How we think

From Dynamic Hedge.  The author has a friend who suffered an injury resulting in short term memory loss.  Each time he went to see him, they repeated the same conversations, with his friend offering the exact same responses every time.

Two brain analogies

Imagine a massive house or building. Each attribute of the building represents something unique that make us who we are. Things like our genetic predispositions, our personality, cognitive biases, our ethical constructs all form this one-of-a-kind building. Reality comes to us like weather. The wind blows, rain falls, or a child bounces a ball off the door. Depending the design of your house the water may pool in some areas, and the child’s ball may rebound wildly depending on the shape of the door. Our interactions with others are simply bounced back off our emotional exterior with the same predictability as a ball bouncing off the side of a house. The house is built the way it’s built, and there’s little choice in how things interact. And mostly nothing we can do to stop the govern the responses except to go through the painstaking process of changing the structure. Call this the fortress paradigm.

Now, imagine a bus driver standing behind a giant steering wheel. The driver is navigating intersections of choice as he travels life’s road. However, it’s not easy to steer because the bus filled with backseat drivers representing our genetic predispositions, our personality, cognitive biases, our ethical constructs, or even a spontaneous emotional state. Sometimes the passengers reach for the wheel and try to steer the bus themselves. Nevertheless the driver can see intersections and decide to turn left or right, and those decisions feel like real choice. In this world, all we have to do is quiet the backseat drivers to adjust our true course. Call this the bus driver paradigm.

In my view, my friends behavior shows that we are probably more fortress than bus driver. Interacting the same way over and over again seems to implicate he was bouncing back reactions more than he was consciously considering them. These reactions were wholly unique to him but such minor variation in his patterns (not just reacting, but initiating jokes, etc.) leads me to the conclusion that he had little conscious authorship in the interaction. It happened again and again. To believe he was more of a bus driver would mean that he might have different reactions, if only once in a while.

What does it mean?

I never imagined myself as an immovable object with outside events bouncing off me, predetermined by physics. For my entire life, I imagined my consciousness and decision-making capability similar to that of the bus driver. However, seeing my friend work through the same interactions with people over and over again made me think that there may be some things burned into the deeper levels of our psyche that we have no control over. Potentially, some facets of what we consider our “self” may be even deeper than even the subconscious and exist in our nervous system or some other aspect of out physiology. Philosophy on this topic is clearly beyond my expertise, but my experience (rather than intuition) makes this possibility hard to ignore.

If our identity and behaviors exist on a more primal level than consciousness, it explains why self-help leaves many disgruntled and why personal development is so difficult. The self-help industry emerged and profited greatly from the boomer generations growing self-consciousness that behavior may be the root of their problems. While this might be true, the reason many people become disillusioned with self-help is because they underestimate the difficulty that meaningful change requires. Altering a fortress is no easy task.

There are a couple very positive conclusions I come to based on my experience. One of them is that if you believe you are more fortress than a bus driver, listening to others is more valuable than ever before. The easiest way to take yourself off your default “story path” is to shut up and listen more.

This reminds me of Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 thinking.  We must make an effort to use our brains.

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Filed under Health, Positive Mind, Science

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