Category Archives: writing

Why Does Journaling Work?

In quarantine one of our biggest threats, outside of becoming infected, is deteriorating mental health. I’ve seen many articles lately offering lists of things to do to keep from slipping into depression; one such article, by astronaut Scott Kelly from the New York Times entitled, I Spent a Year in Space, and I Have Tips on Isolation to Share, points out a common recommendation:

“NASA has been studying the effects of isolation on humans for decades, and one surprising finding they have made is the value of keeping a journal. Throughout my yearlong mission, I took the time to write about my experiences almost every day. If you find yourself just chronicling the days’ events (which, under the circumstances, might get repetitive) instead try describing what you are experiencing through your five senses or write about memories. Even if you don’t wind up writing a book based on your journal like I did, writing about your days will help put your experiences in perspective and let you look back later on what this unique time in history has meant.”

Many studies have itemized further positive effects of Journaling, including, but not limited to:

  • Reduced Stress
  • Improved Immune Function
  • Sharper Memory
  • Boosted Mood
  • A greater sense of confidence and self-identity

What is it about journaling that makes it so effective? I think it has something to do with the way we find and make meaning. Day to day life gives us plenty of meaning without any conscious effort. But when something disrupts the pattern of day to day life we are forced to see things in a new perspective which threatens the whole meaning-making apparatus of our brains. 

We are pattern-seeking mammals. Natural selection has made human beings predisposed to pattern seeking because the observation of patterns—for example, the connection between crop growth and rainfall—is evolutionarily advantageous. And if we can’t come up with a good explanation we’ll come up with a bad one—for example, the connection between crop growth and prayer or animal sacrifice. Modern humans’s lives are mostly made up of bad ones—bad in the sense that they are invented, and as a result, much more easily upended. So when something upends the pattern, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or, say, a global pandemic, the pattern is quickly ripped apart and the result reveals the pattern for what it is—a wholly invented paradigm. There wasn’t anything really meaningful there afterall. We were just playing make believe. A disruption in the pattern can call into question not just our confidence in a single belief, but our confidence in the entire act of believing.

Coming to terms with the idea that our lives have meaning only to the extent that we give them meaning allows us the ability to manufacture it when necessary. If daily life doesn’t provide the requisite amount of patterns for our brains to latch onto unconsciously, then we can consciously force the brain to notice the patterns we choose; i.e. journaling.  

It’s remarkable the extent to which we believe in what we think. Journaling is deliberate thinking and therefore, deliberate belief making. In a journal we create the world as we see it. We’re allowed to fabricate whatever version of that world we want to believe. As the author of your life’s story write down your struggles, passions and goals and be rewarded with meaning for all those things. You have the power to create whatever life you want. As the designer of your world, a journal lets you get as detailed in world-building as you want. In this sense the goal of journaling isn’t necessarily to make our beliefs more accurate; it’s to make them more functional. So either let the depressing world provide your meaning for you, or put your inbred meaning-making skills to good use by journaling a better world for yourself. 

Methods For Understanding

Emotions of fear, anger and sadness bubble up from seemingly nowhere and wreak havoc on our lives. When we attempt to grapple with these emotions by ourselves we find their sources disappointingly difficult to pin down. What we need in these instances are friends to talk to. We come to understand things by talking about them. The act of ‘thinking out loud’ with friends allows us to wrangle those disparate thoughts into coherent sentences and see how they appear from the perspective of someone else. It isn’t so much that the listener needs to be an expert on the topic we want to discuss; simply giving one a safe space to ramble, friends can go a long way in helping us figure out what we think about something.

Unfortunately, our plugged-in culture is deteriorating opportunities for person-to-person conversation. But there is another outlet for clarifying our minds: writing. Much like talking with a friend, through the process of writing you can discover not only what you think, but what has happened to you, and what is happening to you. However, this form of thinking is also under threat. In place of friends and writing for oneself to understand, social media has taken on a lot of the heavy lifting. There are multiple reasons why social media provides an inferior solution for clarifying our minds. Firstly, it puts the act of figuring out what we think about something in a too-public arena. Rather than absorbing our ramblings, social media construes humble attempts at understanding into identity-defining stances. Voicing an under-theorized opinion, therefore, becomes risky. Positing a half-thought opinion can cause severe ramifications. Rather than being a place to advance understanding, social media stunts it.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of social media. Writing for others just makes ideas seem more substantial. Wanting to make a stronger point, Moses didn’t come down from Mt. Sinai and just orally recite God’s 10 commandments, he brought them to the people on tablets with the commandments written in God’s own hand. There’s something about the written word that gives it more heft and believability. If I express a half-thought opinion to a friend or personally in a journal it can be taken for what it is — a halt-thought opinion. But write that half-thought idea down and share it on Facebook, and rather than being something dismissible with a wave of the hand, it’s interpreted as a core belief. Now I feel inclined to stick with my idea and defend it as if I whole-heartedly believe it.

Eventually thinking out loud on social media becomes “content” which is then served up next to the content of experts. On the surface it’s hard to distinguish between the two which gives our musings an inflated sense of value. Adding to that pseudo-value is the implicit social contract that motivates people you know to click a like button, or leave a nice comment in the anticipation that you’ll do the same for them. If you took what passes for content on the standard Facebook or Instagram feed and published it on a blog, it wouldn’t attract any readers, or comments, or links. But by drastically lowering the bar for what “content creation” requires, Facebook gives everyone the feeling that their opinions are equally valid, when of course they really aren’t. On any given topic there are experts whose opinions are substantially more robust in their logic and in their understanding of the evidence.

If we substitute friends and personal journals with Facebook we put ourselves at risk of manufacturing unsubstantiated tenants of our identity, mistaking our half-baked thoughts for facts and downplaying or drowning-out the opinions of experts that really do deserve attention. Ideally you have a friend to help you make sense of what you think. Second to that, write in a journal. After exhausting those to options, subject your opinions to the ruthless environment of a blog where the competition for attention is much more fierce. Writing outside of social media provides signals that ground the writer’s opinions to reality: if no one reads or reacts to your ill-conceived opinion, it probably means it’s no good. Rather than allowing Facebook to delude you into thinking your ideas are valid, you’ll have to continually refine your thinking and writing abilities to attract readers which will lead to better understanding.

Why do setups and payoffs matter so much for a movie to be enjoyable?

The movie A Quiet Place, has been an unexpected success, far surpassing analyst expectations to become one of the most profitable movies in years. The reason is because it’s good. And I think the reason it’s good is thanks to it’s superb usage of setups and payoffs. Most movies go wrong when payoffs occur without being setup or setups occur without ever being paid off.


Some setups are explicit others are implicit, both excel when they make us think the story is going in one direction, but when it pays off, there’s a twist.


Let’s take a look at a couple of the setups and payoffs from A Quite Place:
Explicit setup: While taking the laundry up the stairs, the wife accidentally pulls a nail up on the stairs. We have become hyper-aware of the setup and expect that the nail is going to be stepped on, the only question is when.
Imagine watching that nail be pulled up and then never have a character step on it throughout the rest of the movie. Or imagine a scene where the character goes down the stairs and accidentally steps on a nail we the audience didn’t know existed. In the former we’re confused, in the later we don’t believe it.
With the way it actually plays out, the setup builds great tension as we all cringe as the character steps down the stairs slowly – and as a twist, it happens at a worst possible time — when she’s going into labor!


Implicit setup: The husband tries again and again to repair his deaf daughter’s hearing implant. As we watch this unfold we could just understand the scene to show the father’s love for his daughter and their turbulent relationship, so it’s not such an explicit set up. Then we’re delighted to discover that thanks to his tinkering, he inadvertently created a device that exploits the monster’s weakness.
To our excitement we realize, in the end, that there was no surprise at all. What had seemed to be a turn of fate proves to be inevitable and, as we realize it, we receive the gift of insight. We should have seen it coming!


I think this is what David Fincher means in this short clip when he says that the best cinematic stories have an ending that has an inevitability to it.

Why do setups and payoff matter so much for a movie to be enjoyable?


The human condition is one where there is way too much information out there and we are woefully ill equipped to make sense of it all — but that doesn’t stop us from trying. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, we look at sequences of events and weave explanations into them, creating narratives that link the different inputs together and ignore the facts that do not fit in the story.
Psychologists call this tendency the narrative bias: “the tendency to interpret information as being part of a larger story or pattern, regardless of whether the facts actually support the full narrative.”


Life is stubbornly devoid of clean-cut setups and payoffs but for the couple of hours that we’re in the theater we can imagine a world in which they are clear, everything happens for a reason, the universe isn’t random and it feels so good to vicariously see cause and effect play out for the characters on the screen.


We essentially are paying filmmakers to exploit this psychological vulnerability of ours and when they don’t do it right we get pissed — the story is not therapeutic or encouraging, instead it just reminds us of the problem of real life — it’s random.

The biggest compliment you can give a movie & how to rate movies

Obviously these three movies; a dark comedy, a bio-pic and a family Christmas movie, are not all equally good, right? Yet all three, boasting a rating of 81%, would lead you to believe that you should enjoy all three of them the same. If three digital cameras were rated the same, you’d expect them to be nearly identical. But these three movies are far from identical so how could they be rated the same?

I think movie ratings makes more sense once you ask this question:

Were the creators successful in achieving their goal?

If they intended to make a comedy and it’s funny, create a horror and it scares you, or make a tragic love story that makes you cry, then it’s considered good.

This accentuates the importance of genre. Movies aren’t rated against each other, they are rated against their genre. Genres initiate a contract with the audience — setting their expectations. Movies are most successful when they not only fulfill those expectations but supercede them. Good movies aren’t able to go above and beyond the contract by avoiding the genre conventions, but by fulfilling them in novel, fresh and unexpected ways.

This is what gives the review from a trained critic more clout than the review from the average viewer: critics are experts at knowing what the rules and conventions are for each genre. They know better than anyone the genre conventions that must be hit, when they’re done in a cliche way and when they’ve been transcended.