executive function

Overwhelming Emotion? Try Unfusing

Feeling bad? If, inside, you are saying, “I’m anxious,” or “I’m depressed,” or “I’m furious,” or any other overwhelming and unpleasant emotion, Try unfusing1—as in uncoupling—from it. Unfusing works way better than trying to wish or push away emotion. Pushing against emotions actually keeps us in contact with them (and increases the tension as an added bonus!). And wishing strong emotions away—we all know how well that works. Unfusing from emotions, in contrast, is like swimming out of deep, turbulent waters to the lapping shore. The tossing waves may still be there, but now they’re at a safe distance.

Here’s how unfusing works. Let’s take anxiety as an example (though you can use this technique with any emotion).

  1. Allow yourself to notice the feeling, and say out loud:
    “I am anxious.”
  2. Next, say out loud to yourself:
    “I am experiencing the feeling of anxiety.”
  3. Say aloud:
    “I notice I am experiencing the feeling of anxiety.”
  4. Say aloud:
    “I notice that sometimes I experience the feeling of anxiety.”
    (If it’s the first time you’ve felt anxiety, you can say “I notice that I am capable of feeling anxiety.”)

Notice how you feel now in relation to your experience before you did the unfusing. By voicing these successive variations, you are changing your inner world. The original emotion might still be there, but the “I” in every sentence (“I am experiencing… I notice…”)—this “I” is growing bigger and bigger relative to the emotion. Unfusing moves you from being anxious (“I am anxious”) to being the “I” that is experiencing and noticing and owning the emotion. You can feel your emotions in a more aware way, a way that is literally self-contained.

So, when intense emotions well up and it feels like you and the emotions are one and the same—fused together—you can unfuse from them. You may still experience them, but with greater tranquility. The emotions can be with you, and you can be with your emotions, and feel more possession of your self.


  1. This exercise is my adaptation of a concept and set of techniques in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) called defusion. See the Cognitive Fusion section of “The Six Core Processes of ACT”.
        Notes from a dictionary nerd: Why have I changed the word to unfuse? I wanted to use the word as a verb, and the verbal form of defusion, defuse, already has a meaning that is resonant in the context of strong emotions: “To remove the fuse from an explosive device” (OED). While I acknowledge that some intense emotions can lead to explosions of temper, I am loath to associate the world of human feeling with “an explosive device.” The adjective unfused was recorded in John Ash’s The new and complete dictionary of the English language (1775) as meaning “not fused, not put into a state of fusion.” This is closest to the concept that ACT is trying to get at, so I’ve shamelessly coined the verb unfuse from that adjective. 

Bored? Alienate the Worker

The Sisyphus Series, Part IV

Of the three Sisyphean principles, this is perhaps the most counterintuitive. You’re thinking, I have to roll a boulder up a hill every friggin’ day, I hate this already, and you want me to feel more alienated? I get it. You’re feeling disconnected enough from your boring task. All I’m saying is, if you feel alienated from a chore anyway, why not try going with it ? We’re talking about something you do not want to be in the act of doing, no matter how much you want to have it done. A Sisyphean task is precisely one in which you have absolutely no interest. What happens if you do it without any interest on purpose?

That Sisyphus must roll the boulder up the hill repeatedly, without any variation or nuance or artistry, implies robotism. Most of the time you want to feel your full humanity and passion for life. By all means, when you are doing things you’re interested in, invest yourself! When it’s boulder-pushing time, though, you might be happier if you choose temporarily to di vest your full-blooded selfhood and robotically go through the motions with zero personal stake in the labor.

For our first example we return to the continuing saga of me and the cat box. I do not nor do I have any desire to appreciate, savor, or devote any part of myself other than brute muscle to the activity of removing animal waste. I derive no felt sense of satisfaction or accomplishment from it, yet do it I must. In our last episode I discussed how I fit scooping the cat box into my day as innocuously as possible; I do it sometime after dinner, at the same time my wife feeds the cats. This timing also helps me alienate myself from the task. The monkey-see-monkey-do act of simply following her in tending to the cats relieves me of the need to self-start an act I possess not one ounce of initiative for. I reduce the starting of the chore to a stimulus-response: she gets up, I get up. I don’t have to plan nor spare a single thought about scooping the box. To be as efficient as possible I’ve developed a scooping routine: tear off new disposal bag, bang box with mallet, scoop into old bag that lines plastic container, pull old bag out of container, tie it and trash it, put new bag into container, done. I follow this routine zombie-like every single night. I embrace my alienation from the work. I want to feel myself in the act of performing this task as little as possible.

Using a trigger to make starting the task automatic and repeating the same routine are two good alienation techniques. Now, when the task itself is cyclical—like washing a dish, then another, then another, then another, and so on, until you’d rather bungie jump into a live volcano rather than wash another dish—what you need is deconstruction. Take the cycle apart and group like steps together. In a complete cycle each dish gets soaped, rinsed, dried, and put away. Believe it or not when we perform the full cycle for each dish in turn, every transition from one physical activity to the next (e.g. from soaping to rinsing) though seemingly benign, requires attentional effort. Multiply several transitions per dish times the number of dishes, and—well, some of us feel overwhelmed just looking at a full sink. With ADHD, and especially when we’re bored with an activity, attention is our most precious resource. So let’s conserve it. Instead of soaping and rinsing each dish in turn, try soaping all the dishes, then rinsing all the dishes, then drying all the dishes, then putting all plates away, then all bowls away, then all cups away, then all silverware away. Performing the same physical action repeatedly helps your body get into a groove and is more likely to numb your mind and leave your attention alone. Mindless repetition is more efficient and leads to good, old fashioned, assembly-line alienation.

For a good alienated worker, there are two quite different kinds of tasks: dumb and smart. Washing dishes and scooping cat litter are dumb tasks; they can be done with virtually no thought and with minimal concentration. During dumb work, like pushing boulders up hills, alienation is relatively simple. Once you give your mind permission to disengage from what your body is doing, your mind is free to do what it wants. Some people listen to podcasts while doing busy work, others sing. One client of mine folds laundry while watching TV. Another cleans his room while talking on the phone.

For a smart task, like reading a book, thought and concentration are needed, and the mind is not free to gambol and cavort as it prefers. Alienating from smart tasks calls for stronger methods, because you’re trying to free your mind from work that requires your mind’s presence. It sounds paradoxical, but it can be done with some simple sleight of hand. The alienation goal is the same: perform a job that you are disinterested in disinterestedly. With smart work, though, you have to purchase your disinterest in the process by being interested in something else. Don’t worry, it’s something you probably really are interested in: crossing the finish line. If you really don’t want to read the book, but you really want to have read the book, then get interested in the future in which you have read it. Become product-oriented. Make your mental activity as robotically productive as possible, and eschew personal investment in the process. In fact, despise the process, if that helps. It often does. Just like swearing when you stub your toe, dissing out loud work you hate (when it is safe to do so) can provide effective pain relief.

Back when I was teaching college courses on mythology, I had a student—I’ll refer to him by the name Prior—who absolutely hated what happened to be my favorite book in the course. To me, teaching this book year after year was a highlight, but to Prior every page was a Sisyphean boulder. He was earning an A so far, and didn’t want to jeopardize that, but he found reading this book intolerable. Finally he came to me and asked what he needed to be able to understand and talk about from the text in order to maintain his A.1 I supplied him with A-level study questions. He proceeded to plow through the book, holding his nose, and mechanically applied his comprehension in order to grasp the required concepts and demonstrate them to his teacher’s (my) satisfaction in a paper that barely restrained his disgust. He got an A.

Prior asked the magic question that helped him to get through his chore without one shred of his own interest: What do I need to end up with? His eyes found the finish line and kept it in sight throughout his reading. Even in a chore that requires your active intelligence, knowing what you have to end up with enables you to focus on the part of the task that actually does interest you, being done.

Caveat emptor: Focusing on product rather than process is the most essential technique in alienating workers from their work. It’s how craftsmen were turned into disaffected assembly line cogs in the industrial era. Similarly, focusing on product rather than process in education, notably through high-stakes testing policies, reduces learning to academic input-output processing. Over-applied, alienation is very, very BAD for us. When doing work we love and when learning with genuine interest, we don’t want to feel and naturally don’t feel alienated from the process; instead we’re wholeheartedly engaged, fully present, enjoying, growing, appreciating, living our experience.

I’m only proposing using alienation surgically, when necessary. When our interest in process = 0% (or very near) and interest in finished product = 100%, alienating ourselves from the work can be an act of self-mercy, even self-protection. It helps us endure negative experiences with less pain. In truth, assembly-line-type alienation is essentially a form of dissociation, which is how our nervous system protects us from suffering when fight and flight aren’t possible. For most activities I emphatically do not recommend dissociation! But on those occasions when we can neither fight off nor run away from a deadly boring task without betraying our best interests, just a spoonful of alienation helps the medicine go down.

The object in this series has been all along to cut Sisyphean boulders down to size, from daunting to doable. Tools reduce needed effort. Flow minimizes time commitment. Carefully applied, consciously chosen alienation rejects boredom without sacrificing productivity. You can get done what you have to do with less suffering and more ease, freeing yourself to savor the challenge of life activities that interest you.


  1. Students, take note! Don’t be afraid to confront your professors with this question. 

Minimize Boring Tasks with Flow

The Sisyphus Series, Part III

If you have to push a boulder up a hill, when do you want to do it?—And by “when” I mean right after doing what and right before doing what? The modern day Sisyphus might choose to do it after work, before arriving home, exactly when he’s not going to the gym he signed up to be a member of. Or he might want to do it first thing in the morning, to get it out of the way and wake himself up. The principle here is choosing the timing that’s easiest for you.

I choose not to scoop my cats’ litter box in the morning, because I want as little responsibility in the morning as possible; morning isn’t a good time for me. I scoop at night, but not last thing before coming to bed, because I’ve just concluded my ablutions, and ick, gross. I prefer to do it some time (an hour or more) before my pre-bedtime routine, because otherwise getting ready for bed feels tedious enough that I begin to avoid it and stay up too late. So I scoop shortly after dinner, at exactly the same time that my wife feeds the cats. The argument has been made that this is illogical timing, as soon after they eat they will effectively undo my work. But I don’t care. Having poop in the box overnight is tolerable, and doing the chore when I mind it least makes it substantially less avoidance-worthy.

Another example. I coached someone who decided to take a rigorous professional exam that requires months of study. We explored the question of how he wanted to do his studying in terms of when and where it would fit best into the flow of his day. He found that studying while he ate lunch at work gave him natural start and end times, and the study material became more interesting than he had expected because it was now sandwiched between and in comparison with his job duties, which were less than enthralling.

To choose the timing that works well for you, let’s again (as we did in Part II) call on your imagination. Picture yourself ending one activity—leaving the bar where you hang out with friends on Friday nights, for instance—and then picture what you will probably do next—sleep it off at home, for instance—and then try inserting your task in between them—practicing for your driving test, for instance—and see how it feels to imagine that flow of events. If it doesn’t feel good, try out a different opportunity in your day: getting out of class with your friend who has a car, for instance—insert practicing for driving test—going to your retail therapy appointment with Dr. T.J. Maxx. And now check to see how this new flow feels.

Look for flows that score high on both the Easy and Settled Stomach scales, and low on the Concerning and Agitating scales. To do the scoring, consult your gut, your heart, and your intellect. Look for consensus; i.e. if any one part of you—gut, heart, brain—objects, move on and imagine a new flow.

Sometimes an easy flow is all we need to be able to get something done. Grocery shopping is a typical example of this; most people I talk to don’t despise their local supermarket, they just find going there inconvenient much of the time. Well, when—in between what two activities—is food shopping more on your way? That’s what easy flow is about: slotting a dull chore where it is least in your way and getting it out of the way as effortlessly as possible.


Overpower Boring Tasks with Tools

The Sisyphus Series, Part II

OK, you’re Sisyphus. You’ve got this enormous rock to get up the hill. You can push it yourself, or you can drive it up in your Ford F350 truck. Like crows, humans can use tools! Don’t have a truck? Use a scaffold and a jackhammer. If you’re stuck with low-tech, do what English villagers did to break up ancient megaliths to get stones to build their houses: heat the boulder with fire, then throw cold water on it, causing it to shatter. This is what is now known as “chunking” a daunting task.

Sometimes people feel some resistance to employing tools, perhaps out of a sense that I can do it myself. Pride in ability and work is an admirable human quality. It is not mandatory, nor is it advisable in all situations. I want to take pride in abilities I value and in work I care about. A boring chore that I wish were finished before I even start it, though? Who cares?

I mentioned in Part I that scooping the cat box is one of my daily Sisyphean chores. We actually have a cat tub—higher walls, better containment. The litter I use has a nasty tendency to stick to the sides of the tub, and scraping it takes both persistence and strength. Not once after struggling with heavy, wet litter did I feel any impulse to spike the scooper and prance while flexing my muscles. I just wanted the ordeal to be easier. I bought a cheap mallet to knock the litter loose by banging the outer walls.

The effect of good tools is increased power, smart strength, a form of leverage. With the application of technology, even as simple as a rubber mallet, my power increases and my required effort therefore decreases. The job becomes easier. I grow in stature relative to the chore.

Try this. Pick one of your boring tasks. Now in your imagination picture yourself in the act of doing it. What would augment your powers in tackling this job? What would make it easier for you? If you find yourself thinking rationally about this and no ideas are coming, then close your eyes and return to your imaginative picturing.

Here’s an example of discovering tool power via imagination, from one of my clients. She dreaded having to clean snow off her car. She complained that snow removal paraphernalia for cars are pathetic, and invariably she ended up covered in snow, with some always falling into one or both of her shoes. I asked her to fantasize how she ideally would want to clear her car of snow. Her first image was a giant hair dryer. Her second was a leaf blower she had seen a neighbor using one day. She didn’t like the noise (or the price) of a leaf blower, but she loved the image of being able to blow the snow away from herself instead of sweeping it downward onto her clothes and shoes. This was a key stage in our exploration: noticing what she liked. We put two things together: the usual sweeping of snow off the car, plus moving the snow away from her. She wondered if a push-broom that she had would serve the purpose. After the next blizzard, she gleefully reported using her push-broom to shove two-foot columns of snow away from her and off her car, and being done faster than ever. Her dread of the chore vanished. She even enjoyed a feeling similar to mastery, like she was showing the snow who was boss.

If you allow yourself to imagine freely, and trust your gut feelings about what you like and dislike, you might be surprised at what you can envision. Dare to diminish drudgery!

The tool power principle extends beyond manual labor. If you have a paper to write, a thorny problem to solve, a political situation at work to navigate… think about what resources are available to you. Who can help or advise? What templates or techniques do others use? Expand your resources, expand your power.

Make Boring Tasks Easy

The Sisyphus Series, Part I

I have the shittiest job in the house. I scoop my cats’ litter box. A couple of years ago I successfully traded the after-dinner clean-up for scooping the cat box plus a second round draft pick. I scoop every day. I don’t like doing it; I find it tedious and uninteresting. This is a challenge for me, an ADDer. My brain’s “reward center”—you know, the part of my brain that hands me a pink dopamine-stuffed walrus every time I shoot water into a clown’s mouth and burst a balloon, providing me the motivation to pick up the water pistol and compete against seven-year-olds—functions less than optimally; which is to say (to follow the absurd metaphor) that my brain is understocked with pink dopamine-stuffed walruses. I therefore have trouble feeling rewarded, and my motivation is apt to drop, unless I experience genuine interest in the activity. Scooping poop does not float my boat. Quickly I felt no sense of the value to me of having gotten out of washing the dishes. My motivation drained, and the chore became Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you may recall, pushed the same boulder up the same hill every day, for at night while he slept the gods caused the boulder to roll back down to the hill’s foot. Perhaps more than most, ADDers recognize Sisyphus’ fate as a divine curse.

The problem with a Sisyphean task is that it feels goalless. What satisfaction is to be had by rolling the boulder up the hill? Is there ice cream at the top? No. Can I brag that I did it? OK, I’ll take that. But then I have to do it again, and again, and again…. It’s difficult to get myself to do a chore I don’t feel is rewarding, unless I force myself. I don’t know about you, but when I force myself to do something I don’t want to do, I, the laborer, end up resenting myself, the boss. I chronically come to my forced task late, making me want to take disciplinary action against myself. Occasionally I’ll go on strike, and hire imaginary thugs to break the strike…. It gets ugly fast, and I look like an immature moron.

Most of the time my solution to this problem is to circumnavigate it. To the extent I can, I steer my life so as to maximize opportunities to do things I want to do, while respectfully declining things I don’t enjoy. I realize, however, that many do not enjoy the privilege of dodging undesirable tasks, and I myself still have to do things I don’t like, like change the cat box every day.

What can help us accomplish tasks that do not reward our effort with any feeling of accomplishment? Consider this. If you had to pick one, which boring task would you choose to take on: (a) one that required significant effort, was out of your way, and demanded constant attention, or (b) one that required a bit of effort, was on your way, and demanded periodic attention? This series is about how to turn boring overwhelming task (a) into boring doable task (b). For litter-box-changers everywhere, I offer the following principles:

  • Tool Power
  • Flow
  • Alienation of the Worker

Tools increase your power, making tasks puny, thereby reducing required effort. Flow lets you dispose of chores when it is most convenient for you. Alienation of the worker (that is, yourself) enables you to get through painfully tedious jobs competently with the equivalent of attentional Novocain, so you experience much less pain and tedium.

Each of these principles will be explored in practical terms in the next three posts.

The Executive Functioning STOP Sign

What is executive functioning? Picture, if you will, an executive. Now notice some things about this picture. Most images of executives are lofty in a number of ways: working on the top floor, formally dressed (even on “dress-down Fridays”), with clean (not labor-soiled) hands; workers are under the executive; the population at large is held at a distance from the executive’s door, and can only get in for a consultation by making an appointment well in advance, not on the spur of the moment. These are not necessarily distinctions of importance: after all, an executive is of little value without workers. The distinction I’m pointing out is one of separation.

People with ADHD tend to have a whole lot of trouble with one executive in particular—their own inner executive. One leading theory is that the primary deficit in “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” is predominantly one of executive functioning (“EF” for short). One of the most highly respected ADHD researchers, Dr. Russell Barkley, offers this list:

  • Inhibition—self-restraint: having a response, yet deciding to hold it back
  • Foresight—projecting experience into the future: imaginatively seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and moving at a future time
  • Hindsight—reflecting on past sensory and movement experiences and learning from them
  • Self-awareness—being conscious of what one is thinking, feeling, wanting, doing
  • Sense of time—feeling time passing; correlating self-movement with time passing
  • Working (short-term) memory—recalling multiple pieces of verbal and nonverbal information (i.e. speech and images) for work; e.g. hearing a ten-digit phone number and later dialing it accurately
  • Planning—hierarchically ordering actions
  • Problem solving—revising, reframing, conceiving multiple scenarios…in effect, self-directed playing
  • Self-motivation—harnessing one’s will, which is the motive force that drives one’s actions (unharnessed will, for example, can manifest as hyperactivity)
  • Emotional self-regulation—feeling strong emotions and letting them pass without becoming overwhelmed by them; self-evoking emotion in the service of one’s goals

The number one essential characteristic of executive functioning, from a usefulness point of view, is that it works with representations of the experiences with which it is concerned. That is, executive functions don’t handle down-in-the-trenches work directly; rather, they handle reports and projections of that work. Executives don’t respond to stimuli. They get a report that a stimulus has been received. They analyze the report. They make a decision. They call in their administrative assistant and instruct the assistant to respond to the stimulus, or delegate the response to a worker. Executive functioning isn’t the hands-on work itself; it considers what work has already occurred in the past, determines what work will be done in the future, plans the work, monitors the work, thinks about and assesses the work, solves problems that arise in the midst of the work, and weathers the ups and downs of the work by keeping the big picture and long-term goals in mind.

Consider the common ADHD symptom hyperfocus, the on-task equivalent of the word banana(nananana—easy to spell, but who knows when to stop?). In a state of hyperfocus, an ADDer can work on a task for—well, let’s just say well past bedtime. To use myself as an example, when I was doing the research on EF that in part resulted in this post, I got interested in the subject, and just kept going. I periodically noted the time, as hour after hour inexorably wheeled by, but I did not feel that the day—and then the night—was getting progressively later (time insensitivity). Instead, I felt a continuous, unchanging sense of being in the moment of doing what I was doing.

Most of the symptoms of ADHD have this in common: being in their own moment of doing whatever the ADDer is doing—daydreaming and not noticing that they’re daydreaming, tapping and humming without noticing they’re tapping and humming, blurting out “Egad, what happened to your face?” to the scarred woman in the elevator without noticing.… In the midst of doing there is no noticing, and thus no self-regulation of the doing.

Something else to notice about the executive: the CEO is responsible for the well being and success of the corporation, in this case the body of the self.1 If we ADDers are to empower our inner CEOs, we have to perform those executive functions. And the only way to perform executive functions is to STOP working.

Don’t worry (or don’t rejoice)—I’m not proposing going on strike from all work. I just mean we have to put up stop signs at important intersections, and actually come to a full stop before proceeding along our route.

(My cousin Sidney tells my favorite stop-sign story. Sid pulls up to a stop sign and sees there’s a cop around the corner, so he slows waaaaaaaay down, till he’s moving like a three-toed sloth, one M.P.W. (mile per week). Sid looks to the right. Sid looks to the left. He eases like a gentleman in a Cadillac through the intersection. Immediately—siren, lights. The cop pulls him over. Sid protests, “Officer, sir, what did I do wrong? I stopped at the stop sign.” The officer flips open his summons book and replies: “Sir, your wheels never stopped turning.”)

David Giwerc, MCC and Founder and President of the ADD Coach Academy, calls this kind of stopping “The Power of the Pause: The Difference Between Reacting Impulsively and Responding Rationally.” Even in the marathon of hyperfocus, ADDers have moments of self-awareness. The main difference between such self-aware moments in an ADDer and a neuro-typical is that for the ADDer these moments don’t automatically result in recoiling and saying, “What the heck am I doing?” Instead, we tend to blow right through those moments of awareness. Even if we slow waaaaaaaay down, our wheels never stop turning. We can take our summons one of two ways: either as a call to appear before the judgment of our external circumstances, which usually results in a hefty fine—a penalty of sleep or productivity or time with loved ones…whatever our hyperfocusing typically costs us;—or we can take the summons as a call to our own inner judgment. Stop and ask some executive questions: What has happened when I’ve done this before? Tomorrow, what will I wish I had decided to do right now? How much time is passing for other people close to me while I’m engaged in this activity? What goal did I originally set out to accomplish when I started doing this? Problem solve. Plan. What does your heart feel is the course of action most in alignment with your intentions and values?

These are not light questions, and the answers you give to them are consequential. Before getting into them, though, I recommend taking them into your office—the biggest, cushiest, highest-up, picture-windowed corner office you can imagine. Take a few moments. Breathe. Relax. Take as much time as you need to arrive at a decision in your head that feels right in your gut.


  1. “Corporate,” from the Latin corporatus, means “formed into a body.” 

Get Started on To-Dos Without Anxiety

It’s all in the cards

Using a to-do list can be immensely helpful. But maybe, just maybe, your to-do list might start to overwhelm you. If you find yourself struggling to scale a mountain of to-dos, starting to panic that you’ll never be able to reach the top or work your way to the bottom, and contemplating just hurling yourself off the mountainside back into bed for the rest of the day—then try this.

It’s a card game. For fun, I call it Priorities Deathmatch, or sometimes Project Thunderdome. If you don’t like those names, you can call it anything you prefer.

You will need blank cards or the equivalent; index cards, stickies, even cut-up pieces of paper.

  1. Write one to-do on each card, for all the ones you want to consider right now (i.e. if you have ten to-dos you’re considering doing, you should end up with ten cards). When you’re done writing all the cards, you may optionally shuffle them.
  2. Stack the to-do cards in front of you, face down.
  3. Pick two cards off the top and turn them over. Here are two to-dos. Choose one that strikes the best balance between (a) being important to do now, and (b) your feeling prepared and willing to do now. You must choose only one of the two. (You can see why I alternately call it Priorities Deathmatch and Project Thunderdome: two tasks enter, one task leaves).
  4. Put the losing to-do in a discard pile, and take the next card off the top of the original stack. Repeat step 3: choose one of the two to-dos.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is only one to-do left standing. Now, do your to-do. If you complete it, great! Do whatever you want with the card—toss it, frame it, give it to your dog to chew… If you don’t complete the task, write a new card for whatever remains to be done, and stick it back in your to-do deck.

When you want to tackle another to-do, play the game again (reusing the undone to-do cards), end up with one, and do it.

Why the game works

This game is based on sound psychological and neurocognitive principles.

Two is a choice, all is chaos

How many to-dos are in a long to-do list? All of them. Can you do all of them at once? No. And often that’s the feeling that comes with looking at the whole list: I can’t do all of these!

Looking at only two to-dos at a time is a straightforward choice between two things. That’s what a choice is supposed to feel like:

This one, or that one?

Simple. Not overwhelming.

Executive functioning is fundamental

The process of choosing between two items based on the specific criteria of importance and doability is essentially a complex discrimination task. You are differentiating which to-do is more important and which is less important (however greatly or slightly); which to-do is more urgent, which less (i.e. time-sensitivity); which to-do is easier and which is harder; which you feel better prepared for and which less prepared for; which more inclined to perform at this moment and which less inclined to perform. You are unitizing (seeing a whole rather than the parts) by determining that one to-do strikes the balance between importance and doability better than the other one. You are also thinking calmly about your feelings, which is a powerful way of regulating emotion without suppressing it.

In short, you are engaged in executive functioning, and lighting up your prefrontal cortex. When your prefontal cortex activates, your amygdala (which starts the fight-flight-or-freeze response) calms down. Executive functioning reduces anxiety.

One step at a time

Even simpler and easier is having only one task to do at a time. The human mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so give yourself one thing only to concentrate on and do.

The to-do card game is a simple way to replace a daunting mountain with a single cute mole hill—that you can easily whack!

Remedy for Hyperfocus

Try a Refreshing Palette Cleanser

Ever get engrossed in a perfectly innocent activity—such as looking up whether or not all sloths are three-toed—and then two hours later realize that reading endless reviews of toenail clippers is keeping you from getting started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow?

The term hyperfocus refers to being riveted in an activity; so riveted that prying yourself away becomes a real challenge. When hyperfocusing on shopping for toenail clippers, for instance, you might think to yourself, I should stop this and work on my presentation for tomorrow. You know you’re hyperfocusing when you have that thought and yet continue clicking on all the color variations of this toenail clipper: light blue, hot pink, rainbow (different hues for different toes!). A few minutes later (5, perhaps, or 45…) you have the same thought again. And again. And again.… One of my clients described the state of hyperfocus as analogous to being paralyzed.

Hyperfocusing is the body’s way of saying I’m busy! I’m not listening! Have you had the experience of mentally poking, nagging, even yelling at yourself to stop what you’re doing so you can start the next activity, all the while completely ignoring yourself?

Part of the problem is that researching toenail clippers is an easy way to avoid working on that presentation; in other words, hyperfocusing is a super-effective avoidance tactic. Even if there’s no presentation to work on, making the next click on the current web page is an effortless way to avoid doing virtually anything else, including the very process of deciding what to do next, which might involve those “executive function” thingies.

So let’s make interrupting hyperfocus the easiest, lowest-commitment thing to do, something that you have no motive to avoid. As soon as you become aware that you might be hyperfocusing, take a palette cleanser moment.

I was introduced to the concept of palette cleansers on my thirtieth birthday. I was given the gift of a gourmet dinner at a restaurant called the DePuy Canal House in High Falls, NY. It was, like, nine courses, including—I kid you not—both rabbit- and venison-based appetizers. Between the rabbit and deer, my wife and I were each brought a tiny dish of sorbet. I asked if this were some abstruse European custom of inserting a proto-dessert before the main course (after all, Europeans eat salad after the entrée—and the Canal House had adopted this un-American sequence). I was informed that the sorbet1 was a “palette cleanser”: it would, in effect, rinse off my taste buds, so that the flavor—pardon me: flavour—of rabbit would be completely gone from my mouth, and the venison would be a full, untainted gustatory experience unto itself.

This is either genius or unsupportably bourgeois, but in any case we can make good use of it as a way out of hyperfocus. We can put a tiny, flavor-neutralizing activity in between a hyperfocused activity and the next activity we might be avoiding. Here’s how.

Palette Cleanser Technique

  1. When you feel like poking yourself to stop hyperfocusing, perform a benign physical action that involves the use of at least three limbs—for example:
    • standing and patting your head (two legs + one arm)
    • hopping while touching your chest and back at the same time (one leg + two arms)
    • a split with jazz hands (all four limbs)
  2. Choose what you want to do next (and what you were just hyperfocusing on must be a valid option!)

Notes

Make the palette cleanser activity both easy to do and completely non-functional; i.e. it should require no special effort, and shouldn’t be useful for accomplishing anything. Thus, doing ten push-ups is great exercise, but a risky palette cleanser. Marching in place while touching your nose (left-right, left-right, halt!) is more like it. Going to your mailbox to retrieve the mail is too useful; instead, just walk to the other side of the room and knock the wall with your pinky-knuckle. All a good palette cleanser requires is that you unseat yourself and move your limbs.

Your choice of what to do next must be unconditional. You must be able to choose anything feasible. Flying to Saturn is out of the question, but doing laundry, writing a report, eating ice cream, making dinner, ordering pizza, and going right back to what you were just doing all have to be chooseable. If you rule out any option, then whatever part of you would vote (consciously or unconsciously) for that forbidden path will work to avoid the palette cleanser activity in the first place. The palette cleanser can have no fetters. To be a neutral activity it must come with no strings attached.

The client who described her hyperfocus as paralysis tried the stand-up-and-pat-head palette cleanser, and it worked. Most of the time she chose to start doing something else, often something productive. Sometimes she chose to return to the same thing she’d been doing, but found that she usually returned for a fixed period of time—say, another 15 minutes—and then stopped without needing a second standing pat on the head.

The palette cleanser technique works because it uses your body to interrupt itself. Hyperfocus is a human behavioral version of inertial motion,2 analogous to a runaway train: it can’t be stopped just by thinking about it; it needs physical brakes. Stopping the hyperfocused motion is the goal, even if only for a minute, even if you decide to go right back to it. The purpose and the benefit of the palette cleanser technique is not to get you to be productive, it’s to give you that vital space, that precious moment, in which you can choose freely. Stopping = Freedom.

A physical spoon of sorbet is a tasty, simple, and super-effective braking method.


  1. Wine is another commonly used palette cleanser. 

  2. The law of inertial motion: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (Emphasis added.) 

Write Off Worries

Overwhelmed by too many things to do, too many situations to keep track of, too many worries about what could go wrong in all those situations? All these concerns can weigh heavily on your mind. Why not unload them? Here’s how.

  1. Get paper and pen (handwriting this is better than typing it), and make a list of everything that’s weighing and preying on you. Don’t worry about order or organization; we’ll take care of that in a later step. For now, put on paper each thought, task, nag in your head in whatever order they come in, like dealing cards off the top of a deck. When the stream slows to a trickle, add anything that’s missing. Done? Let’s do some annotating.
  2. In the margin, write “DO” next to anything that is a task you can physically accomplish.
  3. Next to anything you’re worrying about that is not a clear to-do, draw a worry-icon (a frowny-face, or a dark circle—anything simple). If it’s a task you’re worried about, you can alleviate your worry by doing it; not so with worries that have no clear DO that will make them go away. Keep DOs and worries separate.
  4. If there are any situations you want to do something about, but aren’t sure how to deal with, mark those with a “?” (or “Huh?” or “WTF”…). These are things you need more information about, to enable you to do something about them.

If you want, you can now put all the DOs, all the Worried Faces and all the ?s on their own individual sheets.

Separated from all the worries and question marks, DOs feel more doable, ’cause now they’re merely to-dos and nothing else.

Worries, when written down and separated from doable tasks, start to lose their mystery and menace: they’re merely thoughts, and often there’s nothing that need be done other than accept them.

Questions about situations are merely another kind of DO: get information. Knowing that you need to find something out is much less stressful than feeling like you have to do something but don’t know what.

Finally, notice if there are any recurring themes. You might discover that many worries are really about one or two things—work, for example, or money, or relationships.… What appear to be a multitude of worries often boil down to a few manageable categories of concern.
 

Worries are like hungry hyenas: they’re terrifying when we know they’re there but can’t see them; they’re still scary but less monstrous when they’re in front of us and we can keep an eye on them; they’re not so dangerous when separated instead of in a pack; and they’re harmless when they are mere words on a page. When you’re dogged by hungry hyenas, transmute them into ink on paper, and see who’s laughing then!

What Is Will? (2)

II. How Will Works

In part one of this post, we found that will and intention are two different things. In the “Millie-Willy” plays we saw how easy it is, on the one hand, to intend something (in Millie’s case, to knit) but not engage the will actually to do it, as well as, on the other hand, to persist in doing something with a strong force of will without intending to. In the case of less complex creatures, such as spiders, will without intention is the rule; a spider will weave her web despite having no capacity whatever for mental intention. Hence, the following distinction between will and intention:

  • Will is the force that initiates and sustains action
  • Intention is the idea of an action

This distinction implies something important that goes against common sense, namely that will is not to be sought or found primarily in the mind, but rather primarily in the body. Clearly there is a relationship between an intention and a resulting will-full action—but only when an action does indeed result. Bottom line: a bodily action without mental intention (e.g. a spider weaving a web) evinces will, but a mental intention without any follow-through action (e.g. Millie saying she will knit, but not actually doing it) evinces only thinking, but no will. The proof of will is, as it were, in the pudding, not in the thought of cooking it nor in the recipe for it.

Also in part one we further saw that:

  • Free will = intention + will
  • Humans have free will
  • Spiders1 have unfree—that is, instinctive—will

When mental intention and bodily action are coordinated harmoniously, the result is a freely willed act. Humans can do this. Spiders cannot. A web-weaving spider cannot choose whether to weave her web; the spider’s body performs the act purely on instinct, which, by definition, is unintentional. Humans can do something else that spiders cannot do: procrastinate. Procrastination occurs when mental intention can’t get it together with bodily willed action.

It is my intention in this multi-part post to see where both of these paths lead—the path of human free will, and the path of creaturely unfree will. In this part I’m going to embark on the road less traveled: will as it manifests without free intent; creaturely, bodily, instinctive will. Let’s first examine the characteristics of will on its own, without the complicating factor of intentionality. Intention, after all, appears to be a kind of premeditation—a rehearsal in imagination—of what can only become reality in a bodily act of will. Perhaps unfolding the nature of the bodily act can yield clues about the nature of its mental doppelgänger, the intention. If you’ve ever suffered from procrastination you know from experience that no matter how much you know about your intention, your bodily will remains elusive and mysterious. Let’s head straight into that mystery, and delve into the phenomenon of will in itself. Our purposes shall be to observe the phenomenon of will as it presents itself, to distinguish will from its lookalikes, and to characterize, as faithfully as possible, what we find left standing. In this way we’ll build upon our working definition of will, which currently is: the force that initiates and sustains action.

Spider Will

With apologies to arachnophobes, back to spiders.

The picture of a spider spinning a web is a quintessential example of will. If it’s still difficult to think of spiders as demonstrating will, that’s probably because we humans find it difficult to imagine spiders deciding to do what they do. In other words, we still think of will as one and the same as intention—it’s a stubborn habit of our thought. Will, we intuit, is chosen action. Whatever the reason (and we’ll get into it presently), our habit of conflating will and intention gets in the way of imagining spiders as willful. Taking a closer look at this shall uncover an underlying aversion we have to thinking of spiders as possessing will. If spiders are willful, at least one of these two disquieting propositions must be true:

  1. Spiders behave willfully, so they must also have intention
  2. Spiders don’t have intention, but behave willfully; thus it is possible to have will without intention

One of these notions is impossible, but the other is only counterintuitive.

A spider with intention would be either ludicrous2 or scary. Picture Ari-the-spider crooking one leg at the joint in an “aw, shucks” gesture, and exclaiming:

Golly! I s’pose I’ll trap me a plump ol’ fly, liquify his innards, and sip out his guts while I watch the sunset. Mmmm mm! That’ll be a lovely way to end a long, hard day at the silk mill.

Or, clicking her fangs and salivating neurotoxin:

Today, that fly. Tomorrow, your BRAIN.

Either of these would be a statement of intention before the act. The second spider statement is the stuff of horror films, and our horror is precisely that “aversion” I referred to above: we don’t want spiders to have their own intentional will. Luckily, spiders act on instinct, and part of the very definition of instinct is that it is un intentional. A spider with intention occurring in nature is impossible.

Mere Action (Billiard Balls)

Whew!—spider-acts are unintentional. But in what sense are they willed? Isn’t the action of a spider merely action? If the spider can’t control her own actions, doesn’t that mean precisely that she has no will?—In other words, why attribute will at all to a non-intending being; why accept proposition #2—that there can be will without intention—at all? Why not instead say that spiders simply perform actions without will?

Well, what would activity without will look like?

Billiard balls. Billiard balls move, with no will of their own, in accordance with Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia:

Every body [i.e. object] continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.3

But this is only what activity without will would look like, because billiard balls cannot act. Once struck, billiard balls give the appearance of activity; we see them moving, not quite like a spider, but moving nonetheless. But no 8-ball can jump into a corner pocket on its own initiative, because billiard balls have no will. A spider could jump (or crawl) into the corner pocket, uncompelled by any external catalyst, purely on its own power. In order for the 8-ball to move, however, some external force must be “impressed upon it”: a cue ball could hit it, or a hustler-spider (like the infamous Fast Arachne) could whip it with a silk thread. A billiard ball must be moved, because it is passive, not active.

Actor and Form

While a billiard ball can only move when acted upon by “forces impressed upon it” from the outside, a spider, like all living organisms, acts by virtue of “forces impressed” from within itself, namely its will. Let’s refine our working definition, accordingly:

Will is the force that initiates and sustains action from within the actor.

Spiders do seem to be demonstrating will. They are, unlike both billiard balls and supercomputers,4 creating their own activity. And they are doing so without any intention. So we are back to proposition #2, will without intention, and our minds boggle. We watch Ari-the-spider weave silk, and we observe, clearly and distinctly, that this is no chaotic activity, but rather a structured and purposeful one. It looks intentional. In fact, this is true of any willed action; it is non-chaotic.5 We must add another refinement to our definition of will:

Will is the force that initiates and sustains formed action from within the actor.

—Formed, structured, organized… planned, even. Here a paradox arises. The spider’s weaving of her web appears to be thoughtfully formed action—it predictably produces an intelligible structure—and yet simultaneously appears to be thoughtless action: unintentional, instinctive, habitual, like Millie knitting sweaters for no reason. How can spider web-weaving appear intentional and yet be unintentional? This will require some unraveling.

Characteristic Behavior

Any rigorous observation confirms that spiders function in purposeful, evolved ways. Spiders can be said to behave like spiders. Behavior is characterological; naturalists will speak of “characteristic behaviors.” As we noted in the “Willy-Millie” plays, especially the second one, will is necessary to overcome inertia and activate a specific behavior (e.g. knitting a sweater or weaving a web). The will that initiates and sustains the behavior of spiders is directional, if not consciously directed: they will create webs. The will of spiders takes specific form, even without conscious designs: they build spiderwebs, not inchoate masses, and not picnic baskets. (The same could be said of a magnolia tree’s producing magnolia flowers rather than unformed plant mass, and never roses nor daisies nor any other flower than magnolias.) The will of a spider is intelligent in these ways—purposeful, formational, understandable—yet not intellective in the sense of deliberately thoughtful.

Is it any wonder that we tend to think of will and intention as one and the same, even though they are distinct? Whether a willed act is intentional or not, it looks intentional! When we observe the operation of will in ourselves, we notice most prominently our intention prior to the willed action. Millie’s will is most apparent to herself when she first thinks “I’m going to knit” before actually knitting. If we were to ask Millie, “How do you know you willed your knitting to happen,” she would reply, “Well, I thought to myself that I was going to.” And even when intention is absent, as when a spider builds a web, or a magnolia tree flowers, or flamingoes dance… the instinctive behavior bears all the earmarks of intentionality, including organization and purpose. Moreover, when intention is absent it doesn’t occur to us that will is even involved; it seems like the action is just happening on its own, unwilled. A perfect example is when Millie knits unconsciously, out of habit, and Willy tries to stop her. To Millie, she is just doing what she does without thinking about it, completely unaware that her body is acting on will impulses (she might say, “I’m just knitting,” but not “I’m willing myself to knit”). Willy, on the other hand, projects intention onto Millie’s knitting, even when no intention is there. (That he asks her why she is knitting a sweater in summertime betrays his assumption of an intention—i.e. a rationale—on her part that she can explain.) We, watching this play, discover that Millie is acting without intention, apparently mindlessly, and we experience the feeling that she is behaving like a machine; that is, without will, her movements proceeding robotically. The unwilled mere activity that we imagine as well as the intentionality that Willie imagines are projections on our part and on his. But in fact Millie’s will to knit is acting on its own. You know what this implies?

Unintentional willed action is unconscious.

Package-Acts

Probably most of our human willed activity is unconscious. I mean this in a basic way. As I compose this paragraph, I am eating a bowl of Cheerios. The fact that I am having a breakfast snack at five in the afternoon is intentional on my part. My stomach growled. I replied, “Right away, sir!”, stood up, walked to the kitchen, put the cereal box, the milk container, a bowl and a spoon on a tray, brought it all back to my desk, and commenced eating. All intended. But right at this moment I’m sitting up straight and holding the bowl above the computer keyboard, and the spoon is right at my mouth, and I’m wondering: How did my arms move into these physical positions? And, for that matter, how are they maintaining this attitude instead of succumbing to gravity or lethargy or both? Is the gliding of my hand toward my maw a consciously chosen motion, or a habit? It’s more like habit; I know I learned to feed myself with a utensil, but I don’t think about it anymore. Once the food is in my mouth I chew, and this I never had to be taught. The only time I ever chew with intention is when I’ve bitten the inside of my cheek and want to avoid biting it again. My movements while I eat—and, for that matter, while walking to the kitchen—are almost always unconscious.

Deciding to go somewhere, e.g. the kitchen, and actually going there is intentional, but each individual act of putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly until arriving is somehow wrapped up in the package-act of going. How many of your actions each day are consciously intended? Package-acts, such as going out to meet a friend for coffee, include within them many—many—unconscious acts. Every step, every muscular flexion, is a purposefully formed action initiated from within; i.e. a willed action.

Will, Not Code, at the Cellular Level

Indeed, I can’t think of a single example in the world of an action performed by an acting organism without the benefit of an inertia-interrupting and chaos-defying force. Can you? That force characteristically matches the description of will. The only objection we might have to calling the daily head-turning of sunflowers willful is that it’s obviously not consciously willed (i.e. intentional). And yet, examples of willed action without conscious intention are so abundant, even in our own daily living—walking, chewing, blinking, swallowing, digesting, and so on—as to be literally countless. Unconscious, unintentional activity that is nevertheless purposeful, organized, and even regulatory is occurring right this moment in your body at the cellular level. We are prone to think of our genes as the code that determines our physiology, but on behalf of code monkeys6 everywhere I must insist that there is no such thing as code that was not coded by a coder. Anyone who has written computer code can tell you that there is no way it can write itself.7 And yet, as Stephen L. Talbott explains in “Natural Genome Remodeling,” writing and rewriting themselves with purpose is precisely what genomes do all the time:

It is now indisputable that genomic change of all sorts is rooted in the remarkable expertise of the organism as a whole. By means of endlessly complex and interweaving processes, the organism sees to the replication of chromosomes in dividing cells, maintains surveillance for all sorts of damage, and repairs or alters damage when it occurs—all with an intricacy and subtlety of well-gauged action that far exceeds, at the molecular level, what the most skillful surgeon accomplishes at the tissue level. But it’s not just a matter of preserving a fixed DNA sequence. In certain human immune system cells, portions of DNA are repeatedly cut and then stitched together in new patterns, yielding the huge variety of proteins required for recognizing an equally huge variety of foreign substances that need to be rendered harmless. [Emphasis added.]

Intelligent Will—with a Caveat

Spooky, huh? Genomes behave not so much mechanically (“not just a matter of preserving a fixed DNA sequence”) as appropriately (“well-gauged action”), responding to chromosomal needs (“repairs”) as well as to environmental dangers (“foreign substances”). It would appear that unconscious willful activity is intelligent.

But wait! Am I implying a doctrine of Intelligent Design? Nuh uh! Don’t even go there. I’m no expert on the varieties of creationism being propounded nowadays, but let’s consider the most simplistic version of Intelligent Design, which is common enough to address. The conception that there is a single, immeasurably vast mind intending the actions of all spiders and all badgers and all coral is severely problematic, if for no other reason than that it projects onto the cosmic ether the intentionality that is M.I.A. in unconsciously willed activity. This is tantamount to casting God in the role of Great Code Monkey in the Sky.8 This in turn raises two further philosophical objections. First, divine intention would be too boring! If you think waking up every morning because it’s “time to make the doughnuts” is Sisyphean, imagine mentally sustaining the activity of all the bacteria on earth. Not even the combination of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in the divine Mind is sufficient to explain endlessly intending such apparently mindless activity. Second, the divine-intention proposition is too brutal. A spider that paralyzes a fly with venom, injects digestive enzymes into its body, and then sucks out everything except the exoskeleton is both gross and scientifically fascinating, and as long as it’s instinctive and unintentional it is amoral. If it is intended, however, it’s brutal; not evil, exactly, because neither malevolent nor against any known civil or sacred laws. It’s just—how shall we put it?—unevolved.

Parting ways from notions of intelligent design, it is nevertheless worth repeating: unconscious, unintended, willed activity demonstrates intelligence. That intelligence is not coded in by an outside coder; neither shall we say that this is merely “the way it is according to nature,” because saying that says nothing useful, and serves only to waive off the matter as a philosophical annoyance. Rather than turn our backs, let us, for now, live with our questions while contemplating that unconscious intelligent action—even without the influence of any brains or nervous system at all (e.g. magnolia trees, sunflowers, coral, bacteria…)—is not only possible but constantly evident all around (and in) us.

With a final refinement we may now say:

Will is the force that, of its own intelligence, initiates and sustains formed action from within the actor.

Where does will’s intelligence come from? We might as well as ask where intelligence’s intelligence comes from, because intelligence, in itself, is not traceable in nature.9 For instance, it’s not our physical brains that guide our genomes; it’s the other way around: DNA is the most basic building block of biology,10 and it demonstrates intelligent activity.

My intended purpose here is not to dive into metaphysics (well, maybe just a little), but to take a wakeful, realistic, and useful view of will. “Wakeful… realistic… useful…” these are three of the paramount qualities of executive functioning, which runs on free will, and doesn’t run at all without it. But will’s freedom doesn’t come free; it must be won. Won from what, we might ask. What is free will free of, exactly?—Mindless repetition; circularity. Surely you’ve noticed how unconscious will tends inflexibly to repeat itself. This is will’s sustaining power in action. The beauty part of intention is that, as the thought-form of an action completely separate from the act of will which it contemplates, intention creates the possibility of a free relationship between thinking and acting. Executive functioning is what we can do that spiders can’t. This is what we’ll look into in the next chapter of this post.


  1. And, implicitly, other life forms that do not demonstrate deliberative cognition, such as butterflies, and coral, and Chicago Cubs’ Cleveland Indians’ fans.… 

  2. Excepting Charlotte (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White), of course. 

  3. Newton, Isaac. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. 

  4. Computers, with no code originating from one or more programmers outside of them, perform precisely zero functions. 

  5. I’m using “chaotic” here in its scientific sense of formless, disordered, confused, rather than in the qualitative sense of carefree and unpredictable as popularized in the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system. 

  6. Computer programmers, especially those working in basements with all windows obscured by stacks of old hard disk drives and defunct keyboards, are sometimes lovingly referred to as code monkeys. 

  7. Some skillful code monkeys might protest that they have written programs that generate code on the fly, but my point is that code-generating programs have to be coded in the first place. Another way of putting it is that computer code cannot mutate and evolve in a Darwinian sense. 

  8. I am by no means making fun of divinity. I am, however, satirizing a poorly thought through idea. In many respects, the doctrine of Intelligent Design is just as materialistic as the framework of biological determinism, which many people of faith revile as spiritually bankrupt. 

  9. In making this claim I realize that I am opening a hotly contested can of worms known as “the mind-body problem” or “the hard consciousness problem.” Briefly the question is this: What is the relationship between the physical organ of our brain and the immaterial thinking of our mind?
        To illustrate the distinction between brain and mind, do this exercise. Think the concept of a perfectly straight line. If you’ve mastered the most basic Euclidean geometry, you are able to think this concept. But there is no such thing as a perfectly straight line occurring in the natural universe (because, for one thing, space is curved by gravity). The concept of a straight line is non-physical; it is purely conceptual. When you think the concept of a straight line, what is your brain doing? It is lighting up in various ways that neurologists could measure by gluing little circles to your head. But one thing your brain is not doing is producing a tiny physical straight line in your skull. The question that the hard consciousness problem asks is: How is consciousness able to conceive that which the brain is not able to manifest?
        My saying that “intelligence, in itself, is not traceable in nature” assumes that there is such a thing as intelligence-capable-of-conceptualizing that is not one and the same as physical brain activity.
        It is a matter of scientific fact that the existence of such non-physical intelligence has never been either proven or disproven.
        I would argue that the provability of numinous intelligence is a self-defeating proposition: satisfactory proof implies physical pudding, after all. Thus, the very definition of provable rules out any possibility of non-physical phenomena. This line of reasoning has always struck me as solipsistic. But this debate is way beyond the scope of this post, and I fear I have indulged it too far already. 

  10. Not being a biologist, I would be grateful for a correction if I’m wrong about this. 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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