The Outdated OS
Emotions & Instincts

The OS of our minds

There is a wizard in Oz, hidden behind the curtains, controlling things in ways that aren’t obvious to the outside world. In a similar way, each of us has our own wizard hidden behind our conscious minds – there is a tremendous amount going on behind the scenes that we aren’t aware of.

Much of how we function is dictated by this wizard – effectively an internal Operating System that we are largely oblivious to. This OS guides everything that we do and think, far beyond what we consciously register.

Our conscious minds are physically incapable of true multitasking – we literally have one track minds and just switch our focus between different tasks as best we can. Our underlying OS on the other hand is a master juggler, operating at levels only mothers with 5 children could possibly comprehend.

At any given point in time, our OS is managing our bodily functions, coordinating multiple organs and systems, growing new parts, repairing old parts, fighting infections and performing numerous other tasks needed to keep us alive. At the same time, it is taking disparate information from each of our senses, processing, buffering and integrating them neatly before presenting it to our conscious minds. And all that is in addition to churning through the mountains of information we are exposed to, making sense of it and coming up with complex decisions for us.

It is estimated that our conscious brain processes about 50 bits of data per second, whereas our unconscious OS brain is handling approximately 11 million bits per second from our senses alone. Most of the processing that goes on in our brains is beyond our conscious control or for that matter our conscious notice. We enjoy our five course meals without ever seeing what goes on in the kitchen.

This astounding OS is a result of many generations of evolution, getting ever more sophisticated over time. From single celled organisms with no cognitive ability to speak of, we are now at a stage of human evolution where we are developing Artificial Intelligence of our own.

And yet despite all this complexity, our brains are not without flaws.

Homo sapiens have been around for between 200,000 to 300,000 years, with the estimate varying considerably depending on who you ask. For the vast majority of this time we lived as hunter-gatherers in small tribal societies in a world full of physical dangers. Since then we have continued to evolve, with truly modern humans as we define them today probably emerging between 40,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Imagine holding hands with your mother. Your mother then holds the hands of her mother, your grandmother holds the hand of her mother and we follow this chain back over 5,000 generations. This impressive line-up of women spans over 7 km; on the clearest day, you’d be unable to see more than halfway down the line at best with your naked eye. If your first ancestor initiated a Mexican wave, it would take a good 3 hours for it to reach you.

While these time spans are mind boggling when compared to individual human lifespans, they aren’t hugely long in evolutionary terms. If you performed a line inspection and walked down the path of your ancestry you would notice gradual changes as you moved down the line, but perhaps not as much as you might think.

This is not to say that we have not evolved in this time. On the contrary, we are perhaps evolving faster than ever before. The human population is now larger and more diverse than it has ever been, offering much more opportunity for variance. We have colonised most of the planet, subjecting ourselves to vastly different climates and environments, as well as exposing ourselves to sparkling new sources of genetic mutation such as radiation and chemicals. We aren’t quite X-men yet, but we are evolving all the same.

For example, people living in high altitude locations such as Tibet, Ethiopia and the Andes have shown genetic mutations increasing their blood oxygen content, giving them a survival advantage. These changes have appeared relatively hastily by evolutionary standards, over the last 3,000 years.

The Bajau Laut people of Southeast Asia have genetic adaptions to diving, with significantly larger spleens than average. During a dive, the spleen sends an extra store of red blood cells into circulating blood, increasing its capacity to carry oxygen. In addition, they have genetic variations that increase metabolic rates, prevent high levels of carbon dioxide build up and prioritise blood flow to vital organs. Together, these adaptations explain why the Bajau are able to accomplish near superhuman feats of free diving, recording depths of 79 metres (259 feet), and spending over three minutes underwater at a time.

Our diets are drastically different from what they used to be. The ability to digest the lactose contained in milk typically used to disappear during childhood. However, over the past 5,000 to 10,000 years, certain populations, especially those from Europe became dairy farmers and hence derived a selective advantage from the additional nutrition available from dairy. Today over 80 percent of North West Europeans have a mutation allowing adults to produce lactase and hence break down milk sugars and digest lactose. In parts of East Asia where milk is much less commonly drunk this mutation is much rarer and lactose intolerance is thus common, making breakfast cereal a hard sell.

Interestingly enough, one of the biggest changes that we have experienced in recent times is the shrinking of our brains, from around 1,500 cubic centimeters around ten thousand years ago to about 1,350 cubic centimeters today, a 10% decrease. It is unclear whether this is because our brains have become more space efficient over time, or that we’ve simply become dumber.

Despite these adaptations, by and large, we are not hugely different from the first humans to walk the earth all those years ago. Many of the characteristics that our ancestors evolved tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago remain with us today.

The problem is that these characteristics were evolved for a completely different time in a completely different world. Our operating systems are out of date and not the best fit for the modern world.

This is akin to using a laptop running a version of Windows from the 1990's. It sort of works, but it’s not really the most suitable tool for the task – buggy and incompatible with modern times. Put into situations that it wasn’t designed for, the system might just crash.

There is an unfortunate phenomenon where scuba divers drown, despite having sufficient air in their oxygen tanks and perfectly functional regulators.

For a long time it wasn’t known why this happened. It was eventually discovered that certain people experience an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered and have an instinctive and uncontrollable urge to uncover their mouths.

In the world where these instincts evolved, this made a lot of sense. If your mouth is covered, you should obviously uncover it so that you can breathe. In such situations, your brain helpfully triggers feelings of suffocation, giving you an overwhelming impulse to remove all obstructions. Problem, solution.

Regrettably, in the world of scuba diving, this is precisely the wrong message to send, resulting in divers panicking and instinctively pulling regulators out of their mouths, depriving themselves of the very oxygen their body wants them to get.

This is the outdated OS at work.

The emotional OS

Your emotions are very much a part of this outdated OS.

Early life didn’t have emotions. As far as we know, single celled organisms don’t get sad when other single celled organisms don’t find them attractive, because doing so isn’t particularly productive from an evolutionary perspective.

However, as complex life forms evolved, it became increasingly useful to have a built-in guidance system that steered these increasingly complex creatures towards outcomes which were more likely to lead to the success and survival of their genes.  

A fearless creature that casually walks off cliffs, strolls into fires and picks fights with predators ten times its size does not tend to survive very long. Hence fear was one of the first primal emotions that evolved as a useful survival strategy.

Later, early mammals evolved maternal instincts and feelings of love for their offspring. This ensured that parents would go to the ends of the earth and literally fight to the death for their children, raising the odds of survival for their next generation of genes.

Social emotions came in handy to many types of animal. An animal that feels lonely when alone, and happy when surrounded by fellow creatures is driven to seek out company and thus benefits from safety in numbers.

In this way, emotions gradually evolved until primates such as modern humans finally ended up with the full collectible set, including special edition emotions like romantic love, guilt and pride.

These built in emotional reactions are obvious even in babies.

Anyone who has dealt with crying babies will have noticed that they tend to be calmer when being carried around as compared to being held while sitting.

Why should babies care whether their mothers are sitting or standing, stationary or moving?

A 2013 study by Gianluca Esposito discovered that there was a marked difference between the two scenarios, not only behaviourally but also physiologically. When being carried, babies’ heart rates slow down significantly and they become less agitated.

The evolutionary reason for this is the human flight response. If the person holding you is on the move, fleeing from a predator, it makes sense for the baby to be as calm and still as possible so as not to interfere with the escape.

In modern times, parents are somewhat less likely to be fleeing from hungry wolves while carrying their babies. Despite this change in circumstances, the instinct remains ingrained in most babies – there is no evolutionary reason to drop it. Exhausted parents can therefore look forward to pacing the halls half asleep for generations to come. Likewise, many of our other emotions are also somewhat unnecessary vestiges of times gone by.

While we may think of emotions as very human qualities, complicated, ethereal and beautiful, in a less romantic sense they are no different from plants growing towards the light, only with slightly more songs and poems written about them. Plants are stimulated by the sun and are motivated to grow towards it in order to capture more light. Similarly, love, hate, joy and sorrow motivate you to behave in certain ways to achieve evolutionary goals.

Carrots and big sticks

Positive and negative feelings are essentially carrots and sticks that drive us towards optimal survival strategies. Do things which are beneficial from an evolutionary point of view and you get rewarded with good feelings. You are incentivised to behave in ways which will provide you with more pleasant carrot feelings. Do things which are detrimental, such as getting yourself ostracised, putting yourself in jeopardy or being hungry makes you feel bad, you get beaten with a proverbial stick, and are henceforth incentivised to avoid such events.

Unfortunately, this carrot and stick system is also why negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive ones. Getting beaten by a stick is considerably more painful that it is pleasurable to nibble on a carrot, no matter how much you enjoy carrots. It is much more important to make you feel bad about losses, than to make you feel good about gains, because losses can kill you, and you can only lose your life once.

Losing the only apple you have may mean death by starvation, whereas not gaining an additional apple simply means a lost opportunity. There will hopefully be more apples along the way.

Thus, if you’re caught between a delicious sandwich and a ravenous tiger, it is generally more important for fear to take the lead so that you escape the tiger rather than chow down on the sandwich.

This inherent bias against losses was neatly illustrated by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 90s. Participants were offered a coin toss and told that if it landed on tails, they would have to pay $10. They were then asked how much they would need to win if it landed on heads for the bet to be worth it to them.

It turned out that people wanted more than $20 before they found the gamble worthwhile. A significant premium was required to offset the potential pain of losing – literally the threat of loss was twice as powerful as the promise of gain.

An even more glaring difference was exhibited when economist Richard H. Thaler posed two scenarios to his students (paraphrased here):

Scenario 1: Suppose there is a 1 in 1000 chance that you have contracted a fatal disease. How much is the most you would pay for an antidote?

Scenario 2: Suppose instead that you are offered the opportunity to voluntarily expose yourself to the disease, with a 1 in 1000 chance of contracting it. What is the minimum amount you would demand to do so?

In both cases, there is a certain amount of money at stake in exchange for a 0.1% change in their chances of dying. Logically speaking, the amount paid should be equal in either situation.

In reality, typical responses were that people would pay no more than $2000 for the antidote, but would need to receive more than $500,000 in return for exposure to the disease (and many would not do so for any price).

This means that in the first scenario, people were unwilling to pay more than $2000 (losing the money that they already had) in order to remove their 0.1% chance of dying. The pain of losing any more money that belonged to them was simply not worth it, despite the possibility of dying. And yet in the second scenario, the very same people demanded more than $500,000 in order to accept the same 0.1% increase in risk of dying (losing the health that they already had). This disparity is completely nonsensical from a logical perspective but is a very typical reflection of our instinctual aversion to loss.

This loss aversion plays out every day in human life. Casinos profit from it daily, since people who have lost are much less likely to walk away than those that win. It is too painful to lock in your losses, so you keep playing in the hope that you make it back. Stock market traders face exactly the same problem with losing trades and tend to find it difficult to cut their losses.

People stay in jobs they hate because their fears of loss and uncertainty are more powerful than the potential happiness of finding a job they love. For the same reason, people often stay in bad relationships far beyond any reasonable point, while well-meaning outsiders scratch their heads in bewilderment, not realising that they too have undoubtedly exhibited this loss aversion.

Another problem loss aversion causes for us is missed opportunities. When presented with a good opportunity with favourable odds, many people will not proceed for fear of potential loss. Even minor risks can be considered unacceptable so as to avoid losing what we already have. While this keeps us relatively safe, it also prevents many of us from making decisions that may help improve our situations (much like never getting in an airplane will prevent you from being in a plane accident, but will also shrink the size of your world).

One good way of overcoming this tendency is to see each risk not as an individual risk, but as one in a long string of risks. For example, if we bet on a coin toss with the condition that a win nets us $15 and a loss costs us $10, there is a 50% chance we would win or lose, but since we would win more than we lose the expected value of the bet is positive and logically this should be a worthwhile bet to take. And yet we know that many people would not take this bet because of loss aversion. After all, there is still a 50% chance that you could lose something.

However, if we see this bet as simply one in a long string of bets, the equation changes. Let’s say we are going to make the same bet 500 times over our lifetimes. In this case, in order to lose a single cent, we would have to be on the losing end at least 301 times. Given that there is a 50% chance of winning or losing each time, the odds of us losing 301 or more times over 500 rounds are an exceedingly unlikely 0.00029%. In other words, there is about a 1 in 342 thousandth chance of you not coming out ahead, and a 99.999% chance of you being better off over time should you take these risks.

Before you get up, this is not a clarion call to head to the casinos and start gambling. Rather, it is a proxy for life, and the many risks and opportunities we face. Instead of seeing each opportunity as a be all or end all, we can see them as being just one in a series of opportunities. Whether it’s talking to the guy you secretly like, starting a side business, moving to a different country or just attending an event you suspect will be boring, every opportunity you consider is in some way a risk, but it is only one in a series of opportunities you will have over your lifetime. In many cases, the risks we take don’t even lead to any real tangible losses other than what we perceive in our heads, such as embarrassment or rejection.

If the odds are in your favour, you should roll the dice. Undoubtedly, some of the chances you take won’t work out, but provided you choose reasonable, calculated risks, in the long run you will almost certainly be better off. As the old adage goes, you miss 100% of the chances you don’t take.

Be bold, take more chances.

There are two very important provisos here, the first being that the chances you take need to be in your favour or the math simply doesn’t work. A risk is only worth taking if the potential benefits are greater than the potential drawbacks. You can’t take a bet for $10 to jump off a jagged cliff and expect to come out ahead. This is also why you should never gamble in a casino and expect to win.

The second proviso is that you should never ever risk what you need for what you don’t, no matter how good the odds seem. If you own one apple tree that provides you with your sole source of vital sustenance, and bet it for the chance to own an apple orchard, you could either end up with too many apples, or you could end up starving to death. Neither is necessary nor wise.

Feeling bad

Loss aversion aside, the general tendency for humans to emphasise negative emotions leads to a lot of unnecessary problems in the modern world. We tend to feel badly about things which don’t really matter, for far longer than is necessary, based on instincts designed for a different world. We are significantly more aware of bad things around us, while often oblivious to all the good that is floating around. We even have better recall of unpleasant memories than positive ones.

Saddled with sadness, jealousy, anxiety, hatred and general negativity we are often lead by our emotions down the wrong path. Positive emotions on the other hand are often fleeting. We feel them less intensely and for less time. Love and lust are possibly the only exceptions to this rule; we tend to feel these emotions powerfully since they lead to reproduction which is exceptionally important from an evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately, even positive emotions can lead us astray when they cloud our reason, as Romeo & Juliet might attest to.

This negative bias is rather unfortunate for us, but is perfectly reasonable from an evolutionary standpoint. The process of evolution is not designed to make us happy or satisfied, in fact the opposite is generally true. With survival being the primary goal, feelings of stress, worry, fear and anger take precedence over feelings of happiness, satisfaction and peace of mind.

People often assume that evolution is a well-planned out scientific process whereby step by meticulous step ever superior life forms come to be. Think of evolution and you think more of X-men than amoebas; it seems like it should be a precise and purposeful endeavour. This is far from the truth.

We’ve all seen the diagrams showing the steady, purposeful evolution from hunchbacked primates to upright homo erectus to early humans carrying spears to the current pinnacle of humanity hunched before a computer screen. While it illustrates the general point, this is remarkably misguided factually. Evolution does not happen in a nice, purposeful straight line.

Rather, evolution is a very random, very haphazard process of trying lots of things and seeing what works. It's like someone trying to invent glue by throwing millions of random compounds at the wall and literally seeing what sticks. The end result generally works but is usually flawed and almost always inefficient. It's good enough for purpose and that is all that evolution aims for – a passing grade.

Evolution is simply a process that selects genetic traits to maximise survival of genes. Those that survive to reproduce are able to pass on their traits. Those with less suitable characteristics, such as fearless Joe who liked to wrestle tigers or skinny Sally who didn’t like to eat or drink, do not. Over time, certain physical and behavioural characteristics that lead to successful reproduction become dominant and shape the development of entire populations.

It might have been nice had we evolved to be always in a state of joy and bliss.  However, tens of thousands of years ago being anxious and worried tended to be quite useful. The man who was constantly anxious and alert, running off terrified every time he heard so much as a growl was more likely to survive than the easy-going man who slept like a log while wolves circled.

From a survival standpoint, it was useful for people to be neurotic, seeing dangers and problems at every corner, whether real or imaginary, and generally live angst filled, tormented lives. These were the people who survived to pass on their genes – our ancestors.

Fortunately for most of us, modern day life is significantly less dangerous. Not many of us tend to be eaten these days. Unfortunately for us, our OS has not evolved accordingly.

The behaviours that were selected as optimal for survival tens of thousands of years ago are not the same behaviours that are optimal today. Old emotional responses have simply been copy and pasted onto entirely new scenarios. Instead of being an aid to handling problems, they have become problems in themselves.

A prime example is the fight or flight response. This evolved as a survival mechanism, allowing people and other animals to react quickly in life threatening situations.

When a threat is perceived, a distress signal is sent to your hypothalamus, which starts a whole cascade of hormonal and physiological changes to help you fight the threat off or flee to safety.

Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, pushing blood to your muscles, heart and other vital organs. The airways in your lungs open wide so that they can take in more oxygen, with your brain receiving an extra serving to increase alertness.

Your adrenal glands start pumping adrenaline into your bloodstream. Your senses, especially your sight and hearing become heightened. The extra adrenaline causes glucose and fats to be dispersed, sending nutrients into the bloodstream. The effect is somewhat like engaging the turbocharger in a car engine, sending a burst of energy through your body.

These changes happen very quickly, in fact before your conscious mind can even register them. This is why you can react in emergencies without thinking, diving out of the path of a projectile that you haven’t consciously noticed yet.

After the initial adrenaline boost, cortisol is released to keep the sympathetic nervous system in high gear for as long as the perceived threat is still present. This increases sugars in your bloodstream and the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Cortisol also has the effect of minimising functions that are non-essential in an emergency scenario, like turning off everything but life support and weapon systems on a battleship. Immune system responses are altered, while the digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes are supressed. Regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear are also affected. Obviously, stifling these systems for extended periods of time doesn’t do us any favours.

These responses were all well and good when the threats you encountered were real, physical things that could eat, crush or otherwise kill you. Unfortunately for modern humans, this response is readily triggered by somewhat less deadly scenarios, including worries about work, public speaking, traffic jams, low smartphone batteries, awkward silences, unfamiliar situations, or turning up at an event in shorts and realising that everyone else is in black tie. Even just contemplating completely imaginary situations can get your fight or flight machinery thumping.

You start sweating and your muscles tense up. Your heart pounds and your breathing quickens. You feel anxious and stressed. If you get worked up enough you actually become physically sick.

While this is an admirable effort from your body, none of these responses are remotely helpful in such conditions and rather ironically hinder rational responses.

Instead of calmly giving your well-prepared speech you end up shaking and sweating and stuttering and despite your best efforts you can’t calm yourself down because of all the adrenaline pounding through your system.

Even worse, in the time of our ancestors, fight or flight situations tended to be momentary in nature. Once you had escaped the immediate threat your body would put a brake on the stress response and calm down.

In modern times, sources of stress are everywhere, and many are constant, unrelenting, long term affairs that go on for years. This chronic stress means that your body continually feels it is under threat and keeps your stress response systems activated. Just like a motor that is kept running on high without reprieve, this can damage your body as well as your mind.

Overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones disrupts almost all of your body’s processes.

Constant adrenaline surges damage blood vessels and arteries, causing an increase in blood pressure and consequently raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Cortisol increases appetite and the storage of unused nutrients as fat. This leads to the build-up of fat tissue and weight gain, which in turn leads to a host of other problems.

Effects on the mind are perhaps even more unfortunate, including anxiety, depression, memory and concentration impairment, sleep problems, digestive issues and headaches.

This stress response is built into you evolutionarily. Absolutely everyone feels stress; it is unavoidable as a human. However, the degree to which a person is susceptible to stress varies, and can be trained to a certain degree.

What some people find extremely stressful, others may not even notice. Some people handle stressful situations with relative ease, whereas others go to DEFCON 1 at the slightest hint of a problem.

This reaction is of course determined by your GEBE.

Certain people have genes that promote overactive or underactive stress responses, making them more or less likely to go into fight or flight mode.

The rest is determined by your life experiences. People who have experienced violent incidences, or are often in high stress situations are more vulnerable to stress. Children who are neglected or abused tend to be very prone to stress later in life.

Many of your emotional responses, including the fight or flight response stem from relatively primitive parts of your brain within your limbic system – the so called ‘reptilian brain’. Exaggerated responses from this system are part of what creates the feeling of terror deep down in the pit of your stomach. This system is lightning quick, automatic and beyond conscious control – it activates before your conscious mind even knows what’s going on.

These primal feelings are triggered when your OS feels that your welfare is being threatened. Research has shown that this often causes people to revert to tribal behaviour in an effort to make themselves feel safe. These behaviours are often irrational and unpleasant, including knee jerk prejudicial or nationalistic responses.

Primal responses can be overridden however. While the limbic system response is faster than the rest of the brain, it also activates the prefrontal cortex, a more recently evolved part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions. The prefrontal cortex is able to examine the situation rationally, exercising control over the fear system, supressing inappropriate or unnecessary judgements or behaviour. With the right strategies, the tortoise is able to beat the hare.

Your responses to stress are therefore trainable. You can’t always change your situation or the source of your stress, and you may not even be able to control the initial onset of negative emotion, but you can certainly change your perception of the event and hence your longer-term emotional reaction. This can drastically reduce the length of time you are affected by negative emotions, and keep your responses rational and unclouded.

Likewise, positive emotions are a trainable skill. The way we think directly influences our experience of the world. If you think you are happy, despite a hurricane having blown down your house, your leg being broken and bill collectors at the door (or more accurately standing atop the rubble that used to be your door), then by definition you are happy (if perhaps not entirely normal).

We will discuss this more in a further chapter.

For now, let’s look at another example of your outdated OS at work – your weight.

How heavy is your OS?

Obesity is a worldwide problem.

Every year it seems that a larger proportion of the population is overweight. 15% of American adults were obese in 1976, whereas in 2018 it was almost 40%.

The obvious culprit is of course the sheer availability of calories in the modern world. Cheap fast foods and snacks are abundant, and food companies have become extremely adept at engineering addictive foods, and doling them out in ever larger serving sizes.

But just because food is there doesn’t mean we have to eat it. So why do we?

Our ancestors lived in hard times, when food was difficult to come by and the next meal (or five) was never guaranteed. In order to survive, they had to evolve mechanisms to make it through times of hunger, namely an ability to store fat to be used as reserve energy, as well as an innate craving for energy sources (food) that could be used to charge these stores.

Your OS therefore makes you feel happy when you eat, and unhappy when you are hungry. This is just a basic guidance system that incentivises you to keep yourself fuelled up and alive. For many people, eating is one of the greatest pleasures of life, and certainly the most readily accessible one. Many of us feel particularly happy when eating fatty, sugary foods, since these are good energy sources that keep us alive and energetic.

Unfortunately, when this reward system was instituted, such foods were relatively hard to get so it was a good idea to load up on them whenever available. In a world where calories are scarce and daily life is packed with physical activity, it makes complete sense to chow down whenever possible, because who knows when your next chance will be.

Times have changed though; in today’s world it is usually harder to find healthy food than junk food, and lifestyles have become considerably more sedentary. As a result, this emotional reward system has backfired quite ironically, often resulting in the very opposite of what it was designed to do (keep us alive). We have now reached a point in history where for the first time, people are forecast to live shorter lives than their parents, primarily due to weight related health issues.

There is also a strong genetic component to our weight.

While it would make things a lot simpler, there is unfortunately no specific number of calories that is generally 'right' for every person; all controllable factors being equal, the same amount of food can make one person overweight and another underweight.

In the 1960’s, Dr Jules Hirsh at Rockefeller University recruited obese people and kept them on a 600 calorie a day liquid diet. The participants lost an average of 100 pounds and were delighted. Sadly, this did not last. As soon as they left the experiment the pounds piled back on. Since then, countless other weight loss experiments have been conducted with much the same result. You may even have seen this happen with people that you know. Losing large amounts of weight quickly through intense discipline is certainly possible, but rarely sustainable.

Physiologically, when an obese person reaches a healthy weight, they resemble a starving person, and face an intense craving for food. Your OS has a specific default weight that is preconfigured. If your weight is below this OS determined level, regardless of whether it is actually a healthy weight or not, your OS will signal that you need to eat. In fat people, this default level is set too high and their brains keep them feeling hungry and work to ensure that they stay fat.  

This is why body weight has been shown to have a strong inherited component, almost as strong as height. People often end up with weights similar to their parents. This is true for adopted children as well as for twins that are reared apart. In the end they often end up at nearly identical body weights to their biological parents, no matter their individual environments.

This means that eating less and exercising more, while vital, is only part of the equation. Unfortunately, those are the only effective levers that are under our control.

Even ignoring the free will perspective from the previous chapter, it is still pointless to blame overweight people or ourselves for not being at a particular desired weight. While it is certainly possible for people to lose weight and be healthier, it is undoubtedly much harder for some than others, through no fault of their own.

Saying that, whatever your default weight level, you should certainly do everything that you can to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. It is absolutely possible through grit and determination to lose weight through diet and exercise, but it is generally not possible to do this over a crash course and have it be sustainable. Slow and steady is the name of this game. Even though your OS has a predetermined default weight, it is possible to slowly adjust this level over time by losing weight slowly and maintaining it over a period, rather than quickly losing weight all at once. Your OS will acclimatise gradually, giving you better long-term results.

Beyond that it is important to look at health holistically rather than focusing on weight as the single, ultimate measure. We are all different and our weights will stabilise naturally at different points. We can certainly optimise what we have, but understanding that there are natural processes at work allows you to approach the task in a more reasoned and gentle way. Treat others and yourself with empathy and understanding and approach the challenge knowing that there is more to it than brute force. Remember the wizard behind the curtain.

Our insecure OS

Our obsessive need for status, acceptance and wanting to please others is another manifestation of our outdated OS. In the hunter-gatherer world that our emotions evolved to deal with, society was generally comprised of small tribes. Your life revolved around the tribe. Being part of a community meant safety, food and potential mates. Someone who was not accepted and banished from the group would very likely not be able to survive or reproduce.

This meant that a need for approval and acceptance became an evolutionary advantage. Caring about what others thought of you was a matter of life or death. The more esteemed and admired you were, the less likely you were to be exiled and the more likely you were to have an uninterrupted and possibly outsized share of the community’s resources. Having people think badly of you or look down on you threatened this, and your OS made sure you felt it keenly with its usual arsenal of carrots and sticks.

Similarly, fairness was highly prized; people who act unfairly threaten your survival in a resource scarce world. Taking more than their fair share means depriving you of yours. Recognising this, your OS gets your blood boiling when you feel unjustly treated.

Today, being exiled from the kingdom you live in is considerably less likely, and much less consequential, yet our need for approval and status still reigns supreme and accounts for a great deal of our activities, energy and sorrows. We have taken this aspect of our natures to the extreme, bending over backwards to give each other the impression that we are attractive, successful, respectable members of society.

Often, we spend more time, effort and money on the appearance of being successful than on actual efforts to be successful. Whether it’s posting carefully staged and curated photos on social media, buying status symbols to show our worth, decorating ourselves with jewellery and expensive clothing, or amassing a steady stream of titles, qualifications and achievements, we are desperate to achieve appearances that matter only because we think they do.

Likewise, while fairness is still an important quality today, the consequences of perceived injustices are often miniscule compared to the visceral reactions we feel.

The amount of emotional stress we suffer when we feel blows to our self-esteem or sense of fairness is ludicrous. It is actually bizarre how much of the negative emotional reactions we face in life stem from minor incidents. Any kind of rejection, disapproval, criticism, contempt or rudeness is treated by our OS as an attack on our well-being. Our emotional machinery starts firing on all cylinders and we feel terrible; usually much more terrible than the situation actually warrants.

You are waiting in line for cupcakes. You have been waiting for some time now, but are finally nearing the end of the queue. From nowhere, a stranger rudely pushes past you and unnoticed by the cashier, slips smoothly into the head of the queue, places his order and slips away before anyone has had a chance to react. Naturally you feel upset. By elevating his own interests above yours, the stranger has disrespected you, acting as if you were worth less than him. You feel diminished by his act; it is an attack on your self-esteem. To make matters worse, this is also blatantly unfair. Why should he not wait in line like everyone else? Your muscles tense up, hormones are released, you feel anxious and stressed, and your mind starts going through elaborate ‘I should have’ scenarios involving you grabbing the perpetrator by the ankles and dangling him off a rooftop. However, if you were to take a step back to question your OS, you might realise that this is not a personal act directed at you and that while rude, the consequences are fairly insignificant as far as cupcake emergencies go. Your OS interpreted the slight as a threat and sounded the alarm, even though the real-world impact on your life is essentially zero. Quite literally this says nothing about you as a person, nor does it affect your life in the slightest, so there is no good reason for you to be unduly troubled.

Your frenemy makes a barely veiled nasty comment about your looks. Again, the real-world impact on your life comes to a grand total of nothing, and yet your emotional OS goes into overdrive. A perceived insult on you is an attack on your position in society. A slight on your looks triggers primitive, subconscious worries that your social status in in question. Assuming that your very survival is at risk, anger and self-doubt circuits start kicking in. In reality, absolutely nothing has changed. Your frenemy said the only thing she could have because of her GEBE, but her opinion is simply electrical signals running around in her brain that do not necessarily have any bearing on reality whatsoever. Her thoughts change nothing about who you are as a person, nor how you look, nor your value. You look exactly the same before and after her comments. The only possible real-world effect from this is positive – you evaluate her comment and if there is any validity whatsoever to it, you can make whatever improvements are possible. Other than that potential upside, there can be no possible impact on you whatsoever, other than those that you inflict upon yourself.

You apply for some jobs and are rejected from all of them. Thoughts about how useless you are course through your head along with how everyone will judge you. Your self-assessed worth takes a nose dive. Your OS takes care of the rest, sending you on an emotional spiral into depression. Again, your thoughts and feelings have significantly exaggerated the severity of the situation. Getting rejected is a normal circumstance in life that everyone encounters in one way or another. Job selection processes are notoriously flawed; getting rejected from a job often says very little about your competence, there are countless other factors at play. Certainly, there may be lessons you can learn from the process to improve your future applications, but feeling that you are useless isn’t one of them. The reality is that job searches take time for most people, and any job that you don’t get probably isn’t a good fit for you anyway. As for how others think, not only does it not matter given the lack of meaningful consequences, it is also generally untrue. You cannot possibly predict how everyone else will think. Most people have far too much going on in their own lives to have the time to look down on you. If your friends were having a tough time looking for a job, would you think they were useless? If not, then why would you assume anyone whose opinion is worth caring about would think that of you? Your job search is simply a task to undergo, not a perpetual condition of your life. It isn’t over until you are done. The only consequence of being rejected is that you have to continue searching, which is drastically different from the life or death emotions your OS is engaging.

Understanding the difference between real-life consequences and imaginary OS consequences can help free you from unnecessary distress. Realise that your emotional reactions are often not based on reality; they are based on exaggerated and largely fictional fears. Your OS is using aircraft carriers, rocket launchers, and particle cannons to swat flies. Most perceived attacks on your self-esteem are completely unnecessary; why feel diminished when clearly there is no logical basis to feel that way. Your self-worth is not determined by external factors.

Guard your thoughts

These are just some examples of how our outdated OS works at cross purposes to us. Our outmoded instincts and emotional reactions can cause us a tremendous amount of grief over our lifetimes.

The point here is not that emotions are a bad thing. On the contrary, they are a fundamental part of the human experience. Both positive and negative emotions remain useful as guidance mechanisms in many situations. Without emotions we would be like industrial robots, just more bumbling and accident prone. There would not be anything to enjoy without the ability to feel happy, surprised or amazed. There would be no love to power the world.

Emotions help us make decisions. Choosing between scrambled eggs and sunny side up for breakfast is not something that can be decided purely based on logic. There is no right answer, it is about which you feel like more, not which is better; emotion is needed to sway you one way or another. Experiments were performed by a neuroscientist called Antonio Damasio who found that people with brain damage in their emotional centres were unable to make simple decisions, despite being able to lay out the task in logical terms.  

This is why it is not uncommon to see highly rational people who make hugely consequential decisions on a daily basis at work, struggle mightily when it comes to deciding what to have for dinner or what to wear. There is no right choice and they are so rational that their emotional circuits haven't been trained enough to 'feel' what they prefer.

The downside of emotions of course is the negative bias and outdated triggers that incentivise us to behave in irrational or harmful ways, in addition to making us feel horrible.

We can become slaves to our emotions, gyrating wildly according to their whims. Someone says something we violently disagree with and we instantly feel anger and the need to retaliate. Someone else gives us some good news and we feel elated and excited. We turn on the news and feel indignant and upset. Dance, baby, dance.

By understanding what emotions are, what they were originally intended for, and how your emotional responses can lead you astray, you are better able to filter and direct them. Understanding gives you the power to protect yourself from emotionally driven decisions and rise above pettiness. You can take control and free yourself from the worst of your impulses.

When you feel an emotion, examine it and see it for what it is. An emotion is merely guidance information from your OS. As we have seen, not all this guidance is correct, and not everything you feel is accurate or true – many of your instinctive, emotional reactions are misguided or just plain wrong.

Knowing that your OS is inherently out of date, it makes sense to ask yourself, why do you feel this way? Is what you think and feel really true? Why feel something that is fundamentally based on false conclusions?

Your thoughts create your feelings and vice versa, influencing each other in a never-ending feedback loop. If you feel anxious, your thoughts will focus on the things that make you anxious. If you think anxious thoughts, you will quickly feel anxious as a result.

Remember this: It is impossible to continually feel sad, anxious or angry about something without continually thinking sad, anxious or angry thoughts.

Any time you are fuming over something, you replay the scene in your mind, thinking about the unfairness of the situation. You think about all the things you should have said or wished that you could have said. You agonise over why people behave so badly. You dwell on the hurt and the injustice and how things should not be this way.

The more you think these thoughts, the more upset and angry you get, and the more you think these thoughts, in a cycle that inevitably goes on far longer than it should, until hopefully it fades away or you find something newer and shinier to get upset about.

Particularly serious events that you sear into your mind through constant repetition and negativity may cause emotional scars that never truly fade away.

Thinking negative thoughts under adverse circumstances is natural, but prolonged negativity ultimately only causes suffering without benefit. They won’t change anything other than your happiness and your likelihood of making emotion fuelled mistakes.

Practice a karate kick a thousand times and you're going to get pretty good at it. Neural connections grow sturdier, muscle memory forms and soon you are able to kick innocent boards into oblivion with ease.

Think a thought a thousand times and you can be sure you'll be pretty good at conjuring that up too. As your neural connections grow stronger, the memory takes on more importance in your brain, your feelings intensify, and it becomes harder and harder to move on from the situation. The slightest reminder will conjure up negative associations and emotions.

You must therefore guard your thoughts carefully. No one else talks to you as much as you do, so you’d better make sure you’re saying the right things. Since your feelings stem from your thoughts, positive messages to yourself will result in positive emotions.

When regarding any incident that has caused you upset, try to understand why it is that you are feeling these emotions. After all, getting sad and despondent about things that cannot be changed has little utility. Thanks to our outdated OS, our emotions are nonetheless triggered, but clearly these feelings are unhelpful. Instead of their intended purpose, the emotions themselves end up causing us more damage than the actual incident.

In other situations, we may not be dealing with an unpleasant incident, but suffering in anticipation of one instead. This is even less called for. Our emotions are being activated in expectation of an event that does not yet, and may never, exist. Instead of focusing our faculties in preparation for the event, we instead spend a great deal of energy dreading and stressing over it, ironically ensuring our performance is weaker if and when the event actually occurs.

Suppose you’re scheduled to give a talk. Every time you think about it you imagine a sea of disapproving faces jeering and sneering at you. You imagine yourself choking and how badly people will think of you. You start to sweat and you feel sick. The more you think this way, the more you train yourself to associate the event with negativity, the more stressed you feel, the more you think about it, and so on.

Understand that your well-meaning OS is making a mountain out of a molehill. Giving a speech is in no way comparable to the life or death, fight or flight situations that your emotional responses were designed for. It’s like an oversensitive fire alarm that activates the sprinklers every time someone has a hot coffee.

Understanding the reason for your emotional response, and that these reasons are often unfounded, is the first step to managing your feelings. By giving yourself the right messages, you can reign in your over exuberant OS and adjust your responses. This is why seasoned speakers can step up and deliver without breaking a sweat. They were once as sweaty and knock kneed as everyone else, but repetition and training has shown their OS that there is nothing to fear. The sky is not falling. You’re just talking to a bunch of people. Wolves aren’t going to eat you, you aren’t going to get ostracised by society and the very worst thing that can possibly happen is really not particularly bad at all. This applies to most things in life.

Many people are not fortunate enough to be able to handle their emotions well and pay a stiff price, living lives of internal and external conflict and strife.

When we’re in the grip of intense emotions, we generally don’t take the wisest actions or come up with our finest work. Martin Luther King didn’t write his ‘I have a dream’ speech while fuming over the injustice of racism. Gandhi didn’t come up with his doctrine of non-violence while incensed over British rule. Neither Shakespeare, Einstein, Tesla nor Newton were shaking with anger while they created their greatest works. They couldn’t have been. It simply isn’t possible to be intensely emotional and clear headed at the same time. Learning to manage and guide your emotional OS is one of the most important things you can do for yourself.

Whenever you catch yourself in a runaway train of negative thoughts, try and take pause. The good thing about having a one track mind is that you can only really focus on one thing at a time. Use this to your advantage. Force yourself to think of something else, anything else.

Granted, this is not easy. When you’re upset, your brain is wired to keep revisiting these thoughts at the slightest opportunity. The moment you aren’t actively focusing, your brain will resurface them. There you are, trying your best to focus on a great book, when suddenly you realise that you’ve been seething over what Marge said for the past 15 minutes.

It is hard, but fortunately with practice, it is perfectly possible. Every time you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts, allow those thoughts to pass and redirect your focus. Every time you slip up, simply redirect yourself again. The more you do this, the easier it becomes, and the more you can keep your focus away from negativity.

To be clear, this is not the same thing as suppressing your emotions, which typically backfires. Life becomes an exercise in avoidance of pain, and the more you try to avoid or suppress these emotions, the more these emotions have a tendency to spring up (since by actively avoiding them you are in fact actively thinking about and engaging with them).

Even in the best-case scenario, this puts you in a box where you try to avoid all emotional triggers, only to find out that the box keeps shrinking as the situations you need to avoid multiply like rabbits. Eventually you may indeed succeed in supressing your emotions, but you will end up suppressing positive emotions along with negative ones and become a numb shell unable to enjoy much of anything.

A better approach is to accept whatever feelings you have for what they are. This doesn’t mean taking things lying down. It doesn’t mean succumbing to Stockholm syndrome and growing to love the feelings that torture you. It means simply that you accept that whatever is, is. Without judgement, without resistance, and without even compliance, you can simply accept reality as it is, facts as they are, and recognise that you are feeling a certain way, without adding any flavour to it. Having accepted these emotions, there is no real need to dwell on them, and you can focus your attention on other things. The more you focus on other things, the less bandwidth you spend reinforcing these negative emotions that you have already accepted.

Instead of suppressing your emotions, you are merely redirecting your thoughts, impeding the cause of your negative emotions, rather than your emotions themselves. Rather than holding them in, you are simply not creating them at all, or accepting them and allowing them to pass through your mind without impact. There is no need to hold in or let out what isn’t there.

Meditation is an excellent way to focus your thoughts, which is why meditators often have an air of zen and calmness around them. After decades of being confused with kooky mysticism, meditation has entered the mainstream consciousness and grown in popularity as a legitimate mental exercise.

There are reams of research papers extolling the virtues of meditation on our wellbeing. Regular meditators have been shown to have better immunity to infections, improved cholesterol levels, healthier blood pressure and stronger hearts. It has also been linked to longer telomere length, which is in turn linked to longer lifespans – meditation can literally extend your life.

Indications are that it is not the act of meditation itself that is causing all these health benefits, rather it is the avoidance of negative emotions and thoughts, which feeds nicely back to the discussion at hand. Meditation is perfect for our purposes, allowing us to armour ourselves against uninvited negative thoughts, break the negative feedback cycle and elude emotional fallout.

While meditation is certainly worth learning, like any other skill, it takes time, effort and dedicated practice to master. In the meantime, there are other ways we can quell our negative thoughts.

The aim is simply to direct your thoughts away from negativity. Whenever you catch yourself dwelling on negative thoughts, find a positive activity to occupy your mind with. This might be something as simple as reading a book or watching a movie. If you can’t focus on that, try something more involved like tennis, pilates, yoga, catching up with friends or playing a video game. If that doesn’t work, pick a random number, say 38,923 and keep counting upwards in increments of 6. Experiment with different activities until you find something that is both consuming and satisfying enough to concentrate on. You will find it impossible to focus fully on something and think negative thoughts at the same time.

Without continuously reinforcing the cycle of negativity, your emotions will naturally follow suit, you will be able to calm down, and the incident will not take emotional root. Later, with a clear mind you can then handle the situation without undue emotions clouding your judgement.

Of course, this is not always possible, especially when events are fresh and intense; your emotions take grip of you and for the moment, it can seem impossible not to think negative thoughts. In such cases, a completely opposite strategy may be suitable.

The first thing to realise is that few emotions strictly exist in an absolute sense.

To a large extent, emotions are merely man-made labels to fit the various circumstances we have come to encounter in life. Often, it would never occur to us to feel a certain way, or take offense at something until it is helpfully pointed out to us that we should.

An ancient caveman likely had a much simpler emotional life and was quite incapable of feeling, for example, vemödalen, which is a word coined to describe the frustration of photographing something knowing that thousands of identical photos already exist. Knowing that your artistic shot of the Eiffel tower already exists in millions of other holiday snaps can apparently turn the experience into something hollow and cheap for some people. Fortunately, as of yet, this word/emotion is not commonplace, but should it go viral for some reason, you can be sure that millions of people around the world would suddenly be feeling vemödalen about their camera roll.

Cavemen were not any less emotionally developed than modern day humans. It is simply that their perspective and focus was very different. Without the knowledge to feel insulted when their fellow man sat in front of them digging their nostrils they simply weren't. We have now come a long way and have learned to take offense at a great many things, however reasonable or not.

Emotions are a rather vague thing scientifically speaking. By definition, this is touchy feely stuff. Researchers’ from the University of Glasgow led by Rachael E. Jack, used classification of facial expressions to conclude that there are only four basic biological emotions: anger, fear, happiness and sadness, as far as emotional communication is concerned. Every other emotion is created by mixing and matching these basic building blocks.

The classical view of emotions is a more generous six basic emotions, adding disgust and surprise to the mix (which the Glasgow team found to be the same as anger and fear respectively). Other researchers have their own numbers and definitions, ranging anywhere from eight to hundreds, with feelings such as gusto, irascible, entrancement, aesthetic appreciation and choleric making the cut.

Putting aside the pressing question of whether you have ever actually felt choleric, we can note that from a physiological point of view at least, emotions are relatively simple. Electrical signals fire in your brain, your nervous system is activated and various hormonal and musculoskeletal responses occur, exhibiting as flushed cheeks, tingles down the spine, butterflies in our stomach and that all around lightness we associate with joy. Even though we may feel our cheeks burning with embarrassment or our hearts pounding from anger, the actual changes to our skin temperature and heart rates tends to be relatively minor.

This means that most emotions actually manifest in more or less the same physical symptoms. From a physiological perspective, the feeling of being anxious is essentially the same as the feeling of excitement. The positive or negative cast is simply added through context and how you choose to label the emotion. This is why hundreds of labelled emotions can be boiled down to just a few in the end examination; they are largely similar.

This can be used to your advantage. The next time you feel overwhelming emotion and are unable to focus your attention elsewhere, inspect the feeling calmly and carefully, as if you were examining an apricot for ripeness. Don’t think about anything, just feel the emotion as it pertains to physical feelings in your head and body, noticing each and every sensation that arises. How does it feel in your face? How does your body feel? Are your shoulders tense? Is your back tense? Does your chest feel tight? Become truly willing to feel and embrace the emotion.

Observe it without judgement. Don’t label it or identify with it. It isn’t good or bad, it is just a sensation, quite literally just a feeling. Soon you will find that the emotion, like everything else that goes on within you, is simply a pattern of electrical signals and energy. There is nothing inherently good or bad about the energy.

By realising that emotional energy is largely the same, you can reshape negative energy into positive energy, simply by switching the context in your mind. Instead of ‘I am feeling terrified and anxious about having an interview,’ you can change it to ‘I am feeling excited and eager to have a productive interview.’ Feel the feelings as they occur inside of you and realise that they can actually match your new context. Your emotional energy can be harnessed for good.

Even more miraculously, you may find that by focusing on the energy, by accepting it and not feeding it further, the emotion rather strangely starts to fade away. Much like an unwanted stalker, ignoring it just encourages it to hang around, whereas watching it carefully makes it slink away in embarrassment.

These methods make use of the way your mind works, allowing you to take control over your baser instincts.

In addition to these methods, it is vital for your emotional health to exercise, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, take time for hobbies and have healthy, supportive relationships in your life. But perhaps the most powerful technique to counter unnecessary negative emotions is to control the stories you tell yourself, a topic that we will explore later on.