Self-programming: How choice actually works

Hi people. I wanted to write one last post before leaving for India. (tomorrow!!!) So here’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. We have discussed many ways of seeing addiction and recovery in terms of choice. We mostly agree that, if using or abstaining is a choice, it’s a very unusual kind of choice. It is often irrational, it changes over time, it becomes more pressing (or less pressing) as the moment of action approaches, it is highly dependent on biases and motivational undercurrents, etc, etc. If it’s a choice, it’s not the kind of choice you make when you decide what movie to watch or what you’re going to make for dinner.

Or is it?

Here are a couple of quotes from a paper about intentions, by a philosopher named Marc Slors (Philosophical Psychology, 2013).

[T]here is considerable evidence against the causal efficacy of proximal (short-term) conscious intentions… [my italics]

Libet, Haggard, and others…showed that simple conscious motor intentions occur only after the unconscious neural onset of actions.

Um, what?! Slors reviews studies (both behavioural and neural) that show that people’s actions are not determined by their preceding intentions. In other words, our actions happen without our intentions, or despite our intentions, or preceding our (imagined) intentions…all the time! Not only when we “impulsively” or “compulsively” reach for the bottle or the phone to get high. If you believe the results of this research (and I don’t see how you can avoid it), it makes your head spin. It blows a big hole in the idea of “free will.” And yet free will is a fundamental assumption we make all the time. To imagine that free will doesn’t exist is almost blasphemy. Yet it makes addiction a lot easier to understand…

A classic experiment demonstrating the irrelevance of “choice” or “intention” would be this. Subjects are asked to make a simple choice, with very little consequence for anything. For example, they might choose whether to press the button showing the red circle or else the one showing the green square. Once they’ve made the choice and seen the result, they are asked about it. Did you choose which button to press? When did you make the choice? Without fail, people report that they made the choice from a moment or two to several seconds before they pressed the button. But in fact, the likelihood of pressing one button or the other was strongly determined before that time. It was already predicted by cues (words, images) given to them (without their noticing) before they (think they) made the choice. For example, cues like the pairing of pleasant pictures with the colour green (or with squares) and unpleasant pictures with the colour red (or circles). Other studies have found that brain activation patterns strongly predict the choices people make, before they themselves have any conscious idea of what they are about to choose.

Here’s another quote from Slors:

In this experiment…thoughts are “inserted” into the heads of people just prior to their being coerced, unbeknownst to them, to perform an action that matches the thought. In such cases, people turn out…to think that their action was caused by their thought.

Well I find this stuff completely astounding. So, whether I make fish or chicken tonight will not depend on my thoughts just before “making the choice.” I’ll think it will, but it actually won’t. Rather, it will depend on unconscious processes already at work. These will probably include how I feel about the last few meals I’ve made, how I think my wife and kids will respond to soy sauce, etc. But I won’t be conscious of any of that. I’ll think I’m simply making a free choice.

So, immediate intentions (called “proximal intentions”) really don’t have much effect on our actions. But that’s not the end of the story. Long-term intentions (called “distal intentions”) do have an impact on our actions. A very strong klmimpact. For example, I’ll be flying to India tomorrow. That action will have nothing to do with any choice I make between now and then. That action was determined by what I decided several months ago. I decided I wanted to go on this trip and I bought myself a ticket — which took an hour of fussing online. Get the point? Free will isn’t dead…but it works in a very particular way.

I’ve written various posts and comments about the fact that addicts have an especially hard time making good choices because the immediate goal (e.g., getting high) overtakes the whole motivational system (the striatum) and overwrites the value of long-term goals — like having a bank account and staying out of jail. But it turns out that this is just a more extreme version of a very general issue: immediate choices are illusory — they are already determined by the value you have attached to something. The fact that you just love cocaine, and you’ve devoted about a billion synapses to fondling it mentally, is going to determine whether you get high tonight — not the choice you make in the next two hours.

What I’m getting to is this. If we recognize that short-term, proximal choices are weak, meaningless or illusory — if we recognize that only long-term, distal choices actually determine our actions — then the only way to quit being an addict planningis to plan ahead. The only way to stop is in advance of the moment. This may not be big news to some of you. We already know (don’t we?) that you have to get rid of all the booze in the house if you want to make sure not to drink later on. And we know (don’t we?) the value of rules, like “I will never drive home on Yonge Street after work, because that would take me right by the liquor store.” Or telling your buddy, Joe, that the next time he calls you you’re going to call the police — because you have to make sure, in advance, that you will never speak to him again. Or joining a group. Or telling your doctor, look, Doc, I have a problem… Or maybe just emailing him or her. That would just take a moment. You could do it right now. That’s a version of “sneaking up on choice” (recent post), because you can do it without thinking about it intently (this time, anyway).

Rules and plans are not only important for choosing to quit. They are almost the only things that work. (Mindfulness is great too, surely, but then you also have to plan to meditate regularly.) Proximal intentions don’t matter. By the time you are getting close to the point of action, the dye is already cast. Setting up programmingintentions in advance is called “self-programming” by Slors, and I think that’s a great name for it. You are indeed programming your own future, by changing contingencies, determining circumstances, setting up non-negotiable outcomes. You are programming your life, and your brain, and your environment,  your unconscious as well as your conscious mind, by intending and planning what’s going to happen.

Now that’s free will. Use it wisely!


P.S. I will be giving your regards to the Dalai Lama. Seriously. Enough of you have asked me to do that…I figure the feeling comes from all of us. After all, the dude must be pretty interested in addiction to have a five-day meeting on the subject.










51 thoughts on “Self-programming: How choice actually works

  1. Shaun Shelly October 23, 2013 at 4:20 am #

    Wow! Kind of puts a really interesting slant on so many things – how does environment affect proximal intentions? The whole cascade and kindling things become more focused….. the removal of “choice” from the “choice to use” and it’s re-emergence in the “choice to recover” concepts.

    Will have to think about this and do some reading before I can start to wrap my mind around this.

    May India be challenging and exciting! Also tell Kent I say hi, although he will have no idea who I am!

    • Marc October 23, 2013 at 4:42 am #

      Thanks, Shaun. I will tell him for sure. And yes, I know that this requires some serious re-thinking of fundamental things. But the research is solid. Think about it and let me know…

      • Valeria October 23, 2013 at 6:26 am #

        Hi Marc,
        great post to think about!!! I’m going to read the paper written by Slors…
        Have a nice days in India.
        Best regards to tha Dalai Lama
        and thank you for your post.

  2. kevin cody October 23, 2013 at 5:22 am #

    Great POST!

    So, Doc, you’re driving right down the street … the one where all the dope was.Calcutta/India…there’s a rub. These distal thingies are very much effected by little tiny things most times for me. The big obvious ones are mostly easy with a lot of practice/re-experience. Of course the little ones will need practice too but there are about 100 billion of them. Including very close and primal ones like sex and sex and well sex.

    The part in Mate’s book makes it not about free will, but more about free won’t.

    But my biggest problem with keeping clean now that i understand using to be counter productive to y long term goals and dreams is what feels like grand mal seizures or brain electrical storms…I have found in the past the use of pot to extremely helpful with little or no long term side effect. But that still leaves me with why the, I guess the best term I can think of is anxiety. And I do not like the pot high any longer and do NOT want to get re-addicted. Though I do not know that I would.

    The last time I used and almost all times in recovery I have lapsed (relapsed seems wrong wording) it seems almost like a dream state or fog. And yet I do feel better about not using than before using, almost like a relief. I also understand it is about my addiction to dopamine and I have tried all sorts of things…mindfullness and regular exercise have given me the longest periods, with quality.

    U know I am weird and stupid strange…dishonest with myself…but trying to put all cognitive bias aside…it really seems that practicing free won’t with a little something to help works so much better than EVERYTHING else for me that is of course.

    Best of luck going past the liquor stores in calcutta and the old stomping grounds of your books wonderful descriptions. Looking forward to that next one, too! There had better be some real pictures as well.

    Sorry not a writer.


    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 5:04 am #

      Hi Kevin. I was fairly open to seeing if something fell in my lap — while in Calcutta. Just for fun. I had no concern about getting “readdicted” after so long. But when it came down to it I was either feeling too cautious or too lazy….not sure which. Things sure do change over time.

      The little things — yes, they are extremely important at first. But then as time goes by they become ripples on a calm surface, with little power to affect outcomes. I still get anxious about a lot of things….but happily not about drugs.

      Pictures coming up.

  3. Mimesis October 23, 2013 at 5:42 am #

    The idea that free will requires commitment I think is perhaps the hardest bit for the addict. I know that personally I trained my brain to define choice as,as you say, those momentary fluctuations – none of which were related to life, to a future, that “connected”.

    This has to be turned upside in recovery – my momentary choices I cannot allow when they creep in.

    Words always but that (not necessarily) Jefferson quote:“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

    I find that that incredibly powerful. I am only free if I keep watch on my short term desires and behavioral patterns and coping mechanisms. If I slip up there is the potential to go right back into addiction – and the guilt will keep me there.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 5:06 am #

      The parallel with Jefferson is amazingly clear. Yes, eternal vigilance…or at least quite a few years’ worth, until the circuits gradually untangle themselves with the passage of time.

  4. Mimesis October 23, 2013 at 5:53 am #

    I also think though that the challenge is to re define “pleasure”, “happiness” etc – to work through the idea that happiness and pleasure are not immediate, that recovery and long flights are not going to be that great minute by minute, but that the value from these – I hate the word journey – is worth so much more. And to find pleasure in that.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 5:10 am #

      One of these Buddhist dudes — I can’t remember who or when, and I don’t know how much he was joking — said that the pleasure Westerners strive for is the definition of suffering for Buddhists. In other words, momentary pleasures are so momentary as not to be worth the trouble. They just open the door to loss and yearning.

  5. John Hill October 23, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    I do hope you have an outstanding visit with HH.

    Have a GREAT trip!

    PS If you really want to understand India – find a beggar you like in any Indian city or town who can speak English and sit on the sidewalk with him and watch the parade of life enveloping you. There is no better way of getting to know India and yourself! Dharamsala will do nicely – and adds Tibetans and their culture as a bonus extra dimension.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 5:15 am #

      Well I sat down with a shoe-shine wallah. My shoes had five years’ accumulated grime — so it seemed like a good idea before meeting HH. And we had a very warm and intimate talk, as much as we could. He then charged me roughly ten times the going rate.

      That does seem to epitomize India. Wonderful people, a sense of timelessness, and culture coming out of every crevice, but with poverty as the bottom line.

  6. Elizabeth October 23, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    Have a fantastic trip!

    I’m teaching my students about cues and the activation of motor programs in habitual types of responding in my Learning and Plasticity class. The descriptions would be perfect for them! Do you mind if I copy a few paragraphs and post it on their course website (crediting you, of course)?

    • Nicolas Ruf October 23, 2013 at 9:20 am #

      Elizabeth, Want to share info on neuroplasticity, LTP, etc? I’m teaching counseling grads addiction biology, co-occurring disorders, and psychopharmacology. Email is

    • Marc October 23, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

      That would be excellent, Elizabeth. And I particularly want to know how your students react to it. It’s hard to swallow, I think, until you toss it around in your head quite strenuously.

  7. Nicolas Ruf October 23, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    As you know from many of my previous comments, I don’t like the word ‘choice’ in the context of a person with addiction using. In what sense does Pavlov’s dog choose to salivate at the sound of the bell? In what sense does a person in an alcoholic blackout choose to get behind the wheel?
    Additionally I don’t like the idea of planning ahead (I’ll quit tomorrow) in relation to quitting. I do like it in the context of staying quit because that brings conscious intervention into the conditioned program.
    There is a long spiritual tradition of the proper use of free will being to give it up. That’s why we ask clients if they’ve had enough, to stop trying to control it. Their damaged will (choice) is a bad tool to use on their damaged will. Giving up springs the trap.
    Maybe my favorite insight from India came from our guide at Kajuraho while we were studying the erotic carvings. He said, “We believe that the sexual orgasm is connected to the Big Bang creation of the universe because when you combine energy with consciousness you create form.”

    • Marc October 23, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

      I’m glad to hear that you find a lot of my points to be in conflict with your views, Nick. Because I think those tensions are exactly what can help us think more deeply about what’s going on.

      But just as a foretaste, my version of “planning ahead” is nothing like “I’ll quit tomorrow”. That’s just a rationalization for a choice already made — not even close to a “distal intention” with causal value.

      I’ve also been very leery of the “choice” terminology, as I’ve mentioned before. Which is why I’m trying to show that ” choice” is often an illusion or a sham… And yet people do make choices…to use or to quit. I think these two poles of the paradox can be brought together.

      I’m sure we’ll find lots to argue about — as always — that will hopefully bring clarity to the whole choice-vs-helplessness debate. To be continued….

  8. Guy Lamunyon October 23, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Choice Theory has been applied to addictions – see link at the bottom:

    Choice theory is the work of William Glasser, MD, author of the book so named, and is the culmination of some 50 years of theory and practice in psychology and counseling. Choice Theory posits that behavior is central to our existence and is driven by genetically driven needs, similar to those of Abraham Maslow:
    The Ten Axioms of Choice Theory[1]
    1.The only person whose behavior we can control is our own.
    2. All we can give another person is information.
    3. All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.
    4. The problem relationship is always part of our present life.
    5. What happened in the past has everything to do with what we are today, but we can only satisfy our basic needs right now and plan to continue satisfying them in the future.
    6. We can only satisfy our needs by satisfying the pictures in our Quality World.
    7. All we do is behave.
    8. All behavior is Total Behavior and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology
    9. All Total Behavior is chosen, but we only have direct control over the acting and thinking components. We can only control our feeling and physiology indirectly through how we choose to act and think.
    10. All Total Behavior is designated by verbs and named by the part that is the most recognizable.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 5:27 am #

      Fascinating stuff. I haven’t come across Glasser in many years and I’ve never heard of choice theory. This seems like a sensible fusion of many elements, including behaviorism and psychoanalysis. But to say that present actions are “chosen” still begs the issue — for me. Choice is always complex and always biased. I’ve finally started Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, and that spells it out as well as anything.

      Thanks for the Heyman piece. I read an extended version of this earlier this year. Heyman takes his hat off to biology for a few seconds, but then puts it right back on. I don’t think he really gets how mushy and complex brain processes are. As Glasser seems to say, everything that’s happened in the past affects what’s going on right now. Well then?!

  9. Jo October 23, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Hi Marc,

    The biggest lesson I learnt (which still works for me) in the first few months of my recovery from addiction, was that I may or may not be (it doesn’t really matter in the end) responsible for a thought, but I am however, responsible for the action that follows. Which often prevents me from behaving in a way that will cause fear, shame or guilt to jump back into my head (and my heart), therefore allowing me to live mostly, resentment free. That has definitely helped to keep me safe from using again.
    But…. If I was given this information while in a state of full blown addiction and not after I had already had enough and had detoxed, and, had formed a trust with the people I was hearing this from, there is no way I would’ve believed it to be possible.

    Not sure how any of that fits into the whole “choice” topic, although, perhaps the final years of hopelessness, suffering, guilt, fear and shame are what predetermined not just my choice to stop, but also to just trust another human being again.

    Anyway, happy and safe travels.


    • Mimesis October 23, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

      This Jo fits so closely to where I am. I think the link perhaps is the amount of work it takes to regain trust in yourself and from other people, I needed that to even believe that there was a different level of choice to work on, a different way to feel pleasure, a future to fight for and a way to feel happy without the drugs. Trust was also my huge dive into recovery.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 5:34 am #

      Hi Jo. I think it fits really well. It’s another way of saying that choices are not made at a moment’s notice. They cohere over time. I emphasized distal “choices” — but experience, suffering, and life circumstances also change the field in which present-tense behavior emerges. So yes, we have to go through what we went through in order to fall to the right instead of the left, so to speak. Does that make sense?

      Check out Matthieu Ricard’s statement (summarized in my last post) that addiction takes awhile to overcome because it took awhile to consolidate in the first place.

  10. JLK October 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    Hi Marc

    I have repeatedly tried to do some bomb throwing but with my daughter’s marriage to a young (brilliant) Indian man I have been too busy or follow through. First the non-denominational marriage here then a (welcome?) to Indian society for my daughter She wore something called a Linga and Henna design make-up…he wore an American Tux;kind of a role switch I guess. Anyway: whew!!

    What you have said above dovetails with what I wanted to respond to last time. I am a very strong believer in Free Will no matter which way you describe it. Even if you are making the case in what I call philosopherese meaning starting with an aphorism and tricking it out with dense and unnecessary bullshit. If it takes a lot of mental preparation of any kind (as in my case) you are still making the decision that will eventually lead to abstinence.Conscious decision, or subliminal thought patterns ; call it what you want it is still Free Will.

    About last week: one would think that I would be more sympathetic towards addicts being one myself. But unless the addict is afflicted with a serious mental disorder I see no reason to give them a dime of taxpayer money.

    I myself have helped two people receive Social Security Disability payments. The first was the toughest. My Brother-in-Law has a severe case of Borderline Personality Disorder. He is unable to hold down a job for good reasons. The other was a friend who had mesothelioma from which he eventually died. Now those two had good reason to receive benefits. But your everyday addict no way. And the reason? Free Will. I made it through without losing my job…I actually did quite well in business. But when I had to quit, I spent two years overcoming the fear stemming from the idea of never drinking again:Good example of Free Will..

    As mentioned before I also have a compromised BBB and two of the symptoms are severe depression and severe fatigue. But when struck with one or the other (or both) I would still drag myself to work and do my best. Whiners, especially those with lesser physical or mental problems drive me nuts. You have to play the hand you were dealt to the best of your ability.


    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 5:51 am #

      HI John,
      Either you’ve calmed down or I’ve just gotten used to you. I actually agree with most of what you say. I wasn’t trying to be overly philosophical but I guess you could see it that way. The thing we agree on is that all that mental preparation on the way to abstinence is still Free Will, even though the resulting changes aren’t immediate. In fact, when you think about it, we’re pretty hemmed in in the present tense, by everything that’s gone on before this moment. Sometimes it’s more obvious than other times…that only past actions have much impact..

      About benefits for addicts, I don’t know. If a certain amount of help allows people to revise their future choices for the better, then it’s worth it. It’s like the argument for government supported day-care to alleviate the costs (and suffering!) of imprisonment decades later. Not just to pay people to maintain their status quo, but to help them change. Of course that’s not an easy thing to decide at an institutional level, and certainly you’re right that some people ought to be at the front of the line due to their disabilities.

      Anyway, I like hearing about your “I did it the hard way” story. I think it’s inspiring and it needs to be told.


  11. John October 23, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    This “big hole,” Marc, might actually be where the light comes in. If I may, it typically takes me a while, I’d like to share what I’ve learned since quitting crack and becoming a Buddhist lay-monk who chants a lot. Because, like when I was blasting and smashing, I’m still making mistakes. Like I mean, wrong choices.
    University of California neuroscientist Benjamin Lippet has an explanation, forcefully supported by a lifetime of research, for how it might be that I can think I’m right on time with the attack when actually I’m lagging behind the other singers. Lippet claims to know how it is that I’m deceiving myself. His evidence points to a physiological mechanism of self-deception, wired-and-fired-in, and his theory is frequently conscripted to support challenges to our beloved notion of free will. Not surprisingly, therefore, Lippet arouses some controversy. And he doesn’t give an inch, but basically, all that his research actually shows is that we time-stamp some neural events earlier than they occur. The upshot of which is that, in effect, we initiate an action before we decide whether or not to do it, typically by something in that magic range of about two hundred milliseconds (for most purposes a human being’s experience of ‘now’ is about that long). Then, according to the research, we tell ourselves, fictitiously, that we had decided what to do before we started to act. Would seem that it’s bad for morale if we didn’t believe this, because we like to think we’re the boss, so we tell ourselves that we are, that we are in control. And then to maintain this illusion we have to back-date the decision, resulting in the perception that we were consciously in charge from the start.
    This is all very interesting, but I don’t think that this mechanism necessarily threatens my freedom of choice in any profound or permanent way. It seems commonsensical that if we didn’t have some flexibility of time-stamping in our consciousness the result would be perceptions in temporal chaos, our experience of the world a multi-sensorial strobe. We need to even things out for practical, integrative, purposes. No big deal. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio brings some welcomed reasonability to the debate, saying that our reactions are deeply learned and conditioned by habits acquired in youth and throughout our lives, and that our brains aren’t really so much deceiving us as just taking well-developed short cuts. Those non-conscious reactions have to come from somewhere, and our phenotype history mitigates the accusation of us just being automatons. We’re just abbreviating what we have in the past learned and practiced.
    But still, in defence of Lippet’s conclusions and the challenge to our notion of free will, explaining the benign origins and context of this system doesn’t mean that it can’t also have unfortunate corollaries. The possible relevance to addictions is intriguing. Well-developed short cuts in adulthood are not necessarily the product of youthful wise choices. The triggering of an addicted mind is also in this 200 millisecond range, and a recovering addict’s method of dealing with them therefore must be based on retraining the brain to quickly and automatically impose inhibitions. The problem is that the fire has already been burning for too long before the match is seen to be stuck.
    Lippet’s research could be vastly enriched by applications in addictions. He conducted his experiments with individual subjects and simple hand movements, but what if a scientist went two steps farther, maybe even testing these theories in the sphere of social intelligence by bringing musicians into the laboratory, playing in ensemble.

    Our recoveries, too, could be at least a little bit liberated by focussing on the long game. There’s an old Buddhist proverb:

    “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap a destiny.”

    And speaking of old(er) Buddhists, and I guess also as an old(er) Buddhist, I want to wish you, Marc, a really auspicious visit with H.H. I am really, really pleased that you are doing this for us all.


    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 6:23 am #

      Hi John. I’m glad you brought Libet into this, as he was the first one to find brain markers of actions that preceded conscious awareness (and therefore, we assume, conscious choice) of those actions. And I agree that the “time stamp” issue is complex and probably misleading. You’re right that “now” lasts a few hundred milliseconds in experience, so who cares whether you can report on “now” at the beginning or the end of this window. In fact, Libet has been criticized based on similar arguments.

      But whether that 2-300 ms is where the light gets in….I’m not so sure. I forget who, maybe Libet himself, but studies have been conducted that show we can inhibit actions a lot more quickly than the time it takes to generate them. Ok, so that brief window is important for inhibiting an action that’s quickly swimming to the surface — an action like picking up the phone to call your dealer. But is that where the light gets in? Maybe sometimes. For me, there were a lot of moments of saying No. I’m picturing Dr. Strangelove’s trying to inhibit his “Sieg Heil” impulse.

      Or does the light get in through a whole history of cracks — as implied by your Buddhist quote? Peel that sequence backward and you go from character to habits to actions. That might even explain why it’s often helpful to judge yourself harshly and bump along the bottom for awhile before you clean up your act (though sometimes that backfires). But anyway, LC, being a poet and a singer, is in the business of highlighting the moment, not the long arduous history that Buddhists confront for hours every day.

      Great to have your input, and I look forward to our meeting next week 🙂

  12. Tamasin October 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Fantastic analysis!, I’m completing a PhD based around the intention – behaviour link and that question of why people make goals and why they don’t follow through wwith them and the moderation of positive emotions. I have 14- weeks to finish. Have you looked at temporal self-regulation theory (Hall, 2007,2011)? He conceptualises the temporal aspect of goals, self-regulation capacity as an individual biological entity and also ‘prepotent’ cues in one’s environment as all contributing to our behaviour. The things you talk about in this current blog make me think of his theory. Anyway I really love reading your blogs they are inspiring every time giving me so much food for thought. Have a great time in India!

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 6:26 am #

      Thanks very much. This is such a mind-blowingly educated community…. No, I haven’t looked at temporal self-regulation theory, but I will now.

  13. Jason Mitchell October 23, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    That was the first of your blogs I’ve read and I must say that it was an excellent’choice’ to make (pun ‘intended’). Lol. It basically reminded me of how my mind seems to be composed of two ‘selves’; one experiencing the moment and the other (the more ‘rational’ though personally for myself, weaker when it comes to realizing it’s plans) the sense I have of myself as a historical entity. I highlighted the ‘rational’ aspect because even the moment by moment experiencing self, although it’s ‘choices’ seem irrational, are completely rational for it at ‘the time’ from it’s short-sighted perspective. For example, it’s rational at the time for my addicted mind to ‘choose’ to use to get rid of the pain even though it is in conflict with my historical self that is full of good ‘intentions’ plans. How do we align these two seemingly contradictory selves? Well obviously hard work and self-knowledge help, as does mindfulness, but can training your immediate self to ignore it’s machinations and treat it’s illusionary decisions as not only detrimental to your well-being but also as false choices be the way out of addiction? Time well spent for the first few months as you get clean obviously help weaken the habit and it’s concomitant thought processes in order to give your ‘true self’ (both selves in alignment or unconscious/subconscious and conscious in alignment or agreement). I’ll not go on any more; I made the poor ‘choice’of writing this of the cuff and on my mobile instead of on a p.c. Hopefully I’ve made some sense and not too many spelling or grammatical mistakes (lol, as if I really care at this juncture! I’m only a couple of days clean and am trying my hardest to incorporate as many tools into my ‘get clean once and for all campaign as possible)! Drastic measures indeed as I’m now forty and can no longer go on anymore as an addict. Anyway, you’ll probably have heard enough of that crap for a life time. I don’t as yet have any spare money for your book but will do soon but I look forward to reading more of your blogs. Sincerely and gratefully yours, Jason.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 6:40 am #

      You’re making a lot of sense, and good luck with your recovery. I think what you said about weakening habits is crucial, and its’ pretty straightforward. Whether you want to call the immediately reacting self rational, for the moment, we know damn well it’s not rational in the long run. Which is why the alignment you mention must take place one way or another. But it’s hard. The reflective self is indeed the weaker party — and this is clearly shown in Kahneman’s wonderful book, Thinking Fast and Slow. So….an alternative is to “deprogram” the habits that are the nuts and bolts of that immediate self. And that can be done, over time, in advance, as suggested by my post, through mindfulness/meditation, and probably quite a few other ways besides.

  14. Margot Tesch October 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm #
    I recently completed the above course Synapses, Neurons and the Brain run by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem via
    It was brilliant and over the course I was introduced to this research and more and they raised the debate as to whether we do indeed have free will. I’ve not been able to find anyone to debate it thoroughly with. It is quite frightening to think that we don’t have free will (it’s like giving up hope for correcting criminals due to the genetic/neurological disposition). Personally, I think the research is young. We don’t really know what “subconscious” and “unconscious” really means. They are abstract perceptions used to explain the inexplicable.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 6:43 am #

      I agree that the idea is frightening. But if you look right into it, it seems to open up…maybe into a field of subtler possibilities. Maybe we’re never quite “in control” but we can nudge our trajectory this way or that. Maybe that’s something we can do in the moment, right now, but I do believe it requires preparation if we’re to do it well.

  15. Susan Millar October 23, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    Hmmmm. Your blog never ceases to surprise. This latest gives the lie to so many tools and techniques suggested, but then they did always seemed to be short-lived in their efficacy. My gut says that what you say is correct.

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 6:44 am #

      So does mine. I wish there was a back door somewhere, but I have yet to find it.

  16. Fred October 24, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    I’m reminded of what you wrote about self-trust as a way to combat delay discounting. “The only antidote for this delay discounting may be: having a dialogue between your present self and your future self, whereby the future self takes your present self in hand and says: trust me — things will soon get better. Stick it out…with me.” It’s a distal focus. Experience (and the research findings above) indicate that conscious choice doesn’t work so well in the proximal case, when the drug is right in front of us. Not only do we act before intention, but ego fatigue can wear down attempts to overcome this tendency by force of will. Going long term, we have a chance. I find this a bit humbling, but hopeful too.

    I’m not to worried about whether there is “free will” or not. The answer seems to be, yes but we don’t (can’t?) really use it in the very short term. But we can see it playing out in the long term. The question as someone interested in helping other is, how do we help the addict move from being caught in the short-term loop of habit into to the longer-term flow of an intentional life? Blessings to you Marc on your travels. I can’t wait to hear about them!

    • Marc October 24, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

      Fred, this is completely precisely how I”d put together these three concepts. I hadn’t thought of it quite like this. but it works really well.

      The only time “quitting” actually worked for me was when I said “Not just on weekends, not just once a month, not just no shooting up, but never again — I’m really done” — that was indeed the planting and cementing of a distal intention….a very strongly felt intention with a time range that went on into a future I hadn’t even been able to imagine just before.

      I’m not saying that total abstinence is the answer for everyone. Or that anything is the answer for everyone. (I never crossed alcohol off my list — since I liked it, and it even served as a consolation prize for awhile, but its attractiveness remained limited..and I just couldn’t drink more than a certain amount without feeling like shit) But, whatever it is for each individual, whatever promise actually captures the future successfully, yes, that is the “distal intention” that can get you home safely, without losing it in ego fatigue or forgetting your priorities due to delay discounting. That’s the trick to staying safe, long term.

      How can we help others to find this commitment? Maybe by helping them to recognize the difference between rationalization, disguised as proximal intentions (that only admit their true identity under intense interrogation…that would probably not pass the Geneva convention) and a REAL plan that overwrites the fluctuations of proximal intentions and the sense of self-mistrust (self-doubt) that inevitably seems to accompany them. I think that’s where you were going with this, right?

      There’s lots more to discuss here. Especially, I think there’s some kind of continuum between the proximal and the distal, which gives time a legitimate quality of ongoingness, so to speak, but which might actually come from a recipe that’s one part free will to three parts self-discipline, adding impermanence to taste (given the variability of the environment, relative humidity, etc) maybe a dash of powerlessness (okay with you AA guys?), but ending up with the unmistakable Michelin-star flavor of self-trust…a flowing state of self-friendliness that feels like you’re moving with yourself, not against yourself.

      Sorry, I’m babbling. Just arrived in India two hours ago, seriously tired, and just discovered how to access the wi-fi. Man, India is looking different than it did in 76, or maybe I’m just not in the opium den part of town. There’s a big freeway outside my hotel window, and not a rickshaw in sight.

      • Fred October 25, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

        Great reply. Flowin’ like that, your book will be done in no time!
        It seems we have to shift from trusting our drug to trusting something bigger and better. For me that’s God showing up as a power to help me become my best self. But we know that it can also work to leave God out of it completely. The irenic piece, that makes this “difference” in approach disappear, is trust. Trust your future self? Great. Trust God? Great. You’re on your way to a new way of living. The power of trust transcends sectarian and personal differences in spiritual life as well. Experience has shown that the recovering person in 12-step doesn’t have to believe in any particular spiritual doctrine to find spirituality helpful on the road to recovery.

        And yes I know that spirituality is a barrier for many people, and it can be abused by some, and for those who’ve encountered those barriers, self-trust in a clean future gets at the concept in a secular way. Or maybe more accurately, those of us who found spirituality helpful are getting at the secular brain science in a mystical way!

        I hadn’t made the “powerless”/12-step connection to the research, but it brings a smile to my face. Science just showed in the short term that we are indeed pretty powerless over our actions… Maybe those old-timers in AA were on to something… 🙂

        • Marc November 16, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

          HI Fred, That occurred to me too, about the scientific affirmation of powerlessness. Interesting…

          But anyway, I’m back now and have a load of catching up to do so I won’t reply in depth. But again I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Trust doesn’t necessitate God, but God is one way to frame the object of the trust. Trust is a verb, anyway, and they say that verbs are more powerful than nouns. I had a hard time explaining to the Buddhists exactly what I meant by self-trust. I took the word “higher self” out of my slides, because it was just too ambiguous. The main thing, then, is what it feels like to trust, and how that transforms just about everything.

  17. Cheryl October 24, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    I certainly still believe there is a connection with intention and choice regardless of the time it takes to actually manifest both./either. Enjoy your India experience!

  18. Richard Henry October 25, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Another good post Marc…
    I think for the most part we all seek out rewards of happiness and the avoidance of sadness. With me and my past addictions, sometimes I get stuck on the early stages, the thoughts of using that brings me pleasure. I have to go against all what is giving me temporary euphoria, beyond the pleasure and straight to the out come of sadness. The negative out comes of the use, the cravings for more, more more, the disappointment all the place I’m trying to avoid to begin with in order not to use. Sustaining the rewards without using is sometimes fun but equally dangerous, its a way of self control I dabble with sometimes. When i’m feeling lazy I can trick my mind by pretending to do a big blast and feel the rush of endorphin’s simpler to using, sure it’s not as intense, but it gets me up and moving. I had my first experience getting a tetanus shot at the doctors and could taste in my mouth the old familiar taste of shooting up, which was all induced by my brain and the thought of the needle and getting high. I like to think that the mind is all powerful and in control of the brain, it’s like the brain is telling you, if it feels good, do it.. But today I questioning myself more and more about choices and have to think, was that my choice or my brain tricking me again saying do it, do it… It will feel good…hahaha..
    Always a pleasure marc, I better stop before I start going around in circles…
    Regards Richard

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

      Hi Richard. Your “pretend” highs are pretty interesting. I’ve never heard of that before. But the main thing is that the brain is not as smart as we think. It has a really hard time evaluating how good something’s going to feel, especially when comparing now with later. It’s an organ — yes it’s beautiful and awe-inspiring — but it’s imperfect. It’s still evolving. And after about 300 million years of figuring out how to assign value (on the basis of pleasure), it’s going to overshoot for a while. So it goes…

  19. Janet Lay October 27, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    Hello Marc,
    Woke up this morning thinking of you in India.
    Is it as vibrant as they say? As chaotic? As calm?
    All things connected despite the randomness?
    Thank you for taking us with you. Travel well. Janet

    • Marc October 27, 2013 at 11:38 am #

      A bit too vibrant, actually. Yes, chaotic. No, I wouldn’t say calm, except that a lot of the poor people have learned to live with very little.

      Tomorrow the conference starts and I’m up. Still working on my presentation. I’m anything but calm.

      Thanks for your good wishes.

  20. William M. Abbott October 27, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Wow. Another great blog and responses all full of good ideas and thought
    BTW say HI to the DL for me too. I hope to meet him at a conference next year. And ask him how his cat is doing.
    For an entertaining read check out the book “the Dalai Lama’s Cat “. It’s a hoot.
    My science is of a harder nature than Psychology (Biology and Physics) so I am continuing to learn about the quagmire which is the mind. But my background also makes me reductionist. So I like to keep things in the simplest and most factual terms.
    I don’t think we can escape the concept of choice nor of free will. We can’t control the future but we can set up conditions to maximize the most favorable outcome. Karma if you will. Most of what has already been said here supports that including both proximal and distal intents.
    And in spite of all the good commentary including Marc’s, and all the “science’ expounded, I still think the whole picture is obscure. Mainly because there is a hidden unknown here- emotions. Richard Davison has come closest to unlocking the box here but still hasn’t achieved it. But until we understand that better and more importantly learn how to manage it as well as we can thoughts, we will fall short. Sometimes we can override the emotions, but sometimes we can’t. Therein lies the rub. And until we understand that better, we cannot totally succeed.
    That is why I teach the concept of the two V’s in Smart Recovery. Vulnerable and Vigilance… to avoid the sad but true 10-15% of late term relapse.
    This is what I look to Marc for in his next book
    A good background book here for those who don’t know it is by Daniel Kahneman; “Thinking; Fast and Slow “ .

    • Marc November 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

      Hi Bill. I am finally reading the Kahneman book. I’d read reviews, but the real thing is a pleasure.

      Kahneman says that system 1 (impulsive, automatic) generally overrides system 2, and that corresponds with what a lot of us are saying about the role of distal intentions or at least expending effort on changing habits. But you’re right about emotion. It’s a crucial variable and I wonder why I don’t talk about it more. I studied emotions for years and I’ve written many articles that belong in “emotion theory”. Emotions are incredibly powerful and they generally work in the moment. In fact they seem to be the engine of system 1 appraisals. Even as a grad student I was frustrated that Tversky and Kahneman and other theorists who examined biased thinking, the power of cues, etc, never mentioned the word emotion. It seemed such an obvious place to look. But in this book Kahneman now seems to include emotion in system 1. I haven’t read far enough yet to see where he’s going.

      By the way, Davidson is fine about emotion and the brain, but Panksepp and Izard are much more tuned into the immediate effects of emotion on cognition and behaviour.

      One of the few emotions that works “distally” is anxiety, or dread, and that’s ok with me. To do the re-programming that’s necessary, anxiety and dread are extremely helpful — because all you really want is to avoid something. The trouble is that future painful states aren’t very fussy about generating anxiety backward in time. And the anxiety that surrounds shame, loss, rejection, and all that might be a good reason to use, ie., to not get clean.

      Well, I guess hope is also an emotion that works over time. Maybe that’s the flip side that deserves the most attention.

      I forgot to ask HH about his cat. Sorry. Next time…

      • William Abbott November 17, 2013 at 8:51 am #

        WEll next time Marc maybe you can ask me along to carry your bag or something and I can ask HH myself.

        YOur above brings all this full circle- back to ego depletion . And the role of choice and free will .
        And Kahnemans Systems 1 and 2 do provide some clues. Im not sure how widely this is accepted but I sure like it.

        But to me , until we learn more about emotional management and how it works and how to do it, were playing the game with one hand tied behind our backs .

        Maybe you could ask your new best friend Richie about this . He sure is a smart guy.


  21. Suzy November 1, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    Hi Marc,

    Those of us who have a few coexisting conditions may not find it so surprising that our behaviors have little to do with a thought immediately preceding them. I really appreciate you posting this finding. Part of CBT was crazy-making for me because of this, changing my thinking isn’t working… but the planning bit is an eye opener and really helpful.

    I’ve been sober for nearly 4 years now but I have other things going on that have been hard to overcome, like insane clutter. But having ADHD, anxiety, depression, it makes organization very difficult. I keep trying to change how I am thinking in the moment but have done little planning. I’ve heard it said that to ADDers there are two times, now and not now. But I’ve begun to plan in spite of myself and it is good.

    I appreciate this underscore that planning works. We use it with our participants in SMART Recovery. Sometimes they resist and they don’t want to do it. That can make it hard to persist and roll with the resistance to go through folks’ plans with them. But this is a reminder to go ahead and gently press on with the planning anyway. We often ask participants “what are your plans for the week to support your recovery?”

    (I just read your post from 9/20 which mentioned you were feeling depressed. As you know I just went through that myself but am happy to say the worst part of it did pass. I hope you are also feeling much better now!)

    Have a great trip in India, I look forward to reading about it!

    • Marc November 17, 2013 at 5:50 am #

      Hi Suzy. I’m very glad to hear that the focus on planning has been useful to you. This wasn’t an approach that came naturally to me, either, but it made so much sense when I started thinking about it. Now I’m reading Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, and it’s all the same thing. The cognitions that precede choice points are biased, emotional, and automatic. The only way to exert control over them is by applying the more reflective, rational “System 2”. Hence planning or at least forethought.

      I think there must be some kind of continuum joining these diverse “selves” — like maybe that sense of self-trust I keep going on about. That seems like the comfortable, friendly resilience you feel when you can move back and forth between impulse and reflection, automatic and controlled, as you need to, knowing that it’s all a part of who you are.

      Thanks for asking. No, the depression is pretty much gone at the moment. I am generally a depressive type, but I can usually chase it away quite easily. Now that I’m writing — ie., doing something — it feels better to be in my skin.

      PS. The latest research seems to suggest that CBT does NOT improve depression by changing ruminative thoughts. Rather, changes in mood that come with the easing of depression are what release us from ruminative thoughts — it’s the opposite causal arrow. In a word, don’t think, just do.

    • Marc November 17, 2013 at 6:05 am #

      PS. You are the Suzy from the Chinese restaurant, right? Just wanted to be sure.

      More on India soon……

      • Suzy November 17, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

        Yes that’s me, Marc!

  22. Jeffrey Skinner November 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    The first part of this post wasted a lot of words on the philosophical concept of “free will”. As an atheist/materialist I can’t take this question seriously.

    In order to posit unlimited free will you must answer the mind body problem (another meaningless cul de sac in my opinion) in favor of mind and body separation.Would anyone on this forum would chose statement A as being more defensible than B?

    A) We live in our bodies. (Implying that we could live “in” another body, or no body, and remain “ourselves”)

    B) We are our bodies. (Implying that self is an epiphenomenon generated by a particular body at a particular time)

    The existence of real choice is too empirically obvious to be seriously argued. A good example of choice in the realm of addiction is the big NO that Marc put on his refrigerator many years ago. It apparently functioned as a big red flag to his conscious decision making mind that he was in a danger zone but that he was capable (with great effort) of making decisions that pointed toward an equilibrium of abstinence or sustainable use. Never an easy thing to do, but without making these kinds of choices, how can you hope to free yourself from the powerful but mechanical cycles of addiction?

    It is possible that your unconscious mind will do the work for you and you just won’t feel like using anymore. People frequently quit using for no apparent reason. Those who aren’t so lucky seem to show up here a lot. MOAAB seems to be a big help to them.

    Thanks Marc.

    • Marc November 17, 2013 at 6:02 am #

      I don’t know why you see those words as wasted, Jeff. I think you’re saying that free will is empirically obvious to you. But surely it was just as obvious to these researchers who showed, through experiment, that free choice isn’t free at all. That’s the job of science: to expose us to truths that are counter-intuitive and sometimes greatly humbling. (And I skipped the truly philosophical parts of the debate, which focus on materialistic determinism and all that)

      Although, yes, I’ll take B over A, and although putting up the word “NO” was a huge help to me, and although I would indeed call that a choice, I don’t think it was free. I wrestled it out of the jaws of self-destruction after years of intense effort. And posting the word “No” was indeed a choice, but it was a choice to do things differently in the future. It always referred to the future more than the present. Like buying that plane ticket in advance. I needed all the help I could get precisely because “choice” was not easy, or free, or simple at all.

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