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  • This is Odin, also known as the All-father.

  • He will become the wisest and most powerful of the Norse gods, but not yet.

  • For now, he hangs from Yggdrasil, the world tree that holds all nine worlds together,

  • with a spear lodged in his chest.

  • He will hang there for nine days, and nine nights, on the border between life and death.

  • All the while, he peers down into the magical waters of the well below, calling out for

  • the godly knowledge of the runes.

  • Satisfied with his sacrifice, they emerge, revealing to him their wisdom and bestowing

  • him with great power.

  • Odin had given himself to himself.

  • Or, more specifically, he sacrificed his present-self for his future-self.

  • It's no coincidence that he had to perform the greatest sacrifice for the greatest reward.

  • This story is, at the least, a metaphor for self-sacrifice or self-discipline.

  • And, it's one that we have been telling for generations.

  • Humanity has held the virtue of self-control in such high regards that it's a staple in

  • most religions and the moral of many myths.

  • In Christianity, the first sin - eating the forbidden fruit - was a lapse in self-control.

  • In Greek mythology, evil entered the world when Pandora could not control her curiosity

  • and opened the box.

  • This myth, in particular, has even entered our everyday language.

  • If I want you to avoid a temptation, for fear of causing disastrous consequences, I might

  • warn you against "opening Pandora's box".

  • The elevation of this virtue to religious and mythic proportions highlights a commonly

  • held belief: self-discipline plays a huge role in leading you to your best future, as

  • in the case of Odin, or your worst one, as with Pandora.

  • If this is true, it seems like it would be great if we could all have some more self-discipline.

  • But, what is self-discipline?

  • People often use the term to describe someone who makes "good" long-term decisions by overcoming

  • short-term temptations and that's reasonable.

  • But, when you ask them how they overcome these short-term temptations, they often invoke

  • some sort of *will* or *willpower*.

  • What *will* actually means isn't really obvious.

  • But, before we get to that, let's start at the beginning: the decision.

  • At any point in time, you're making a decision on how to act.

  • The difficulty arises when you have to make a decision between what's immediately gratifying

  • versus what is not gratifying now, but will be in the future.

  • In other words, the difficulty lies in delaying gratification.

  • But, what causes you to not act impulsively?

  • The reason for any single decision you make is multivariate: genes, hormones, evolution,

  • social environment, physical environment, past experience, context of the situation,

  • and a multitude of other factors all play a role.

  • But, the most immediate cause of any of your actions can be traced back to your brain activity.

  • When discussing self-discipline, one of the best places to start is with the neurotransmitter

  • dopamine.

  • In his book *Behave*, Robert Sapolsky puts forth an example that clarifies at least one

  • of the primary roles of dopamine in our brains.

  • Let's say that I take a monkey and stick him in a cage.

  • Now, I put a lever in there that, if he pushes it 10 times, rewards him with a raisin.

  • Next, I turn on a light that comes on before the lever enters the cage.

  • In other words, the light signals that the lever will be entering the cage which, in

  • turn, signals that the monkey will be able to get a raisin.

  • As a result, the monkey learns to associate the cue (a light) with the reward (a raisin).

  • Interestingly, the monkey will begin to release more dopamine in response to the light than

  • he does when consuming his reward.

  • Contrary to popular belief, *dopamine is about anticipation more than it is about reward

  • [8]*.

  • Certain cues in our environment hint at a potential reward and dopamine starts to rise

  • in anticipation.

  • *Dopamine is what gets us to take action with respect to a goal [8].* So, how does this

  • relate to self-discipline?

  • Let's say that you're deciding between an immediate reward and a delayed reward.

  • When you think about the immediate reward, dopamine is sent to certain parts of the brain

  • known as limbic targets [8].

  • When you think of the delayed reward, dopamine is sent to a different part of the brain known

  • as frontocortical targets [8].

  • If the part of the brain associated with delayed reward is more stimulated, you're more likely

  • to delay gratification [8].

  • Again, dopamine plays a role in *driving* our action.

  • So, how does your brain decide how much dopamine is sent to each part?

  • Again, this comes down to several complex factors such as past experiences, genes, hormones,

  • social environment, physical environment, the context of the situation and so on.

  • But, pragmatically, the brains decision is affected by how pleasurable the reward is

  • and how much time it takes to get that reward [8].

  • Here's an example to help you understand it intuitively.

  • Let's say that I make you an offer: you can have $100 today or $100 tomorrow.

  • The reward is the same but the time delay is greater in the second scenario.

  • You'll probably take the $100 today because there's no point in waiting until tomorrow.

  • But, what if I said that you could get $100 today or $200 tomorrow?

  • It's more likely that you'll be willing to wait, if an extra $100 is pleasurable enough.

  • But, what if I said that if you wait until tomorrow, you could get $101.

  • You'll probably revert back to taking the $100 today.

  • Your brain does multiple calculations like this every time you decide.

  • It creates a sense of wanting or reward seeking based on the speed and size of a reward.

  • So, how do you end up determining what rewards to seek?

  • To live life is to have desires.

  • The world fills you up with needs and wants, inviting you to come and interact with it.

  • Every time you satisfy a desire, you receive an internal reward and a belief forms about

  • how you did it.

  • When that desire re-emerges, your brain activates the corresponding belief circuitry and dopamine

  • releases, in anticipation of the reward, which motivates you to repeat the same action as

  • before.

  • In other words, you begin to form a habit.

  • With each repetition, the neural pathway strengthens and you solidify the habit's role as the solution

  • to your desire.

  • Here's the punchline: habits mediate the relationship between an individual's desires and their

  • environment.

  • To change the habit, the individual, the environment, or both have to change, and that's why self-discipline

  • is so hard.

  • We have little control over the biology that determines our desires.

  • According to Sapolsky, individuals with ADHD have abnormal dopamine responses when thinking

  • about immediate rewards vs delayed ones: they're biased towards impulsive action [8].

  • Individuals who experience a childhood adversity are more likely to have an underdeveloped

  • frontal cortex, making delayed gratification more difficult [8].

  • Eventually, we may be able to change an individuals biology using science, but the morality and

  • long-term consequences of this are questionable.

  • There is a part of our biology that *is* more malleable: the brain.

  • An individual can be changed with education.

  • As people learn more about the world, they can test out new beliefs and reinforce new

  • behaviors.

  • But, this leads me to the heart of the issue.

  • Self-discipline is much more of an environmental problem than it is an individual one.

  • While an individual can change their beliefs and behaviors through education, the resources

  • available for education are presented by the environment.

  • Furthermore, the habits an individual builds to meet their desires are, in large part,

  • a product of what's available in the environment.

  • A study done by neuroscientist Carl Hart found that when meth addicts were given a choice

  • between $5 and 50mg of meth, the addicts took the $5 half of the time [11].

  • When he increased the value of the cash reward to $20, they almost never took the drug [11].

  • He found similar results with crack cocaine addicts [11].

  • Hart suggests that addicts are actually rational decision makers, and will choose not to take

  • a drug when there are "alternative reinforcers" [11].

  • It seems that drug habits are more likely to be formed when individuals are in an environment

  • that offers no alternative or competing ways to meet their desires.

  • Bruce Alexander found similar results when he conducted his now-famous study: *Rat Park*

  • [12].

  • Prior to Alexander's study, it was commonly believed that addiction was caused primarily

  • by drugs.

  • When you take a drug, you get addicted.

  • That's how the story went.

  • But, Alexander noticed that most drug-related studies occurring at the time placed rats

  • in isolation.

  • He wondered if this played a role in the rats deciding to take the drug.

  • It turns out that it did [12].

  • When rats were in isolation, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them consume a drug until

  • they died.

  • But, when Alexander constructed a "Rat Park" complete with friends, sexual partners, toys,

  • and so on, rats were much less likely to take the drugs.

  • Both of these studies present an interesting idea: addiction is much less likely to occur

  • when you have greater access to alternative ways to meet your own desires.

  • In his *Meditations,* Marcus Aurelius said that,

  • We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper

  • and lower.

  • To obstruct each other is unnatural.

  • To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

  • People are a product of their environments a lot more than we like to think.

  • By acknowledging this, we can have more compassion for one another but, more importantly, we

  • can begin helping one another.

  • By providing people with as many opportunities as possible for learning and alternative ways

  • to meet their needs, we can eradicate the problem of self-discipline.

This is Odin, also known as the All-father.

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Why Self-Discipline is so Hard

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    Samuel posted on 2018/08/03
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