Antifragility, information and noise

The last post was intended as an aside, but I think that it actually deserves a lot more. If you’ve ever started to delve into something more as your interest increases, you will understand the meaning of the old Venetian saying that the further you sail from the shore, the deeper the sea becomes; the more data you take in, the less you know what is going on. It is very easy to drown in the data which is available on the internet, in the newspapers, in the library. Newspapers and other news media are among the worst offenders: the need to provide information can skew the information actually received, creating mainly noise, rather than the sound you want to be receiving. The need to provide anecdotes and, often, sensationalism, makes for more sales, but also so much information, which when you lose yourself in it, you lose a sense of perspective. (If you’re reading this in the UK, take your average fuming Daily Mail reader; if in South Africa, The Daily Sun will provide you with all the evidence you need of this!)

If you get deeper into primal living, or vegan diets, or HIIT workouts, or barefoot running, or whatever it happens to be, you will soon be overwhelmed by the information which hits you. One school says one thing, backed up by books and papers of evidence, the other says the exact opposite, backed up by an equal amount of literature. It’s exhausting.

But I want to show you that there are different ways of approaching this very daunting place: it lies in antifragility, and this way of thinking can provide you with the framework you need.

The basic tenet is that detecting (anti)fragility is much easier than prediction and understanding the dynamics of events and complex systems. If your goal is to improve your physical well-being, you can research and find every kind of diet ever devised. You can find fitness regimes to keep you busy all day, every day for the rest of your life. It’s all there, a lot of it supported by very convincing arguments. Read a vegan book and you might come out the other side thinking of the evils of meat farming. Read a paleo book and you might come out thinking that the vegans are building themselves up for a big crash. If, however, you consider your body in the light of its antifragile nature, it is not long before you see that if the framework and the structure is right, then things become much easier. It is the quickest way to perceive the sound, and filter out the noise. You can almost consider it like a high-tech receiver device to pick up messages coming from long distances, which other receivers cannot pick up because of the background noise.

To recap, antifragility is a new term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe things which are the opposite of fragile, i.e. things which actually benefit from a certain degree of harm. Generally speaking, all complex systems can come under this category, unlike simple systems, like a washing machine or a drier which can be switched on and off. Your cat relaxing on top of the washing machine is however a complex, biological thing, and when it is subjected to certain types of stressors, it can actually benefit.

And your body is exactly the same. The complex biological nature is not something that any self-respecting scientist would claim to fully understand: the interactions of every cell, and the repercussions from one cell, to a group of cells, to an organ and to the rest of the body are often too varied and complex to say that there is anybody who fully understands how things work. The more detailed you get, the less you seem to know. But, if you understand and listen intuitively to the antifragile nature of your body, you can act appropriately.

If, for example, you choose to follow part of “primal” living and fast at random periods, depriving your body from food for about 24 to 36 hours, your body is initially relieved of the need to produce hormone spikes to deal with the influx of foods, but then undergoes periods of stress which start your body’s system firing on overdrive. Ignoring the biological reason for this (because this will provide too much information), try not eating from midday one day to midday the next. It’s difficult, but persevere, and make sure that you make up for the time not eating by feasting to balance the fasting (balance being the operative word!) I find that around about hour 14 I begin to feel a tingling sensation in my head, but from that point onwards, no shot of coffee has given me the same buzz and energy. The paleo crowd will tell you that this is part of our biological hard-wiring, and I’m inclined to agree. If you’ve ever been exposed to wild animals hunting, or have watched a wildlife documentary, you will likely recall David Attenborough’s soothing tones telling you about how, in its hunger-fed desperation, a cheetah/leopard/lion/other predator is at its fiercest, because its body tells it that it either eats or dies. Obviously you’re not going to die if you fast for 24 hours, but the body will react in the same way. Added to this, and also by-passing the biological reasons for now, you might find that you feel a lot fresher, lighter and almost detoxed after a fast. And your first meal after will taste like it’s been salted with angels’ tears and fried in the butter of holy cows.

On a side note, it’s interesting to think that in the West it has only been in the last two generations that the vast majority people have not gone hungry for periods on some kind of basis, and that this overabundance actually leads to a situation where people are mentally forcing themselves to fast!

Perhaps it is worth considering the similarities between fasting with food, and fasting with information. See what happens; you may well find that you have a much better grasp on things than when you’re swimming in the nitty gritty!

The same way of thinking applies to exercise as well. There is increasing evidence (all you need to know to begin your own experiments, really) that short but intense periods of exercise are far more effective in increasing your fitness, building muscle and burning fat than previously thought. Conventional thinking has always explained the narrative that hours of medium- or slow-paced cardio on a bike, treadmill or whatever is the way to burn fat, but that is being revolutionized – and antifragility is at the heart of it. Previous posts already explained the effects of short bursts of non-fatal stress on the body as opposed to chronic, drawn-out, daily stress (recap: the adrenaline from surviving a leopard ambush will actually benefit your body if you have ample recovery, as opposed to the small stress you experience on a daily basis, which never really abates, such as traffic jams, weekly reports etc.) and the same applies to exercise. Moderate exercise builds up stress hormones without proper release, whereas very intensive exercise over a short period makes your body into a lean, muscle-building, fat-burning furnace. And you don’t even need to take in the information to know why this is the case, but rather trust the principles of antifragility which dictate that the complex system which is your body will react well to this intense stress, but not so well to the slow build-up. And I must stress again: give it a go and see if you notice a difference!

So how do you go about approaching things to make them antifragile? The essence is that you have to have more upside to downside, by removing the fragility. We can use what is rather neatly called a barbell strategy, a barbell being what weightlifters use, made up of a central bar and weights on either side. If, for example, you are seeking to invest your hard-earned cash, use the barbell strategy to put 90% of your savings into conservative funds which have a very close to 0 chance of ruining you. But use the remaining 10% to invest aggressively. If you win, you can win big, but your loss is maximized at 10%. If you put your weight in the middle of the barbell, however, with moderate risk and moderate gains, you are far more fragile, that is to say that you are exposed to bigger losses, but smaller gains. As Oscar Wilde intuitively and wittily understood, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

When you understand how this works, you can apply it to so many things, particularly for our purposes: your physical fitness. It is being shown time and time again that short, intensive exercise – with regular weight training – supplemented with plenty of effortless long walks provides you with the barbell. On the other hand, spending hours in moderate exercise is making you physically fragile, vulnerable to injuries and illness. You can apply it to other things as well: it is good to expose children to a little bit of risk, but not a lot, so that they can learn from mistakes and avoid more serious injury. Constant protection, in the middle of the barbell, sets them up for serious harm, whether from germs or something more tangible. If you expose your body to huge amounts of adrenaline and stress from, say, bungee jumping or bridge swinging, followed up by plenty relaxation, you do your body a great service, making it more alert generally. Put yourself in a bubble, however, and you will find yourself stagnate. Moderation will kill you.

So to round things off, when you begin to drown in data, approach whatever the system is with the understanding of antifragility and then, both metaphorically and literally, step up to the barbell.

For an added element to this post, please try describing to me complex situations you find yourself in, and try to apply antifragility to it. Let me know what happens, and if your approach changed in any way!

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