The Guinea Pig Diaries

Before starting this post, I have a confession to make: I am having some trouble with writing the posts on this blog, partly because I am not a very organized reader. To illustrate, here is what I have been reading in the past two weeks:

Originally, I had been reading Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Joseph Pieper with the intention to write a post on the first half of the book (the eponymous essay). But then we went to Ohio to visit a relative over Christmas and I started reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell instead (a book I found on my second cousin’s shelf).

Unfortunately, I did not have time to finish the book during my stay, and the library near my home does not carry the book, so I borrowed some other books at the library. One of these is The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs, which I finished two days ago. I then started reading Daniel Kahneman’s famous Thinking: Fast and Slow last night.

In other words, over the past two weeks, I have read varying portions of four different books, only one of which I had intended to read and write about originally (Leisure), but I ended up deciding to write about another one first (Guinea Pig). I will proceed…

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The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment is a fun and easy read. The author A.J. Jacobs engage in nine different life experiments such as being radically honest, being the most rational person possible, and following George Washington’s 110 rules of civility in daily life, often for the period of a month.

Just be yourself vs. self-control

Every experiment is interesting and gives me some insights. However, I would say that the experiment that leaves the greatest impression on me is the George Washington experiment; in particular, these following paragraphs (my underline):

The Rules are like cognitive therapy—behave civilly, and eventually you’ll think civilly. The Rules are a rejection of what Richard Brookhiser, in his excellent intro to a 1997 reprinting of the 110 Rules, calls the “cult of authenticity.” Why should we show all our emotions? Why should we always try to be true to our natural selves? What if our natural selves are assholes? Stalin was true to himself.

In times like these, I love washington’s repression. Or, as he might say, self-mastery.

I have been wondering about this for a long time. We’ve all heard the advice: Just be yourself! But as I have learned over the years, my true self is characterized by many negative traits. Should I really just be myself?

After reading the author’s account of George Washington’s story, I realize that if I want to be anything more like the human being that I aspire to be, the only solution is to monitor my actions with my higher cognitive functions, aka System 2, and repress my true self, or at least its negative aspects. And (this is the important point:) I should not feel guilty doing so. I should just go ahead and fake it till I become it—as Amy Cuddy says in her Ted Talk (Note to self: embodied cognition).

The problem now lies in my lack of self-control. Most of my problems do, actually. I think I might have a particularly lazy System 2, which, by the way, could be interpreted to mean that I am not intelligent/rational.

If I remember correctly, Kahneman mentions in his book that self-control, rationality, and intelligence are all related. The more intelligent someone is, the more self-control he exhibits. The reverse, surprisingly, also holds true: The more self-control one exhibits, the more intelligent she becomes. However, one researcher suggests that intelligence and rationality may be separate traits, and it is not intelligence but rationality that is correlated with self-control.

Incidentally, Jacobs mentions that he thinks the essence of his “Rationality Project” also lies in self-control. It takes a lot of self-control to be rational. Anyway. This is a digression. It takes much self-control to stay on a single train of thoughts (Note to self: controlling thoughts is a metacognitive mechanism).

Unitasking and Dao

The other experiment that I find inspiring is the “Unitasker” experiment, in which the author attempts to do only one thing at a time. For example, he would blindfold himself when talking on the telephone, and concentrate solely on the conversation.

This is an extreme way to practice the concept of “living in the moment”. It’s also a great way to train one’s attention span. Perhaps not surprisingly, we are actually built to be unitaskers anyway. As the author notes, multitasking is a misnomer. What we think of as multitasking is really switch-tasking: rapidly switching from one task to another. Being accustomed to multitasking not only shortens our attention span but also induces unnecessary stress that wears down our systems.

All this reminds me of the thesis of The Shallows: with the Internet inhabiting more and more of our daily lives, we are becoming increasingly distracted as a species, unable to concentrate for any extended length of time. We are evolving from full human beings into “pancake people” i.e. the Shallows.

The concept of unitasking also reminds me of an epiphany I had more than a year ago, when I started learning Chinese calligraphy. There is a concept in Chinese called 道 (dao4 or more commonly, tao), meaning “way” or “path”, which is then adapted in Japanese into names for arts like 茶道、華道、書道 etc. (the art of tea ceremony, the art of flower arrangement, and the art of calligraphy respectively). As I focused intensely on making the perfect stroke with my brush, I suddenly understood what makes calligraphy a dao: it is the attention, the beauty, and the intrinsically rewarding feeling that are involved in the action.

Maybe any action could be a dao if you focus on it enough; maybe human attention itself is enough to make any action beautiful. As the sofer says: “When the scribe is not present, the letter is not alive. It just becomes a series of strokes.” (p.163)

I will end the post here on this poetic note (if I may say so myself) and wish you, my nonexistent reader, a successful 2015. May your resolution be fulfilled with self-control and plenty of focus!

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About sy2m

a student forever ... never stop seeking knowledge :)
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