Science, Not Woo Woo

I recently blogged about a theory of human psychology (I honestly don’t know what to call it) that I hope slowly unfolds on my blogs over the next few years.

I hesitate to discuss this because, as far as I have gleaned, most popularizers of bits and pieces of this truth have something about them that poisons their well, as I see it. (I know poisoning the well and appeal to authority are both logical fallacies; so me appealing to, for instance, Deepak Chopra’s “authority” would be as much of a logical fallacy as you writing him off as a crackpot if I try to cite a point of his that I think is valid.)

These popularizers usually take this truth discovery and add in some unprovable quasi or overtly religious “woo woo,” as Michael Shermer has put it when discussing his problems with Deepak Chopra.

So I was quite happy to see a news story on this study by Harvard psychologists confirming what I’m trying to get at.

It’s about human minds being most happy when in “the moment,” in the present, not being “distracted” about the past or the future or about being somewhere else. Indeed a certain timelessness can occur when being in the moment. When not in that moment, when the mind is in a state of worry or stress (“something on your mind that is bothering you”) that has to do with the past or the future, it is less than optimally happy.

For those who are teachers and really enjoy what we do, think of how much faster time goes by when we are teaching than when we are sitting in a faculty meeting for the same period of time wishing we were somewhere else. There is something about focusing the mind on tasks for a continuing period of time — see it as distracting you IN to “the moment” — that frees it up and speeds up time. I remember friend of mine who worked masonry construction, telling me how much he liked his job, how time flew by when he worked.

Busy minds with lots of mental chatter going on — though many of them are brilliant — are less happy.

Psychology is NOT my discipline. So if there is “expert literature” with an academic imprimatur that validates this, I have a lot of learning to do. I’m more interested in philosophy. And I suspect there is more serious work out there from Eastern and Stoic philosophers than the popularizers of this truth in the West (guys like Chopra, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, and even the “Judeo-Christian” Roy Masters who tries to popularize these ideas for religious conservatives).

But ultimately this discovery is not justified by appeal to scientific studies or appeal to great philosophers, but rather by personally experiencing this truth. That is, the ideas need to resonate with individuals in an “a ha,” “that’s right,” sense.

This is not about winning arguments or convincing someone you are right. That’s a different game.

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20 Responses to Science, Not Woo Woo

  1. Mark Boggs says:

    Please pardon me, Jon, if I belittle your thesis in any way by making this comparison, but we have a mental state in golf (or I suppose in any sport for that matter) called “the zone” where we perform at our optimal level and this place is usually free from the “clutter” you describe. This clutter is usually comprised of fret over future possibilities and consequences as well as the angst and regret over poor shots recently hit. In other words, we are hardly in the moment but are far too focused on the unchangeable past or the unseeable future.

    I’ve also had this experience playing the piano. When I used to play in the dining room at the country club I worked at back in Iowa, I can remember sort of drifting off while I was playing a song, but without this drifting off having any negative consequence for my playing. But when I would suddenly reawaken into the present moment where I was aware of what I was doing, I would actually fumble around for a moment because I had no idea where in the hell I was in the song. But prior to that, while I was off in la-la land, I was managing to do just fine. In some ways, it was like the conscious me disappeared.

    In both the cases of playing golf and playing piano, it is sort of a feeling that the body knows what needs to be done and any attempt to conciously direct the action would usually spell disaster or at least a more unwieldy attempt at a smooth performance.

    I’m still curious exactly what you’re getting at, but I think I can sense it. If not, I’ve just wasted your time and mine in typing all this.

  2. James K says:

    It’s about human minds being most happy when in “the moment,” in the present, not being “distracted” about the past or the future or about being somewhere else.

    I’m a little suspicious of this interpretation. It could also be than when we are doing something unpleasant or boring that our minds are more likely to “escape” by dwelling on the past or future. I don’t daydream when I’m doing something fun.

    Mark Boggs:
    I’ve heard that phenomenon referred to more generally as “flow”. I get into it sometimes when I’m working.

  3. tom van dyke says:

    The Jesuit-trained Jerry Brown sits down with the Zen masters.

    He is now the Once and Future King of California, peace be upon him. Perhaps he knows the price of tea in China, inshallah.

    I don’t mean to be snarky, Jon, my friend. I have been moved by CS Lewis. The appendix of his “The Abolition of Man”—a non-theological tract—is

    Illustrations of the Tao—that which all men, of all ages, across all cultures, have found to be “good.” That there’s any universal notion of “good” whatsoever is a starting point to the universality you seek.

    Should anyone be interested in what Lewis meant by “the abolition of man,” it is here, free.

    It’s fairly brief, and bears upon all the arguments made hereabouts by “men without chests.”


  4. Jon Rowe says:


    I think you are spot on to what I’m getting at. Some of the folks I’ve listened to claim they live their entire lives in “the zone” or “the moment.” I’m not sure if I buy them. The Maharishi claimed to be one of these guys freed from worldly desire, including lust. But all of the Beatles save George (who was a disciple until his death) had a falling out with him because, apparently, he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be: He had the hots for Prudence Farrow. Yet, Paul and Ringo still meditiate. They found it useful.

    If you can’t live your entire life in the moment or the zone, live as much of it as you can and learn the tools for so doing. Meditation figures in there somewhere.

  5. Jon Rowe says:

    James: I say this as someone who is easily bored. This theory teaches boredom is a form of stress that ultimately can be transcended. That means you can experience “flow” even in a boring faculty meeting. Me? I am not to this point yet.

    Tom: I’m hoping what I present can be useful and acceptable to both the religious conservative and the atheist. However, meditation does figure in somewhere and that’s something many fundamentalists won’t accept because they believe it opens the mind to demons.

  6. Mark Boggs says:

    I did enjoy, in the article you gave Jon, the point about the majority of people being “in the present” while having sex. No shit. If you can’t stay in the moment there, you’re doin’ it wrong.

  7. James Hanley says:

    Science Friday, on NPR, actually discussed this with one of the researchers on the day Jon wrote this. Re: James K’s comment, the researcher addressed that, and seemed to claim that the evidence suggested mental drift was the cause of unhappiness, not vice versa. But he kind of fumbled his verbal answer to that question, and they were covering this only in the last 10 minutes of the show, so it wasn’t at all clear on what he based that claim. So I only report his general response, and don’t take a position on it.

    Re: Mark Boggs. I think you’re referring to something that’s different from simply being in the moment. I know a guy who’s a high-level black belt in one of the martial arts, who once told me about having been able (in the past, when he was at his peak of training) to hit a moving target while blindfolded. He explained a concept of achieving a state of high-level performance of a complex task. I’ve never been able to remember the word he used, unfortunately, for that concept.

    I used to achieve that state when I was a bike messenger, riding through city traffic. When I was there, “in the zone,” I truly experienced the world as a system of pre-ordained, choreographed, movement, in which I could anticipate the appearance and disappearance of gaps in the traffic before they occurred, so that, for example, I could aim for a gap that didn’t yet exist, and have it open for me at just the precise time. I could go through gaps that literally required me to contort my body to make it through, such as riding between two transit buses whose mirrors were too close together for my shoulders to fit between, but a twist of my body at just the right moment allowed me to slide right through.

    It was an incredible feeling, and I did things that, from an external perspective, looked crazy (on a few occasions I had bike messenger friends who observed these moves and expressed either amazement or concern that I was riding too dangerously), but that never ever went wrong. But on days when I couldn’t get in that zone and was trying to do it consciously, or when I would suddenly become aware of what I was trying to do and would find myself thinking about it, it was just as you describe your experience of “waking up” when playing the piano. That kind of “fumbling around” when riding a bike at high speed through city traffic led to some pretty close calls, and literally some nasty scrapes. The last time I tried to ride through that, after having quit the bike messenger biz due to a knee injury and not having ridden for several months, I couldn’t achieve that state, but in trying to make those moves I found myself flat on the pavement watching the tires of a bus roll by inches from my head. I never tried again, but god I miss that feeling.

    I would guess that you were experiencing that state, because playing the piano surely counts as that kind of complex task, and apparently you are, or at least were, pretty good at it. It’s more than being in the moment. It’s a zen-like state, if I dare risk using a woo-like term.

  8. Jon Rowe says:


    I’m glad this is resonating, especially with skeptically minded folks. One figure I listen to uses the term “effortlessly” to describe “the zone.” Now he claims to go thru his whole life like this. I am very skeptical. But I do believe as much of your life that can be spent here, all for the better. It’s a non-willed, auto-pilot way of being. Emotional reactions, of the major “stress”/fight or flight kind, or even of the minor “irritated” kind, throw a monkey wrench into the system.

  9. James Hanley says:

    claims to go thru his whole life like this

    Yeah, I’m skeptical, too. Certainly skeptical of it being anything like the high-level performance of a complex task zone that I was discussing.

    But I do think we can develop habits of mind (a phrase I don’t really like, but which seems appropriate here) that help us live “in the moment” in ways that are more conducive to mental health (although, obviously, I’m no expert here and am speaking only experientially). For example, when I was building a bike shed this summer, if I tried to work on it when I couldn’t really focus and was thinking about other issues, I didn’t really enjoy the task. But when I really got to the “living in the moment” state, it was very pleasurable. And it was neither a particularly complex task (not that carpentry can’t be, but my style isn’t), nor was I operating at a particularly high skill level.

    Does existentialism have any relevance here? I’ve always had a sort of half-assed view of existentialism as supporting the idea of just enjoying our material existence, which seems to happen when you can just live in the moment of whatever you’re doing.

    I’m neither a philosopher nor a psychologist, so as good as that all sounds to me, I fear it might sound like silly or overly romanticized emotionalism to someone who actually knows something.

  10. Jon Rowe says:

    Existentialism might figure in here.

    I’ll address something in this reply that I’m going to address in a future post. I’m pretty sure more than one of these figures, perhaps all of them, claim to be at a point where their whole lives are in the zone. I think they would note it matters not whether the task is complex or simple; the entire thing is effortless like life passing thru you not you thru it.

    The one figure who claims to be “Judeo-Christian” claims all the other meditation exercises except his (the ones that are consciously “Eastern”) will lead you to an existentialist, nihilist state where you are freed from your conscience, like the Cheshire Cat sinning with a big grin on your face.

    His exercise supposedly puts you back in touch with the Judeo-Christian God. See at this point, it all becomes religious woo. I don’t see his exercise as any different from theirs in principle.

    But the overall point is to free yourself entirely from the stress of anxiety, including guilt and anger. You do something because you know it’s right, in a calm state, not because you have a bad feeling of guilt. Even when it comes to standing up to people and defending yourself, you do so, not out of anger but, again in a calm state. Even if that means killing someone in righteous (hopefull legal) self defense, you do it out not out of “feeling” an emotion but a peaceful state. One of the figures claimed he could witness a man raping his wife and he would pull his gun out and righteously and legally execute the man in defense of his wife without getting angry. Again, I’m skeptical anyone is that advanced.

    I am not sure if it’s entirely possible to free oneself from these things; but I am convinced in principle there is no good to certain negative emotions — the ones that come with the stress anxiety — they include anger and guilt. Even when someone you love dies there is a peaceful way of feeling sad about it and a horrible way of feeling grief. It’s the latter that we should try to eliminate.

  11. Mark Boggs says:


    What is life if not one big complex task?

  12. James Hanley says:


    I’m half-watching watching college football and browsing the web. Methinks you overstate the complexity of life!

  13. tom van dyke says:

    Jon, I was actually trying to help your argument with “Illustrations of the Tao.” Unlike Lewis’ other works, The Abolition of Man is not a Christian apology.

    –I think the that Be Here Now thing is called “mindfulness” in the East. It seems like an all-around good thing.

    However, if you see meditation as not just a means, a technique to order the mind and quiet the noise, but an end, it seems to me to require a gnosticism, that “the answers lie within.”

    This is contrary to the western mind per Aristotle, Aquinas and Locke, that we are born blank slates and that the answers lie anywhere but within. It’s a philosophical First Thing, and as far as I can see, an unbridgeable gap between east and west.

  14. Jon Rowe says:


    Very interesting. I’ll have to check those links. I’m agnostic on whether the meditation is an end as well as a means. But I do believe in it and “mindfulness” as at the very least, a means.

  15. Mark Boggs says:

    James (and Jon),

    If really being in the moment can stave off unhappiness, why did my really being in the moment while watching Iowa collapse against Northwestern cause me so much angst? Or would this be one of those “looking forward to the consequences of what happens at any given moment”, i.e., Iowa loses a third game, a second conference game, their chance at the Big 10 title, and a 5th defeat in the last 6 years to once woeful Northwestern?

    And I’m being partially serious here, the idea that when we attach a bunch of emotional energy and investment in outcomes we tend to find ourselves disappointed more frequently. And especially in the hodge-podge of life where most things are not under our control, this is especially so. In fact, Jon, I’m wondering if you’ve ever read any Byron Katie?

  16. James K says:

    James Hanley:

    the researcher addressed that, and seemed to claim that the evidence suggested mental drift was the cause of unhappiness, not vice versa. But he kind of fumbled his verbal answer to that question, and they were covering this only in the last 10 minutes of the show, so it wasn’t at all clear on what he based that claim. So I only report his general response, and don’t take a position on it.

    I heard about the study on 60 second science, which naturally involved even less details than the NPR piece but what I heard wasn’t encouraging. From what I heard the method was to periodically interrupt participants at random, ask them how they felt, and what they were doing / thinking about. I don’t see how they could control for the confound I raised using this method.

  17. James Hanley says:

    Mark–it’s because you intuitively understand that being an Iowa fan is innately wrong.

    JamesK–yeah, I’d forgotten that (I heard it on the radio driving home from the airport after 20 hours traveling–it’s a wonder I remembered any of it); makes me rather dubious, too. They also have a self-selected sample, even though it’s a very large n.

  18. Mark Boggs says:

    Some quotes from Byron Katie. They seem somewhat applicable to the topic.

    “The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what “is” is what we want.”

    “Would you rather be right or free?” She uses this for those of us who think that if we could change some aspect of the world, usually someone else’s behavior, the world would be peachy keen.

    “I am the perpetrator of my suffering – but only all of it.” which follows along with
    “I’m a lover of reality. When I argue with “What Is”, I lose, but only 100% of the time.”

    And I’m still not sure I grasp entirely your aim, Jon, but it seems that (in trying to tie the Katie thoughts in with what you’re saying) we tend to be more unhappy when we are not in the moment, i.e. we get caught up trying to manipulate the future or lamenting an unchangeable past or worrying about that which is not in our control. Katie’s point is that our arguing with the reality that exists is the source of our unhappiness. She is careful to point out that this doesn’t mean you don’t do things that might work towards changing the things in the world that are unjust, but that how you go about it is the key.

    The thing I probably take most from her is the idea that words and phrases like “should”, “should have”, “shouldn’t” and “must” are somewhat dangerous words in that they imply some alternate existence that is in friction with what actually exists. This is the source of unhappiness. An example of some of her dialogues would be along the lines of:
    Disgruntled Man: “She shouldn’t have done that.”
    Katie: “Really? She shouldn’t have?”
    Disgruntled Man: “No. She shouldn’t have.”
    Katie: “But did she?”
    Disgrunted Man: “Yes.”
    Katie: “So is it true that she shouldn’t have?”
    Man: “Yes.”
    Katie: “But did she?”

    You get the drift.

  19. Jon Rowe says:


    I think you get it perfectly. It’s just there are some nuances that I have yet to blog about. And I want to be very careful NOT to step into the “woo woo.” So I choose my words carefully and admit there is much I don’t know. Some of the popularizers of this theory — these self help guys — shoot too far in terms of having specific answers. But I think, despite the woo woo, they are on to something.

  20. Mark Boggs says:

    Agreed, Jon. I suppose the self-helpers realize that you’re probably not going to sell many books with the proclamation “I don’t really know.” Thus, they manage to insist they do really know, and quite possibly some of them actually believe they do.

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