I’m not sure if it was binge-watching season 4 of Stranger Things but I found myself thinking about the craziness of the world again and decided to pen a few more words.
I am convinced that we are victims of our own brains.
This is something I touched on here in an earlier post. We spend our lives gathering data, learning about the world, learning from other people, and building a model of reality. This unique view of reality becomes the lens we use to see the world. We are not reacting to the world so much as reacting to the model of the world we have in our heads. I’ve heard this described as the ‘predictive brain.’
Your view through that lens may be accurate or distorted. It can guide you to do worthwhile work and help you to lead a happy life or drag you down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, fear, and rage. For the most part, the system has worked well for ‘normal’ people. And by normal, I mean people whose view of reality is good enough to be able to allow them to function in the world.
I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist so this is just my sense of things. But when I look at what is going on in the world it fits. Our brains have evolved over considerable time to function as they do. They help us to make sense of the world. To establish order. We make assumptions as to how the world works and when something violates those assumptions, we feel threatened and disoriented. Our understanding of the world may be shaken or even shattered. At this point, our brains may shift into a problem-solving or crisis mode as we try to find our footing or fend off a real or imagined threat.
There is more to unpack here but getting back to why I think we are victims of our own brains.
We live in a time when we are flooded by data. There are facts, alternate facts, information, and disinformation. We are exposed to charismatic and manipulative personalities whose views may appeal to us in ways we don’t understand, so much so that we adopt their views into our own models. Companies, political groups, lobbyists, and other powerful entities may hire psychologists who understand the way our brains work so that they can move us in a desired direction. Governments have long understood the power of ‘spin’ and use it to deflect blame, to hide the truth, sugar coat or demonize ideas. Hostile foreign governments are actively engaged in disinformation campaigns designed to mislead or to use the rifts in our societies to weaken us.
Our brains are absorbing all this data and trying to make sense of it. There is an old concept in computer programming known as GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Our brain is a computer and, in this context, GIGO tells us that no matter how good you are at processing data, and how magnificent a model of reality you think you have, if the data is flawed, the output will be flawed.
There are a few things we can do to safeguard our minds and root out or correct errors. The first step is the hardest and that is accepting the possibility that we are not necessarily right about everything. Then we need to reduce the barrage of data we are exposed to by limiting the amount of news and social media we consume.
Next, take a fresh look at your sources of information – are you blindly accepting information as true because it matches what you already believe (confirmation bias)? Or because you have been convinced that you are in imminent danger and some ‘evil’ group or individual is attempting to destroy your world (fear bias)? What is the basis of this belief? Do you have proof or is it hearsay, gossip, or a conspiracy theory popularized on a forum?
Don’t put anything into your brain unless you can verify it isn’t garbage. If in doubt, set it aside. Ask critical questions such as how likely it is that users on a forum or your friend Joe, discovered some massive government conspiracy by reading posts on that forum? Do the people making the assertion have an agenda? What is it about the statement that leads you to believe it is true? How valid is your reasoning?
Try to find a quiet place and let go of all the noise and chaos. Ponder, pray, meditate, play calming music. Take a walk in a beautiful natural setting. Do whatever you can to get to a place in your own mind where you aren’t driven by fear, or manipulation or your own biases.
Listen to people you disagree with. Try to understand where they are coming from. Ask questions without judgment. Be respectful. Consider the things you believe to be true, especially the ones that burden you, or anger you or cause you to be afraid.
No matter how clear the water in a river is, it can be difficult to see the bottom when the surface is agitated. Finding a quiet space in the midst of a chaotic world allows clarity. So go ahead, step down from Defcon 1 and take a breath. Go outside and enjoy the beauty of the world. Spend time with the family. Watch a funny movie.