Pour Gasoline On Your Life Spark — Part II

"Following your sparks" is providing positive feedback loops for your brain ... recklessly throwing fuel on your interests and ideas ... the risks of not growing your brain outweigh the extreme measures you might need to take.

Last week I wrote about the idea that nurturing your life spark — whatever activity or subject dominates your interest at any given time — may be an effective way to encourage adult neurogenesis (one of the ultimate markers of brain health and mental health).  I also defined life spark as being more focused, specific, and malleable than the term life passion (the latter annoys me because it implies a monolithic singular interest that never changes throughout a person’s life).

The post was getting too long, so I broke it up into two parts.  Here’s Part II …

Life Spark — Personal Examples

This blog has been a consistent life spark for me since I started it.  Entire paragraphs will spring into my head and basically demand to be written down.  Since I’ve learned that ignoring my creative impulses leads to irritability, grumpiness, and generally being a pain-in-the-ass, I prioritize writing even though it takes a lot of time, demands an uncomfortable level of concentration, and presents no obvious possibility of financial reward.  It’s good for my brain (and my subjective mood/state of mind).  That’s enough of a reward.

Right now Vikings are another one of my life sparks.  I’m reading the immensely entertaining The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson, playing as Harald Bluetooth in Civ V, and consulting Wikipedia for the finer points of Scandinavian military history.

In terms of music technology, I’m enjoying exploring the most recent advances in modernized analog synthesizers (with full MIDI implementation), as well as accurate analog emulators (listen to the software Minimonsta vs. the hardware Minimoog — can you hear any difference?).

Sometimes following a life spark can lead to interesting places.  A few months ago I found myself in a game store nostalgically leafing through some Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks — I immensely enjoyed playing D&D and other roleplaying games in junior high, as well as a few times in my adult life.  Obviously there was still a spark there — the only things holding me back were “maturity,” a lack of vast expanses of free time, and perhaps a desire to avoid ridicule from my peers.

Recently I decided to put those concerns aside and sign up for a low-commitment RPG game open to the public, at my local gaming store.  While, for ten years, my Wednesday nights were generally occupied with co-hosting an electronic music happy hour (during which I would either DJ to hundreds of dance music fans, or just hang out and flirt with girls while drinking free top-shelf whisky), now I can usually be found sitting next to a guy who wears a handmade chain-mail shirt (in real life), rolling twenty-sided dice, trying to figure out how my half-elf rogue will avoid getting impaled by hobgoblins.  I still enjoy clubbing (I’ll see you at the next Qoöl on July 13 if you’re there), but my alternate Wednesday night activity is just as fun.  It’s good to mix it up, and pursuing my life spark requires it.

From reading the preceding paragraphs, you might think I’m a hedonist who spends an inordinate amount of time pursuing entertainment.  Well, that’s pretty much true.  Still, I think my clients, fans of Loöq Records, friends, and family members would vouch for me in that I’m a reasonably productive member of society.  Sometimes my life spark has aligned with causes that might even be considered charitable, or at least for the greater good of society.  For example, I’m deeply inspired by the work of Jill Tarter, Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, and other scientists at The SETI Institute.  Both personally and in conjunction with my business partner, I’ve contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the SETI cause.  It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed, but the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and civilization strikes me as one of humankind’s most noble (if sometimes quixotic) pursuits.

Inconvenient Crushes — The Muse

Sometimes a life spark can come in the form of falling in love (or getting a huge crush on someone).  Sometimes this leads to a relationship, or at least a fun fling, but other times it leads exactly nowhere.  This could be for a number of possible reasons, including:

  • they’re not that into you (unrequited love)
  • there’s some age or cultural barrier that makes a relationship difficult (forbidden love/Romeo & Juliet/Harold & Maude)
  • incompatible sexual orientations
  • one or both of you is in a monogamous relationship and don’t want the drama and potential painfulness of an affair
  • you’re in an open relationship but don’t want to deal with the sex bureaucracy
  • some other reason

So what the hell are you supposed to do with all that energy?  Your brain is lit up with lust/love/obsession, and you have no outlet.  Kia and I both feel happy and lucky to be married to each other, but at times we’ve each felt strongly attracted to other people (like all married couples, I’m guessing?).

My own navigation of this territory has sometimes been clumsy (like most men?).  But one thing I’ve learned is that energy is good.  You can always use it for something.  Sometimes lust and obsession can be sublimated into creative work.  That was the case with my first novel.  It wasn’t very good, but I did manage to write the thing.  It felt like a huge achievement at the time, and permanently changed my sense of what I’m capable of doing.  One character in the book was a fusion of two women I was fascinated with, for very different reasons.  There were many other elements in the story too (probably too many), but I definitely had a couple of muses for that one.

Mass tantric meditation.

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

We can’t always be high.  Being in love, or powerfully inspired, or maximally motivated all the time would be physically and emotionally painful, and would quickly burn us out.

I’ll say yes to constant neurogenesis, but no thank you to constant, massive rewiring of my brain.

Recently my friend told me about a friend of hers who had just completed an intensive 10-day meditation retreat.  A few days after returning from the retreat, my friend’s friend (I’ll call her M.) had a complete break with reality.  M. ceased to be able to distinguish past from present, and was experiencing feelings of empathy so powerful that she was unable to distinguish the pain and feelings of other people from her own personal experience.

Isn’t meditation supposed to be good for you? What happened?

This article by Mary Garden discusses some of the possibilities.  It seems that meditation-induced psychosis is not as uncommon as one might expect, especially following extended all-day Vipassana retreats (which is exactly the kind M. had just completed).  One theory is that prolonged reduced blood flow to the posterior superior parietal lobe (which has been observed in laboratory research on the effects of meditation) can in some cases trigger experiences like M.’s.  That part of the brain is involved with physical boundaries — where does your body end and the environment begin?  Could feelings of “being one with the universe” be related to a breakdown or suppression of functionality in the posterior superior parietal lobe?

Or maybe too much meditation can overstimulate hippocampal neurogenesis or remodeling.  That could possibly explain M.’s problem with distinguishing past from present and memory from reality, as well as her overwhelming feelings of empathy.

From what I understand, M. is getting the care she needs.  Her experience must be terrifying — I hope she has a rapid and full recovery.

I don’t know M., and I don’t know why she decided to do an intensive 10-day meditation retreat.  But she was probably doing exactly what I’m advocating in the title of this post — pursuing something that fascinated and interested her with 100% dedication and commitment.

Maybe I should amend the title of this post to the more moderate “Carefully Provide Adequate Fuel For Your Life Spark.”  But that would be dishonest.  To be fully engaged with the world, and ultimately to provide the most possible value to other people and to society, I think radical actions are sometimes required.  And that comes with some risks.

Steve Martin -- maybe not as focussed as Cal Newport makes him out to be.

Focus, or Wander?

Even though I’ve taken issue with the phrase “life passion” (because of its implied singularity and stasis), I’m still firmly in the “follow your passion” camp.

Could that be wrong?

Cal Newport, who writes the Study Hacks blog (which I greatly enjoy) argues that “follow your passion” is terrible advice.  Instead, he advocates working smart, improving your skills, becoming among the best in your field, optimizing your workflow, learning to focus, etc.  All good advice.  He also advocates making realistic career choices, learning to love your job by doing it well, and sticking to your main goal and avoiding distractions.

While I agree with many of Newport’s points, I also think it’s important to sometimes blindly follow a passion or spark, even if you have no idea where it’s leading, or how it might benefit you.

If I hadn’t been willing to spend every dollar in my possession to buy my first electronic keyboard (despite being unable to play it with any degree of proficiency), I would have never ended up making any music or co-running a record label.  The latter was never a goal, but it turned into something that’s an important part of my identify (and I enjoy it, and it’s profitable).

If I hadn’t taken a leave of absence from UC Davis to go study dolphin cognition at a lab in Honolulu, I would have never learned I was interested in music technology in the first place (I realize this doesn’t make sense without an explanation, but my point is that following your spark can lead to unexpected realizations and rewards).

Everything interesting and notable that has happened in my life so far has been because I chased a spark.

It’s possible that I’d be richer and/or more successful if I’d suppressed some of those urges and forced myself to be more focused in a single field.  That’s what Newport advocates, especially when he discusses career advice from Steve Martin (his favorite example).  Don’t wander is one of Martin’s maxims, as in don’t start too many projects, and stay focused on your main career ambition.

That’s fine for Martin, but I prefer the model that worked well enough for Jefferson, Newton, Da Vinci and thousands of other Renaissance men and women throughout history.  Pursue whatever the hell interests you at any given time, and take it all the way (even if you don’t understand why or where it’s leading). I can’t imagine living any other way.

Apparently, neither can Steve Martin. Take a look at the first line of his wikipedia entry.

Stephen Glenn “Steve” Martin (born August 14, 1945) is an American actor, comedian, writer, playwright, producer, musician and composer.

Wander much?

Thoughts on Risk, Reward, and Responsibility

With the exception of Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanist immortality seekers, the generally accepted conclusion to life is that we all end up dead.  It’s against this reality that all other risks should be weighed.

Pursuing your life spark is 100% selfish.  You’re doing something for the sake of your own brain.  So how does this effect others?  In what cases should we put our own interests and desires aside for the sake of our loved ones (or in some cases our country, or the environment, or a principle we believe in)?

Almost always, this question sets up a false dichotomy.  Usually we can find the time and money to invest in our life sparks by diverting resources from other areas that aren’t as crucial to our well being (or anyone else’s).  TV time.  Time spent checking and replying to email, and browsing the internet.  Money spent on a expensive vacation that we might not even enjoy that much.  Cigarette money.  Money spent on Farmville, online gambling, or telephone psychics.

Tim Ferriss wrote a whole book on the subject — The Four Hour Workweek.  Some of Ferriss’s strategies strike me as overly complicated and in the “more trouble than they’re worth” category (like outsourcing tasks to India), but I agree with his thesis that you can free up huge amounts of time and money by reorganizing and rebooting your life, and maybe changing a few habits along the way.

For parents, there’s an added dimension to the choice to prioritize personal brain health over earning money and satisfying the many needs and desires of your child or children.  Where to draw the line?

Food, shelter, clothing, a decent education, and love.  That’s where I draw it.  When and if my daughter starts demanding expensive clothes and a nice car, I’ll show her how to apply for a job (or start her own business).

She’ll thank me later, if I manage to keep my brain in good enough shape (by staying fully engaged with the things I’m interested in) to avoid dementia in my old age.  And of course, by not giving her everything she wants, she’ll more quickly learn to be self-sufficient.

I’m proud of my own parents, in that they’ve both always pursued their own interests, muses, principles, and passions.  Growing up, there were some fights about money, but my brother and I had interesting, rich childhoods.  There’s no way I would trade any of it for having grown up in a bigger house, with more toys, or fancier schools or vacations.

But how much risk should you accept when pursuing our life spark at any given time?  Should you quit your day job?  Invest your life savings in a new business scheme?

It all depends on personal risk tolerance, and the risk-to-reward ratio involved in any particular decision.  There are certain investments I regret making — the risks were huge and the potential rewards small.  The writing was on the wall before the project had even begun.  Sure enough, we lost a lot of money.  But it’s an equally poor strategy to be excessively cautious when the potential rewards are big and the risks are small.  Think of some of the things you could do for a few hundred bucks (or less) + a few hours a week:

  • learn a new language (or improve an existing one)
  • learn/improve skills with a musical instrument
  • develop a new professional skill set (via a community college)
  • take a short trip to another city, just to check it out
  • start a side business (that doesn’t require you to quit your job)
  • join a local sports league
  • curate and host a DIY art event
  • host a series of dinner parties and expand your cooking skills
  • brew some beer in your basement
  • start a music label
  • write a novel
  • start a blog

None of these make sense unless there’s a spark there — a real interest or fascination.  And there’s always a chance the activity will lead nowhere, or that you’ll take on too many things and spread yourself too thin, or that you’ll write a bad novel, or discover you prefer to buy beer at the grocery store.  On the other hand, one of these low-risk new activities might transform your life, lead to new friendships, become a significant income source, be really fun, and most importantly, save newly-generated neurons from an otherwise certain early demise.

Feedback Request

I’d love to get some feedback in this area. A few questions:

  • I’d like to get a better understanding of the word ikigai … if you’re familiar with Japanese culture can you share your impressions of what this word means, and how it’s different from life passion.
  • Does anyone regret following an interest or passion at any time in their life? If so, why? What would you have done differently?
  • Do you think we should ignore some interests and sparks and pursue others? If so, how to decide which ones to pursue and which ones to ignore?
  • Are you a neuroscientist and have some insights regarding adult neurogenesis that you’d like to share? What do you think are the most important factors in terms of protecting newly generated neurons in the brain? Are there cases of too much neurogenesis in adults?

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3 responses to “Pour Gasoline On Your Life Spark — Part II

  1. I dropped out of college to attend a circus arts training facility (literally: Clown school). This was something I had dreamed of doing my entire life (performing, not clowning in particular). After 2 years of trying to force myself through the motions, I eventually admitted I was miserable and hated it, which left me lost and confused. How had following my dreams brought me to such a low and terrible place? Shortly after, my fiance dumped me and I was denied entry to the (regular, 4-year University) school where I had applied. It was a series of tough times. For 1.5 years I deeply regretted my decision to follow my dream… but after emerging from the pit of despair, and slowly feeling my “spark” again (faint at first, but stronger all the time), I’ve come to feel a deep level of gratitude for the entire experience. So what that my dream was “wrong”?

    *At least I asked myself what I wanted to be, and tried my best to answer the question.*

    And now I know myself much more, and will ask better questions next time. I was accepted at – and am currently preparing to attend – the University that denied me last year, I work full-time in a research lab (until I start classes in the Fall), and I’m happily single. But had you asked me a year ago, I might have told you I regretted everything.

    What would I have done differently? Let the dream fail sooner. I knew I was miserable after the first year, but it was so hard to let my childhood fantasy die. (…but, maybe killing it all the way is the only way I would have accepted its demise…)

  2. AND I know what “dying spark” feels like – so I’ll have an even deeper appreciation for what “glowing spark” feels like! (maybe part of the reason I couldn’t let it die after the first year? Wasn’t sure if that misery was what “failure” felt like, or just how “adulthood” felt.)

  3. Interesting story Jhorna — thanks for sharing it.

    I’ve had similar experiences of entering fields and then realizing it was a poor fit — for example a 6 month dolphin cognition research internship I did while taking a year off from school. I quickly realized the field wasn’t nearly as fascinating as it sounded, nor did I like cleaning and sorting fish in the early mornings (dolphins eat a lot of fish). Still, I’m glad I finished the internship — it ended up leading to some interesting friendships, an introduction to MIDI keyboard technology, and a video project years later. I also got to live on my own in Honolulu, which was great.

    I came back to my college degree program re-energized (I’d felt disillusioned with higher education when I left). So no regrets here either, but I clearly remember the letdown when I realized I hadn’t “found my field.”

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