In an attempt to understand more about today’s world and how societies shape it, I began reading, observing and thinking more and more. It’s been clear that our brains are not made, nor ready, for the world that we now live in.
We have a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment. We, as humans, have created our own deficiency by constructing a radically more complex world than our minds are ready for.
There are many signs pointing to our present day being an extraordinarily unusual time to be alive:
- For 99.8% of human history, the world population was under 1 billion people. In the last .2% of that history, it has crossed the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 billion marks. (?)
- Up until 25 years ago, there had never been such a thing as a global brain of godlike information access and connectivity on this planet. Today we have the internet. (?)
- After barely using any energy for the first 99,800 years of human history, in the last 200 we’ve suddenly thrust ourselves into the Fossil Fuels Era, blowing through a huge chunk of stored underground carbon energy, without fully understanding the implications of doing so. (?)
- Humans walked around or rode horses for 999 of the last 1,000 centuries. In this century, we drive cars, fly planes, and land on the moon. (?)
- The implications of globalization are huge, where we are not only connected via the internet, Hollywood, media, etc., but also able to travel throughout the world with ease. Cultures, ideas, beliefs, economies, and more collide.
While genetically we have evolved very very little in the last 200 years, our surroundings have changed substantially. As a result, we now live in a world that our minds and bodies aren’t ready for, nor made for. Because of this, it is imperative that we constantly question decisions we make, thoughts that arise, actions we take, and conclusions we draw. Simply put, our mind is playing games on us because it isn’t sure how to understand it. To further understand ourselves and the world around us, we have to understand more about our subconscious mind.
What is subconscious?
To describe this, lets first start with consciousness. “Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. (?)”. Anything other than consciousness, assuming we’re still breathing, happens in our subconscious. It is profoundly important, it is shaped by many things such as health, age, habits, environment, etc, however, it shapes pretty much our entire life. When you’re dreaming and your body is repairing itself, it happens subconsciously, all your organs work subconsciously, you shower, walk, and talk subconsciously without having to think about it. It allows us to live without having to think about our default tasks.
The Lizard Brain
Interestingly enough, over the course of history, our brains have slowly evolved from what Seth Godin coined as a “lizard brain”:
The part in the lower middle labeled “Reptile” is what he calls the lizard brain, and it is where our brains first started. Everything above and around it has been added overtime as we’ve evolved as a species. Today, we understand quite a bit about what the purpose is over different parts of the brain. As Godin simply describes:
“The lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry, and horny. The lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe. The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
The piece of the brain labeled “Primate” is responsible for our rational and logic. It pushes us to take risks and succeed. As a result, the two parts of the brain are at odds with each other all the time, constantly fighting each other trying to get us to live a balanced life that allows us to live, eat, reproduce, but at the same time push our civilization forward. Much of this happens subconsciously.
So why is this important? This is our modern brain because we’ve evolved this way through long periods of small changes. However, in recent time, we’ve experienced drastically bigger changes than our brain has ever seen before (with even bigger ones to come), and therefore our present day evolved brain can’t comprehend what is happening. It is our consciousness trying to do that.
In the book “The Power of Habit“, Charles Duhigg describes how virtually our entire lives are built by habits, perhaps even more than you or I would expect. As a result, it is important to look at simple, basic things and understand why they are there, how they influence our daily lives, and what, if anything, we could slightly change to improve our lives and the lives of others. Habits are actions that at first we think about and deliberately do, but over time they become subconscious and we do them without thinking. We’ve evolved to do this such that our minds can focus on other, perhaps more important tasks, while our subconscious can handle our habits.
Take walking for example. When we’re young, we don’t know how to walk and we have to actively learn. As an adult, you walk daily without thinking consciously about it at all. Or language as another example of something we learn and then it gets thrown into our subconscious.
Take something more modern like the habit of using a phone, which is something that has only been used widely for the last 10 years of human history, yet today in the developing and developed world almost everyone uses it out of habit. All of the things the we use it for are brand new inventions, and while we think we understand the implications, we’re fooling ourselves.
Take exercise as another example. Just 100 years ago it would be very difficult to not do at least some sort of exercise daily, whether through farming, building, or exploration. Today, our society has shifted to where we don’t exercise – we can drive to work or get a ride, we sit at a computer all day (also new within the last 25 years), and come home exhausted, because our bodies are out of balance, and as a result our minds are as well. As a result of our change in the work landscape (like sitting at a computer all day), we then go to the gym for an hour to compensate for our poor active lifestyles.
Today there are gym’s popping up everywhere, weight loss programs, diets, etc. that really didn’t exist on a wide scale until recently. Because of the rapid shift in our lifestyle and the societal normal, unless you question your subconscious actions daily, you’ll fall into the trap of listening to your mind, which tells you not to exercise (since it isn’t easy), and eat delicious food (which often isn’t good for you). In fact, sugar is put into almost everything today because a) it tastes good, b) it sells, and c) it’s cheap. The side effect is the obesity epidemic you see happening all over the world, and not getting better anytime soon. This is the result of our subconscious being tricked.
Habits arise from the environments were in. For example, if you drive to work everyday, you’ll have a habit of pulling in and out of the driveway the same way, getting in and out of the vehicle, etc. If you don’t drive to work and instead walk, you’ll clearly have different habits. Or if your schedule allows you to wakeup later you’ll have a different habit.
Habits are very important, and it’s important to reflect on habits regularly to simplify your life, but also to make it more enjoyable and efficient. This is one of the bigger things in life where our consciousness is questioning our subconscious actions to an attempt to improve our lives.
Eating Beyond Us
We’re a species. We are just animals. As a whole, we act in very predictable ways. For example, advertisers know that when they run a certain advertisement, x% of the people that see the advertisement will buy something.
When it comes to the food we’re consuming in just the last 50 years, it is unlike anything we’ve seen before. We have access to cheap, abundant amounts of high caloric foods, such as sugars. Sugar not only makes things taste good, it sells.
If we only listen to our bodies and eat what we feel like, our minds are deceiving us because what we’re eating is tricking us. Studies show that an over-consumption of sugar leads to the signal between our stomach and our brain (which tells us where we’re full) to be disrupted. As a result, when our stomachs are full, our mind doesn’t know, so we keep eating. This is why everything is super-sized in America – we have to overfeed our bodies due to overconsumption of sugar, which then leads to the obesity epidemic we now see sweeping the world. As a whole, these are all subconscious. If you don’t think about them, you won’t notice them because our cravings, the food around us, and the environment we’ve shifted to happens without most people really noticing it.
Our natural tendency is to consume more, exercise less, eat more, etc. We naturally take the path of least resistance. But since we’re now consuming food we never consumed before, and as a result, eating more energy, it is imperative we think about it, and counter-balance it. Otherwise, you’ll end up as part of the ever growing obesity epidemic, which will kill millions in the years to come and will likely lower this generations life expectancy drastically.
We’re not genetically made for this, but our life is in an environment that pushes us to do these things. As a whole, we will act and do things that fit into society and the environment. If the environment is not good, then it is very hard to overcome. Changing your environment, or seriously questioning your subconscious are really the only two options.
There are vast changes coming, beyond what we can anticipate, no matter how hard we try. I read an article recently about predictions for the future (?). Predicting the future 40 years ago is considered much easier than predicting the next 40. Part of that has to do with the world becoming more complex, and part of it has to do with exponentials (things not working linearly like our minds imagine). The world will change more in the next 10 years than the previous 30, and the following 10 will change more than the previous 60. Even saying that isn’t really possible since it involves prediction and massive assumption, but the point being that the world is changing more rapidly every second. And that makes sense, but also makes it even harder to foresee upcoming events.
I’d almost go as far as saying the future is very close to impossible to predict. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan“, Taleb says something like this: think of the biggest technologies in the world today – the internet, and computers. Both were random, unpredictable events where no one could foresee the effect. They weren’t meant to be what they are today, and neither were built or planned to be used as much as they are today. What has happened is beyond prediction. And these are the biggest technologies in the world! Think about that, it’s true. Think of how many other major technologies are in the process of happening now that no one foresees. If no one foresees it, it won’t be involved in any prediction. It’s a mind fuck to say the least.
What’s the result of a world that is far beyond our understanding due to it’s complexity? It means decisions we make are often wrong, models we make aren’t accurate, and we will eventually all live in an environment that our minds haven’t evolved to live in. This will lead to countless issues. As a result, we have to constantly question what our subconscious is telling us and correct for errors as much as possible.
On this note, I think perhaps one of the biggest issues of our generation will be the religious tension that is growing throughout the world. Today the world is more connected than ever before, and while still divided in a lot of ways, every day we’re getting more connected, whether it be societies getting internet for the first time (and access to abundant amounts of information), or travelers in a foreign country interacting with a new culture for the first time (it’s easier than ever to travel today), or someone seeing a white man for the first time (I’ve had it happen many times in the last few years). It is happening, and it is happening fast. The events occurring in the Middle East now with the IS and the millions of refugees fleeing the area to Europe could very quickly escalate into something much much worse. It is impossible to predict, but our current predictions, if anyone is close, aren’t looking positive. These are just a few things to think about when we consider what the future will look like.
It’s quite easy to realize how complex everything is becoming. It is especially obvious in western societies where new things are being created regularly and used in society all the time. It is much less obvious in undeveloped societies where life is much simpler (hundreds of millions of people in the world still nearly the same way humans lived 1,000 years ago). It is fair to say that in places with no education, the awareness of the complexity is much lower. Remember that most humans not so long ago believed the earth was flat – many today still do.
Read any book on cosmology, for example, to just get a glimpse into the complexity of our universe. In “A Universe from Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss, Kraass discusses the universe and how it came to be. It reminds me a lot of Hawkins book “A Brief History of Time”. The complexity of what we know is profound, yet the complexity of what we don’t know but are discovering every day is even more so. It is hard to wrap your head around. Think about it for a second – the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. The more you learn, the more you can learn. In the most developed societies in the world, this is quite clear.
We’re a society that is specialized, more so now than ever before. As a result, the world becomes even more complex, and makes it even more difficult for us to understand effects of different areas on the rest. Take something like the internet, for example, which didn’t exist on a widescale 30 years ago. Today it employs millions of people, has developed into several other huge areas (networking, ecommerce, big data, mobile internet, to name a few), and is getting more an more complex. It is practically impossible for 1 person to understand how all of this works, and this is only the internet, one thing in the ever so complex world.
The best we can do now is try to get an overview of different things in our lives and understand them from a bird eye view. While it is the best we can do since you can spend a lifetime studying any 1 thing, it leaves us vulnerable to not understanding a whole lot, and making decisions that are probably not the best for us or the people around us.
In many fields today we use models to better understand how things work together with one another, and to simplify our views and calculations. It is the best we can do really, though they are heavily flawed and perhaps we put too much trust in our models. In “The Black Swan”, Taleb shows that even the slightest discrepancy of a variable in many models leads to huge margins of error. It is these types of models that govern a lot of the decisions and statements that forecasters make in economics, weather, foreign relations, etc. This may come at no surprise when you think about it. However, us humans take these models and often rely on them as being true, when they could be completely wrong. Taleb argues that because of the complexity of the exponential world we’re living in, the possibility of many things failing at once is certainly not 0%, and he uses this idea to describe what he calls the “black swan”. And he’s right, as shown time and time again. I think the key take away here is that economic affairs, stock markets, job creation, etc. are not as predictable as people think, and a lot of it is total randomness.
Specialization is good, because it allows us to get things done faster, and better. People can become very good at one thing, and then provide that value to others without others needing to know anything about it. Take a 40 story condo or apartment building, for example. Civil engineers over hundreds of years have put together almost blue prints of how to build them. While complex, they can be built with relative ease on a wide scale today. To the average person, we don’t need to understand how concrete strength is tested, how floors remain level, how all the calculations are made to design the building. We can rely on the specialists to do this, and then we can use them. We then go up 40 floors and trust that the specialists did their job. This sort of relationship is true for almost everything we use today: what we eat, what car we drive, what chair we’re sitting in, and even what the government decides to teach us in schools. As children, we trust the information we’re being taught is what we need to know.
With this said, specialization is bad in that it makes the world more complex, and forces people out of understanding each other. If no one specialized beyond the understanding of their neighbors, we would all understand each other and the actions we take a lot more. Combine this with the age of information where knowledge and the ability to learn is more abundant than ever, and you get an ever expanding society that is pushed apart by understanding, primarily due to specialization. Specialization is worth time and money, so people do it, and it is a natural trait that humans have evolved to do to survive.
Tricking the Brain Through Priming
In this article, Steve Pavlina describes priming, and the priming effect:
Let me share a few random words with you that seemingly have nothing to do with this article:
Now let me ask you to fill in the blank letters to complete the following word:
F _ _ L
Chances are good that your brain picked a word related to the list above, even though there are many possible solutions.
Now stretch your mind by going through the alphabet, and consider other choices you could have selected. There are lots of possibilities, but the priming effect likely got your brain fixated on one that matched the previous words.
Now get this: The priming effect even works when you aren’t consciously aware of the words or ideas you’re being primed with. For instance, if I’d hidden those words elsewhere on this page where your eyes would have seen them, but you wouldn’t have consciously noticed them, the effect would be essentially the same. Or in a video presentation, if those words were flashed on the screen too quickly for your conscious mind to notice, but slow enough for your visual cortex to perceive and process, that would have also primed your choice in the wordplay test.
This priming effect works on a much grander scale than word games, and its influence is usually subtle and unconscious. I guarantee that it’s operating in your life right now.
Suppose you read the daily news from a typical news source (i.e. overwhelmingly pessimistic). So your mind gets primed with words like these (which were taken from actual Yahoo News’ headlines):
So you read the news in the morning and prime your brain with words like the above. What’s the priming effect? What other thoughts, feelings, or ideas are being pre-loaded because they’re related to the above? Danger. I’m scared. I need to play it safe and protect what I have. I can’t afford to take risks. Stress response.
Then you check social media, and your friends are sharing the usual trivialities. Priming effect: Not important. Wasting time. Boring. Pointless. Petty drama. Feeling inadequate. Jealousy.
You check email next. It’s mostly spam. Your inbox is filled with old junk you haven’t processed. Priming effect: Disorganized. Feeling behind. Clutter. Stress. Overwhelm. Need to clean this up. Distraction.
You make some coffee. It’s the cheap stuff, and you drink it from a cruddy old ceramic mug that’s chipped. Priming effect: Can’t have what I want. Broken. Low quality. Ugly. Cheap.
You start using your computer. It’s an older model, sluggish and also a bit ugly. Priming effect: Settling for less. Frustration. Wishing for better and not getting it. Slowness. Amateur. Unappreciated.
You use pirated software on your computer. Priming effect: Criminal. Wrong. Cheap. Dishonest. Dishonorable. Hiding. Sneaky.
And now you go to work trying to improve your life. Is that going to work out well? Probably not.
Your brain is always bouncing around between linked associations. It does this in parallel, subconsciously, all the time. There are countless new neuroscience books sharing more and more details about how the brain does this. The simple truth is that the vast majority of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors occur without your conscious awareness or conscious involvement.
The lesson here is that seemingly subtle influences matter. If your senses perceive it, your brain is processing it. And this processing is seldom isolated. One little change in input can create significant ripples throughout your neural net. And this in turn can have a significant influence on the results you get to experience.
The priming effect, though subtle, demonstrates how easily our subconscious mind can be tricked. I’d highly recommend reading the full article linked above to learn more about how priming can help your subconscious in many ways, and hopefully also raise awareness to how vulnerable we as humans are to it.
Age of Information – Age of Attention
People throw around the idea that we’re in the age of information, where we are at a point in humanity where information is more abundant than ever before, in large part because of the internet, mass publishing, etc. I means we can easily look up things that otherwise weren’t available or required a huge effort to discover. The result is access to unlimited education, but also a reliance on looking up over understanding.
In his article on something parallel to this, Mark Manson talks about the “age of attention“. While information is still abundant and ever growing, we are now in an age where people compete for attention. With limited time but ever increasing ways to fill it, the space available to fill is competitive. Companies want it, new desired hobbies want it, work wants it, friends and family want it. Great products and services start and die because they couldn’t capture enough attention, not because they were bad products or services.
So, how do we choose where to spend our time in the age of attention? We, more often than not, default to our subconscious. Very often when we make a decision about someone or something, we don’t use all of the relevant available information. In the book “Influence“, Robert Cialdini suggests that we are more and more forced to resort to a shortcut decision making process, because of the difficulty in taking everything into consideration in an ever complex world. He shows that we rely on the following single triggers:
– Commitments – once we commit it’s hard to undo
– Reciprocation – if someone gives us something we have a tendency to want to give back
– Compliant behavior of similar others – we follow others – social proof, especially in environments of uncertainty
– Feelings of liking or friendship – we are influenced far easier by people we like
– Authority – people of authority are perceived to know more, so we are influenced by them
– Scarcity – knowing something is limited or rare leads us to take action – time being one, but also applies to good/services
Our subconscious makes most of our daily decisions for us via habits and default triggers listed above. Our consciousness often tries to question it, with increasing difficulty of course (and hence the inspiration to write this post).
Of the increasing tendency for cognitive overload in our society, the prevalence of shortcut decision making is likely to increase proportionately as the world becomes more complex and further overloads our cognition.
So what does this all mean?
The goal of writing this was to raise further awareness that we’ve living in a world that is now far beyond our comprehension. It is important to recognize this such that we constantly question our subconscious to ensure it isn’t doing something not in our best interest, and to push ourselves to develop habits that train our subconscious.
Something as simple as the layout of a grocery store has a complex process built behind it to get us to buy. It is the stores best interest to sell to us, not necessarily to give us what’s best for us. It’s our best interest to get what we want, not necessarily what they want to sell us. Fresh donuts at the exit sell incredible well, but certainly don’t benefit us.
The conscious part of our brain can only do so much, but that bit that it can do is very important, more now than ever, so it is important to consciously learn about it and began deliberately questioning as much as we can about us and the world around us.
Our bodies and our minds are telling us to do one thing, while our current environment is telling us to do something different. It is up to us to constantly think about what we’re doing, and why. And if you don’t, you’ll end up on the losing end of ever growing world of higher complexity.