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Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

    This is not a post about teaching, but teaching is what I do and what I know best, and this post is about thinking about what we do.

    People often wonder if I find it frustrating to be a university instructor. I teach topics that students resist a lot – in Women’s Studies, I teach with an explicitly political edge, challenging students to face up to the realities of social and economic injustices; in anthropology, I have to bring students to see the value of practices that they find disgusting or blasphemous (or both). While I have my share, maybe even more than my share, of students who really “get it”, I also have a good number of students who resist me at every turn, who are personally affronted by nearly every thing I say.

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    “Don’t you sometimes feel like you’re wasting your time?” people ask me. “Doesn’t it feel futile when they don’t change at all?”

    The answer is that no, I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. Not in the least. Granted, it can be frustrating in the heat of the moment. Students often look to their professors for truths that we simply can’t give – what we can give are outlines of various theories and arguments and help lead our students to understand their ramifications. And in the absence of hard, fast truths, some students just shut down, and it’s a real bear to re-engage them.

    But for the most part, even the most resistant student doesn’t discourage me. A couple years ago I had a student who expressed his resentment of every single thing I taught by reading a paper in class. It was, of course, intended as an insult, but I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I consider that one of my highest successes.

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    Wait, what? How can a student ignoring me be a success? Simple: I take a longer view than 16 weeks (the length of a semester).

    Everyone knows about the Butterfly Effect, right? The idea is that in a interconnected chaotic system, like the global environment, small events can turn into big consequences. A butterfly flapping its wings in China might whip up the tiniest of atmospheric disturbances which, as it interacts with the forces in the environment, is magnified and intensified until it sets off a massive hurricane in the Caribbean.

    Teaching is like that. We set off butterflies in the mind, whose wing-flaps have little effect today and tomorrow but which, somewhere down the line, might blossom into a full-blown mental hurricane – a brainstorm, if you will.

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    (A professor I knew in grad school preferred a somewhat more military metaphor: mind-bombs. We plant landmines, in the hopes that someday our students will stumble across them and *BOOM!* I find the image of explosions in my students heads a little overly graphic for my own taste; butterflies are, I think, a little less objectionable.)

    In the long view, I don’t have to be convincing. I don’t even have to be right (though I like to think I am more often than I’m not). Being convincing, being right – these are beside the point. The real outcome of the work I do day in and day out will come months, years, even decades down the road, and I won’t be around to see it. My job, as I see it, is simply to cultivate butterflies – to lay out a set of facts, theories, and ideas and make sure my students know what they are. The ones that resist, the ones that are so deeply offended, they’ll have their whole lives to think about this stuff, to argue with it, to reason out why it doesn’t apply to them or to the people around them.

    In case you’re thinking that I can take this fuzzy-headed view towards my work because I teach in the fuzzy-headed liberal arts, think again. I was an engineering major lo these many years ago, and while my professors may not have realized it, they too took the long view. The professor of fluid dynamics doesn’t stop to ask whether her student will be building missiles or wheelchairs, machine guns or microsurgical instruments, she just teaches the physics. She, too, is cultivating butterflies.

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    Here comes the point: we are all cultivating butterflies. To some extent, everything we do has the potential to set off a chain reaction that results in something HUGE months, years, decades in the future. And most of the time, we don’t have any idea, can’t have any idea, what that butterfly moment is or what it will result in.

    What we can know is that we’re doing it. That the work we do today isn’t just about today, that it doesn’t have to be finished, closed-off, polished and perfected and done. That it’s ok to leave things open-ended, to let them unfold like a butterfly’s wings as she emerges from her cocoon, to let them surprise us with their iridescent beauty – or disappoint us with their moth’s-wing drabness.

    Far from frustrating me, the part that’s out of my control is what makes it possible for me to do the job in front of me. If I had to “convert” all my students, I couldn’t do it. It’s the uncertainty of what they’ll do with what I can teach them, even the ones that hate me and hate the material and hate the class – it’s that uncertainty that makes it possible to teach at all. What about you? How do you cultivate butterflies – or plant mines – in your job? Or in your life?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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