Once you learn that most of the activity of the brain goes on without either conscious awareness, or with conscious awareness only kicking after the initial response, you begin to doubt that all our choices are conscious ones…..or rational ones. In fact, the brain stem and the limbic system are the key centres for our survival responses, our drives, our avoidances, and our emotional processing. How often do we behave in ways which really can’t be understood from the premise of consciously choosing once presented with the facts? Is that how human beings function? Would that even be the best way for human beings to function? (consciously and rationally, whilst discarding other ways of perceiving, processing our experience and responding). What do you think once you learn that there is an enormous neural network around the hollow organs of the body, the heart, and the gut especially, which we might well use to figure things out….where we might process and produce what we call “gut reactions”, or “heart felt” beliefs?
I’ve stumbled on two very different texts in this area in the last couple of days. Isn’t that weird, actually? It’s that old “coincidence” thing again…..never quite got to a point of really figuring out how those “coincidences” come about, or what they mean.
A few days ago, I read about a report for the WWF called “common cause“. The report, written by Tom Crompton. Essentially it argues that if we look at the research evidence, it would seem that human beings don’t make decisions using rational thought very much. Here’s a paragraph from the Summary –
There is mounting evidence from a range of studies in cognitive science that the dominant ‘Enlightenment model’ of human decision-making is extremely incomplete. According to this model we imagine ourselves, when faced with a decision, to be capable of dispassionately assessing the facts, foreseeing probable outcomes of different responses, and then selecting and pursuing an optimal course of action. As a result, many approaches to campaigning on bigger-than-self problems still adhere to the conviction that ‘if only people really knew’ the true nature or full scale of the problems which we confront, then they would be galvanised into demanding more proportionate action in response. But this understanding of how people reach decisions is very incomplete. There is mounting evidence that facts play only a partial role in shaping people’s judgment. Emotion is often far more important [see Section 1.3]. It is increasingly apparent that our collective decisions are based importantly upon a set of factors that often lie beyond conscious awareness, and which are informed in important part by emotion – in particular, dominant cultural values, which are tied to emotion. It seems that individuals are often predisposed to reject information when accepting it would challenge their identity and values.
That’s got me thinking about the importance of understanding our values (and/or our “virtues”) again.
Then, this morning, I read a post about some interesting TED videos, and the first one was this, by Dan Airley. He makes the case that we suffer from “cognitive illusions” just as much, if not more than, we suffer from “optical illusions”. (It’s about how we make decisions. It’s VERY entertaining, and thought provoking, and it’s just 17 minutes long. Take the time to watch it)
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