By Ann Cavoukian
Whether it be the pandemic, the ensuing rise in authoritarianism, health-related issues or the evolving culture, in my interactions with people, I notice far more who are now experiencing what used to be called a “mid-life crisis,” but now some are as young as in their 30’s! When I experienced this decades ago, I decided to become an entrepreneur, the root being the French verb “entreprendre,” meaning to do something, to undertake. I undertook to do what some thought would be impossible (after having undergone neurosurgery), to write my first book “Who Knows” with my co-author Don Tapscott. The mental process of focus and discipline in writing, while at the same time recovering from neurosurgery, changed my life — changed me. Over the years as a psychologist, I always wondered why this process was so beneficial, so I dug deeper1. In this article I would like to offer my speculation on this, in the hope that it may possibly benefit others.
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” –Alice in Wonderland
What is it about great innovators, be they in the arts, science or industry, which gives them the drive, focus and passion to create and do the impossible? Are they unique, wherein we “ordinary folks” can only gaze in awe and admiration at their exploits? Current evidence suggests otherwise. It is not the case that only some fortunate individuals have been blessed with enormous talents. Regardless of our position on the human spectrum, all of us have the potential for greatness, but only some actually gain access to it. It may be as simple, and as enormously difficult, as how we think and act.
Paraphrasing Iain McGilchrist in The Matter With Things: potential is not simply all the ways a person could have turned out that never happened, a ghostly penumbra around the actual. Our current self is the limit case2 of the potential, which is equally real; the one into which it collapses out of the many, as the particle is the collapse of a quantum field.” As bizarre as this may sound, the implication here is that all of the potential “you’s” already exist, however, they are in a “state of superposition3.”
Continuing with this; neurophysiologist Karl Friston, expanding upon Descartes, stated:
“I think therefore I am, if and only if, I am what I think.”
What he was alluding to was the heuristic that if cognitively I am a model of my environment and my environment includes me, then I model myself as existing. But I will exist if and only if I am a veridical model of my environment. But this is key: since I am part of that environment, how I view (imagine) myself, which also encompasses my actions, will be fed back to construct or reconstruct my cognitive model. Friston went on to say that, “this tautology is at the heart of the circular causality which underscores embodied cognition.”
Embodied cognition emphasizes the formative role that both a human’s “body” and the environment play in the development of cognitive processes. The general theory posits that these processes develop as a result of the tightly coupled interactions between humans (body and ego) and their environment which emerges from real-time, goal-directed actions. This is the underlying foundation of “I am what I think,” because implicit in achieving “I am” are the goal-directed actions resulting from “I think.”
Now it becomes interesting: If you can choose what to think, you can choose what to be! The downside is that if you think you have no choice in this world — that there is no free will, that you are a mere victim of race, ethnicity, gender or class — then you are by default choosing to be an automaton whose behavior is synonymous to a lifeless billiard ball ricocheting off the environmental banks of inert matter. But the upside is that, as difficult as it may be, you are able to choose to be in control. And if you do, your life can be whatever you imagine it to be! In that imagination is a potential embodiment of yourself, and using the quantum metaphor, the objective is to collapse that potential field to actualize the “new-you” in your imagination.
Before going on, some may say that this is an unnatural, perhaps even a silly, process. That in attempting to change ourselves, we are denying our “unchangeable” true nature — that which is unique to me. However, think about it this way: What could be more unique to me as a person than that which I choose to be? I may choose the clothes I wear, the furniture I sit on, the car I drive in, and so forth, to reflect the true me. Is there anything more unique to the real me than choosing what kind of person I wish to be? We all take for granted that we can make minor changes to our character, personality or health, but major changes are considered out of bounds, impossible. But why?
With most, the person who we are now is only a small part of our own choosing — most of what we are as a person is derived from a process of development within the constraints of our genes and our social-cultural environment, mediated initially by our parents and schooling. We did not choose who we are, we absorbed who we are, based to a large extent on the views of “others” in society, and how they think we should behave. And unfortunately, that externally constructed self may be full of erroneous facts about the world, internal contradictions, and imposed limitations about our potential. It is no wonder that most have a difficult time achieving success, health, and happiness in their lives. We have implicitly accepted imposed socio-cultural constraints.
However, creating what we wish to be as a person and acting it out is a very natural and noble process that reflects our true “higher” self. You start by acting as if you already are that person — you think and carry yourself like you are that person, and most importantly, treat other people like you are that kind, wonderful person. You act as if you have the energy and stamina of that person and, and as I learned decades ago, physiology leads psychology, so always smile (even a silly grin), for 20 minutes or so when you are feeling terrible — you will be amazed! In effect, you believe the impossible and embody that person’s spirit, character and personality.
If the success that you imagine requires that you acquire certain types of knowledge, then take action to gain that knowledge, all the while imagining that you have the ability to do so! With courses on the internet for free or next to nothing, there is no excuse any longer for ignorance as an obstacle to achievement. This process is analogous to method acting wherein one inhabits the role of the character in a fully emotionally expressive manner. Now that is the difficult part — you have to keep acting until you “collapse” into the character itself. It will require tremendous focus and discipline, but like a muscle when lifting weights, it will get stronger with practice.
By acting as if you believe the impossible, you are taking part in its creation. From the field of all the potential “you’s 4,” you are increasing the probability that your specific wish is being fulfilled (collapsed). Iain McGilchrist in The Matter With Things gives an illuminating analogy: What if reality is analogous to music, but specifically “to some sublime jazz, or an Indian raga or Portuguese fado? Something we improvise — within bounds. Whatever it is will emerge from a balance of freedom and constraint. It won’t exist until it is being performed: it will emerge from the players’ continuous interaction, from the music’s own history, and molded by the players’ imagination, skill, and training.” The potential, which is asymptotically infinite, collapses into the actual piece by the players’ thoughts and actions. In other words, your potential as a “new-you” is only actualized by your encounter with it. And that encounter constitutes imagining and acting as if your wish is being fulfilled.
And this is extremely important: one’s body and brain will only change in the direction you desire, based on intentional actions. Otherwise, you will habitually repeat the same old behaviors, which you supposedly want to rid yourself of. The property that you are employing in this exercise is your ultimate “I” through the function of your free will. Initially, you are, in effect, placing a set of constraints on your inner “robot” which by repetition will re-shape it by learning a new set of behaviors which include not only sensorimotor actions, but also emotional responses to everyday stimuli.
These constraints, however, will generate reactions to bring the “system” back to its previous homeostatic balance — the old way of doing things. These reactions may trigger a variety of symptoms including anxiety, fatigue, fear, pain, brain fog, hopelessness, headaches and feelings of being overwhelmed, incompetent or stupid. The purpose will be to “wear down” the “I” so that the constraints associated with replacing it with a new set of behaviors will be relaxed or entirely given up, in order for the previous behaviors to become the norm again.
And this is where focus, courage and discipline come in — it will take a great deal of courage to act as if you are well and happy, especially when your inner robot is contradicting you. Do not allow those preconditioned responses inside of you to take over once again! No doubt, they has been given a voice many times in your past, but it will take you into a vicious cycle. Just keep in your mind your wish fulfilled, and then keep acting out that wish regardless of the initial contradictory emotional and sensory feedback that you may receive. Your ability to reach that wish will be a function of maintaining your discipline and imposing those constraints continually for at least 4 to 8 weeks — that is the time it will take to effect and begin long-term potentiation in one’s nervous system. In effect, you are collapsing the “field of potential” to instantiate a “new-you.”
Realize that the nervous system is also a major controller of your bodily chemistry. Therefore, you must first change the neural circuits before you will notice relevant changes to bodily chemistry and the positive results that will arise as a result. You will need to maintain these constraints until they become the new norm. New findings in psycho-neuroimmunology, for example, are teaching us how instrumental thoughts and action patterns are in modulating the immune system. I have lived with an inoperable condition for thirty years now, and have been applying these practices. Of course, an “n” of one is not proof in itself, but I no longer live in fear of my condition, and God willing, I feel great and look forward to many more productive years!
Exercising free will in a culture of freedom — that is the real “nobility” of humans. The question you must ask yourself is: are you willing to trade up to 8 weeks of difficulty and hardship for a future lifetime of creativity, loving relationships and happiness? If so, remember that the staircase of success is built upon steps of failure, and the courage to carry on. Great innovators push themselves to be cognitive giants. However, the majority usually fail at some point in their quest. The great ones use their intelligence, ironically, to detect and admit that they are on a path of failure, and then adjust accordingly. The offshoot reward will be a tremendous feeling of self-worth. And with a population of individuals filled with self-worth, the bonus is that authoritarian elitists will eventually wither away!
For me this journey started upon reading Neville’s “Feeling Is the Secret 1944,” G & J Publishing Company, (1944).
An extreme or marginal instance of a phenomenon, in which the key variable quality or value is at the minimum or maximum extent of its possible variation.
Superposition is the ability of a quantum system to be in multiple states at the same time until it is observed. The action of observation collapses the system into a particular state. What I am suggesting is that imagination and action are analogous to observation.
For those who may be interested in where these potentials may exist read David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order.
Dr. Ann Cavoukian is a member of our Board of Directors for the Probe Foundation. Dr. Cavoukian is the Executive Director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University. Recognized as one of the leading privacy experts in the world, Dr. Cavoukian is an avowed believer in the role that technology can play in protecting privacy. Her ground-breaking 1995 paper, Privacy-Enhancing Technologies: The Path to Anonymity, laid the foundation for her magnum opus, Privacy by Design (PbD) – which is now recognized as the world’s gold standard in privacy protection. Dr. Cavoukian is well known for her former role as Ontario’s longest serving Information and Privacy Commissioner.