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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

What you think and say matters: Mental Hygiene

 We can get into a reactive mode where whatever happens draws our attention, and shapes what we say, do think and feel.  In that case, there is not sense of a higher meaning for life, and we just feel helpless and resigned to live within an exhaust cloud of disappointment and frustration. OR we can be energized by a sense of hope for a better future and find those like-minded people with whom we can focus our efforts on working together for something worthwhile. And that takes relationships with others, because all of us have good days and bad days and it takes a team to keep going forward.

The illustration is by Ping of Pingart based on narrative by Jonathan Peck of the Institute of Alternative Futures. 

What Captures your Attention by Karen Anderson in the Harvard Business Review: 

"Whatever we focus upon actually wires our neurons. For example, pessimistic people see setbacks and unhappy events as Personal (It's worst for me), Pervasive (Everything is now worse) and Permanent (It will always be this way) according to Learned Optimism author Marty Seligman. Yet, with practice, he found that we can learn to focus more attention on the positive possibilities in situations to then to craft a redemptive narrative of our life story. Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain from a negative orientation to a positive one. 

"Attention shapes the brain,Rick Hanson says in Buddha's Brain."

"Because attention is so closely connected to our brain's basic wiring, it can be difficult to recognize our own patterns of giving attention — patterns we've been absorbing since birth. Yet different cultures do allocate attention differently. For instance, psychologist Richard E. Nisbett showed an underwater scene to students in the U.S. and also to East Asians. While the Americans commented on the big fish swimming amongst smaller fish, the East Asians also discussed the overall scene, including plants and rocks. Nisbett concluded that East
Asians focus on relationships while Westerners tend to see isolated objects rather than the connections between them.

John Hagel reported on a similar experiment. "A developmental psychologist showed three pictures to children — a cow, a chicken and some grass. He asked children from America which two of the pictures belonged together. Most of them grouped the cow and chicken together because they were both objects in the same category of animals. Chinese children on the other hand tended to group the cow and grass together because 'cows eat grass' — they focused on the relationship between two objects rather than the objects themselves."

Thinking about this, its interesting that LANGUAGE itself can shape our attention. It is not just the cultural fact of living in East Asia, the Chinese character language forces paying attention to relationships.  In the written Chinese language, while words can be said to have a meaning, their meaning is not clear until the word is used within a sentence, when the relationship to the words around them then come into focus. 

Thus knowing the words in a sentence but not seeing the context in which they are invoked, means that the relationships are not clear. Thus Chinese is called a "contextual" language. This is not to say that English is not, I find it depends on who is talking and how they use the language.

I find Abraham Lincoln's use of the English language particularly compelling because he is so able to use very simple everyday language to express thoughts that are clearly stated, and in fact he uses the relationships between the simple word to get us to see things in a new and fresh way. 

We can succeed only by concert. It is not "can any of us imagine better?" but, "can we all do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

Where others might use jargon to exclude, he uses simplicity to include. one example of this is Peter Norvig's version of the Gettysburg address which he has translated into 'powerpoint-ese"

George Orwell is one of the great 20th century proponents of clear English, following in a great tradition of Shakespeare - whose metaphors still shape our thoughts today. 

Orwell "translated" Ecclesiastes 9:
11— in Politics and the English Language - as an example of the beauty and power of language
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
—and then showed how it might be said in "modern English of the worst sort,"
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Our human brains shape our attention, yet what we choose to pay attention to shapes our brains. For those of us who write or speak, we can pay attention ourselves to what we call other's attention to. Is it to a better future where we can all do better? 

When you communicate DO pay attention to Orwell's rules for writing and speaking English

  1. Never use a metaphorsimile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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