Soul Searching #7: the human brain

Hello! Welcome to part 7 of my story of introspection. Wow, I’m at #7 already, and my list of topics is not even close to exhausted. Nice! The other posts in the Soul Searching series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Values
  3. Energy
  4. Intuition
  5. Flow
  6. Personality Tests

Early on in my journey, I started reading about the inner workings of the human brain. I was listening to a podcast about stress, and one of the guests there was Paul Smit, a neuroscientist and philosopher. He remarked that the human brain generates about 60,000–90,000 thoughts per day. I don’t remember the exact numbers by the way, nor did I look for a scientific verification. My key takeaway was: I have a lot of thoughts during the day, but how many of those do I actually generate myself? Not that many — I often have thoughts that seem to just pop-up. So if that is true, when should I do something with a thought? Concretely, I realized that when I have a negative thought, I can just ignore it if I choose to, because there is not necessarily a logical reason for that thought. This had some profound consequences, but I’ll save those for the next post. For now, let me detail a few other realizations that stuck with me.

Many of my thoughts concern dreams and worries about the future, and attempts to extrapolate the past into favorable (loss-minimizing?) future outcomes. This seems to be an automatic process, unstoppable, and often with a wild intensity. I’ve always felt like I was in an emotional roller coaster, filled with excitement, worries, scheming, and planning. But since learning about the human brain, I feel like an external observer of this process. It’s very odd – it seems as if ‘I’ am suddenly not one thing anymore. I’ll write more about it next time, but for now let me say that this ‘zooming out’ caused the highs and lows of the roller coaster to be dampened.

Another realization is that my memory is utterly biased and very selective. So if I, for instance, am in an accident, and the other party strongly disagrees with my reading of events, then it is actually quite possible that they are right, no matter how strong I feel about my own viewpoint. This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen so many episodes of ‘De Rijdende Rechter’ where the two parties claimed opposite things, and a very emotional struggle ensued. Personally, I’ve always had this little window of curiosity that keeps saying: ‘I think I’m right, but suppose that I am not?’. But recently, I’ve felt an increasing need to verify my thoughts about past events with other people, to see how large my personal bias is. Fascinating!

Photo by ALAN DE LA CRUZ on Unsplash

Also, my brain can be massively annoying: it’s continually looking for ways to congratulate me on how great I am, or tell me how much of a fool I am, or to turn some lucky event into ‘I knew that was the right thing to do beforehand, because blahblahblah’. Now that I’m able to observe that process, it seems absolutely crazy. It’s as if the proverbial angel and devil on my shoulder are continually shouting at me, with a nutty professor standing on my head adding to the confusion. I stopped listening most of the time.

The brain is wired for power saving, because thinking is an expensive operation in terms of energy. Therefor, it tends to invent all kinds of shortcuts (‘decision rules’, for the sciency people in the audience). This is quite a useful feature: when a lion runs towards you, you don’t want to spend time thinking what you best option is. There is a simple shortcut that works really well: “Lion? RUN!!!”. Unfortunately, this process of recognizing patterns also drives us to find patterns where there are non. I remember an experiment where a math teacher asks half of the students to write down a sequence of 50 numbers (ranging 1–6), and asks the others to do the same with the use of a dice. The teacher could identify the dice-generated patterns, because they contained more repetitions. The students who did not use the dice, had the simple  — invalid —  rule “Random? No repetition!” in mind. With similar enthusiasm, we develop many forms of bias, nonsensical investment strategies, and curious superstitions. I can’t stop myself from generating these patterns, of course. I’m just a bit more attentive when I find evidence contrary to my ‘rule’.

Alright, next one: “it’s thoughts that generate stress, not the situation itself”. When I heard this, I realized that it sounds very plausible, and that I can’t blame the outside world for my own stress. Also, it means that if I have too much stress, then I can look ‘inside myself’ for the cause, and perhaps a solution. I’m not completely sure if this is so universally true, but at least I feel empowered now. Slight warning: finding the reasons for stress can be quite confronting.

I’ll add one more, before ending the post. “I’m responsible for my own thoughts and feelings.”. In particular, I can’t go around blaming others for my thoughts and feelings. There is a difference between the event itself, the response it generates inside of you, and the action you take as a result of your response. I think I’m still getting to grips with this one.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you have thoughts, ideas, or comments, feel free to post them here. I’m also reachable on LinkedIn, of course. See you next time!