Okay, a bit on the nose there.
Recently I have been very busy with a new project. But I finally finished this, er, brainy book by David DiSalvo. As always, I’m confounded and fascinated by the paradox of the mind–how are we addicted to things that are bad for us, and what science might suggest we do about it. If you’ve ever explored psychology you know how quickly it bumps into philosophy. And here’s why this is so difficult: Psychology is innately inaccurate. How do you measure the brain’s behaviour? How do you measure satisfaction? How do you measure happiness? Beyond the ‘yes/no’ analyses of brain scanning, it gets murky.
But if you’ve been following 21tiger, you know just how fascinating these books are, and how they seem to go in circles; they are addictively useless: a non-fiction book often promises something great, some great infinite truth, usually fails to deliver. That’s why this book, which I found incredibly dry, might actually have a huge impact on 21tiger. This might be my pivot. ‘What makes the brain happy’ is something of an anti-self-help self-help book, not because it puts down other non-fiction books, but because it preaches the anti-perfectionism that would disarm thousands of published books every year.
That’s right: rather than preaching the answer, or the cure, or genius, or millions of dollars, or the next big trend, the next big wave, or the next thing that’s going to destroy the world, it preaches the absolute futility of perfectionism. And for me, it was badly needed advice.
So why throw in the towel on perfectionism? Why is it such a mirage? For one, the brain itself makes hundreds of thousands of little shortcuts to make snap judgements, to conserve power and energy. Basically if we evolved (don’t get me started) by rustling around in the jungle, choke-slamming lions and broiling them for sustenance, our bodies might go for hours if not days, without food. We evolved to be freaked out, and ultra conservative with calories (and hence, love calorie intensive mashed potatoes, huge buns covered in garlic butter, and super-thick chocolate milkshakes). And so the brain, in an effort to save on energy-intesive activity (eg. thinking), makes huge leaps in reason. If you are bitten by a black snake with red spots, next time you see a black snake with red spots, you are going to freak out. You associate the colors, and the sounds, and the shape with petrification and danger. In fact, a black snake with no spots will freak you out just as much. That’s right, one bad experience and your brain immediately associates :
- “all black snakes with red spots are very bad” and secondarily (just in case)
- “all black snakes are very bad”
- “all animals/creatures with red spots are very bad”
- “all snakes are bad”
- “all creatures that kind of look like snakes are bad”
Replace ‘snake’ with ‘dude’ and ‘bite’ with ‘bumped into on the subway’ and you get the picture. Our brains are incredibly powerful, but in an effort to save energy (because evolution takes thousands of years, not hundreds) we’re stuck in the old way of thinking. Alas, the downside of amazing technological innovation. We are creating for ourselves a more and more incompatible world. A world where we feel more and more alienated by the pseudo-intimacy, pseudo-danger, and pseudo-sensation.
The other day I was having drinks with an old friend, and we somehow got talking about psychology and the subconscious (like I said, we were drinking). The power of the subconscious confounds the conscious mind. I’m fascinated by dreams, so I went off on a self righteous, delusional lecture about… well, you know.. this. We should be freaked out by the subconscious. It harbors the Larry David in all of us, and so we are struck with the ultimate dichotomy: to be purely selfish (listen to our genes) or to be purely conditioned (listen to society). The id wants the first, and the superego wants the second. Or maybe I got it backwards. It doesn’t really matter, because psychology is made up anyway. These are just constructs we invented to explain why some people go on to be mass murderers and some people become the Ned Flanderses of the world.
And so with all this power between our ears, DiSalvo’s advice is to, as best as you can, turn those flaws around to your advantage, but for the most part, ignore your ‘intuition’. After all, it’s an old school machine. It makes noise and sputters along and spits out dot matrix masterpieces. Better to smile, snicker at them, then toss them in the trash.
The brain is fascinatingly arrogant in that it maps out, for the most part, everything in this world: here’s what Canadians are like, Koreans are like this, South America is like this, Math Students are like this, and Football players are like that. Often, with a sample size of one. So anyone who’s had a crash course in statistics (or science class for that matter), knows that a sample size of one or two, is absolutely meaningless. Not only are we gullible with almost no statistical evidence (ahem), we will find ‘evidence’ anywhere. Including Primetime sitcoms. Yes, that’s right. My generation (born after 1980) was pretty much raised on cheesy sitcoms. I was watching TV since the age of about 4. So you can imagine my shock and horror when I discovered that high school was nothing like Saved by the Bell.
And so what does it mean to be an intellectual? What does it mean to read books if the mind is so deeply flawed, and has so many blind spots. Hopefully you can learn, but hopefully you don’t learn so much, that you get lazy and ignore the scientific method. Test everything. Rigorously test assumptions. It doesn’t mean books are a waste of time, it just means that answers are kind of overrated. The world around you is so much more interesting than ‘being right.’