be a skeptical consumer of science

Scientists Are Not Soothsayers or Truth Sayers

I love behavioral science, I love how many people it can help, and I am grateful to have been trained as a behavioral scientist.  I want to start there, because for the rest of this post I am going to trash on the way behavioral science is presented in our culture.  Our culture confuses knowledge with wisdom.  In this knowledge-heavy culture, we have started turning to the scientists as keepers of knowledge about our souls.  This habit of seeing scientists as experts on our souls makes for a culture that is completely FUBARed.

Here is a current favorite example of this bad habit.  UCLA is publicizing a recent study that has found women show fluctuations in their attractions to masculine characteristics over their menstrual cycle.  The headline reads “What do women want? It depends on the time of the month.”  We are reassured:

“Women sometimes get a bad rap for being fickle, but the changes they experience are not arbitrary,” said Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and the paper’s senior author. “Women experience intricately patterned preference shifts even though they might not serve any function in the present.”

I am going to give three reasons why this study description should make you skeptical.  In truth there are at least three dozen reasons why you should be skeptical.

1.  Be skeptical of how scientific studies are summarized in the media.

Who said women are fickle?  I didn’t.  Did you?   And why are changes in some women’s attractions over the month getting a bad rap.  And who said fluctuations in desire is appropriately described as fickle???  That’s a can of worms that I shall leave closed for now.

We are told that “women” get a bad rap for being fickle, and are then reassured that the bad rap is false.  Hooray – the changes in attraction over the month are “not arbitrary”! Rejoice!   But what the heck does “arbitrary” mean?  That word is just a judgment from someone playing expert over another person.

People, we live in a cause and effect universe. (At least our perceptions live there.  Let’s leave quantum physics aside for now.)  In this universe, using the word “arbitrary” in a scientific context is usually just a word meaning, “I think I can understand everything and I don’t understand that pattern yet so I am declaring that there is no pattern.  I decree that your behaviors are arbitrary.”

2. Be skeptical of someone scientifically validating your experiences.

In this UCLA article, no one is claiming to have said the changes were arbitrary.  We are only reassured that “the changes they experience are not arbitrary.” That word “arbitrary” only serves to prime our minds to believe we need a scientific explanation for our experiences in order for our experiences to be valid.  In this case, it’s “fickle” for a woman to have fluctuations in attraction without a scientific explanation.  But don’t worry, “women”!  Scientists have saved the day!  You may now accept your fluctuating desires as scientifically validated!  Well, your desires are scientifically validated so long as these desires are for masculine characteristics that shift predictably with your menstrual cycle.

3.  Be skeptical of how scientists hide the true variation that exists in the humans around us.

I don’t know you, but I am guessing that you have some pretty varied personalities in your family.  What if I came along with my measuring stick and measured every single person in your extended family on their musical preferences?  I could then publish a study declaring that your family has a bad rap for being fickle in your changing desires for music but I can disprove this misunderstanding with science.

For my family the headline might read, “The Ulman family gets a bad rap for being fickle in their musical tastes, but their tastes aren’t arbitrary.  They listen to electronic dance music with a predictable pattern linked to the winter music festival schedule.”

I could scientifically validate this finding as true because my sister and I like EDM, but this study would hardly capture my father’s tastes for Barbara Streisand.

This UCLA study is doing this same error when describing “women” as if such a varied group can be described so easily.  Who the heck are these “women” who are all so similar to each other? I know women who are attracted to feminine characteristics, or who are asexual, or who are attracted to folks who identify as neither male or female.  I know some women who don’t have a uterus.  And I know a lot of women who have had shifting attractions over time.

Martie Haselton seems to have selected studies that only look at women with similar bodies and similar desires.  My guess is that she was limited in the data she could consider.  I bet if we looked at the original studies we would see that many women were disqualified to participate, thus narrowing group variation.  Haselton’s study actually found considerable variation even with these biased samples, as acknowledged when the article says ‘The strength of women’s preference shift proved to be statistically significant, although “small” to “medium” in size, relative to most findings in the field.”

Be skeptical of studies that are summarized in ways that suppresses true group variation.  The scientific research might even be sound, but by the time it reaches our eyes and ears the findings have become greatly skewed.

Be Skeptical of the Science of You

I am not critiquing this scientist. Dr. Haselton is not being sinister in her actions. She is just doing her job, and probably doing it well. But that does not mean we should not still be skeptical of the story that is being painted for us.

I am not anti-science.  I love science.  I am critiquing how science is misunderstood in our culture, particularly as scientific findings are described in the media. You are actually thinking like a scientist when you develop the habit of being skeptical of the numbers being presented to you.  Question them, question the assumptions behind them, and don’t confuse numbers on a page with a truth about you.

Always remember that scientists know numbers.  They don’t know you.  It doesn’t matter if you find yourself sexually attracted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once every 3-7 years.  There is no study to explain why that might be, but it is valid because it happens to you.

Looking to scientists for validation in WHY you are can slow down your journey in learning WHO you are.

You are the Only Expert on You

We live in a culture that has told you and me that we can learn about ourselves by looking outside of ourselves.  This myth has profoundly impaired our ability to do the hard work of learning who we are by looking inward – with curiosity and without judgment.  Some of us can barely stand to sit still for one minute and look inwards.  This difficulty looking inward does not come from what is there to find. This difficulty looking inward comes from living in a culture that has told you comparison is a method of learning about yourself.  Comparison turned inward becomes judgment.  And there is plenty in there to judge if you think judging is the thing to be done.  When we judge what is inside we can become overwhelmed and so we have developed the habit of looking outside of ourselves to learn who we are.

Making matters worse, if you have lost the ability to look inward with curiosity instead of judgment, then you have been disconnected from your emotions.  You might therefore live only in your reason mind, trying to Figure-Things-Out rather than stay open and curious about what patterns might arise in your mind and in your life.  You have succumbed to our cultural demands to hold reason on a pedestal, while avoiding emotions like that one relative who is always saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time.  This over-attachment to reason and discomfort with emotions makes for a very wonky internal compass.

Without this compass, we look outward to try and Figure-Things-Out.  We seek reassurance that we are “normal.”  And in a culture that confuses knowledge with wisdom, we have started turning to the scientists as people who can tell us if we are okay as we are. 

The truth is that you are okay right now AND you are a ball of contradictions and hopes and dreams and fears and desires at the same time.  You have a complicated story that gets minimized each time you try to tell it coherently to one person at one time.  That’s what it is to be human. We are complicated beings.  People who have developed a habit of looking inwards with curiosity (not judgment!) learn to grow comfort around this paradoxical truth.  And they learn to love the mystery of the journey, largely by celebrating the fluctuations along the path.

alternative to a new year's resolution

New Year’s Resolutions Often Create the Opposite of Change

The tradition of setting New Year’s Resolutions has taken many different forms since it began over 2,000 years ago.  Today’s resolutions seem inevitably to address some perceived personal flaw or imperfection.  The underlying message is often, “Next year I will do better.” Setting a goal to do “better” only continues a cycle of not feeling worthy or good enough in the moment.   It perpetuates the habit of scanning yourself for ways you are failing.   Only two outcomes are possible with this kind of resolution:

  1. You reach your goal and believe in the notion of a temporary feeling of worth for yourself (meaning you believe you are okay now that you reached your goal of becoming “better,” but this worth could be lost as soon as you perceive evidence that you aren’t maintaining the “better” you.)
  2. You don’t reach your goal and continue to feel bad about your perceived “imperfections”

In short, many New Year’s Resolutions only serve to reinforce our habits that keep us feeling lacking in some way.

Rebuilding our Foundation: A New New Year’s Resolution

Such New Year’s Resolutions also perpetuate what I call the Home Improvement Myth.  When we view our bodies and our lives as something that needs constant improvement and upkeep, we miss out on how we humans actually learn and grow.  The truth is much more complicated and beautiful.  Just as a tree is complete in the moment and still continues to grow, so too are you complete and growing at the same time. To see beyond the Home Improvement Myth try this:

Replace “better” with “growth.”

Replace “goal” with “intention.”

These small changes in words can create large changes in how you view yourself and your life.  By swapping “better” for “growth” you can let go of the idea that you aren’t okay in the moment and have somewhere to go, yet still hold your dreams of continuing to develop who you are.  By swapping “goal” with “intention” you can let go of the threat of failure, yet gain a guiding star for more skillfully navigating each present moment.  By swapping these words you gain a kinder more comfortable existence in the moment without giving up any of your ambitions.

Building A Tree House By the Light of Your Guiding Star

For the last couple of years I have celebrated the New Year by choosing an intention rather than a resolution.  The intention acts as a guiding star to move towards rather than a measuring stick for judging myself.  My intention is a word I take with me for the next 365 days.  To keep the word safe and shiny I usually don’t share it with anyone.  Choosing a word has been an interesting and rich experience, leading to a lot more change than I would have expected before I tried this myself.  Here is what has happened when I have carried a word with me for the year:

  • I’ve gained new insights into how the mind works over time.  Deep meaningful change occurs on a different time scale than we usually acknowledge in this culture.  Holding a single word rather than a to-do list of change gave me to a deeper appreciation for how humans grow.  We can’t rush change.  But if we are lucky we can observe it.
  • I’ve gained new insights into how knowledge slowly matures into wisdom.  Reflecting on one word for the year, I can look back and see how the meaning of the word is so much deeper and layered than I ever could have guessed at the beginning.
  • I’ve gained new insights into the power of priming the mind.  We see what we look for.  When looking for evidence that we aren’t good enough, we will always find it.  But this “evidence” is actually just an illusion.  It no more true than saying our skin isn’t green enough. Choosing a word can help us reorient what we look for, and help us see the moments when we are already accessing the wisdom we carry within us.
  • “Fall down nine times, stand up ten” says a Chinese proverb. I’ve deepened my understanding that we can’t fail.  “Failure” is just a judgment.  Saying we have “failed” comes mostly from two bad habits. First, we say we failed when we carry an expectation that things should be different than they are. Second, we say we failed when we have given up.  Having a word as a guiding star can help us create new good habits of always standing up and moving forward, no matter how many times we fall down.

Choosing Your Word

Take a few quiet moments and close your eyes.  Take a few slow deep breaths.  Allow your mind to wander over the past year without judgment.  Some memories may be wonderful.  Some may make you wince.  No need to linger on any one memory.  Just allow thoughts and feelings to arise.  Now gently open to the deep part of who you are (it’s there, even if you’ve never seen it before) and allow it to share a word that could be used as a guiding star for the next part of your journey.  The word may first come as an image or a color.  Stay present, breathing slowly and deeply, for whatever arises.

Now this is your word so chose whatever your heart desires.  But I suggest you push yourself to have a word more substantial than “Fabulous” “Glittery” or “Fierce.”  (Lovely words, of course!  Perhaps just not what is best suited for a New Years Intention.)  My favorite intention words or phrases are descriptors instead of directives, although some directive phrases are also wonderful.  Descriptors create good habits of gently reorienting us to the present moment rather than harshly jerking our mind to the present.  How we do something is as important as what we do.  So for example:

     Directive    Descriptor

     Be Still    Stillness

         Pay attention    Paying attention

Be grateful    Gratitude

Here is what I have seen.  You may have found your word when you think of one and then feel a twinge of dread around it.  I have seen that happen many times, to myself and to others.  I think this happens because there is a part of you that already knows your word – that’s your wisdom and inseparable goodness that lives within you.  And there is another part of you that wants to choose ANYTHING other than your word – that is the part that’s fearful of change and challenge.

So choosing a word may take a bit of bravery.  But remember.  This activity is the opposite of a goal.  You can’t fail.  This activity is creating a guiding star to have with you for the rest of the year.  If you have having trouble finding your word, here are some you may want to consider:

Action

Patience

Stillness

Restraint

Embodied

Openness

Movement

Truthfulness

Deattachment

Impermanence

This too shall pass

There is no right answer

Mind Clear, Heart Open

Back to the present moment

Letting go of what is ready to be let go

Fearlessness means going through the fear

In this moment I have everything I need

Observation without judgment

Interconnectedness

Gratitude

Balance
Wisdom

Courage

Kindness

Curiosity

Gentleness

Acceptance

Compassion

Acceptance

Confidence

Lean into life

Lean into fear

Relax, Relate, Release

Harmony instead of resolution

My body knows things my mind does not

Will this next action expand or shrink my horizons?

Choose one and be done

Be with what is

Connection

Integration

Listening

Enough

Clarity

Breathe

Always move forward

Once you have your word or phrase, just hold it with you.  Consider how it might apply in different situations.  Be curious about it.  Consider how you might act differently depending on whether you are thinking of this word.  There is no right way to use a guiding star.  For one of my words I made a little doodle so I could just draw it in front of me when I was bored or feeling a bit lost.  Just observe how your mind moves when you bring your attention to your word.  The good news is you can’t fail.  But you can grow.

Happy New Year, everyone!

These days I just giggle to myself when people still carry the notion that folks with autism aren’t socially connected or lack empathy.  Some of the most sensitive and socially observant people I know are on the autism spectrum.  This video is made by a guy with autism explaining to neurotypicals why we just might be the oddballs.  Spot.  On.

Emotions on Vacation

May 21, 2013

Flight Risk

Much to the endless amusement of my sister, I am afraid of flying.  It’s gotten a lot better over the years but on a recent flight I was more nervous than I have been in a long time.  Before we pushed back from the gate I kept hearing the wings make a jarring mechanical sound followed by an alarm sound.  Over and over.  And over.  I did what I needed to do to keep myself from jumping out of my seat and running out the door.  Eventually I was able to convince myself that the pilots had figured out whatever was triggering the alarm sound.  No more alarm and we were ready to push back.  But then just as we were getting ready to take off the sound happened once more.  All efforts to remain calm were lost.  I looked over at the middle aged man sitting next to me to see if I might be able to make some comment and have something reassuring said in reply.  Instead I got a brush off as he returned to reading his men’s magazine.  I glanced down to see what he was reading.  The article featured a photo of a man’s cut torso from neck to just below the hipbone.  From either side of his chest a woman’s well-manicured hands were caressing his body.  The accompanying article was explaining how to get the abs women swoon over, which apparently took precedent over acknowledging the person in the seat next to him.

That’s all it took.  My judging mind was out of the gate and sprinting down the track.  Here was this jerk face who was happy to objectify women but not talk to them, he has a wedding ring his poor wife must be so lonely, I bet he has a female assistant and he is a jerk to her too, a Guy Like That has never known anything but privilege, and how much time each day is spent working on his body while his poor mind is left unexamined, reading this magazine he is just grooming himself to perpetuate the hurt in our culture….

And on and on.  At least the judging sprint kept me somewhat distracted from takeoff.

Learn To Fly

Once in the air and settled into a good book I could feel the worry begin to fade out of my body and mind.  And with this receding of worry there seemed to be a corresponding pulling back out from my myopic concern with myself to see things a little more clearly.  I was coming home from a trip that had been hard for me.  Here we all were on the plane, coming or going somewhere that is taking us out of our daily routines.  It occurred to me that walking through the airport I must have seen someone who was preoccupied with concern for a loved one who was very ill.  Or perhaps they in fact were the one who had just been given a scary diagnosis.   Or perhaps they were feeling the pain of loving someone who can’t love them back.  I felt my heart soften a bit.  How many people we see every day – at the grocery store, the bank – and we walk past each other completely unaware of when someone might be awash with grief or fear or loneliness.  How easy it is to see someone’s outsides and think we know something about their insides.  What funny illusions exist between the space of what we can see of someone’s external being and their internal experience.

And yes.  Then I made the connection – although much more slowly than you might expect.  I didn’t know the first thing about the guy next to me.  Maybe he just lost the love of his life, maybe reading a men’s magazine is his moment of escape, maybe he really is preoccupied with having a perfect body in which case I only have sympathy for him also being hurt by our culture.   The only thing I can know for certain is that I will never know his story, but I know he is a human with a beating heart and that should be enough for me to see him with my heart soft and my mind clear of assumptions.

Epilogue:  Don’t Mix the Paint

I could stop writing here, but there is an epilogue to this post.  I knew I was experiencing more unpleasant emotions than usual and it was a rookie move to not be frequently checking in and asking myself what I was feeling.  Bringing awareness to my emotional experiences would have let me see my situation with more clarity.   By the time I looked at that man’s magazine, I had at least a dozen emotionally charged experiences coloring my perceptions.  I could have been aware of the dozen different colors in my painting that day.  Instead it was as if all the colors had just blended together into a dull brown haze.  In this haze I became stuck in my own story.

It can be so tempting to ignore feelings when they are unpleasant.  But it is precisely these moments when it is most important to check in with yourself.  Stop and take a slow breathe.  What do you feel in your body?  That thoughts are in your mind?  Pull out a list of emotions if you need to (anyone who works with me knows I do this all the time in my practice).  And then?  Don’t judge.  Don’t push the feeling away – that’s a futile effort anyway.  Instead slow down for a few minutes and give yourself some company.  Perhaps try saying Sylvia Bornstein’s compassionate phrase to yourself:  “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”  (I highly recommend you read this full explanation of that phrase.)  See the color for what it is, and know that it can just be there.  Many more colors are yet to come.

Yep

April 19, 2013

what screws us up

Body of Evidence

We will never find happiness when we are too stuck in our own single story.  We MUST see the world from a perspective larger than just our own eyes to see the full complicated truth that is out there, beyond just our personal story.  Beauty and happiness lie in the bigger picture.

When it comes to how we see our own body and face we forget that our little window into the world is often distorted.  TRULY distorted.  When looking at an image of ourselves – in the mirror or in pictures – we judge, we criticize, we compare, we go on seek and destroy missions about our “flaws”….  all of this non-acceptance is like looking at a reflection in a fun house mirror that is stretching, smashing and skewing the truth of our own unique beauty.

Sing the Body Electric

These lines are from one of my favorite poems – I Sing the Body Electric, by Walt Whitman.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

Walt Whitman writes about the beauty of the human body, and the need to honor it in all it’s forms.  We are born with the ability to see ourselves.  Some of us just lose that ability from years of taking in misinformation from others (often from the media).  It is not our beauty that is lost.  It is our habits of criticizing and “improving” that lead us away from the truth of our beauty.

Watch this video.  What might you have said?  What habit might you need to change to get back to singing your body electric?

Love this

April 10, 2013

3N8beF1

Don’t Forget Your Star Player

Okay, I’m not endorsing all the language used here.  But with all the non-official authority I can muster I am endorsing Katt Williams as a self-compassion ambassador!

 youarebeingliedtoAmazing Photoshopped Images

Do your brain a favor.  Go here now:  Seventeen Mesmerizing Before After Photoshop Gifs.

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The Best is Not Good Enough?  Not a Problem.  Photoshop to the Rescue!

These Photoshopped images are wonderful examples of how far the art of visual deceit has come. These are beautiful women with bodies that are closer to the ideal than most of ever had or will have.  These women have the budget and time for healthy eating and a personal trainer.  These women likely already started “ahead” with what genetics contributed.  And as if these advantages weren’t enough, they are transformed by a team of stylists before a photo shoot.  We never stood a chance of having a picture of ourselves look as amazing as these women.  And yet being one of the most beautiful people in the world is no longer enough.  Celebrities are routinely subjected to a virtual nip and tuck bonanza before their image ever reaches our eyes.

Photoshopping:  Now with More Deceit!

Yes, already ample breasts are often enhanced.  And already slim waists and arms reduced.  But it goes so much farther than that.  Pick any image and watch it flick back and forth between real and unreal several times.  Look for the smallest changes that are being made.

  • See Beyonce’s already slim face gets trimmed ever slightly more.
  • See the lines removed from Megan Fox’s neck to make her skin look younger.
  • See the one eye that is raised on Angelina Jolie to make her look more symmetrical.
  • See Katy Perry’s forehead get reduced on the right side.
  • See Faith Hill’s already slender back get trimmed along with her arm being reduced almost in half.
  • On the second image of Megan Fox, see her already full bottom lip get plumped, and already seemingly perfect eyebrows get reshaped.

“I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford”

It’s important to understand just what “Photoshopped” means.  We aren’t talking about just adding a cup size or two in a bathing suit.  Today’s Photoshopped images are a study of intolerance for human beauty.  Cindy Crawford famously once said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.”  Even she can’t meet the beauty ideal put forth by her own image. 

You are being lied to.  Your eyes are one of the most important tools you have for taking in the reality of how things are.  When I talk about using distress tolerance skills, I often suggest techniques using the senses, particularly the generally dominant sensory system of vision.  I suggest using vision precisely because our senses are here to detect what is present and true.  Turning our attention to the truth of the present can help pull us out of a looping internal narrative that is causing us pain. And so!  Photoshopping images of bodies is a particularly dangerous way that our understanding of reality is being altered.

Our brains trust that what it sees is true.  It has virtually no defenses to prevent Photoshopped images being uploaded from our eyes to our filing system of “human bodies” in the brain.  The repeated exposure to these images alters the file we have in our head of “human bodies.”  We begin to look around us and notice “flaws.”  But these flaws are only detection of differences between an unrealistic ideal that snuck into your head and the reality of beauty that surrounds us.

Back to Life.  Back to Reality.

So what can we do to keep ourselves from being hurt by these visual lies?  Keeping our eyes shut at all times would certainly be 100% effective, but also probably impact our lives in other ways.  (Move over texting while driving.  Here comes Driving with Eyes Closed!).  But when we see an image in advertising we can remind ourselves that it’s a lie.  We can upload visual information of real bodies by looking at the diversity around us.  Careful – our eyes loves to look for examples only of bodies that are “better” than ours in some ways.  Choose to look around at ALL of the bodies that surround you.  Young ones.  Old ones.  Different skin and hair and teeth and genders.  Each body carrying around a person with hopes and fears and a desire to connect and be loved.  And the same is true for you.   You deserve to be loved, and to love your body for what it does for you in this moment.  It will never be perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist.  But your body is here now.  Practice being grateful for what it does for you, and the beauty that exists in the uniqueness of you.

And for goodness sakes, don’t compare your body to a picture!

(If you find that your body image concerns are significant enough to impact your life on a daily basis, I’d recommend checking out this book:  The Body Image Workbook.)

http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/super-soul-sunday.html

Brené Brown on Super Soul Sunday

Okay folks, set your tivos for 11amET/PT this Sunday. Oprah has another great Super Soul Sunday coming up this week.  Brené Brown!  Fist pump!  This episode is not to be missed. (Okay, or to be missed and watched on the internet later.)