#41: Building a better money brain (the ABC of money, part 9: neuroplasticity)

28th June, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that’s scrubbed up, with scalpel in hand.

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that how money is mapped in your brain determines how well it serves your life far more than how you spend or invest it.

This is part nine of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.

Buddhism isn’t about sitting in a cave chanting om. It’s about brain surgery. Don’t believe me, ask a brain surgeon.

Wise use of the plastic in your wallet is determined by how you harness the plasticity of your brain.

I’ve often been asked for tips on how to prepare for a first-time ten-day silent meditation retreat.

Tip number one is don’t seek out any reports of others’ experiences. Expectations of any sort are not your friend.

Tip number two is read Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson (UK ǀ US). I wrote last time that to improve our relationships with money we want to put nirvana in the language of neuroscience; this book does exactly that.

If you’re anything like me – and most seeking such tips are, at least a little bit – you’ll probably find spending 10 hours a day doing literally nothing but focusing on the sensations of your upper lip much easier if you have a vague understanding that you’re really sculpting a better brain.

This is fundamentally what this series of posts has been about.

We’ll cover the specifics of what meditation looks like when applied to money next time.

For now, know that when we talk about ‘meditation’ we’re not talking about some cute thing you do by listening to a soothing voice on an app telling you to relax your eyelids and think happy thoughts for five minutes. Nor are we talking about calming your nervous system in a healthier way than lining your lungs with tar.

We’re talking about a means of training your attention… about paying attention to how you pay attention. This is, as I wrote last time, how we build the bridge that links the abstract framework of Buddhist philosophy to the practical wisdom of living better with money.

The aim of any half-decent financial planning is to align what you care for with what you care about. To allocate your resources with what you want, rather than what you’re addicted to. This is basically the aim of what the Greeks called phronēsis – practical wisdom: not only how to choose a path to an end, but how to choose the end most consistent with the aim of living well overall (see here for more, including the accompanying Aristotelian footnote).

The second bit is crucial. You can hack your habits to make you more productive at doing anything, but it’s kind of pointless if you’re still trapped in a worldview that thinks personalised numberplates are a sign of class. It doesn’t matter how well you can afford things if those things don’t afford living well.

The problem with getting good at getting shit done is that sometimes what you get done is shit.

A detour into death

Of the 800,000 people who kill themselves globally each year 20% die from pesticide self-poisoning.’

If you were to ask someone what causes suicide, chances are high that motive (being very depressed) would spring to mind before opportunity (having easy access to a means of doing the deed).

As the excellent link above explains, one of the most effective ways of reducing suicides is simply by making it harder for farmers at risk of very low (but passing) moments to get their hands on a deadly drink.

There are plenty of less morbid parallels to this.

In the time before takeaways, it was much harder to turn a temporary craving for crap food after a hard day at work into a rather less temporary choice of body-fat percentage. See also retail therapy, and the rise of the smart phone – the feelings that lead us into myopic cravings for crap and distraction almost certainly haven’t increased; but our means of appeasing them have become deadly effective.

Pay attention to how you pay attention

We’re not crap at knowing what we want, as is often claimed. We know what we want when we pay attention. We’re just crap at paying attention. Especially when the ultimate attention-stealing device lives in our pocket.

Blaise Pascal once quipped that ‘All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. That was in the 17th Century.

Most of humanity’s efforts since then have aimed at enhancing not our ability to sit quietly and pay attention to how we pay attention – to counter the distraction death spiral of modern life and the existential confusion it inspires – but to make it easier not to.

This is especially inconvenient when you consider the brain’s built-in ‘negativity bias’.

Seeing more dangers than exist in reality made evolutionary sense when those dangers led to being eaten. Now, however, this bias leads (in the words of Buddha’s Brain) to a

‘background of anxiety [that] fosters anger, sorrow, depression, guilt and shame; [that] highlights past losses and failures, [that] downplays present abilities, and [that] exaggerates future obstacles.’

In a world where we equate money with security, this distorted, fearful interpretation of reality leads us to make some very silly life choices. We accumulate rather than align, and waste resources building fortresses to keep out pain that’s already inside us.

As Buddha’s Brain states:

Developing greater control over your attention is perhaps the single most powerful way to reshape your brain and thus your mind […] The simple truth is that how we focus our attention, how we intentionally direct the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits, can directly alter the brain's activity and its structure.

There’s a reason the ‘You are a brain surgeon’ section of my book is so near the beginning.

And why Part One ends not with trivial tips and tricks from financial fortune cookies, but with an attempt at harnessing your neuroplasticity: by catching crappy indications of money idiocy, and consciously changing them with the sort of attention that alters the money maps in your brain.

Because as we covered earlier in this series, the worst thing about money – its ubiquity in our decision-making – is also the best thing about it. Because the same machinery that spirals us down when we don’t attend to it spirals us up when we do.

Learning to divorce events from the meaning we attach to them and see not obstacles, but stepping stones, is key to becoming wiser. The Buddhist philosophical framework is a structured approach to doing this. As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche wrote:

The radical goal of the Buddha’s treatment plan is not to solve or eliminate problems, but to use them as a basis or focus for recognizing our potential. Every thought, every emotion, and every physical sensation is an opportunity to turn our attention inward and become a little bit more familiar with the source.

The best intentions are pointless if they’re forgotten when they’re needed. The fact you don’t live in a meditation hall makes a money philosophy rather important. Because a philosophy is a way of living, and if you’re living something, it’s with you in everything you do.

Become such as you are

‘Our life is shaped by the mind; we become what we think.’ So said the Buddha. There’s an important subtlety here. You are not what you think or do. You are what you’ve thought and done. You become what you think and do… what you pay attention to.

If you want to become wiser, pay attention more wisely.

The practice of meditation is a way to train your attention and improve your brain.

Or at least it should be.

But it’s usually done terribly.

As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche wrote:

Many people look at meditation as an exercise, like going to the gym. ‘I’ve gotten that over with! Now I can go on with the rest of my life.’ But meditation isn’t something separate from your life. It is your life.

We’ll look at how to do it properly and how money fits into meditation next time.

(or could read this now. It’s really good. And not very long)

#45: The ABC of money, part 10: what meditation isn’t

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