You Are Not Your Mind

"When people look at it ... it looks crazy. That's a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy. It is the result of reasoned, engineering thought. But it still looks crazy."

- Adam Stelzner, NASA engineer

On August 5, 2012, the engineers at NASA endured seven minutes of adrenaline-pumping terror.

They were monitoring the descent of Curiosity, a robotic rover the size of a car, as it landed on the surface of Mars. Hanging in the balance -- and in the Martian atmosphere -- was years of effort, the reputation of the agency, and $2.5 billion of research money.16 The NASA control room was eerily silent, a high-stakes gamble on the engineering talent of everyone in the room.

The lead engineer, Adam Stelzner, represented a new breed of that talent. With pierced ears, snakeskin boots, and an Elvis haircut,17 he looked more like a rocker than an engineer. He had overseen the complicated entry, descent, and landing sequence, in which Curiosity would have to brake from 13,000 miles an hour to zero, in a perfect, tightly-coordinated landing -- all under its own automatic guidance systems.

Stelzner is also media-savvy, creating a short film before Curiosity's descent, in which he explained the seven minutes of terror. "From the top of the atmosphere, down to the surface," he explained, "it takes us seven minutes. It takes 14 minutes or so for the signal from the spacecraft to make it to Earth; that's how far Mars is away from us. So, when we first get word that we've touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive, or dead, on the surface, for at least seven minutes."18

During that seven minutes, Curiosity's heat shields would burn up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Its parachute would deploy, withstanding 65,000 pounds of force and slowing the descent to 200 mph. Then the rover would cut the parachute and start the rockets, first diverting the rover away from the parachute, then looking for its targeted landing spot, a deep crater next to a 3.5-mile-high mountain.

Because the rockets would kick up a blinding dust cloud, they were attached to a "bridle," or platform, that would stabilize about 65 feet above the surface of Mars, then lower the rover down gently, tethered by a long robotic umbilical cord. The rockets would then cut themselves free, shoot themselves out of the way, and Curiosity would phone home.

Or not.

Stelzner and his team, along with geeks all over the world, held their breath. For seven excruciating minutes, long rows of blue-shirted engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory monitored the data, on a seven-minute space/time delay.

Suddenly the entire room erupted in applause and celebration. Engineers leapt out of their seats, hugging each other, taking off their glasses, and wiping their balding heads. They were laughing, whooping and hollering. Curiosity had landed safely.

Over the official broadcast, the mission controller was also shouting for joy. After a few moments, he regained his composure. When you watch the video, you can still hear the excitement in his voice as he speaks the words: "It's time to see where Curiosity will take us."

In the ensuing years, Curiosity has done extensive biological, chemical, and geological exploration of the planet. It has discovered that Mars may have once supported microbial life.19 It is even preparing the way for human exploration of Mars.20 All this controlled by its human masters, from their control room back on Earth.

In a weird way, you are a kind of rover -- not on Mars, but Earth. Instead of cameras and thermometers, your sensory data comes in via eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. Like Curiosity, you are able to process this data through a layer of software called your "mind." Through this mind, you are able to direct specific commands, as NASA engineers are able to direct Curiosity: "raise arm," "practice banjo," "execute perfect 3-point parking maneuver."

Imagine for a moment that you are the one controlling Curiosity, via a high-tech, virtual reality control room. Your eyesight is wired to its Martian cameras, your muscle movements control its robotic arms and sensors, your very thought propels its motorized treads along the planet's rocky surface. In a sense, that's what's happening right now, in the Earth rover called "your body."

But if the mind is the software layer, then who's controlling the mind? Who's the Adam Stelzner of your mind, the one who engineered it in the first place?

You are.

You Are Not Your Mind

This is the message I want to shout from the rooftops. You are not your mind!

Close your eyes and think about your own mind for just a moment. The fact that you can observe your mind, and think about it objectively, shows there is a "mind," and then an "observer of the mind," which we'll call "you." In other words, you can separate "your mind" (which you have just pictured) with "you" (the one who is doing the picturing).

Got it? You've probably got it. But this idea is so fundamental to mind hacking, and yet so foreign to our everyday experience, that I will illustrate it via several different analogies. These analogies will serve as handy tools for peeling away "you" from "your mind," which a mind hacker must be able to do at will.

If you're a movie geek like me, perhaps you've had the experience of deconstructing a movie as you're watching it. It's the opening credits of Lord of the Rings, and you're watching the title sequence, analyzing the music. Now comes the first scene, and you're evaluating the actors, admiring the cinematography, imagining the director orchestrating the action. And then ... if it's a good movie, you quickly get lost in it, losing your perspective. You forget to analyze the movie, because you're in it.

Your mind is like that movie. Just as in the movie theater there is "you" watching a "movie," in your own head there is "you" watching your "mind." And like a great piece of cinema, you are absorbed in the movie of your mind: the thoughts, emotions, memories served up in a constant stream.

But the mind is no ordinary movie. It's a 3D IMAX, Oculus Rift, full-on Sensurround-with-THX epic, beamed directly into your head. And it's been playing since birth. So it's no wonder that we're so accustomed to watching it. It's a lifetime habit, and no one's ever told us, "Hey, you're watching a movie." Instead, they've told us, "This is reality."

I sometimes picture a virtual reality mask that you pull on, with the headphones and goggles, but also with electrodes that tape to your forehead, beaming thoughts and emotions directly into your brain. After twenty, thirty, forty years of living that way, how would you even remember that you're in a simulation?

This is why it is so difficult for us to "pull ourselves out of the movie" for very long. If you think it's tough to run out of the movie theater to take a bathroom break, just try stopping the mind movie. In fact, just try being aware that you're watching a mind movie. Yet, being aware of this mind movie is the first step to mind hacking: we must learn to analyze the mind, with all its amazing cinematography, before we can hack it.

MIND GAME: What Was My Mind Just Thinking?

For the rest of the day, start building up awareness of your mind by asking yourself, as frequently as possible, "What was my mind just thinking?"21

Keep track of how many times you remember to "check in" on your mind. At the end of the day, record your final score in the practice sheet at the end of the book.

A Diet of the Mind

The brilliant mathematician John Nash, who is the subject of the Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind (as well as the book of the same name), is what the experts call "really good at math." He won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in the field of strategic decision-making known as "game theory," and his work is used today in everything from artificial intelligence to military strategy.

Nash was also a paranoid schizophrenic. While his mental illness developed over many years, it was not until he was due to be promoted at MIT that his full-blown symptoms erupted. (He told the head of a rival department that he would not be able to accept the position because "I am scheduled to become the emperor of Antarctica."22) As his illness deepened, he spent time in and out of various mental institutions, suffering from "dream-like delusional hypotheses"23 such as being persecuted by the federal government, aliens trying to contact him through the New York Times,24 and the conviction that he was the Messiah.

What happened next is even more remarkable. Without the aid of medication, he gradually retrained his thinking using what he called a "diet of the mind."25 In other words, he was still tempted by the delusional patterns, but he intentionally rejected them. He describes it as an ongoing habit of choosing the right thoughts, more "like a continuous process rather than waking up from a dream." This mastery of his mind -- this ability to disengage from his own mental movie -- led to tremendous career success later in life, including the von Neumann Prize, the Nobel Prize,26 and the 2001 Academy Award for Best Picture (he should get credit for that one, too).

You are not your mind.

This is easiest to observe during "mental downtime" like driving or doing the dishes. When you're doing things that don't require a lot of concentration, your mind goes on overdrive, using those spare CPU cycles for projecting the movie.

Sometimes the movie is a feel-good family comedy: funny memories, pleasant thoughts, hopeful dreams. In these times, you see why the mind can be our best friend.

Sometimes the movie is a depressing English period drama: melancholy thoughts of despair, depression, or hopelessness, often involving tuberculosis. In these times, you see how our mind can be our worst enemy.

Your mind spends most of its time projecting into the future (plans, dreams, fears), or reminiscing about the past (memories, regrets, nostalgia). Frequently clips from the same movies play over and over:

> "Why did I say that? I'm such an idiot."

> "I don't know why I even try. I will never be able to do it."

> "If I don't watch every penny, I'll end up in poverty."

> "Does he really love me? Even though we've been together for so long, I'm still not sure."

> "My kids are going to get injured, I just know it."

> "Everyone at work is talking about me behind my back."

> "I hate him! I hate him! I hate him!"

> "This funeral would be a lot more fun if I were high."

We can all add our own mental movie clips to this list. It's difficult to reason with these kinds of habitual thoughts; they seem to just appear from out of nowhere. That's the way the mind movie works. Later, we'll learn how to begin directing this movie. For now, just try to become aware that you're watching it.

User vs. Superuser

Anyone who's spent time on a computer network has seen an error message like this:

> You do not have sufficient privileges to perform that operation.

Which really means:

> We don't trust you with this, because we're afraid you'll screw something up.

In simple computer systems, everyone has access to everything. But quickly this becomes unwieldy and dangerous: if you give a typical user access to the entire customer database, before you know it, he's accidentally erased 10 million names. ("Sorry, I was just cleaning my keyboard.") It reduces problems if people only have access to what they need.

Typically, the people who know what they're doing will maintain what we'll call "superuser" access, making sure the ordinary "users" have limited power. You can't view everyone's email account, only your own -- but superusers can. You can't see everyone's files in the cloud, only your own -- but superusers can.

This is why computer hackers always want to have superuser access. We call this "root" access or "rooting," because you're at the root of the system. This is where the power is. Root in, and everything is at your command.

As a teenager, I used to attend a monthly computer club where dozens of computer enthusiasts would meet up to pirate thousands of dollars of computer software while eating Hostess Zingers. (Ironically, this early version of The Pirate Bay was held in the basement of a church.) This was long before the Internet, so software was hard to find, and we would spend hours copying programs on 5 1/4" floppy disks, until our drives would overheat and we'd trudge home.

One night a stranger showed up. He said he was visiting from California, and he did look surprisingly tanned and fit, completely out of place among our pale, neck-bearded folk. He sidled over to me and asked, "What you got?"

I went through my entire list of games. "Jumpman."

"Got it."

"M.U.L.E.," I responded. "Space Taxi. Zork I. Zork II. Zork III."

"Keep going."

"Zork Zero."

"Anything else?"

It was crazy. No one had all those games. "How about Pogo Joe?"

"Pogo Joe?" He lit up. "I'll take it."

As we were copying the game, he asked, "You have Blue?"

"I've never heard of it."

"Check it out." He pulled out a disk with a piece of masking tape across the top. One word was written across the top: BLUE.

"What's that?" I asked.

"It lets you make free phone calls."

In the days before digital phone systems, the legendary "blue box" was a piece of hardware that simulated a tone made by the phone company's analog switching relays, allowing you to make long-distance phone calls for free. (Before they invented Apple Computer, in fact, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got their start building and selling blue boxes; one of Wozniak's original blue boxes is enshrined at the Computer History Museum.)

Blue was a software-only blue box: you called the phone company's information line, then held your phone receiver up to the computer speaker. Blue would blast out the magical 2600 Hz tone, putting you into "superuser" mode.

As it happened, I lived in Ohio and was dating a girl in Nebraska (if that doesn't prove my geek cred, I don't know what does). Once I got Blue, I went insane with long-distance phone calls. I was untouchable! I spent an entire month in blissful superuser mode, calling her multiple times a day for free ... until my dad got the phone bill.

"SIXTY THREE DOLLARS IN INFORMATION CALLS?!" he screamed. I still remember him waving the phone bill in the air, as well as the exact amount of the bill. "SIXTY THREE DOLLARS!?" Apparently Blue wasn't completely free: you still had to dial up the information line, which cost fifty cents per call. I had made one hundred and twenty-six information calls in one month.

"Blue boxing" is similar to the concept of mind hacking: we are trying to log out of our usual "user" mode, and log back in as "superuser," to unlock special powers and features. We're trying to trace our mental system back to its roots, where we can alter the code that controls our life.

Easy to understand; difficult to do. It's as if the mind, like an insecure IT overlord, wants to keep us locked in "user" mode. Even when we manage to get into superuser mode temporarily, before we know it, we're locked out. We realize that somehow we've slipped back into regular user mode, caught up in the content of the mind again. We've slipped back into the movie.

A fascinating study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience27 shows that practicing this superuser mode can greatly improve our powers of "cognitive control," or the ability to focus our mind -- which is linked to success in school, work, and life.28 In the study, subjects were trained to focus on a specific target, to notice when their minds had wandered, then to return their attention back to the target. With practice, they were able to sustain attention and ignore distractions for progressively longer periods of time -- actually rewiring their neural circuitry to be more efficient. (You'll learn this technique shortly.)

Put another way, the test subjects practiced getting into superuser mode, noticing when they were logged out, then finding their way back to superuser mode. As you'll soon see, getting logged out of the system is not the problem; the problem is noticing that you've been logged out of the system. In other words, the trick is becoming conscious of when you're in control of the mind (superuser mode) and when you're lost in the mind (user mode).

The takeaway is that with time and training, you can learn to stay in superuser mode for longer periods of time. More important, you can learn to "interrupt" the usual user mode, so you can quickly switch into superuser mode with a quick CTRL-M. If the "mind movie" idea doesn't appeal to you, think about getting superuser access to your mind instead.

Thinking vs. Meta-Thinking

In junior high school, I was on the chess team: it was the only sport I could play without getting winded. My father taught me the basics of chess, and I joined the team understanding how all the pieces moved, as well as the basic concept of the game.

Our chess coach was also the school guidance counselor, giving him double geek credentials. I first met him during the summer, where he gave me a thirty-page, badly-Xeroxed packet of chess strategy: all the openings, tactics, and endgames that you could use to win. I spent the summer squinting at this arcane document, as scholars once studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, learning terms like en passant and Ruy Lopez.

I gradually came to understand there was another level of playing chess, a higher level, where you focused on not just moving individual pieces to achieve the short-term objective of taking enemy pieces. Instead, you orchestrated the movement of all your pieces against your opponent's weaknesses, in order to checkmate the king.

What my chess coach taught me was "metachess." He taught me how to work on my game, not just work in the game.

Work on your mind, not just in your mind.

Our modern word "meta" comes from the Greek preposition "meta," which means "after." (Aristotle's Metaphysics was simply the book that came after Physics.) In the twentieth century, the prefix evolved into a term meaning "about its own category," or "an X about X" -- for example, a "metatheorem" is a theorem about theorems in general. We use this prefix all the time in modern technology, such as metadata (data that describes other data), or metatags (HTML tags that describe the content of the HTML page itself). We even use it as an adjective, saying "That's meta," to describe concepts such as:

  • Superman reading his own comic book

  • Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems, mathematical proofs showing that mathematics can never be fully proven29

  • Movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is a movie about a girl reading a book written by an author who was told a story

  • TV shows that break the fourth wall, like the Doctor Who episode entitled "The Mind Robber," where the Doctor and his companions face the threat of becoming fictional characters

  • Metaemotion (for example, being sad about being sad, or "we have nothing to fear but fear itself")

  • Metaprogramming, programs that write new code for themselves at runtime (a simple example is the JavaScript eval() statement)

  • A metajoke, such as: "A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, 'What is this, some kind of joke?'"

Meta is, in fact, a sign of the times. We are gradually becoming capable, perhaps even evolving in our capability, of seeing things from the "meta" perspective. There is something transcendent and wonderful about this ability to analyze a thing from a higher level of abstraction, as if we are stepping into the next dimension.

In mind hacking, we are not just thinking, we are metathinking, or thinking about our thinking. The technical term for this is "metacognition." We are analyzing how our thoughts form, the sequence of thoughts that follow each other, how those thoughts drive our emotions and actions, and how they ultimately impact our lives.

Thinking is good! Thinking is how we make decisions, get stuff done, and move our lives forward. It is right to spend most of our time in thinking mode (and too few people do even that). But metathinking is the critical skill to develop for mind hacking. Ultimately, we want to become proficient at moving between these two modes.

Three Models, One Idea

So now we have three useful models: the "mind movie," "superuser mode," and "metathinking." These are three ways to think about one simple idea: viewing the mind objectively, not getting caught up in content. In other words, becoming aware of your own mind.

As I was getting sober, I cannot remember a specific moment where I became aware of my mind; it was a dawning realization, a skill I gradually developed through the exercises in the following chapters. But as that awareness grew, so did a sense of freedom and excitement. I had identified so strongly with my mind that I believed everything it told me. Now I realized that I had a choice.

At this point, you also have a choice. While you are certainly aware of your mind, the challenge in mind hacking is to increase your powers of awareness. From here on out, I encourage you to approach your mind with a spirit of openness and curiosity. Observe it. Imagine how it could be used differently. In other words, approach your mind like a hacker.

Learning to develop this awareness, to make it a habit, is the foundation of mind hacking. As we learn to recognize what is the mind and what is "us," we can begin to observe how untamed the mind really is, as we'll see in the next chapter.

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