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.
Read about the Enneagram model:
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 re-think 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!Side step: from thermodynamics
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 looses 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 break-through 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.
The Iceberg model and its derivatives are explanations of why we don’t know what values condition our behavior. From the day we are born people around us teach us how to stay tuned with them. Education and schooling fill our memory with images and with metadata that explains the context of each image. Sadly, often this training is not voluntarily. Even at the University they ask us to think for ourselves, but they always start with the teachings that earlier generations have left us. For me this is like filling a flexible backpack that you carry along through the journey of your life. It grows heavier over time, and what was stored first tends to stay unnoticed later on. There are some things to say about this luggage we collect during the years:
- We seldom consciously are aware of what we carry with us; all kinds of therapists make a good living because of that
- Most of it is proven and well aligned with many people; that makes life easy because you build your blueprint of the world with shared knowledge that generations before you have collected
- Every learning is always filtered and biased by the deeper beliefs and fears of the teacher, by his or her personal preferences and unquestioned social values; it is not self-evident that the same “pre-processing” works for you too
- Whatever teaching you store first goes through your own personal filter; although completely valid for you, it may also mask personal blind spots that others easily recognize
- Opinions and aligned notions very slowly follow changes in the world; the youth tends to say that certain ideas are “OLD” and not valid anymore
All through my life I noticed I constantly reappraised what I’ve learned, questioning my implicit acceptance and my preferences. It costs a lot of energy to abandon things and ideas that seemed meaningful before. In particular when you notice your changed opinion disappoints other people or even makes them sad. Nevertheless in my work as department manager I often had to coach employees to re-inspect their backpack, and throw away things that are not useful anymore. Often we find out there’s a lot we keep dragging along without knowing it! Not only employees, but all stakeholders I dealt with showed various level of unconscious bias. Changing business, changing the company culture and the behavior of people all start with leaving behind what’s not needed anymore. That gives room in your backpack for new and more valuable items.
It is difficult to deal with people who suffer from psychosis, hallucinations or delusions. When we say “They live in their own world!” we confirm the dualism between their and our world. The differences between both worlds, and the hampered communication make us realize that those people lose connection to us. If we recognize that someone is locked up inside another mental reality, from their perspective the same is true for us. “You say I’m crazy, but I think I’m the only normal person in this world!” Even though we can’t agree to everything those people say, we still can try to connect and align. People who have these type of psychological problems also look for acknowledgement, and don’t want to feel alone. Their brain processes are exactly the same as ours, but the outcome is different. Observations, interpretations and past experiences compose our private reality, subject to the same tricks of the brain, and maybe some other special effects due to the physical cause inside the brain. What we also have in common is that we need each other to survive. When we do not show an open-minded attitude to each other, it certainly hurts the community when personal mental troubles result in destructive actions.
Our observation sometimes restricts to the things we know or expect. Maybe the story of the Shaman, who didn’t see the ships of Columbus approaching until his awareness increased is a fantasy, but it depicts very well our general problem that we can’t recognize things that we do not have a basic understanding of. We can’t give meaning to things that do not connect to earlier experiences as for the brain it is easiest to fit observations in existing frameworks. Some time ago there was a TV show about western people who went to the African bush to experience how people lived there. As we have some basic understanding of life in Third World countries, it was not such a big issue to adapt. That doesn’t mean we really understand the people out there, their thinking, values and beliefs. Certainly we have a hard time to adopt local habits because of our prejudice about hygiene and food, as scientists already for many decades educate our western knowledge about health. Well, the most interesting episode came when those African people made a return visit to the Netherlands. They got shocked by the traffic, some a-social behaviors, the technical world and the weird materials that we use. They didn’t recognize food anymore, and constantly tried to explain things with the words and knowledge common to them. It was an extreme culture shock for them. Different worlds often are hard to match with each other.
Have you ever been looking for lost items? During your search you always first pick the most common places that you normally use. For all other spots your brain shows you what you expect there, masking the things that are lying around there by coincidence. It’s hard to inspect other locations unless you use some structure to force yourself to really look carefully. I can’t tell how often I simply overlooked my keys simply because I didn’t expect them at the spot where someone else (:)) had put them. Therefore it’s always better to let another person look for your belongings, as they focus on what they want to see, and not on where they expect to find it.
Another example of such biased observation is when you always meet someone in a specific situation, like the saleslady in a shop, or the guard at the gate. Often they wear uniforms that even further mask the human being from the role that they play. More than once I felt surprised (and ashamed) as I walked in the city center when somebody greeted me and I didn’t notice that person. It took a while before I recognized them. Similar experience: handball was a favorite sports for many years, and when I looked from a distance at the players in the field, they all seemed large, strong and powerful. Once I entered the playing field myself, the differences were gone. After the game those players also didn’t look that impressive anymore.
A dark era in European history was when belief justified the deeds of the inquisition on behalf of the Catholic Church. In the last century Europe has seen enough genocide to know that we didn’t leave that practice behind us. Today we see a similar behavior by Islamic State (IS). It’s shocking to see how easy many young people sacrifice their life for a doubtful case. I know that some leaders take advantage of these things, using belief as driving force to let people do the most horrible things. Why those refugees think they will have a great life in Western Europe? Why they give all they have to smugglers who don’t care if they survive the trip to the promised land? It is because the brain takes the easiest route: believe what is attractive, certainly when you’re not the only one. If there are more people with the same idea, it must be true (or you can make it come true somehow). It’s a sad example, but it’s every days reality.
Robert Cialdini gives us a perfect example of how to influence a brain. He believes that these influencing principles cannot be misused, as the model works against itself automatically. There are just six drivers that help people to convince themselves and others:
- Reciprocity – People tend to return a favor
- Commitment and Consistency – If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment
- Social Proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing
- Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures
- Liking – People are easily persuaded by other people that they like
- Scarcity – Perceived scarcity will generate demand
Just looking at yourself, you recognize how easy it is to manipulate you (negative phrasing of “influence”). I meet so many people that first do something for you, and expect something in return. Apparently most people do so, otherwise the trick doesn’t work. Or they ask you to fill out a product evaluation sheet, so you feel committed to do the next step too: try something you don want in the first place. I also noticed that on a market place, if there’s an empty booth, people keep walking by until someone stays a little longer than normal. Suddenly many people come and take a look out of curiosity. Or in an empty restaurant they give you a table near the window… On TV there are so many so-called specialists, who recommend things. We believe they’re right, because they’re professionals, even though paid by the broadcast station. And favorite artists giving recommendations? You believe them just because you like them? And the last one is so obvious… “Last day, last samples!” Of course you take your chances! And in the shop there’s seldom a lot of articles. One or two, and when sold they replace just those items.