Photo: Joel Mbuga / Unsplash
In traditional Western thinking, we have an idealized image of ourselves and the importance of our intellect and willpower. Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have been shattering this myth. Our mind is inherently reactive and prone to oversimplifying.
Does it mean that our biology is our destiny? We are not doomed to living shallow lives governed by prejudice. As we understand the limitations of our brain, we can mindfully work around them.
What does it take to understand something? We “analyze” the situation, which is very similar to opening up a machine to see how it works. We start by deconstructing the device into its parts. Does this mean that understanding consists in analyzing?
You notice that to describe how we analyze a situation, I used the metaphor of deconstructing a physical object. A metaphor redirects us to the experience of something we know (deconstructing a machine) as a way to explain something otherwise difficult to grasp (how we analyze experience).
Using a metaphor comes down to seeing a pattern (i.e., the situation as a whole, and comparing it to other patterns. We may start with a mental process, but we end up with pattern recognition.
The human mind
This perspective is consistent with our current understanding of the brain. The human mind is not a computer designed to sort out information objectively. It evolved to process information in a way that fosters our ability to survive. It gives us an actionable “executive summary” as opposed to an academic study. What makes it meaningful is that it resolves to an easily identifiable pattern. For instance: “This is a dangerous situation,” or “This is a friendly face.”
So, what is the experience of pattern recognition? There’s something that feels right (or not) as we compare the felt experience to how we conceptualize it. It’s not abstract. As we pay attention to it, we can notice it bodily. It’s the “Aha!” experience. It is something we feel emotionally and bodily.
When it feels right, we experience it as resonance, i.e., the sense of vibrating in sync. When it doesn’t feel right, we experience it as dissonance (“it doesn’t sound right”).
“It feels right” is not a measure of how objectively correct our description of the event is. It is a way to capture the subjective experience we have of this event. Our prejudices are familiar and therefore feel right. Of course, this does not mean that they are accurate.
As we digest a new experience, it starts to “make sense.” That is, it gets integrated within the neural network of our other experiences and the worldview that we derive from them. The prejudiced knee-jerk reaction that felt right reinforces the previously held prejudices we had.
The more intense the situation, the more our reactivity takes over. For instance: We experience fight-or-flight reactions in times of perceived threat, or an irresistible urge to get closer when feeling attracted. It is clear that, at such moments, we are reacting to patterns that are vast oversimplifications of reality by the more primitive parts of our brain.
If the goal is to understand the full complexity of a situation objectively, oversimplification is a significant flaw. However, if the goal is to take decisive action in the face of imminent danger, there is a considerable benefit to the clarity that comes from simplifying.
This perspective does not mean that we are incapable of grasping complexities. It means that it is not something we do automatically. Our default mode is to identify action-oriented patterns, i.e., to reduce information to simple, known patterns. To get to a more sophisticated understanding, we need to jerry-rig our mental process. We resist the urge to take the first “conclusions” at face value by engaging our curiosity.
To illustrate what I mean by this, I will refer to the often-told story of several blind people encountering an elephant. Each describes the elephant as the part they touch (e.g., the trunk, the tusk, the leg). There is some truth to what they each say. But, to get the whole picture, you need to move around and experience all the parts.
Mindful thinking requires us to override our profoundly ingrained urge to hone in on the first pattern we recognize. It is hard to do so because it feels so right. It takes a conscious effort, and an emotional commitment, to engage our curiosity long enough for a fuller picture to emerge from the glimpses of meaning that our mind naturally generates.