brand got rid of his drug addiction but became a sex addict, and so forth.

      i know that gut-fixing protocols like gaps don’t work for everyone and can turn you into a person who is afraid to eat, but maybe some of their ideas shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater like broth, foods with flora, highly digestable foods….

      and i love the ideas of sleeping in complete darkness and then waking up and going outside in the early morning for some good bright sunshine in the face.

      and, as this post says, we mustn’t ever give in to the wallowing! smile, even when you don’t feel like it.

      sorry if this is all old hat to you, i’m kinda new here.

      Reply
      • Queenbee, I believe you are spot on. Your whole comment speaks to my current situation.

        Reply
  12. Jib,

    You might not believe in God. If not, this will not work for you. But, if you
    do, go to church. One where they teach about the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
    It will accelerate change in your spiritual life very quickly. :)

    You could start by reading the book ‘Battlefield of the Mind” by Joyce Meyer

    Reply
  13. This is a very timely post for me, and I could not agree more. I woke up one day recently and said I am the only thing holding myself back in life. Yes, there are still things like residual issues from my unhappy childhood which don’t just disappear, but I am working through that and there is really nothing substantive holding me back from the life I want to lead. When you set your mind to something it’s amazing what you can achieve. So far I guess I have not even got much to show other than a new mindset, but decided I wanted to be someone who exercised more, so I made that happen and it feels good, and I am reaching new levels in my side (more passion-oriented) work, and doing more stuff socially and just feeling happier and more optimistic in general, and like I can achieve the things I want out of life by making them happen.

    My ex was someone who came from a really rough past and literally molded his life into what he wanted and just wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted, and you know what, he almost always got it. And I guess I took that away from the relationship and decided maybe it was time to start applying it to my own life.

    Reply
  14. I think negative thoughts almost all the time and have anxiety about things that have happened in the past. It’s so hard for me to think positive, it’s crazy. I think a lot about that I want to change my life but to actually do it is very difficult. I feel like George Costanza, my life is the complete opposite what I want it to be. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKUvKE3bQlY

    Reply
  15. To change thought patterns by “trying to think more positive” is really, really hard. This is one of those changes you have to approach obliquely. Rather than trying to think more positive, consider how things like your state of health and the people you surround yourself with are affecting your thought patterns. I think thought patterns are a bit like body weight, in the sense that they aren’t really within our control in a direct sense, but are more a result of our lifestyles and choices. Listening to audiobooks, keeping my stress levels low, and finding a sense of purpose have done more for my thought processes than just trying to think differently.

    Reply
  16. Thinking ‘positively’ is like a band-aid which produces a placebo effect. We have to really make an attempt to find out why we are thinking negatively in the first instance. There may be a broad array of activities you engage in that don’t help(anything that drain your energy – too much T.V/Internet, even if it’s educational, criticising, condemning, complaining and so on), but I believe it will come down to being attached to the past. You need to go through your past and see what behaviours you have allowed to become ingrained into your ‘identity’. A good start is to stop perceiving your life in years – i.e this year I will do this, I hope this will be a good year etc etc, and attempt to perceive life in weeks, and then hours. Live life by the hour.

    Reply
    • Rocco, I don’t think that thinking positively means putting a happy head-in-the-sand spin on things that suck. You’ll never find me sweeping shite under the rug. But when we get into patterns of dogging on ourselves instead of recognizing problems for what they are and mustering the courage (which takes confidence and positive self talk) to address them, that’s when we get into trouble.

      Reply
  17. I am a slave to routine. If I get up in the morning and my shoes are in the wrong place, I honestly have to stand there for a minute or two to figure out what to do next. Having semi-retired lately really makes it tough. I have to constantly fight with my brain to get the negative thoughts out. Change is tough, but, with the right mindset, doesn’t have to be overwhelming! Thanks for the insight.

    Reply

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