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"Whew. You seem really normal! I promise you I am too. Plus, you know, the first two minutes of a date are the scariest, and we've gotten through that, so let's see what else we can get through." Then, smile. Congratulations! You've just put your date at ease, and communicated that you're human. You're real. You're authentic. And, chances are you're someone that your date REALLY wants to get to know now. We oversimplify. Since we lead very complex lives, we're constantly on the lookout for ways to simplify things. This also happens in our decision making. We use a number of simplifying heuristics when we make decisions, and while those heuristics often serve us well, they can also lead to serious errors. When we base our decisions on similarity assessments, for example, we ignore other relevant information, like the impact of base rates, sample size, and regression to the mean. When we rely on what comes easily to mind, we overestimate the likelihood of sensational events. As a result, our beliefs and decisions can be greatly influenced by unreliable information, and insufficiently influenced by relevant and reliable data. We have faulty memories. Although we often complain about our forgetfulness, we tend to think that the things we mange to remember are recalled quite accurately, especially if we have confidence in the memory. But research indicates that our memories can be very wrong, even when we're very confident. This even occurs in regard to sensational and tragic events.

How did you hear about the World Trade Center disaster? Your answer may be quite different if asked the question in three years, as compared to three days, after the tragedy occurred. Current beliefs, expectations, and even suggestive questioning can affect our memories. In effect, we may reconstruct our memories, and with each successive reconstruction, memories can get further and further from the truth. Given that much of the information we use in our thinking and deciding is retrieved from memory, those faulty memories can have a major impact on our forming erroneous beliefs and decisions. Of course, we've talked about a number of other pitfalls in our thinking, but the six listed above are the main categories. As I've tried to stress, you shouldn't feel bad if you make these mistakes--everybody I know makes them. Why? Most of the problems are the result of our evolutionary development or our desire--and need--to simplify our thinking. We can't pay attention to all the information which barrages us every day. Fortunately, our simplifying strategies work well in many cases--they give us decisions that are good enough. The problem is, we start to rely on them when we shouldn't, leading to grossly inaccurate beliefs and decisions that can lead to disasters. One other point must be kept in mind. Knowledge of these pitfalls is the first step to improving our beliefs and decisions. But that knowledge doesn't ensure that our decisions will yield the best possible outcomes. As we've seen, chance has an important influence on our lives, so even if we follow the best possible decision strategy, the outcomes of our decisions can still go horribly wrong. To see what I mean, consider the current interest in high-stakes poker, played almost every night on ESPN, Bravo, and the Travel Channel. On a recent show, the announcer evaluated the hands of two players, Mark and Steve, and said, "At this point, Mark is a 90 percent favorite to win the hand." How did he know? Mark had a strong winning hand at the time, and Steve's only chance to beat him was to draw to an inside straight, a very unlikely event. Accordingly, Mark bet big.

Steve decided to stay in and, amazingly, filled the straight to win the hand. Was Mark's decision to bet big a bad one because he lost the hand? Not at all. Given the information at the time, his decision was right, even though the outcome was bad. So it is with many decisions in life. When judging if someone is a good decision maker, we have to judge the quality of his decision process (how did he go about making the decision?), not the quality of the decision outcome. Each passing moment stands out as itself; the moments no longer blend together in an unnoticed blur. Nothing is glossed over or taken for granted, no experiences labeled as merely "ordinary." Everything looks bright and special. You refrain from categorizing your experiences into mental pigeonholes. Descriptions and interpretations are chucked aside, and each moment of time is allowed to speak for itself. You actually listen to what it has to say, and you listen as if it were being heard for the very first time. When your meditation becomes really powerful, it also becomes constant. You consistently observe with bare attention both the breath and every mental phenomenon. You feel increasingly stable, increasingly moored in the stark and simple experience of moment-to-moment existence. Once your mind is free from thought, it becomes clearly wakeful and at rest in an utterly simple awareness. This awareness cannot be described adequately. Words are not enough. It can only be experienced. Breath ceases to be just breath; it is no longer limited to the static and familiar concept you once held. You no longer see it as a succession of just inhalations and exhalations, an insignificant monotonous experience.

Breath becomes a living, changing process, something alive and fascinating. It is no longer something that takes place in time; it is perceived as the present moment itself. Time is seen as a concept, not an experienced reality. This is a simplified, rudimentary awareness that is stripped of all extraneous detail. It is grounded in a living flow of the present, and it is marked by a pronounced sense of reality. You know absolutely that this is real, more real than anything you have ever experienced. Once you have gained this perception with absolute certainty, you have a fresh vantage point, a new criterion against which to gauge all of your experience. After this perception, you see clearly those moments when you are participating in bare phenomena alone, and those moments when you are disturbing phenomena with mental attitudes. You watch yourself twisting reality with mental comments, with stale images and personal opinions. You know what you are doing, when you are doing it. You become increasingly sensitive to the ways in which you miss the true reality, and you gravitate toward the simple objective perspective that does not add to or subtract from what is. You become a very perceptive individual. From this vantage point, all is seen with clarity. The innumerable activities of mind and body stand out in glaring detail. You mindfully observe the incessant rise and fall of breath; you watch an endless stream of bodily sensations and movements; you scan the rapid succession of thoughts and feelings, and you sense the rhythm that echoes from the steady march of time. And in the midst of all this ceaseless movement, there is no watcher, there is only watching. In this state of perception, nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. Everything is seen to be in constant transformation. All things are born, all things grow old and die. There are no exceptions.

You awaken to the unceasing changes of your own life. You look around and see everything in flux, everything, everything, everything. It is all rising and falling, intensifying and diminishing, coming into existence and passing away. All of life, every bit of it from the infinitesimal to the Pacific Ocean, is in motion constantly. You perceive the universe as a great flowing river of experience. Your most cherished possessions are slipping away, and so is your very life. Yet this impermanence is no reason for grief. You stand there transfixed, staring at this incessant activity, and your response is wondrous joy. It's all moving, dancing, and full of life. Maybe you're unsure if an unbalanced gut is actually one of the missing puzzle pieces in your quest to overcome depression. Let me tell you, almost every American has imbalances in their gut microbiome to some degree. It's unfortunately an inevitable side effect, we're learning, of our lifestyle and eating habits, especially the high-sugar and high-fat foods the average American consumes regularly. According to experts studying the gut microbiome, the bacteria in your gut can be the "X factor" in what causes a genetic predisposition to emerge. In other words, your DNA may carry the possibility for you to have depression, and yet you may live most of your life depression free . Let's start off by making one thing absolutely clear: your gut and your brain are not separate. This matters because although we call depression a "mood disorder," it is an illness that goes much deeper than merely feeling sad or "blue." In fact, a depression diagnosis conventionally means that your brain exhibits especially low levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible not only for happiness but also for things like sexual desire, memory, and the ability to sleep restfully. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are what we've mostly used to treat depression because these drugs cause the brain to recirculate more serotonin instead of breaking it down. But if mental illness is ultimately the result of imbalances in neurotransmitters in the brain, must we assume that the root causes of these imbalances, and therefore the focus of our solution, also rests in the brain? Absolutely not! At least, not anymore.