Beeminder Forum

"The Willpower Instinct" Book Club, Intro and Ch. 1


Oh yeah, you’re right, I was thinking of RSA (not the encryption).

It’s not that HRV or RSA is psuedoscience, it’s that I have seen many psuedoscientific claims regarding both.

Really? This I didn’t know.

Sure, but I don’t know that this has anything to do with HRV.

Ok, good to know! I stand corrected. I’ll dig it out of the dumpster then :wink:


You’ve prompted me to have some interesting conversations with my wife about this stuff tonight, so thank you!

I took another look at the HRV section, and this bit at the top of page 39 caught my eye:

Studies also show that people with higher heart rate variability are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and dealing with stressful situations. They are also less likely to give up on difficult tasks, even when they initially fail or receive critical feedback. These findings have led psychologists to call heart rate variability the body’s “reserve” of willpower – a physiological measure of self control. If you have high heart rate variability, you have more willpower available for whenever temptation strikes.

I think that McGonigal is being a little hand-wavey and sloppy about causal language, as though HRV itself is the cause of better self-control. One could easily interpret McGonigal as promoting this causal diagram:

If that’s what she really means… well, I don’t see how that would work. But I interpreted her argument to instead be this causal diagram:

My wife also thought the second diagram was what McGonigal meant, and was willing to give McGonigal a pass on her phrasing, given that the overall argument of the chapter hangs together and that she’s targeting a lay audience. HRV and how it’s used to measure stress response are complicated and hard to describe without being a little hand-wavey. My wife also agreed that the overall argument of the chapter was plausible, and that in the worst case scenario McGonigal’s proposed interventions were free and good ideas in general.

To recap, my beliefs coming out of this chapter are:

  • The state of the body plays a role in self-control.
  • Getting enough sleep, exercise, and practicing emotional self-regulation improve the capacity for self-control.
  • High HRV indicates the kind of physiological state where people tend to have improved self-control.


I haven’t read the chapter but in that quote it seems like she’s pretty clearly stating that HRV itself leads to better willpower and self-control, i.e., your first diagram. I agree that’s ridiculous.

I’m not sure I understand your second diagram. It makes sense without the upper right bubble. But with the upper right bubble - well, why does it matter if one has increased HRV when confronted with internal conflict? Is the idea that’s it’s just a measurement of self-control, in which case the diagram should look like:

Paced breathing exercises -> Ability to self-regulate into a calm state -> Success at self-control -> shows up as increased HRV


Glad you had a good discussion. This is literally the point of this book club! :smiley:

One of my many hats involves product design and embedded systems design of both pacers/defib implantables and fitness wearables, including ones that are fitness oriented, so HRV is something I work with quite a bit!

I actually don’t know much about comparing HRV between individuals.
It may be like heartrate, where it is pretty lousy at comparing two people, but it may not–I just don’t know the literature. Unless I mark it explicitly, when I say low HRV and high HRV I mean compared to your previous measurements.

HRV a pretty good biomarker showing parasympathetic nervous system activity versus sympathetic. This is correlated to a lot of things, and for a lot of people, it’s a pretty good measurement of recovery after training. If you measure your sleeping HRV, you can use the change in your HRV after a strenuous workout to indicate when your body is ready for another strenuous workout (I’m not a medical professional and I’m definitely not your medical professional.)

Low HRV is tied to a variety of illnesses and some mental states and while it can be grossly oversimplified as “if your body is running low, your HRV tends to go low, and if it has a lot of reserves, it tends to go high”.

Everything old is new again, and people have found that it can be easier to self-regulate into a calm state by watching their live HRV. It seems to work better, for me, than early biofeedback stuff from the 70s (think heartrate, galvanic skin response…)


I just finished chapter 1. (As I understand it we’re not “supposed” to be on chapter 2 until next week?) The interesting thing for me was the stuff about meditation: I had heard lots of talk about meditation enhancing “mindfulness” and things like that which always sounded like it was a fancy word for nothing. I had never heard it presented as practice for your prefrontal cortex, which actually sounds compelling to me. So I’ve decided to try it. I plan to do 5 minutes each morning this week to start (maybe I’ll make a beeminder goal if I decide I want to continue).


You are correct–we should be wrapping up Chapter 1 this weekend, and starting Chapter 2 next week.

I know there will be people zooming ahead, and certainly people will run into this thread into the future, so unless it looks like it’s impairing discussion, I’m pretty open to anything.

I’m curious to see what you think of meditation after a week!


I just finished Chapter 1. This prompted me to

  1. start a nebuminding goal (I’d link to the forum post on this if I weren’t commenting on my phone) for taking notes and working through the exercises.

  2. to actually restart my meditation goal. For several years now it seems that every time someone mentions meditation I’ve thought to myself “Oh yeah. Meditation seemed to help me with a lot of things back when I was doing it regularly. I should do it again.” So this time I had that thought I restarted the goal.


Unfortunately, it looks like my beeminder forum summaries are inconveniently timed – I just got the notification that this thread exists today. I’ll see if I can get ahold of the book (I hate ebooks for useful information, but that might be the only way to get it quickly) and catch up this week!


Dear Queen Bee, what is nebuminding?


Bees doing meditation - PLEASE be really careful with that stuff. Meditation techniques were intended to destroy the sense of self and reach enlightenment, and have been developed for that purpose. They consequently can be extraordinarily destabilizing and can lead to some extreme side effects like depression, panic attacks, psychosis, delusions, megalomania, and losing touch with reality.

Please make sure you are seeing a qualified therapist and/or working with an experienced meditation teacher. This stuff isn’t just for fun and it isn’t just some relaxing time - please be responsible and careful and please read up on it. Look up the “Dark Night” for more on the negative and dangerous side effects.


:grimacing: Oh! Sorry folks, I didn’t intend to zoom ahead – I misunderstood the schedule. I’ll refrain from getting ahead further. I would rather have the discussion when everyone feels ready for it! :zipper_mouth_face:


I’ve read the first chapter! Here was my favorite quote:

Before you saw the outrageous price, you would have needed some serious prefrontal cortex intervention to shut down the spending impulse. But what if your brain registers an instinctive pain response to the price? Studies show that this actually happens—the brain can treat a hefty price tag like a physical punch to the gut. That instinctive shock is going to make the job easy for your prefrontal cortex, and you’ll barely need to exert any “I won’t” power.

That’s some good Beeminder apologetics! Here’s me in “Ego Depletion Depletion” saying something similar:

With the right inducement (say, continued employment) you can exert superhuman willpower, like waking up early and going to work every day for years or decades. Which is to say that with the right incentives, willpower doesn’t even need to be invoked. You can route around it and find creative ways to induce yourself to do what you really want to do.

Note that this book was written before Ego Depletion (“willpower is like a muscle”) was debunked (in fact it was published 2 months after Beeminder launched), so that’s something to keep in mind in later chapters probably. See also my followup to “Ego Depletion Depletion”, “What Is Willpower?”.

Willpower Trichotomy

Back to chapter 1, I like McGonigal’s willpower trichotomy, which I’d translate into Beeminderese as:

  • “I will” power = what you’d use a Do More goal for
  • “I won’t” power = what you’d use a Do Less goal for
  • “I want” power = keeping your long-term goals in focus so you make the right tradeoffs in the moment

Maybe “I want” power is like meta-willpower that, if mastered, makes Beeminder superfluous? Something to think about as I read further…

Contra Meditation

Also I have some extremely half-baked (epsilon-baked?) thoughts on meditation:

Remember Dual N-Back? My tentative conclusion on that was that you can practice that game and it makes you better at the game but it doesn’t transfer very well to other domains and so it’s probably not worth the time if your goal is to be smarter or have better short-term memory or whatever skills that game reinforces. Might as well get the practice following intellectual pursuits that have intrinsic value.

So my (highly tentative) theory is that meditation is similar. Practice will make you better at using your prefrontal cortex to redirect your attention back to your breath as it wanders (this was an excellent explanation of the value of meditation) but I don’t expect it to transfer especially well. Or not enough to offset the opportunity cost of meditating. I feel like there are things you can do that kill two birds with one stone. What about exercising and practicing redirecting your attention to the skating / pedaling / whatever motion?

Or what about targeting willpower even more directly? Put a bowl of jellybeans or whatever on your desk all day and find some way to not eat them (presumably with a commitment device, or maybe it would work better if you gradually trained yourself to ignore the jellybeans despite no immediate negative consequences for eating them). I’m interested to hear why meditation proponents think meditation beats those less time-consuming alternatives.

(I might argue that it needs to beat them by a lot, given the time cost.)

PS: Enlightenment, Nebuminding, and SuperBetter Twin Power

Slate Star Codex’s review of “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” makes for fascinating reading (as always) and may address @zedmango’s worry about meditation.

What @bee’s calling nebuminding is this:

How weird is this: McGonigal has an identical twin sister who also does seemingly very Beeminder-relevant work on improving humans via games. She’s the creator of SuperBetter, which I don’t understand but seems Habitica-like.


Awesome that you brought up DNB - I made a goal for it the other day and I want to get up to doing it every day.

As I understand it there is some solid evidence that DNB does increase working memory in general (basically giving you more RAM) and may also increase fluid intelligence as well, and these are pretty transferable. I have found it to be helpful in general but I need to get back into it.

That itself is a form of meditation, not an alternative to meditation. Walking meditation, for instance, is one of the traditional forms, and you can meditate while doing any kind of exercise.

I deal with depression and meditation is the only thing I’ve found that actually treats it. There’s a huge difference in my mood when I meditate vs. when I don’t. It’s incredibly helpful in making things less sticky and bringing me back to a state of sati (often mistranslated ‘mindfulness’ but really more like ‘taking note of the present moment as if trying to remember it’) - it just brings more peace and calm in my life. So very transferable.

Since virtually everything you do is about attention and the direction of attention, it’s hard for me to see how meditation could possibly not transfer. But again, remember, the main point of meditation is to become enlightened.

I’m also happy you linked to Scott’s review of the first edition of my favorite book ever, MCTB, by the Enlightened One and Conqueror of Foes, Daniel Ingram, MD (the second edition just came out). It was indeed MCTB’s warning about the Dark Night that I was thinking of - he’s very careful about warning people of the risks. Of course if you’re like me there’s no way you could possibly stay away from trying to become enlightened in any case.


You need to read her book, then play the “game” (although last time I tried to login it was not working)


My extremely introductory/amateur-level of meditation and the related physiological effects, is that a good, focused run/skating/biking/whatever would have similar results in the ability to concentrate, willpower, distraction avoidance, etc


Which HRV wearable do you have? I have a vivosport which is…fine I suppose. I wish the HRV indicator would notify me when my HRV spikes.


I’ve had great results from 5-15 minutes of meditation, but only after doing so daily for a few months. I tend to engage in mental loops of overthinking, get distracted by spontaneous thoughts, or focus on negative thoughts. After meditating regularly I noticed a drastic difference in my ability to notice when I was getting distracted from my main task and just generally to avoid engaging thoughts that weren’t helpful.

I’ve also done a lot of guided meditations that focus on specific mental skills, noticing specific thought patterns. So I do think the skills in meditation are highly transferable, more so than I’ve noticed from exercise. If your goal is to establish or modify habits, you have to notice when you’re engaging in automatic behavior, and meditation is great for that.

But your mileage may vary - you may already have the mental habits I’m talking about. I tend to have attention issues in general, so I think it’s more valuable for me than most. I think if you’re skeptical and think meditation is a waste of time, you will probably prove yourself right. But you might not be able to properly evaluate the opportunity cost without sticking to a meditation routine for 1-3 months first and seeing the benefits first-hand.


Oh damn, I missed this. I’m in and will work on catching up, stat.


Bees doing meditation - PLEASE be really careful with that stuff. Meditation techniques were intended to destroy the sense of self and reach enlightenment, and have been developed for that purpose. They consequently can be extraordinarily destabilizing and can lead to some extreme side effects like depression, panic attacks, psychosis, delusions, megalomania, and losing touch with reality.

Please make sure you are seeing a qualified therapist and/or working with an experienced meditation teacher.

I appreciate the concern, but I can’t help feeling like this seems overblown. If I can make an analogy to playing the piano (something I have a lot of experience with), it seems to me like it’s as if someone said “I heard that playing scales on the piano for 5 minutes a day can improve your singing ability, so I’m going to try that” and I were to respond by saying “PLEASE be really careful! Piano practice techniques are intended to strip down your finger muscles and replace them with more fast-twitch muscle, and to build up insane amounts of stamina. They can lead to extreme side effects like cramps, permanent muscle damage, and even complete finger paralysis. Please make sure you are working with a qualified and experienced piano teacher!” While not necessarily false, this statement would be unhelpful since the person is not intending to pursue the piano seriously and is not going to get anywhere near to the sorts of practice techniques that could cause muscle damage.

However, I am willing to be convinced that this is a bad analogy.


A better analogy - in fact, one that the Arahat Dr. Ingram uses - would be a medication that generally has good results but sends 1 out of 1000 people to the psych ward. Shouldn’t people be warned of these kind of side effects?

Worse yet, there are few people who understand or are familiar with the Dark Night and not really any good ways to treat it.

Meditation has side effects at least as serious as any medication, and yet people treat it like candy as though there were no risk of serious harm.

There really is no risk to practicing the piano for 5 minutes a day, whereas there is a serious risk to doing certain kinds of meditation 5 minutes a day.

And a bigger part of the problem is that most people don’t really understand or believe in enlightenment, and see meditation just as a relaxation exercise, taking the false impression that it’s just a matter of getting more and more relaxed, calm, and centered, instead of all the crazy loops and whirlwinds that it takes you on.