• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • It’s hard to imagine designing a contemporary technology system without a healthy investment in performance and reliability monitoring tools. What would the human equivalent of a set of system monitoring tools look like?

    The Thoughtstream Monitor

    The Thoughtstream Monitor would present a display of every thought you are thinking.

    How You Would Use It: If you had access to a display (something like an EEG) that showed the constant stream of your thoughts, it would be a useful feedback tool that would make you aware of just how persistent and perpetual your thoughtstream is. But because thinking is happening all the time (just like your breath and your heartbeat), noticing your thoughts is perhaps less useful than becoming aware of when you’re not noticing anything but your thoughts. For that purpose you need a different tool:

    The Lost in Thought Light

    The Lost in Thought light would warn you when you become so absorbed in messages from the Thoughtstream Monitor that you’re oblivious to any other input.

    How You Would Use It: In order to see the Lost in Thought light, you would need to periodically disengage from the Thoughtstream Monitor. Otherwise you’d never notice the Lost in Thought light.

    Since You Don’t Have a Lost in Thought Light: You do have a brain network (the salience network) that alerts you to obsessive brain activity. It works pretty well when something urgent comes into your awareness (we’re usually not too lost in thought to eat).

    What You Can Do About It: Even without a Lost in Thought light, when you catch yourself being lost in thought you can take a few moments to do a few simple practices to develop stable attention, like following your breath, feeling your feet, or observing a tree outside your office window.

    The Ingroup/Outsider indicator

    The Ingroup/Outsider indicator would provide information about your social position. It would have a radar-style display of other humans in your social environment and whether you are interpreting them as threats or allies, and moving toward or away from you, based on visual expressions, verbal language, and body language. There’d be a handy oxytocin hormone level indicator to show how safe and connected you feel at any given moment.

    How You Would Use It: You’d notice the number of people on the radar display, which direction they appear to be moving, and whether they are part of your “tribe” or not. You’d pay attention to how this information might relate to your perceived level of safety and connection, represented by the oxytocin indicator.

    Since You Don’t Have an Insider/Outsider indicator: You are definitely already aware of the people in your social orbit and whether they are insiders or outsiders. It’s not too hard to tune in to how safe and connected you feel. Without the indicator, though, you’re on your own to stay aware of the huge importance of your social experience for your well-being and the quality of what’s going through your thoughtstream.

    What You Can Do About It: Even without an Insider/Outsider indicator, you can pay attention to your assessments of the intentions and level of threat of the people around you. Whenever possible, validate (or disprove) these assessments by asking open-ended questions. You can also notice if your experience of belonging and safety (oxytocin level) is high or low. If it’s high, be aware of the possibility of bonding too tribally with your current in-group. If it’s low, be aware of overreactions due to panicky thoughts of exclusion or isolation. There is a variety of practices that can help build your sense of connectedness–even without a monitor.

    The Bias System Detector

    The Bias System Detector would give you visibility into how your judgments relate to the data available to you. The main display would work much like an altimeter, showing you when your judgments are more positive than the data suggest and when they are more negative.

    How You Would Use It: You could periodically check your Bias System detector, noticing the gap between your judgments and the available data.

    Since You Don’t Have a Bias System Detector: Sadly, this still has to be done the hard way, by careful analysis.

    What You Can Do About It: Even without a Bias System Detector,you can still remain aware that you have biases and work diligently (and constantly!) to validate your assumptions against what is actually true. You may want to offset a tendency to make overly negative judgments with deliberate positivity, or an overly positive judgments with a little more “realism”. Practices to develop open-mindedness make bias less influential (though you can never make it go away entirely).

    The Reactivity Instrument Panel

    The Reactivity Instrument Panel would help you manage perceived threats to your survival. It would include Fight, Flee, and Freeze warning lights, a body sensation monitor to track activity associated with the warnings, and a display that maps current threats to your repository of emotional memories.

    How You Would Use It: When one of the Fight/Flee/Freeze lights flicked on, you would pay close attention to the body sensation monitor, and take note of the emotional memories that are triggered by the warning.

    Since You Don’t Have a Reactivity Instrument Panel: You need to be aware of your body the old-fashioned way, through interoception. This is like perception but turned inward: the subtle signals you get from your stomach, your sweat glands and your throat when you perceive a survival threat. You also need to maintain awareness of the way your reactions are triggered by past experiences.

    What You Can Do About It: Even without a Reactivity Instrument Panel, you can observe your body’s response to the situation at hand, notice how it stirs up reactions from past experience, and ask yourself, “Am I literally under threat right now? What is causing this reaction? How might I choose a different behavior in this situation?” There are many practices that can build your capacity for self-awareness and reduce the impact of reactivity.

    Don’t Wait for Human Dashboard 1.0

    We will probably have sophisticated monitoring instrumentation of this kind sooner that we think (the SPIRE Stone is a brilliant and simple step in that direction). But I’ll cast my vote in favor of old-school self-awareness, for a while yet. Self-awareness: it’s available now, it really works, and we can probably all use it sooner than later.

    My book Cultivating Attention has much more on many of these topics, including many techniques for building your own self-monitoring tools.