The story has to start somewhere, and what is a better place than my life, investigating what determines
my identity, and how I developed the way I did?
It’s not so important when or how my conscience started. The first public event in my life definitely is my birth. I can’t tell what I experienced before that theatrical moment, and I suppose it’s been like a cozy warm and softly swinging environment, with now and then some muffled sounds and the vibrations of my mother’s voice when she spoke or sang a song. That is to say…. until the phase my environment started to squeeze me more and more and the moment my mother pushed me out into the wide world. Before my birth others took care of everything, but after delivery I had to start breathing myself, take food and begin to use my senses. An avalanche of sensory stimuli found its way to my brain, and my first reaction was….
Well, that’s different for everyone.
The enneagram model says that your first reaction to the new world determines your intrinsic behaviors for the rest of your life. The nine personality types are (taken from the Wikipedia; please read more if you’re interested – click to enlarge):
So, here I am, with nothing but my brain to help me out. The rest of my body still develops itself , and for now only answers basic reflexes, not showing controlled activity. From that moment on my learning starts, and although I’m not aware of it yet, I’ll never stop processing information. My parents and the family around me teach me the first basic things of life. Then there’s influence via school, friends, work, relation, people from other parts of the world… And all the time I just try to understand the environment I’m in, so I can deal with it. My thoughts become clearer as I learn how to interpret things, how to distinguish danger from safety, what to do when I’m hungry, and so forth. As I grow older, in my brain I build myself a replica of the world around me, using the information acquired by my senses. I can never be sure whether my blueprint correctly covers every detail of reality. Growing up I do understand this limitation and uncertainty, so I also learn how to focus on what matters: my direct environment. Eventually, while gaining more insights, I also become aware that there’s more than what I perceive. Reality, it’s just a thought… But it’s my thought!
I process all that sensory information to form a mind-map of my surroundings, but how do I know I’m right? Our genetic coding makes us herd animals, so most of us decide from the beginning that we’re not alone. We seek contact with others to confirm our perceptions. Somehow I feel the need to check my ideas about reality, and that’s an enormously complex task! Think of it: we first need to find out who belongs to the family. We must learn to speak a language, and in the meantime unfiltered information overwhelms our senses. I should not only absorb, but also send information to agree on priorities, meanings, interpretations, habits, and all those other things we learn during our youth. This is how I learn to distinguish my own identity from that of other beings.
We keep ourselves busy with each other from the day we are born until the moment we die. From the first baby gibber and loud crying to the text you read now, I exchange information. I guess no-one understands the silly sounds and the funny faces that a baby and adults exchange, but the purpose is clear: align about social hierarchy, expected behaviors, risks and needs.A continuous brainwash process takes place to make sure we can manage our own life within the community boundaries. In the beginning that is a non-democratic process. Every parent gets nuts during the “Why?”-phase of a child, or is angry when their child explores potential dangers without inhibitions. Growing up the scope gets wider and wider, via school, books and media. And all the time we communicate, exchange information, check if we’re thinking the same or not. Low grades and public disapproval discourage deviating perceptions, and show what the environment expects from us.
Where the community tries to fit me in their reality, I only seek acknowledgement of my ideas about the world, matching these with the feedback of others. Due to so much harmonized external information, and the common reality perceptions of all those people around me, I start believing that there is an independent reality outside of me. The house, chair, bed, food, trees, air …. If so many people have the same interpretation of all these things, there must be something there that I only need to discover . But let’s be frank: we can never be 100% sure! Even though other people acknowledge my ideas, there’s no real proof of this independent reality. Together we have built ourselves a set of agreements that works out fine, at least for the moment. You and me can call something “mint-green”, and we point at the same colorful surface, but what I see is very different from your observation. It’s like two cameras of which image calibration is not the same: the resulting pictures are completely different, also because of different viewing angles. If we touch a brick wall, we might think there’s really some solid surface, but all we get are the signals that somehow reach our brain. Virtual reality entertainment uses this principle to let us experience things that only exist through software. That sounds like the MATRIX movie, right? Extrapolate that concept for ALL our senses with ALL varying information over time, and ALL composed interpretations differ . What we are sure of is that we have an aligned and agreed interpretation on certain sensory stimuli.
Is this a strange idea?
Not really. So many times in the past something happened that made us rethink our concepts, whether through new discoveries, disruptive natural disasters, or simply because of very creative ideas. The first thing we all do is talk about it and develop an accepted general notion. When my environment does not acknowledge my thoughts I cannot manifest myself . My life doesn’t make sense without this alignment, and that forces me to sacrifice ownership of my thoughts. But it all started with my brain, processing sensory information and thinking about that to create a good world to live in.
If my brain plays a key role in my existence, it’s good to also understand some of its limitations. Our brain is not ideal and is easily hurt or damaged. The function mainly depends on chemical substances and tissue condition. Therefore the brain always tries to play safe and avoid risks. Long time ago the Buddha already made us aware of this typical behavior of the brain, by saying:
“… All that we are is the result of what we have thought: all that we are is founded on our thoughts and formed of our thoughts.”
His lessons were about how we should control our brain to see and interpret right. In a modern way we are saying that our brain likes to fool us. Here are some of the tricky behaviors of our brain!
According to physics laws systems always strive for the lowest energy balance. It costs energy to build structures and ordered patterns. Creating something does not go for free. That’s why for instance building a house costs energy, not only to put it together but also to manufacture all parts used, from single brick to window and electrical installation. It requires maintenance effort to keep the house in good shape, so we’re forced to paint, clean, repair and so forth. If you don’t do that, the house will sooner or later collapse. After the construction energy evaporated, the ruins of the house represent a stable state. Typically every system tries to return to chaos, as that is the lowest energy equilibrium possible.
It is obvious that our brain puts a lot of effort in sorting out the chaos of impressions while it builds a blueprint of reality. When I look at people, my observation is that our brain acts as efficient as possible. Maybe because it’s so vulnerable when blood supply reduces, or maybe because it tries to save energy for potential emergency situations, but in general people avoid conscious thinking too much. Can’t you see when people rack their brains on difficult issues? They don look relaxed! When I focus on myself , I will not get as tired as when I put myself in other people’s place, try to understand them and follow their line of thinking by ignoring my own ideas. Doing both is even more difficult, and a personal skills training usually teaches techniques how to do this effectively. In critical situations the brain can quickly jump from low activity to a more alerted state, working at full speed to avoid risks and find ways to get safe again. But afterwards, the tired brain needs time to recover.
In daily life risk avoidance is a general practice, and for that we have rules and habits so we don have to think about it anymore. Our blind trust in this behavior shows in traffic when some young rebel violates rules and ignores signs and signals, thus causing dangerous situations and shocks people.
Relying on things (without questioning them) is a favorite technique of the brain. Another technique is to simply lock out new information that cannot be put in an acceptable context. Of course we first try to limit uncertainties about this information via discussions with others, but if that doesn’t result in something comfortable, we just ignore the information. Governments often use that when public might not like a political decision. By sending out disinformation, spreading contradictory messages and showing politicians who have incomprehensible discussions, the public soon loses interest and ignores the background causes completely.
Our brain has another trick: it favors previously collected data over new observation. When you get new information, the brain fits that with already stored memories to make a complete and understandable picture. The effect is that the context changes and slightly adapted memories replace the original observations. Main reason to do so is because of communication: we need to talk and think in a common language with accepted notions about things. The brain tries to avoid a Babylonian confusion, so to say. Another reason is that it’s more efficient to build on existing understandings than to restart from scratch every time. That is why a new breakthrough idea needs lots of explanation before other people even start to capture it.
Finally, we should not forget about the power of belief (not the same as trust, based on experience and evidence). Even though for me “belief” also is a trick of the brain, I certainly do not regard it as a negative thing. None of the brain tricks is negative anyhow! They’re just ways for the brain to cut workload and enable survival in a chaos of sensory stimuli. Belief can be a strong force to focus on targets and stay on course despite setbacks. It creates a common mindset and synergy, and it is the basis for unspoken rules and habits that we all benefit from. The only problem I see is when institutions take advantage of belief to meet goals, different from what people think. Belief never is the justification for deeds, but it may be the trigger or driver for actions (why). What we do and how we do it, that’s something that requires reasoning based on facts and observations.
We have found ingenious ways to overcome certain limitations of our brain. The most important method is to combine the brainpower of many people. “Two know more than one!” certainly is true, and teams even do better . Science is nothing more than a time-spread collective thinking, not limited to one person’s life alone. The superb form of a collective brain is artificial intelligence, which is often seen as the next step of future evolution.
Another method is to cultivate the limitation. Instead of a flaw, it then becomes a talent. The best example is the Chinese Yin Yang concept. Have you ever realized we perceive our world always as a choice between two things, not necessarily opposites? Day and night, sunlight and shadow, man and woman, love and hate, and so forth. In everything we do, we make so-called binary decisions. We go this direction or another, we like it or not, we first look here and then look there… It’s the easiest way for our brain to sort out things. Even when we acknowledge a grey area in between, unknowingly we draw a dividing line. It’s like finding a word in a dictionary: you open the book somewhere and select the part you need based on the alphabetic position. That part is split again, and you continue the process until you found the page where the word is. People need boundaries and guidance to know what to do or not. This dualism can come in a harmonized way, but very often it leads to polarization when a person or team adheres to only one side of the choice. The vast majority of the problems on our earth come from that single sided, not integral view on things. The first cultivation of dualism was the ancient philosophy that helped us see through this mechanism, and gave guidance on how to deal with choices: both sides belong to each other, there’s no “good” or “bad”, it only depends on what you want. More recently we implemented duality thinking in binary systems. Each bit of information only knows two states “0” or “1”, that are exclusive. By combining multiple bits in a string (8, 16, 32 or 64 bits – or even higher, depending on the complexity we want to cover) we are able to encode multiple information aspects, and finally represent our reality in a digital domain. The math behind it is complex, but it all started with a way of logic thinking that enabled the brain to execute complex data processing faster and more predictable than other beings on earth can do.
Where dualism needs 2 elements, implicitly there’s a third element: the combination thereof . The most famous model representing this is the triangle or pyramid. Two elements at the base and one combining element at the top. This model is very easy for the brain to deal with: it gives hierarchy (levels) and structure in a complex world of binary choices. Pyramids themselves are elements of bigger constructions, but you don’t need to look at that if you’re content with the scope of your own pyramid. Just see how our world builds up out of cities, provinces, countries, and continents. How within the cities we have associations, sports clubs, unions, favorite hangouts, families and so forth. We work for an employer, within a department and a team… And all separate elements have some leadership. Even in religions you see the triangle come back very often to show unity, but with different levels between top and base. The pyramid is a very stable construction, and maintenance requires little energy.
Mathematically one can draw all kinds of multi-corner figures and try to give meaning to each point. Very interesting to read and think about it, but in general our brain has difficulties to get along with such models. The only model that is commonly used and intuitively understood is the quadrant. Basically the quadrant is a double, mutually exclusive binary choice. Consultants love this model, because it enables them to combine topics that have no obvious relation with each other . Each quadrant than creates a new entity in our world, such as men and women versus bicycle and car . Automatically we exclude the group of people having neither one or the other, and we create 4 new groups of interest: bicycle-men, bicycle women, car-men, car-women. The model is used and presented in many ways. Just Google a bit on “quadrant”, and you’ll find many examples. One good example is the analysis model of Daniel Ofman, explaining core qualities or quadrants. The model is a good way to think about our own interesting brain-controlled behaviors. Just watch this introduction video: