Self-Mastery:Discipline and Will Power

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By Jim Porto

Self-mastery includes discipline and will power. These concepts have been used interchangeably, but I believe they describe separate behaviors requiring different strategies to develop. They may be distinguished by a simple concept table.

The horizontal axis captures short term outcomes: pain and pleasure. The vertical axis captures long term outcomes: harm and benefit. For most people, activities that produce short term pain and long term harm will not be undertaken so will not be a problem. For example, sticking one’s hand in a fire is not an activity anyone would do, unless motivated by a perverse psychological need. Likewise, undertaking an activity that produces short term pleasure and long term benefit is not a problem. Laughter provides pleasure and as research is beginning to show, has long term benefit from stress reduction.

Problems arise from the remaining two categories: will power and discipline. As children we learn to delay gratification for future benefits. This learned response is re-enforced by our parents, so that we are able to recognize the long term danger even though we are attracted to the short term pleasure. Will power is the learned response to resist short term pleasure to avoid long term harm. For example, if you are allergic to honey, even though you love the taste of it, you cannot, and will not, eat it because it may cause you a severe reaction. Will power requires a passive form of energy.

Discipline, however, requires an active form of energy. Activities that are painful in the short term but produce benefits in the long term are a form of mental and emotional toughness that all successful adults exhibit. Exercising is a good example: discipline is required to get up every morning to run 3 miles in the dark. Discipline is also a learned process but its growth starts later in life as the child becomes more self-directed. The mystery of discipline is how it gets nurtured and how it is sustained. Discipline starts from desire-a desire to achieve a goal; to win a race, to build a better body, to ace a course.

To sum up: both will power and discipline are learned, which means neuroadaptations, primarily in the pre-frontal cortex, account for these behaviors. Under normal circumstances will power and discipline have great survival value and are vital to a successful life. However the normal mechanisms that give us the ability to exercise will power and discipline can be taken over by two destructive behaviors that are not easily unlearned: addictions and compulsions. The potency of the stimulus and the susceptibility of the person (genetic or environmental) will determine if either develops.

Part of the reason why addictions can and often do take such a firm hold on our lives is that we have been built with a “liking” and a “wanting” system. The liking system initiates us into action by activating the dopamine reward system. In turn the liking system activates the “wanting” system by giving heightened salience to, and incentives to seek out, activities initially producing pleasures. Repeated activation of these circuits by indulging in these activities (smoking for example) can, in some individuals, produce neuroadaptations that render the individual’s wanting system hyper-sensitive to the need for stimuli long after the dopamine system ceases to provide pleasure. These neuroadaptations are made through a learning process. That is good news, because what has been learned can be unlearned, albeit with difficulty.

To be clear, addictions are not overcome by the traditional notion of will power (just do it). Much effort is required to reverse the neuroadaptations that lead to addictive behavior. But will power can be nurtured and practiced through a host of strategies that have been developed by the substance abuse treatment professions. Anyone who has successfully kicked the smoking, alcohol, drug, or over-eating habits has overcome more genetic and environmental obstacles than the average person. Developing will power in the face of these obstacles is by far a greater achievement than abstaining when there are no obstacles.

Discipline can look like a compulsion. Behavior is compulsive when it is pursued despite interfering with progress on higher priority goals; health, family relationships, work effectiveness, for example. Compulsive behavior is rigid, automatic and independent from conscious control. Discipline is adaptable, voluntary, and under full conscious control.

Addictions and compulsive behavior are treatable through medication and behavioral modification (neuroadaptations). For all of us, will power can protect us from long term harm while discipline can help us achieve long term benefit.

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Published in: on November 4, 2007 at 11:31 am  Comments (1)  
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Intermittent Fasting for Calorie Restriction

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By Jim Porto

How to manage one’s intake and outflow of nutritional energy in an age of abundance is a vexing problem for much of the world. So much bad science has been conducted on this problem and so much bad advice has been given, that it is difficult to know what to believe. After experimenting and reading many articles and books on nutrition, here is what I have come to believe.

The body is an open energy system. What this means is that energy that comes in must equal energy going out. Excess energy is conserved and stored as fat. Any argument about eating as much as you want because the food ingested is “special” in some way is bogus.

Nutritionally, the body needs fats, carbohydrates and proteins to function. The best diet strategy is to avoid fad diets and to exercise portion control, which limits caloric intake. The only types of food to minimize in the diet are those that are highly processed and filled with preservatives. Highly processed foods are low in micro-nutrients and fiber which help fine tune the fitness system. They also have a higher probability of introducing contaminants, which could mutate genes in healthy cells into cancerous causing genes.

For men maintaining a waist size of 35 and under; and for females a waist size 29 and under are sensible targets for controlling obesity. A sound nutritional program and a rigorous and consistent fitness effort will achieve this objective.

A single method of controlling caloric intake will not work for everyone. My program started many years ago when I became a vegetarian. Even though I had an active workout schedule, I still had difficulty controlling 10-15 pounds of excess fat.

Over two years ago, I decided to fast one day a week. I initially told myself that this “experiment” had several purposes-it helped me balance my energy equation so that I did not put on excess fat; it was a reminder to me what it means to be hungry since many in the world, despite our abundance, still go hungry; and it was a good exercise in discipline. A year and a half ago, I started fasting twice a week. (From Sunday night to Tuesday morning and from Wednesday night to Friday morning.)

I have since found another reason for intermittent fasting. Life extension. Research in animals consistently shows that a calorie restricted (CR) diet of about 30% extends life expectancy by 40 %. What a bonus! So here are the numbers.

Given my level of physical activity, I need about 2500 calories a day to maintain my weight. If I follow a CR diet, I would consume only 1750 calories a day (.70 X 2500). Most folks who follow a CR diet, and there are many who do, look like it.

One of the articles I read took a closer look at the testing protocol used on the laboratory animals undergoing the CR diet. The author found that lab technicians fed the animals every other day and not daily with a reduced amount. The inference: intermittent fasting also works to extend life. Some evidence has since been developed to support this observation.

So I figure I need 17,500 calories a week (7 X 2500) but I take in roughly 12,500 calories (5 X 2500). Thus my weekly reduction in calories is 29% (5000/17,500). Pretty close to the 30%. There is little evidence to suggest at what age animals have to start a CR diet to extend life. Since I am starting so late, I figure the benefits are minor to me. But a 20 year old starting an intermittent fasting routine of two days a week could conceivably extend life to 118 years (84 X 1.40).

I have lost body fat and have a waist size of 34. But the mystery to me is that, even with this intermittent fasting routine of twice a week, my vegetarian lifestyle, lifting weights twice a week, running 3-6 miles 4 to 5 days week, I still am carrying a few extra pounds of fat. I look fit, but I do not look skinny. I take this as evidence that the body adapts by altering metabolism to accommodate my eating behavior.

Finally, building on this last observation, which may not stand up to scientific scrutiny, I believe that the life extending benefits of intermittent fasting for a CR diet may be caused by a reduction in base metabolism rates. One way of looking at this is that the wear and tear on our cellular furnaces is reduced and thus our cells can last longer. My goal then is to reduce metabolism and fat at the same time. Several popular diet books make a big deal about increasing metabolism to reduce weight. This appears backward to me.

Published in: on October 24, 2007 at 10:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Loss of Privacy

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By Jim Porto

Despite VP Cheney’s proclivity for secrecy and his ability to pull it off, for the rest of us, we have entered into the age of no privacy. Comments at a public hearing, letters to the editor, references in a news item (even the police blotter), minutes of a meeting, newsletters (church or otherwise) will eventually be posted to the Internet. Just to prove this-Google your name. While you are at it, check ZoomInfo, a site that employs web crawlers to search for information on millions of people.

This general loss of privacy has not been uniform. Those with power, like our Vice President, have powerful tools to maintain their privacy, often at public expense. We should insist on uniform and open standards across all spectra of our society. We can lament the loss of privacy but there is a positive side. When we are aware that our words and actions will eventually be posted for all to read and see, then maybe we will think twice before saying or doing something that is either unethical or illegal. This may become a mild deterrent to the psychopaths among us who prey on ignorance and operate within the shadows of people’s lives.

New generations may not be as enamored with modesty as past generations. With the pornofication of society, postings of intimate pictures to U-Tube by a disgruntled lover may not be disconcerting. But if you think of the Internet as an extended resume, then a U-Tube posting becomes part of one’s reputation and may have significant costs in the market place.

I recently talked to a headhunter about placing our students. He affirmed that he Googles every candidate that he tries to place. You can bet that part of the reference check that every employer now does is a Google search on final applicants. What are the chances that an applicant will get an offer if negative information shows up on the search?

The age of no privacy may, ironically, restore the value of having a good reputation. Attention to one’s reputation may help direct and govern behavior, which can’t be all bad.

Published in: on October 13, 2007 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Satan’s Strategy

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By Jim Porto

Raised as a Southern Baptist, I know all about Satan. Given that over half of the US population believes in angels, its no wonder that so many believe in the existence of the devil. When preachers accuse others of doing the bidding of Satan, it makes you wonder, if Satan were so smart, which most believe, then why would he be so obvious? Wouldn’t Satan come to earth in order to do the most mischief possible and couldn’t he accomplish this by claiming to be other than what he really is?

Its clear to me that if Satan were to come to earth, he would come as an extremely “religious” person to disguise his true nature. He would preach hate, intolerance, hellfire and damnation, and justifiable killing instead of love and tolerance. He would sound like a fundamentalist Christian evangelist, a militant Muslim cleric, or an extreme orthodox Jewish Rabbi.

To many, Satan has come to earth and given the number of true believers who accept hate, intolerance, hellfire and damnation in their religious lives, his strategy is working.

Published in: on October 13, 2007 at 12:38 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Sin of War-Making

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By Jim Porto

The letter below is what I had in mind with this Card–I take no satisfaction in being justified in my belief. I still marvel at the tortuous logic being used to sustain our presence in Iraq. Failure to see consequences that are as plain as day is shear stupidity. It goes without saying that the Bush administration will certainly achieve the distinction of being the most incompetent administration since that of Warren G. Harding.

Written in outrage (March 2003)

I am a Viet Nam vet. I flew helicopters from Marble Mountain for the Marines. I got shot at more than once, flew in some tight spaces, had the living daylights scared out of me flying night medevac in the mountains south of Danang, and rode a CH-46 fully loaded with combat Marines into the side of a hill (we all survived). I am angry, and I apologize up front.

While I was volunteering for service in 1968 much to the chagrin of my family, our President, George W. Bush, was having strings pulled to jump ahead 150 other applicants in line to the Texas Air National Guard. His daddy, you see, was a big shot. If you remember, anyone who didn’t have the stomach for Viet Nam and was too chicken to be an outright protestor of the war wanted to go into the Guard. Our Prez is such a man.

This is not the worst part. Now he wants to send 200,000 good men and women to war on the flimsiest of excuses. Having avoided the test himself, he appears to have no qualms about ordering others into combat. The issue is not Saddam Hussein. The guy is the worst dictator since Hitler. But that’s not why our Prez says we need to fight him. He says that we are being threatened by this tin-pot dictator and have to take him out.

This obsession with Iraq appears to have several unseemly motivations: the Prez’s daddy, the same one who got him into the Texas Air National Guard, was humiliated by Saddam and now the son wants vengeance; half of Bush’s top appointees come from the oil industry and the rancid smell of oil is all over this policy; and GW’s personal angst over having avoided testing his manhood in battle is now to be vicariously lived through the lives of men and women who, as good soldiers and Marines, will do as they are ordered.

The only praise I can give the President is that he has taken up the sound liberal cause of ridding the world of dictators who most horrifically violate the human rights of their citizens. But this is not the reason he gives, nor is he consistent in applying his new found liberal ideology to other tin-pot dictators. Saddam can be, and is, contained. We need to solve the Israeli problem with a more balanced approach to the Palestinians, and then give Arab nations the responsibility of ridding the world of Saddam.

I urge all active and retired military personnel to rise up in protest against this pretender and to send email, snail mail, and phone messages to the white house to protest this travesty.

Published in: on October 13, 2007 at 12:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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High Consequence Testing

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By Jim Porto

On 5 December 2006 I attended the Science Community Meeting on Security, a FBI sponsored conference in Washington, DC as UNC-Chapel Hill’s representative. It was clear that there were differences between the academic community and the FBI on how to detect criminal activity on campus. The effectiveness of criminal activity “tests” can be measured by its sensitivity and its specificity. The perfect test will be highly effective if test results yield positive results for all the guilty parties (high sensitivity), and negative results for all the innocent parties (high specificity). Unfortunately, no test can do this. In practice, there is a trade off. The more sensitive the test, the more likely it will ensnare the innocent. The more specific the test, the more likely the guilty will not be detected.

After the meeting, I graphed this trade-off.

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The FBI wants a low threshold for cutoff of suspicious activity to make the test more sensitive, even though many innocent victims will be arrested. Academics want a high threshold to make the test less sensitive, even though some of the guilty will not be caught. In other words the FBI wants to minimize false negatives (missing the bad guys) and academics want to minimize false negatives (ensnaring the good guys). As a general rule, it appears to me that the higher the consequence of the act, the more sensitive we would want to make the test. However actions on these high consequence events need to greatly outweigh the threats to individual liberties. The determination for highly sensitive tests should be made through a rational process that explicitly gives a high weight to civil liberties.

Published in: on October 6, 2007 at 4:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Leadership is Influence

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By Jim Porto

Literally thousands of books and articles have been written on the subject of leadership. Dozens of definitions have been offered and even more models have been proposed: multiple trait models, varying skill models, style models, situational models, contingency models, leader-member exchange models, transactional and transformational models. Yet, even though we do not know exactly what leadership is or how to define it, like Justice Stewart who defined pornography as “I know it when I see it,” most of us know leadership when we see it.

I believe that we are trying too hard to unravel the mystic of leadership. Leadership at its most basic is the ability to influence others. Individuals believe and act certain ways through a process of decision making (both conscious and sub-conscious). To change our ways we must (1) be convinced to do so and (2) translate that intellectual conviction into behavioral change. This two-step process is not always visible in routine decisions but becomes painfully obvious when we try to change bad habits. We can make the decision to change (for example quit smoking) but find it extremely hard to translate that intellectual decision to behavior.

Leadership is exercised when one person convinces another person of something or persuades another person to change behavior. The ability to influence others is cultivated in many ways: influence by example, by reasoning, by reputation, by expertise, and so on. Force can also be used to influence-force of will as well as physical force. Xenophon had to whip his troops to force them to continue marching to the Black Sea on the March of the 10 Thousand, which saved their lives.

When influence is used negatively, it is always for personal or political gain. When influence is used positively, it is always for a larger, public good and for the sustainability of the group. This leads to the notion of negative leadership (tyranny, cults) and positive leadership (self-determination, enlightenment).

This view of leadership means that we all exert leadership to the extent that we influence others. Our most visible leaders are the ones who most obviously influence others because they have more capabilities and resources at their disposal.

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Orders of Magnitude

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By Jim Porto

I recently read a fascinating little (literally) book on the biology of cancer written by Robert A. Weinberg (One Renegade Cell), who is a superb science writer and by all account a superb researcher in cancer. I am about 20% of the way through his comprehensive and, I believe standard-setting text, on the biology of cancer published in 2007 (The Biology of Cancer, Taylor and Francis Group). The overall impression given by Weinberg is that the biology of cancer is extremely complex but we are making progress mapping out the many “system failures” that lead to cancer tumor formation. As he says, cancer is a disease of damaged genes that disrupts the checks and balances of our biological system.

Since the scales of the components of cell biology are so small, it is difficult to get a fix on their relative sizes. Using orders of magnitudes and scaling up helps visualize relationships. So, for example if a virus were 6ft tall, then a cell would have a diameter of almost 11 miles! If my house were the nucleus then a circle drawn around it with a radius of 5.5 miles constitutes the cell boundary. If we assume that cells also have some height, then the space encompassed by the cell is vast compared to the sizes of many of the factors circulating within the body. As an example, the cell “communicates” with the extra-cellular world through receptors on the surface of the cell. Receptors are activated by factors that bind to them. In the scaled-up world, a receptor is between the sizes of a coffee cup and a small chair. We can now imagine millions of coffee cups with wires hanging on them placed on the surface of our town-sized cell. If a virus were to enter the cell, it would be like a man crossing the 5.5 mile boundary around my house. No doubt this man-size virus would be heading to my house to find my computer so that he could re-program my settings!

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Five Goals of Successful Learning

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By Jim Porto

As long as I have been on the faculty at UNC, I and my colleagues have discussed how to improve learning. There is much debate in our academic field now about “competencies,” a term which I object to (we should be fostering masteries not mere competencies). Items 1 and 2 are our traditional, explicit goals. We want students to learn factual knowledge, relevant conceptual models, and a set of useful skills. The competency debate is about which knowledge, models, and skills we want students to learn. Many have put forward competing competency lists, which has caused confusion for curriculum planners. I have my own list on a note card, which I will post later.

Items 3,4,5 are perhaps the most important components of successful learning but we rarely design courses to achieve them. Knowing what we do not know, as Socrates observed, is the better part of wisdom. But this goal is only achieved when students have reached the “expert” level in a subject, not the “competent” level. It’s very difficult to achieve this in the 2-4 years that students attend our programs.

Knowing how to learn may be taught through a research course and is often the intended by-product of thesis-writing, but we could do much better in helping students develop reliable tools to learn on their own.

Knowing how to re-learn is a goal that is not on our radar screen. Yet it may be the most important of these 5 goals. We have faulty memories and unless we use a skill often, either conceptual or procedural, we will forget it. One of our successful teaching faculty once told me that he had to re-learn his course every year because he forgot half his material over the summer. The kinds of things we can do to help students re-learn are to encourage them to keep journals, to give them tools to organize their notes, and to make sure they have only the key textbooks in their fields. The better organized students are with their material, the faster they will be able to re-learn it. But this is not enough, we need to develop more technological tools to achieve this goal so that education of the future will be more effective.

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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The God Debate

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By Jim Porto

Christopher Hitchens, on a promotional tour for his book GOD IS NOT GREAT: HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING, conducted a “debate” at the Raleigh Unitarian, Universalist Church on 16 May 2007. Mr. Hitchens’ adversary was a young Assistant Professor from Campbell University, a N.C. private college with fundamentalist leanings. It was no contest. Mr. Hitchens was playing to a sympathetic audience; his adversary was outgunned by Mr. Hitchens quick wit, charming stories, and big words. Even though I have come to hold a position very similar to that of Mr. Hitchens, I believe the GOD debate can not be won on rational grounds.

The scientific method uses only natural explanations for phenomena, not supernatural explanations. Supernatural explanations make our reality much more complicated because the laws we observe in our world can be set aside by a power we cannot fathom, which is to say, by whim. The God Hypothesis introduces a complicating force by removing the assurance of consistency and orderliness in our world.

The only “rational” defense for the scientific method is Occam’s Razor or the Law of Parsimony, which states that given two equally comprehensive explanations for a phenomenon, chose the simpler as the true one. Note that this is a decision criterion not a method of validation. There is no empirical or logical law that requires we take the simpler explanation; it is a matter of aesthetics. The simpler is more beautiful, more pleasing to the intellect. The scientific method, in the final analysis, is based upon a belief that the beautiful is truth rather than the truth is beautiful.

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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