The Want/Act Disparity

12 February 2014. Filed under category Life.

Perhaps it is the winter blues, but for the last few months, I’ve had a complete lack of motivation to do anything other than exist. I work my hours, I respond to my emails and I watch TV series.

What I am not doing is anything that, upon my deathbed, I will look back at and say, “Wow, look at me in my thirties, what adventures I had!”

Not everybody wants a life of crazy adventures. For many, the quiet life of friends and safe secure familiar habits is more than enough. But I am not one of those people. I want the adventures and the crazy; it is what makes me feel truly alive, all the way out into my fingertips. I crave the unexpected and thrilling; it is what makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs, “I fucking love my life!”

It was to increase the likelihood of those experiences that I decided to become a nomad in the first place.

Where to go

I know what I want. I have the means with which to get it. But there is something standing in my way. For the last few months, I have not been able to lift a finger to make anything exciting happen. I get tired just thinking about booking flights and looking for hotel rooms. No, it is worse than that. I can’t even bring myself to decide where to go. I can go anywhere, but I just can’t bring myself to research my options and decide on a destination.

Back in December, I knew that I was going to visit my family in Sweden for Christmas, and then in late February, I was going to go to Canada. That left several weeks in which I could have gone to …. Anywhere! But, I didn’t. Instead, I remained in London, visiting friends. I love visiting my friends, but I’m not exactly being adventurous here. I can’t shake that nagging feeling that I am not doing what I really want to do, and that the only reason I’m not is… what?

A Governing or Distributed Mind?

Want Act Disparity

And here is the issue of this rambling blog post. Why do we sometimes know what we want, and we know how to get it, but we just don’t act.

(We are now entering the realm of pure speculations, but this is as far as I’ve gotten in my self-reflecting navel-gazing.)

Governing Mind

In brain research, there used to be a theory of the governing mind, a place in the brain where our thought and identity sat, and every other part of the brain filtered all their commands through this governing mind which could allow or block the impulses or decisions made by various brain regions.

But the governing mind theory is falling out of favour for a more distributed and chaotic model where the mind simply emerges from the interactions from different areas of the brain. The actions we take emerge in similar ways from the collective chatter between separate brain regions.
So when ‘I’ say, “I want to go to exciting places and have marvellous adventures,” that is the voice of certain parts of my brain, particularly those that are involved with creating goals, motivations and a sense of self. But when I fail to act on these goals, when there is a prolonged disconnect between what I claim to want and what I do, then that is a sign that there are other parts of my brain that want the very opposite of adventure, parts of my brain that long for security, familiar surroundings, good old friends and quiet uneventful days.

Many Brains

A more common example of this mind vs act disparity is every time your conscious mind tells you to go to the gym but you simply don’t end up acting on that will.

The governing mind theory of the brain does not explain these phenomena, but the theory of the distributed and emergent mind does.

I should throw in that I have not done any research into any of this other than listening to a handful of audiobooks on the topics, but we make do with whatever information we have at hand to explain our lives to the best of our ability.

To Rule or Appease Our Subconscious Mind

The Dice Man

So what should I do with this ‘information’? If I am correct in my analysis that I have different parts of my brain pulling me in different directions, what should I do about that?

One option is to go the route of the Dice Man, a book from 1971 about a man who develops a theory that he has many different personalities within himself, but only the dominant ever gets to do what it wants to do. The rest are like trapped spectators, destined to be forever dissatisfied. So he decides to set them free with the power of the die. At every decision he faces, he writes down six options and rolls a die, and acts out the one selected by the die. His different personalities thereby get a statistical chance of being acted out.

If you’ve read the book, you know that … well, this way of living may lead to an unmitigated disaster on every level of your life. And the ones around you. (And if you haven’t read the book, DO! It is amazing!)

The Dice Man might be a drastic option, but the core idea behind it is sound. You recognize that you have conflicting goals and wants, and you take action to find some compromise that satisfied most of them as well as possible.

Rule The Brain

Or, I could take the opposite approach. The part of my brain which is currently writing these words, the part of my brain that creates my self-reflecting sense of self, it is what really matters. The rest of my brain is nothing but a moment-to-moment gratification-obsessed disorganized reactionary network of impulses and errant emotions. It puts up walls to experiences that once there, both I (self-reflecting and adventure-starved Gustav) and he (subconscious emotional Gustav) would fucking love, both in the moment and afterwards when we can look back at them and be proud of a life lived well.

Perhaps I should turn my conscious abilities against my lazy brain and submit it to my will. I could use commitment devices to force my brain to listen to my conscious parts (adventure brain) and ignore the other parts (comfort brain).

There are many times when I have wanted to do something, but some fear or hesitation has held me back. This usually involves jumping off something, like a tall cliff over a beautiful lake. For these moments, I’ve developed the 1-2-3 technique, a simple but effective commitment device. You simple make up your mind that on the count of three, you will do it. Making that decision is something that your identity-generating high-processing brain can do. And then you count, and at the count of three, you have no more time to hesitate and you just do it. The more years that go by during which you have never broken the count-to-action pact with yourself, the more powerful the technique becomes.

But this is only good for instantaneous take-the-plunge kind of decisions. If I were to choose to rule my subconscious and force myself to live more excitingly, then I would need another commitment device.

Commitment Device

What do you say?

So, dear reader, do you agree that there can be battles within a brain, in particular between the more conscious parts of our brains and the lower levels? And if so, what do you think we should do about it? Act as peacemakers and find compromises between conscious and subconscious wants? Or should we try to enforce our conscious will and fight inherent traits we don’t favour such as laziness and fear?

Travel Updates

I left Sweden mid January and moved to London where I am currently. This is the longest I’ve stayed in London for a long time, and it has been nice. I’ve gotten to spend some good quality time with my friends here, but as I’ve already harped on about in this post, I don’t really feel like I’m living the life of an adventurous nomad. Still, it’s been nice.

My days have been a mix of work, building a site for my sister, meeting friends, drinking at the Duke of Wellington and playing board games.

Next week or so, I will be going to Vancouver where I’ll stay for a few months. If you are there, let me know!

Commitment devices

A commitment device is some scheme that you device to force your hand at some future juncture. Your current self knows that a later self will do something that the current self wants to avoid, and so the current self creates a commitment device.

One famous example of this is a casino self-exclusion list which a gambling addict can sign up for that makes it illegal for him to enter a casino.

For an excellent podcast on the topic, check out the Freakonomics podcast ‘Save me from myself’. And while you are at it, subscribe to the entire podcast; it is excellent!


Have your say. I would love to hear your thoughts on the mind.

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  1. Brother Henrik says:

    Yes Yes YYYYYEEEEESSSSSS I am the first one to post a comment on this articel,but on other hand it dosent matter i don have so much to say about this articel.
    Do what you want travel were you whant as long as it dosent affect your work/job 🙂

    1. Ha ha. Good work, brother! You get the gold medal.

  2. Crys Klier-Hoffman says:

    wow, you just summed up what many of my days are like, especially in the dead of winter. I , however, am a depressed person, freely and fully admitted. I have found the best answer for myself is to allow myself to BE depressed. That may sound really negative but in fact, allowing myself to experience it is in some odd way, freeing and thus healing. It does lift and scuttle back to the darker recesses of my mind at some point. I never bound out of bed with utter joy and exuberance. I do however, find that flicker of ” oh, there I am” and it is wonderful to meet that me again.
    Be patient. Take care of you. Whatever it is you feel is missing will come again. Stop beating yourself up about it, you have a good many years ahead to go out and ” fucking love life.” Being quiet and storing up energy can be a good thing once you see it in the right perspective. You HAVE NOT lost anything. I think you need a tight hug so , HUGS.

  3. Al S says:

    Seriously? Calling me a Tease? Really??

    Without getting too deep into it, did you ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe what you’re going through and experiencing right now is perfectly normal? That perhaps being a “modern nomad” requires a period of downtime. Some space to reconnect with friends and family. Regardless of how super human we all feel we are at times, the reality is is that we are STILL human. Leading a nomadic lifestyle imposes stresses on your body (mentally and physically) that may not be outwardly obvious but none the less still exist. You still have the same needs as you had before you chose this lifestyle, those needs exist in all of us at the root level. The need to connect with friends and family is one of them. Instead of fighting it, try embracing it. Maybe this is your body’s way of recharging so that you can continue doing what you’re doing.


    The Tease

    1. That could very well be true. And that opens up a whole other interesting disparity, the Want/Need disparity. The mind really is a strange beast.

      Oh, and to the rest of you, yes, he is a tease, but he delivers in the end.

  4. Hob says:

    Gustav my friend, are you feeling a bit middle aged? The Africans have a name for guys like us. We are called “beentoos” We have been to here and been to there etc. Sometimes what we do feels good and at the time seems to be the right thing to be doing. However on reflection it seems to be somewhat hollow and without meaning. I guess its something like masturbating.
    You are one of the most introspective and articulate men I have ever met. Why not start making a difference. By that I mean, combine your need for adventure with leaving people and places better than when you found them. At the age of 20 I joined the US Peace Corps and volunteered for 3 years building roads and teaching Africans construction. And in the many years that have followed, I have combined my thrill of adventure with volunteering my time and skills to improve peoples lives. This is something I have taken great pleasure in and now at 70 years of age I am still doing. Soon I am off to an outer island in the Fiji group to teach bone carving and scrimshaw.
    There are many volunteer organizations that would be very glad to have you teach in far flung reaches of the world. Would it not be better in old age to reflect on the number of wonderful people you have helped along the way than just the exploits of self gratification?
    Your friend Hob

    1. zB says:

      Hob – I think I would agree with most of what you said. There is a way to balance (or at least juggle between) the urge for travel, experience new things, meet new people and influence environments you inhabit in a positive way. For sure your posts touch and inspire some people deeply, but aside from that individual growth (that is nice to share) I am sure you can do other things that would also be fulfilling.

      Best zB

  5. Imogen says:

    Wow, what an enormous subject! Where to start? For perhaps the tiniest bit of insight into this massive topic, here’s one angle on your problem;

    The goal of each part of you is to serve some purpose that is of benefit to the whole. If you feel you have a part of you that is pulling you somewhere you don’t want to go, (and parts can be dysfunctional, e.g. they could still be trying to solve a problem that no longer exists) then it’d be a good idea to find out what that part of you is trying to achieve for your benefit. Once you have that figured out, negotiation with that part becomes easier. Perhaps you ought to reflect on what the more sedentary part of you has been trying to achieve. I’d guess that your subconscious has wanted a period of reconnection, rest and reflection after years of living an emotionally demanding nomadic adventure. Perhaps you’ve also needed a longer period over Christmas this time, your traditional rest period, to reflect after landing a new job and rejoining your career which has significantly changed the priorities in your day to day life. Or it could be that your subconscious wants you to reflect on how the awesomeness of existence can also be experienced while noticing the seemingly mundane and familiar and not just the exotic and extreme. Or maybe like the poster above suggests, part of you is searching for greater purpose. These are just wild guesses as examples though, only you can really discover and know what each part of you is trying to achieve. Also I’d say, don’t be so hard on yourself. The amount you’ve achieved so far in terms of living your dream life is pretty impressive. If it’s time to get back into it, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t begrudge yourself the extra time out.

    Commitment devices sound useful, especially in establishing better habits which may lead to greater overall change and growth. However, if there is an underlying problem or a part that is trying to be heard above the din of your conscious chatter and goals and control, then you’re probably going to need to figure that out eventually to reduce internal conflict longer term. In your example, the gambler excluded from casinos might find a healthier alternative with which to use the time and resources he’s reclaimed, but he might also simply fill the void with another addiction, influenced by the unresolved part.

    In your case, a possible scenario might be that you commit and decide where to go and book accommodation, and then spend weeks not leaving your hotel room because you’ve not successfully negotiated with, and re-integrated, the dissenting part. Then you would need to employ more and more commitment devices to keep going. This may be a good way of creating change through habit, or you may need to reflect and resolve.

    Does any of that resonate with you? Like I say, it really is a huge topic!

    1. Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the late reply. I’ve read and re-read it several times and mulled over it.

      It is the second to last paragraph that I think really hits home. There have indeed been times when I’ve been somewhere new and exciting, but I’ve stayed in a lot and not discovered the place I’m in. I wrote about it in Mental Monsters.

      It has never been as bad as that again, but the same hesitation to explore comes back from time to time. It is a mix of tiredness, fear, laziness, habit and loneliness. And the remedy is always the same: just stop feeling sorry for yourself, make a conscious decision to leave the apartment and just do it, even if your emotions are protesting at full volume.

      And then, the minute you are over that threshold, all those bad emotions drain away and you end up having a great day, and suddenly everything is rosy again. And here is an example where one’s conscious mind may know what is best for you, and the emotions do not, and where one should side with the conscious brain as it is the one who have a better sense of time and future rewards, while the emotions are often stuck in the immediate present.

      My additional two cents, now taking me up to four.

      1. zB says:

        There have indeed been times when I’ve been somewhere new and exciting, but I’ve stayed in a lot and not discovered the place I’m in.

        I know this feeling myself…

        It is a mix of tiredness, fear, laziness, habit and loneliness. And the remedy is always the same: just stop feeling sorry for yourself … Actually I think there should be different ways to deal with these issues (and inherent feelings) in a more structured (if not planned) way. For start it is important to be able to identify them and their sources in real-time so they not prevail and leave you stuck for a longer time in feeling down.

        And here is an example where one’s conscious mind may know what is best for you, and the emotions do not, and where one should side with the conscious brain as it is the one who have a better sense of time and future rewards, while the emotions are often stuck in the immediate present. …good point – though concision mind is likely to “think to know”, but there is no certainty that future scenario is well projected or that there is capacity to get to it – no?

        Best zB

  6. Jono says:

    I have the solution: take lots of drugs. Because that always ends well for those that “crave the unexpected and thrilling”.

    This is all startlingly close to the “existence” conversation we were having over a curry those few weeks ago. Although, its funny that you are living through some kind of existential crisis whereas I was just trying to write about it for the purpose of having an intriguing subject for an album.

    The solution for my own existential crises is to put fingers in my ears and yell “not listening, not listening”. It’s the general vibe of “what is OUR purpose” which interests me – but questioning your OWN purpose leads to madness. Cthulhu fhatgn.

    BTW, I think I may have cracked it, i.e. a narrative for the lyrical story about the meaning of existence.

    The quest for understanding existence, including the origin/nature of the Universe, could be undertaken in a dream where an entity casts its “mind” back to the experiences of past civilisations, who made up mythologies to make sense of the world around them. Would it even be possible to trace the “memory” of matter itself back to when mass was first realised by the Higgs field?

    It starts to sound like that Nobilis game where the power of dreams got trapped by some malevolence when exploring the nature of fetal dreaming. I like mixing fantasy with a bit of plausibility. In an eleventh dimensional multiverse anything is possible.

    1. Would it even be possible to trace the “memory” of matter itself…

      Oh yes, that is definitely possible. It is the basis of homoeopathy after all, and so matter-memory must be real.

      Oh, and I really miss Nobilis. Think about it from time to time. I had such wonderful plans for you all.

    2. zB says:

      🙂 I like your perspective 🙂

      It’s the general vibe of “what is OUR purpose” which interests me – but questioning your OWN purpose leads to madness. …maybe questioning OWN is OK, but not obsessing over it for long – indeed OUR is what I prioritize – though prevailing atmosphere of neo-liberal capitalist in many social groups makes me feel as lonely queer far too often.

  7. Sahil says:

    Thank u so much. U r too inspiratational. Loved ur post. Thank u so much, it means so much to me. Have no words to describe it. While writing this comment I m totally thrilled with ideas coming from my “will it self-identity brain”. Good look brother. I would love to follow u on twitter, Facebook, what’s app. Just leave me a reply. Thank u so much. Take care and appericiated with whole heart.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. As for following me, you’ve got all the ‘Subscribe’ options at the top right of The Modern Nomad! Follow away!

  8. Levin says:

    More random thoughts:

    – As Al S said, maybe your mind/body/spirit just need downtime from time to time. Natural and human.

    – I assume you’re not just choosing your destinations at random, so there was a reason to go to each place? But the reasons will differ and may not necessarily directly, or immediately relate to exploration and enjoyment. You might want to experience Lima, but that’s not the same as always having dreamt of visiting Auroville …

Have your say. I would love to hear your thoughts on the mind.

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