By George Albert Brown
Those people who think they know everything are so irritating to those of us who do.
Except, that is, for my grown children. They not only know so much more than I do — at least about certain subjects — but are miraculously blessed with the ability to explain their ideas in a simplified, non-patronizing way that even their poor old dad can understand.
My younger daughter, among her several degrees, got a top grade after studying nothing but neuroscience for three years at a British university. The other day she explained to me why it is so hard for humans to be rational, an explanation based around a story about our two minds. While this ignores some neuroscience complexities she says, it provides a better framework for understanding how the mind works than the almost hundred-year-old Freudian story about the ego, id, and superego–for which, despite some of the man’s disciples still trying to fit reality into that last-century Viennese Procrustean Bed, no neuroscientist has ever been able to find evidence.
So, here’s my daughter’s explanation as transcribed by me.
The Deep Mind
The deep mind is a massively powerful computer that handles billions of bits of information from everything occurring beyond itself. Apart from some evolutionarily developed shortcuts, the deep mind operates on a simple algorithm: it takes incoming information, makes a prediction about what will happen in each moment, and reforms its model based on what actually happens. If the prediction is true, the particular pathway in the brain is reinforced; if not, the pathway is weakened. The next time the information arrives, the brain follows the strengthened pathways more quickly.
The deep mind goes through this process for each of the billions of inputs it receives every second. Much of its work is taken up with regulating the unconscious systems of the body or maintaining and refining conscious control of your body that had been developed by you as a toddler using the same trial and error process of prediction and feedback. But a lot also deals with the millions of inputs from the outside world, such as whether a ball thrown by another will hit you, whether this or that is the way home, or whether the strange dog is going to bite you.
The deep mind is also the source of social intuitions, predicting what another individual is going to do next based on analogous experiences, and then communicating its views to you primarily through the emotions: joy, anger, trustfulness, suspicion, disgust, warmth, horror. For instance, if the individual looks like your favorite saint to whom you regularly pray, your deep mind will flood you with feelings of trust. If, instead, the individual looks like Freddy Krueger in Friday The 13th, your deep mind urges you to put your hands over your eyes, scream bloody murder, and take off running in the general direction of the Canadian border. Even with the less extreme appearances, the deep mind’s analogous experience process continues to make predictions based on a million tiny inputs generated by the other person, such as their facial expression, tone of voice, clothes, posture, coordination, vocabulary, sex, age, race, stomach size, eyebrow connectedness, ear hairyness, eye alignment, you name it.
The deep mind’s analogous experience process works well where the social environment does not change much, such as predicting the behavior of people in a small village where one has spent one’s life. The process, however, runs aground where the social environment is constantly changing, such as in large cities, where new people are continually encountered.
The other area where the deep mind does not work well is when the individual is strongly committed to a certain political, social, or religious belief system. This commitment can happen because a person grows up in a community where beliefs are generally the same or because life-event or psychological factors turn someone into a true believer. For such true believers, the cognitive dissonance arising from hearing contrary views can be a psychologically painful experience. Thus, to avoid such cognitive dissonance, the deep mind’s analogous-experience process learns to communicate disgust or outrage whenever it hears such contrary views.
The Rational Mind
Nature appears to have come up with the perfect solution to differing environments: the deep mind for relatively stable environments, the rational mind for the less stable environments.
The rational mind sits on top of the deep mind like a rodeo rider. It is able to deal with only about seven items at once (hence seven-digit American phone numbers). While the deep mind thrives in processing billions of bits of information in a relatively unchanging environment, the rational mind works well when encountering new situations that require logic rather than reflexive analogies to decide how to proceed.
There’s only one problem: the deep mind’s emotions can be so strong as to easily overpower our rational mind. The result is that when the deep mind sends out emotional signals, the rational mind tends to lose its objectivity and turn into a press officer for the deep mind. The rational mind starts searching not for the objective truth, but for any logical argument to rationalize the deep mind’s emotional instructions — even to the point of absurdity. This overwhelming of the rational mind with strong emotions is a particular problem for true believers. They often end up in the illogical situation where 99% of the facts support a contrary view, and only 1% supports their own — and yet the true believer’s rational mind bows to the deep mind and accepts the 1% as proof. In fact, even if 100% of the facts support the contrary view, the true believer’s deep-mind dominated rational mind may arbitrarily rule out the opposing facts as lies.
No, I’m not just talking about those guys with beliefs contrary to yours.
The truth is: we all have the capacity to let our deep mind overpower our rational mind. Psychology textbooks are replete with examples of cognitive biases; we assume too much, reflect too little, and allow our narrow perspectives and looming fears to dictate our choices. To suggest that anyone is above irrational thinking is to ignore the very essence of human nature.
While we may never be able to truly transcend deep-mind thinking, we would be wise to be aware of it. Using my daughter’s story of the two minds, you should now have a better understanding of your thought processes, thus allowing you to make slightly more rational decisions.