Rock-Paper-Scissors: Body, Heart, Mind?

heart-beats-bodyI’m hurt, no doubt about it. I’m not worried about the pain. I don’t care about the pain, don’t even feel it. I’m not even worried about hurting myself anymore than I already have—no, I’m worried about hurting the team.

—Ray Lewis, former NFL linebacker, I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory

Rock-paper-scissors is a hand-gesture game played to settle childish disputes (or so I thought until three days ago). As it turns out, the millennia-old game helps explain a lot in the world. Rock-Paper-Scissors is surprisingly well represented in academic literaturealternative male-mating strategies in lizards, antibiotic-mediated antagonism, protecting public goods from the tragedy of the commons, and that’s just getting started. The New York Times even has an online version of the game to play a computer, which pulls from over 200,000 previous rounds (p.s. It will probably beat you). But why is this simple game so ubiquitous?

We often think of win-lose games in terms of two teams battling head to head; however, nature (including human nature) rarely works in such a direct way. An action in one area often has unintended consequences in another. Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game of checks and balances. And with only three variables, it is the simplest version. If the goal is, for example, to reduce the amount of Scissors in the world, then Rock should be thrown time and time again. Throw a lot of Rocks and we’ll get rid of the Scissors, but with less Scissors, more Papers survive—leading to trouble for all those Rocks we threw. This is the basic premise for what scholars call “circular dominance,” otherwise known as Rock-Paper-Scissor dynamics. And this concept helps explain much of the human experience.

While we all have different personal motivations, there’s a universal internal tug-o-war—a motivation triad—that can either get in the way of or optimize our goals. The balance between our physiologic needs (Body), our emotions/feelings (Heart), and our logical reasoning and processing (Mind) are what create the diverse range of behavior we see everyday. Being human may not be simple, but let’s take a closer look at a simple game to see if we can improve our performance:

  1. Body—like Rock, it’s solid, dependable, strong, and can be used like a weapon.
  2. Heart—like Paper, it can be written on, read, shared, crumpled, or torn.
  3. Mind—like Scissors, it’s sharp, precise, specialized, but can be dangerous.

Heart beats Body. What motivates a person to push through the pain, in order to run one more lap in practice? What about staying awake all night to finish a project with an impending deadline? What possesses a person tstart a fight despite obvious physical danger? Or to charge into enemy territory, bayonets at the ready? Human emotions can push our bodies beyond comfort. They transcend our normal physiology, creating adrenaline rushes to push through the pain, get passed the tired, or forget the hunger. Depending on the circumstance, this can be an advantage or disadvantage. Professional athletes, like Ray Lewis (quoted above), use their “pumped up” emotional state to achieve a high level of physical performance. But there are instances when emotions can put our bodies in jeopardy—like fighting for pride, love, or anger. And we can all relate to those sleepless nights, tossing and turning over emotional stresses at work, arguments with a significant other, or any number of other feelings.

Mind beats Heart. When we’re up at night, working ourselves up into a sleepless, emotional frenzy, only a calm mind can put our anxiety into perspective. Emotions can cloud our understanding of the big picture, making us feel like the emotion we are experiencing at that moment is the most important thing in the world. By adding context and perspective, our Minds can neutralize our irrational side. This concept of primitive and evolved brain is represented in different ways throughout the literature; the  Heart/Mind dichotomy goes by different names—Think vs. Blink, System 2 vs. System 1, Analytical vs. Intuitive—but essentially it’s this: We all have an immediate reaction brain (Heart) that is fueled by basic emotional needs (ex. love and respect), and when we feel those needs are in conflict or under attack, we tend to react. Only our level-headed Mind can defeat the negative side of emotions.

Body beats Mind. Obviously, the Mind does not always beat the Heart, but perhaps it’s because the Mind has already been defeated. Graduate education is rife with unhealthy study behavior—caffeine binges, all-nighters, a diet consisting of power bars and skittles. But the lie of this type of behavior is thinking that the Body doesn’t matter—that if a student can cram for one more hour at 3 A.M. then he will perform better on an exam. There is an eventual breaking point, a point where our minds starts to get cloudy, our work starts to slip, we begin to forget things, and have trouble sayings words. That point is when the body is forcing a shutdown. Being chronically fatigued, having insufficient nutrients in one’s diet, even physiologic sexual frustration can all play a role in how clearly our thinking is. Being deprived of physiological needs wears down our willpower and pushes us from a mind-deciding person to an emotion-deciding one. And taken to the extreme—extreme hunger, extreme thirst, extreme sickness—we become physiological-driven creatures.

It is helpful to recognize the interrelationship between the three parts of ourselves—Body, Heart, Mind. Knowing how they interact, we can buffer known problems. For example, after starting a business, launching a product, or quitting a job, there are a lot of unknowns; the task at hand has just begun. That reality can be an emotional time, but it’s a known emotional time. To get through challenges like the stress of not yet finding a new job, we require clear thinking about the big picture, and doing so requires our bodies to be well fed, well rested, and somewhat active. And that’s just one example.

Body-Heart-Mind dynamics are as important for interpersonal relationships as they are for self-improvement. Often, we are not able to see our crazy while we’re in the crazy. That’s why it’s important to recognize it in others—friends, family, spouse, colleagues, etc. Reacting emotionally when faced with someone that’s emotional is rarely the right course of action—”Don’t fight fire with fire.” Instead, helping an emotional friend see the rationale side of a situation, a different perspective, and adding some context to an emotional and confusing time is what will help. Knowing ourselves and others—having an awareness of what’s going on—that’s the first step. What we do with that information is up to us.

Semmann, Dirk, Hans-Jürgen Krambeck, and Manfred Milinski. “Volunteering leads to rock–paper–scissors dynamics in a public goods game.” Nature425.6956 (2003): 390-393. (Source)

Too Smart for Your Own Good

Being Right at the Wrong Time


Being right can be embarrassing. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point we realize that saying that thing or correcting that person was not a good idea. We realize that we were wrong in our rightness. There is a right time and a right place for correctness, but knowing when not to speak is the key. And where does this principle seem to cause the most confusion? A place where we’re told that accuracy and timeliness are top priorities—the workplace.

Office environments are the perfect setting to discuss the potential woes of being right. In 2014 Lauris Beinerts’ parody video “The Expert” made waves across the Internet with its cheeky look at the stereotypical office idiot. The short film takes place in a nondescript conference room where Anderson, “the expert,” attempts to explain to his four colleagues why the task at hand—drawing seven red lines, all perpendicular to one another and some with green ink—is fundamentally impossible. As the meeting unfolds, it becomes clear that only Anderson sees the logical discrepancies of the absurd request. Everyone else? Idiots.

The popularity of Beinert’s video is due to its ubiquity. We can all relate to the frustration of Anderson-The-Expert. We have all thought during a meeting, “Why are we still talking about this? Isn’t it obvious?” But maybe there are other times, times that, without realizing it, we are the office dunces. Rather than lambasting the bumbling co-worker, we should consider the flaws of being right. Perhaps Anderson is actually the office idiot.

Once his co-worker says something obviously wrong, Anderson has a decision to make—say something or stay quiet. If the point of the meeting is to correct misconceptions, then correct away! That’s being right at the right place and time. However, meetings are often called upon for one reason when, in fact, they have a different, unspoken purpose. This is where the confusion comes in.

It’s important to align the purpose for being right with the overall purpose of the situation. Anderson might think he’s being helpful in his explanation that red ink is not, in fact, green ink; however, if there are more pressing matters to attend, then perhaps Anderson’s comments are wasting productive time. Or maybe Anderson’s boss knows full well that the details of the project are irrelevant for the final product, hoping Anderson will simply agree and let the matter rest. Whatever the case may be, just having correct information does not necessitate sharing it.

Of course, for jobs dealing with life or death (ex. structural engineering, law enforcement, surgery, etc.), being right is crucial. There’s no time to waste wondering whether the truth should or shouldn’t be said. For most jobs, however, we don’t have those kinds of restrictions. And for those jobs, timing is everything.

Whether it’s launching a product, delivering a joke, meeting a soulmate, or buying a house, timing can make or break a situation. Being right is no different. There’s an internet meme with Jeff Bridges sitting back as The Dude from The Big Lebowski, which reads, “You’re not wrong / You’re just an asshole.” This strikes at the heart the timing issue. We must know when to say something and when to shut up.

For my wedding, my father gave me a newspaper clipping with some marital advice. It read, “Before you speak, ask yourself, ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’” Being right is only the first part. Knowing when to be silent is much more powerful, more wise, than anything we may have to say.

This is the first installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”


Silent Heroes: Blindess & Boredom

You’re blind. I’m sorry you had to find out this way, but it’s true. You might be thinking, “How could I possibly be blind if I’m reading this?” Well, you’re only somewhat blind. What am I prattling on about? Blinking.

We spend roughly six seconds out of every minute in what cognitive scientists call “blinking suppression”—a feedback loop that works to inhibit our awareness of having our eyes closed. Our minds suppress our blinking awareness, because blinks are a nuisance, a burden; they interrupt the flow of of our vision. We cannot go about our daily lives with co-workers popping their heads in to ask questions every few seconds (even if that is what they do). Vision is no different. And vision, as it turns out, is very valuable to our cognition.

Neuroscientists estimate that as much as ⅔  of our brains’ activity is associated with vision. While there are some semantics to this estimate, even if our brains’ dedicated ½ of their resources to vision, that certainly qualifies as a valued focus. Yet, we spend 10% of our waking hours with our eyes closed, not seeing anything—blind.

During a two hour movie, there are twelve minutes that we never see. Poof—gone with the wind! And we’re none the wiser. Our brains pretend that we saw the whole thing. Not only are we unaware of what we’re missing, but we’re better for it.

Without tears, eyes dry to the point of irritation, pain, and even permanent damage. The lacrimal gland (sitting just behind the eyebrow) has one primary role—to produces tears to keep our eyes hydrated and functioning. Maybe the lacrimal gland and blinking are the silent heroes of this story. Vision may get all the glory, but what is visual processing if there’s no visual input?

There are other silent heroes in our lives, namely “boredom.” Most of us spend more than ⅔ of our time awake (and nearly all of that time doing something). Silence must be filled with music, podcasts, or video. Sitting quietly, not doing anything has become an affront to modern life. Try it and a person gets agitated; their gaze darting, looking for something, anything that might distract them from the painful state of not doing.

But remember, just as our eyes require periodic rest, so do we. It is important to pause, take stock, and not do. If we spend 10% of our time blind, perhaps we should spend at least that much bored. Six minutes per hour is all it would require. And on that note, it’s time to stop, put the screens away, and close our eyes. 

Nakano, Tamami, et al. “Synchronization of spontaneous eyeblinks while viewing video stories.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences (2009): rspb20090828. Source