Who Are We? Our Beliefs.

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So we knew we had a conscious and an unconscious. Now brain scans and studies have demonstrated we have known really little of how they function. We believe we know, but we do not. There is a significant list of these misunderstandings:

  • Our unconscious processes the vast majority of data we receive without our conscious mind knowing it.
  • Our textbook understanding of reality is an illusion.
  • Our unconscious stores data it recognizes as important and discards the details.
  • Later our unconscious fills in the missing details by selecting data it views as probable, without our conscious knowledge.
  • Our unconscious operates in ways that tend to encourage stereotyping and in-group/out-group beliefs which are fictional and may create prejudice.
  • Our unconscious fosters the belief that we are ‘above average’ and capable of overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles.

Is it any wonder we have disagreements about politics and religion, much less sports teams? Is it any wonder there are many religions and spiritual paths considering there are seven billion of us on Earth? Is it any wonder we disagree with our friends and family members about past events: what he said and what she said?

Perhaps God has a great sense of humor and that’s why our lives sometimes seem like a grocery list of contradictions. Of course the truth is that God made us this way for a very important reason: survival. And He also gave us enough intelligence to discover, as we recently have, our misunderstanding of how our minds work. Now it is up to us!

At the beginning of this series of blogs I talked about healing. That’s the main thrust of these blogs. We must understand who we are and how our minds function so we can forgive others for their conflicting beliefs, so we can forgive ourselves for judging them so harshly, so we can forgive them for judging us so harshly.

Above all, we must understand that we, as human beings, are all God’s children.

 

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Who Are We? Our Self.

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Considering how our brains gather and interpret data, it’s no wonder we make mistakes. Do mistakes harm our self image? Apparently not. We view our reality through our unique version of who we are. In this version we are kind, compassionate, rational, thoughtful, and sometimes misjudged. Most people, even criminals, have good self image.

We view ourselves as “above average.” For example, in one study doctors rated their diagnosis of pneumonia as 88% correct. However statistics showed they were correct only 20% of the time. Characteristically, we see this defect in others but not in ourselves. We start with the conclusion that we are above average and then look for supporting evidence. We all do it. It’s automatic! We use this reasoning about our beliefs as well. It’s why we are advised not to discuss religion or politics in social gatherings.

Why have our brains evolved this way? If you guessed the answer is survival, you are correct and above average. Think back to the dangers faced by our ancestors; wild animals, natural catastrophes, starvation, and hordes of warlike invaders, to say nothing of the difficulties of day-to-day survival. How did they do it? Chance played a part, but the truth is our ancestors refused to give up. Believing they were above average gave them hope. They grabbed the chances and ran with them, and survived. The following quote is from Subliminal, by Leonard Mlodinow, page 217:

“Motivated reasoning and motivated remembering and all the other quirks of how we think about ourselves and our world may have their downsides, but when we’re facing great challenges – whether it’s losing a job, embarking on a course of chemotherapy, writing a book, enduring a decade of medical school, internship and residency, spending the thousands of practice hours necessary to become an accomplished violinist or ballet dancer, putting in years of eighty-hour weeks to establish a new business, or starting over in a new country with no money and no skills – the natural optimism of the human mind is one of our greatest gifts.”

Next blog: Our Beliefs.

Who Are We? Humans With Feelings.

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We have heard or read about people who have multiple personalities. These cases seem unusual, especially because the personalities may not interact with or be aware of the existence of the others. Yet most of us have personalities which, while uniform, include emotional reactions. Our emotions can cause fast, dynamic changes in character. These emotions may affect our unconscious in ways we don’t recognize on the rational level, ways that result in mood swings.

We also know that emotions can cause physical stress. Scientists are confirming is that physical stress also affects our emotions. Sometimes it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first, my headache or my dislike for the telephone conversation I am having? This emotional-physical interaction has been one of the foundation stones of the teachings of yoga. Having recently renewed my interest in yoga, I can tell you I want to spend more time doing it. It is such a great way to start the day: stress free and emotionally balanced.

The following quotes are from Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Rules Your Life, by Leonard Mlodinow. The first talks about how we don’t understand our feelings. This is from page 188: “Despite that, we usually think that we do. Moreover, when asked to explain why we feel a certain way, most of us, after giving it some thought, have no trouble supplying reasons. Where do we find those reasons, for feelings that may not even be what we think they are? We make them up.” This quote is supported by research in the same chapter.

So then, where do the reasons come from? On page 191: “When you come up with a reason for your feelings and behavior, your brain performs an action that would probably surprise you: it searches your mental database for cultural norms and picks something plausible.”

Why does the brain work this way? On page 194: “Evolution designed the human brain not to accurately understand itself, but to help us survive. We observe ourselves and the world and make enough sense of things to get along.”

Disappointed by this point of view? The author continues on page 195: “This doesn’t bother me: it gives me a greater appreciation of my unseen partner, my unconscious, always providing the support I need as I walk and stumble my way through life.”

Next blog: We’ll discuss how the functions of our two brains help us with our self-concept. The answer points to a possible solution to our world’s problems.

Who Are We? Group Members!

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There are in-groups and out-groups. Each of us belong to the in-group, though not necessarily the same in-group. Our in-group is important to our self image. We identify so strongly with it that we believe the fate of our in-group is our fate as well. And, as with individuals, we stereotype our in-group in positive ways while fearing imaginary negative traits in the out-groups.

We view in-group members as more varied and complex, out-group members as simpler and less intelligent, even though our knowledge of our in-group is as superficial as our knowledge of the out-group. Ironically we often identify with with in-groups with whom we share nothing in common. Yet our group identity influences how we judge others and how we think about ourselves.

This is most easily seen in sports. Here in Chicago you are either a Cubs fan or a Sox fan, seriously. A few years ago I met some friends I hadn’t seen for quite a while. We talked about old times and got around to sports. My friend Bud asked me, “So Paul do you root for the Sox or for the Cubs?” I replied I didn’t have a preference. Bud wouldn’t accept that answer and asked again so I told him I rooted for the Sox and the Cubs.

Bud studied me with a critical eye for a moment before replying, “Telling me you root for the Sox and for the Cubs is like telling me you are bisexual!” Our friends roared with laughter. I just smiled and shook my head. This story is a good example of how strongly we identify with our in-group, even on a casual basis.

Neurologists believe this in-group/out-group behavior is another inherently natural force that promotes our survival as a species. It’s counterpart in the plant kingdom is that plants help nourish nearby members of their plant family. In contrast, they may emit toxic chemicals from their roots when they detect non-related, competing plants encroaching on their territory.

The connection between stereotyping and in-group identification has to do with our survival as individuals, as groups, and as a species. Nature’s forces are at work deep within us.

Next blog: Our Emotions.

Who Are We? Stereotypers!

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Scientists have discovered that our conscious brain is unable to handle the enormous amounts of sensory input it receives. Instead, our unconscious brain sorts and discards what it perceives as unimportant and then summarizes what it wants to keep, discarding details. This is a survival mechanism. It allows us to react quickly to a problem, say a fire in the house, rather than sorting through voluminous data about fires and extinguishers before escaping through an exit.

It is also how we gather information about people. The unfortunate result is that we can create false similarities and exaggerated differences. We oversimplify to understand. We stereotype.

When my grandpa Patrick McAllister arrived in the United States in 1899 he went looking for a job and saw signs that stated “Workers wanted – Irish need not apply.” This prejudice has been experienced by other groups including African Americans, Italians, Mexicans, Native Americans and, most recently, Muslims of varying nationalities. Prejudice is a negative result of stereotyping because it leaves out positive information about each individual, limiting our appreciation of them, and allows us to construct unfounded fears about them. Stereotyping also occurs within our own group. It is how men discriminate against women, including their wives and mothers.

The solution to this problem is to recognize people are individuals and understand our lack of real knowledge about them. We must show respect and common courtesy to everyone as dictated by The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is easy to say but difficult to remember. We get too tied up in our world and we look for a short cut to understanding. Eliminating stereotyping requires a long, determined effort but we must make it to overcome this negative tendency.

This brings us to our next issue. How can anyone even think of voting for a Democrat, or a Republican, or ___________ (insert the name of your least liked candidate here)? While stereotyping creates problems with individuals, it creates even larger problems when the stereotype is for a group.

Who Are We?: Two Brains

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Please note that this information comes from the book I mentioned previously, Submilinal, by Leonard Mlodinow.

If it’s true that ‘two heads are better than one’ then two brains must be better than one. That’s good because that is what we have – two brains. Much like the brains in all vertebrates, our unconscious developed first and is focused on basic bodily functions, handling large amounts of data, and helping us survive. Our conscious brain is superimposed on it and is oriented towards our ability to communicate with other humans in order to form the community organizations so necessary to our cooperative survival. Our behavior is the result of activities in both of these brains.

Since our conscious brain cannot handle all the sensory data presented to it, our unconscious handles it by quickly sorting through it, deciding what is important to us and discarding the rest. It then stores the important data, but not before stripping out details and summarizing what it wants to save. Note, our minds do not capture data as a camera or audio recording device would in a detailed manner. Later, when we want to access what is stored, our unconscious presents the summarized data and fills in the blank spaces with data it judges is relevant to the request based on our past experiences.

To study this function, an experiment was performed where people listened to recorded statements that included a human cough that blocked out part of a word. For example, ” The (cough followed by the second half of a word ending in ‘eel’) was on the table.” Listeners assumed the eel-word was meal. When the last word was changed to ‘shoe’, listeners claimed the other word was ‘heel’. The brain supplied the most likely missing word based on the last word in the sentence. Other experiments demonstrate the brain does this for visual data as well.

While this function serves us well at social gatherings, it also points to other aspects of our minds. Our unconscious influences how we stereotype people, judge groups of people, and how we form our self image. We like to believe we make decisions based solely on facts, however research suggests we are more complex and biased.

The Brain Revisited

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Dr. Sigmund Freud concluded that we had an ego and an id. The ego was conscious but the id harbored hidden thoughts. While some of his conclusions were off target, his basic idea was sound. New brain imaging techniques are able to study brain activity based on blood flow within the brain. As a result, we are learning much more about our thought processing than was ever before possible. The results, however, suggest that Carl Jung was closer to the truth of brain functioning than Freud. Carl Jung believed we made decisions using symbols, which he called archetypes, rather than simple rational thought.

Brain imaging began in the 1990’s. In 1998 Dr. Daniel Amen wrote Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. His brain imaging studies revealed which areas of the brain were associated with different activities and how head injuries altered normal brain functioning. Interestingly, Dr. Amen created lists of activities that would help ‘fix’ the problems. Some involved medication. Many did not. They involved normal, positive activities that helped change the brain’s functioning thus fixing the problem.

Since that time the field has blossomed into full-blown scientific activity. Doctors and scientists are tracking not only which functions are associated with which brain areas, they are also performing tests while patients are undergoing brain imaging to see how we think. The results are amazing, but also disconcerting since they tend to disprove our belief that we are primarily rational decision makers.

Our senses feed data to our brain at a rate of 12 million bits per second. Our conscious brain is only capable of handling 18 to 50 bits per second. That’s not thousands of bits. It is 18 bits to 50 bits per second. Our conscious brains would be overwhelmed if they had to handle all the sensory data. We simply could not and can do it.

Here are two quotes about our brains that come from experts in the field. The first comes from David Eagleman, a neuroscientist (www.pbs.org/video/2365594887): “Decision-making lies at the heart of everything. Neuroscience shows that you are not an individual. You are made up of multiple, competing drives. Your brain is locked in a great power struggle with itself. Do we ever act in a purely rational way? Or is that simply an illusion that we cling to?”

The second comes from Leonard Mlodinow in his book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior: “Philosophers have for centuries debated the nature of “reality” and whether the world we experience is real or an illusion. But modern neuroscience teaches us that, in a way, all our perceptions must be considered illusions. That’s because we perceive the world only indirectly, by processing and interpreting the raw data of our senses.”

I know you find this disconcerting. I did. Don’t despair. Mankind has managed to survive and thrive in spite of this issue. In fact, it turns out our conscious brain and unconscious brain were designed specifically to insure we do live and thrive. More to come …

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