Thoughts On Mental States

From my archives, 2016/01/27:

As of this writing, I have a mild headache and slight motion sickness on board a bus that’s taking me home, and yet I still decided to write. Inconvenient sensations and situations happen all the time to everyone, and it would serve us well to be able to switch between different useful mental states so that we can get things done. I have heard of a football player that was able to play through massive hangovers and extreme pain and win championships for his team. If mental states can be induced at will, then there is extraordinary power here that can be tapped; after all, pain is only a signal to the brain.

Let’s identify some useful mental states first. Jordan Belfort, of Wolf Of Wall Street fame, mentioned in his talks that clarity is an important mental state. I believe that what he was getting at was the state of mind that you, as someone who wants to work towards your goals, would ideally be in. Many of us are hindered by worries, distractions, discomfort, or other limiting factors, and clarity is the state that you occupy if all of those negative factors are stripped away. We’ll keep this mental state in mind while we go through some of the others. Clarity is the state needed for taking in all of your available information and formulating a solid, structured strategy for moving forward.

Another state that I want to be in is the flow state. When experiencing flow, we are naturally in the moment and accomplishing our goals almost effortlessly. Typically it is very difficult to enter flow (because of procrastination), but once we achieve flow we can sustain it with relatively little willpower. Before we master a particular skill or action, it is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to achieve flow, since there is a certain level of detachment that is needed for flow to occur. I believe that the state of flow is distinct from the state of clarity — rather than deliberately steering your mind, you allow your mind to do things that it is already set up to do. If clarity is writing a computer program, then flow is executing the program.

The next state that I’d like to discuss is the state of passion. This is where you’re energized about what you’re doing or communicating. Enthusiasm is invaluable in social contexts and in leadership, so it’s important to call upon it at a moment’s notice. This can also bring about a boost of motivation to allow someone to spring to action, or even generate the energy required to move into one of the more difficult mental states.

Let’s use these three mental states — clarity, flow, and passion — as a starting point. It may be that the benefits of multiple mental states are necessary at the same time. This is where the ability to switch is critical. Similar to how it has been found that humans can’t multitask effectively, I believe that we can’t occupy multiple mental states at once. Each one of these states is meant to resound through the entire brain, and each one’s impact is maximized if applied maximally. The only solution is to switch quickly and totally. Imagine that you have an agent — a thin wrapper for the hardware and software that is your self — and it is the part of you that you assign control of choosing your mental state. The goal is to therefore train this agent to recognize the need for a particular useful state and execute decisively.

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