in Cognitive Wisdom, Prism of Life

If a bus is coming at you, you know exactly how to jump out of the way. Your nervous system helps you to do so without commanding it to start pumping the adrenaline. Similarly, if someone you’re attracted to leans in to kiss you, you know exactly how to reciprocate that advance.

The presence of survival and sexual instinct is so strong within all of us that we don’t need to consciously remind ourselves to take necessary action — the action is invariably instinctive. We don’t need to possess an extremely athletic body to execute those actions requiring sharp reflexes.

Thanks to evolutionary mapping of our genes, we don’t need training to preserve ourselves.

It’s the conscious aspect of our mind that needs continuous practice. We need to consistently keep learning and understanding every aspects of life just to make sense of this ever inconsistent world.

What’s the point here?

Well, the point here is to bring some clarity in not so obvious distinction between the conscious and subconscious aspect of our mind, so that we are in a better position to make sense of their unpredictable interplay.

This interplay can be appreciated more if we could understand the underlying temporal dimension of our mind.

The mind as we know it exists simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future. Our conscious experience is in fact, the sum of all these three parts as they keep interacting inside our brain without any limitation of boundaries.

At any given moment, We are skilled enough to voluntarily pluck memories from the remotest branch of our brain tree. Some of it is voluntary whereas most of it is involuntary — we are not even aware of all the cues triggering recall of those memories.

We can’t help but live in all three time zones simultaneously, remembering and reliving the past, while simultaneously planning and worrying about what we have to get done for tomorrow and next week, what we hope to get done this year, and what we want our life to be like five years from now.

The past and the future constantly keep playing a critical role in shaping our present.

Making Sense Of The Underlying Complexity

To truly appreciate the way our unconscious mind end up influencing every moment of our daily life,

we must acknowledge that there is a major disconnect between what we are aware of at any given moment and what else is going on in our mind at the same time. There is so much more going on than we are even aware of.

It is like those graphs of electromagnetic wavelengths in physics, from smallest to largest – we can only see a small fraction of those wavelengths – known as the visible spectrum. That doesn’t mean all the other wavelengths aren’t there — they are just invisible to us: infrared, ultraviolet, radio, X-rays, and many more.

It is the same with our unseen mental processes — we may not be aware of them directly, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Let me explain this through a very common example of driving.

When you learn to drive, initially your entire focus is on verbal instructions from your driving teacher. At this point, the prefrontal region of your brain, which is responsible for conscious awareness, is running full speed. Which is why you need to concentrate.

As you keep practicing these instructions every day, your focus slowly transfers to the basal ganglia, a group of neuronal clusters that control automatic motor routines.

Gradually, the basal ganglia and relevant motor regions start mastering all the needed skills without the active involvement of prefrontal cortex — and this happens without your conscious awareness. As this brain activity previously responsible for such skills drops and, as these skills become automatic, the conscious mind can take a break.

So, once you get good at driving, you can drive while talking to a friend or doing another task.

Similarly, in case of Runner’s high — the overall sense of perceived calmness is triggered by the stress that vigorous physical activity puts on the body, causing the brain to downplay the activity in prefrontal cortex, which usually controls conscious thinking.

As a consequence, people in this state find themselves running on a kind of feel-good autopilot.

Decision Making & Mistakes

In fact, when the rational brain hijacks the mind, people tend to make all sorts of decision-making mistakes.

They hit bad golf shots and choose wrong answers on standardized tests. They ignore the wisdom of their emotions – the knowledge embedded in their dopamine neurons – and start reaching for things that they can rationally explain.

One of the problems with feelings is that even when they are accurate, they can still be hard to articulate. Instead of going with the option that feels the best, a person starts going with the option that sounds the best — even if it has a higher probability of turning into a very bad idea.

There is a heavy price to pay when you choose to indulge in too much analysis. When you over-think at the wrong moment, you cut yourself off from the wisdom of your emotions, which are much better at assessing actual preferences. You lose the ability to know what you really want.

People almost always assume that more information is better. Modern corporations are completely sold to this idea and spend a fortune trying to create “analytic work-spaces” that “maximize the informational potential of their decision-makers.”

These managerial cliches, plucked from the sales brochures of companies such as Oracle and IBM are predicated on the assumptions that executives perform better when they have access to more facts and figures and that bad decisions are a result of ignorance. But it’s very important to know the limitations of this approach, which are rooted in the limitations of our brain.

For example – A group of researchers imaged the spinal regions of 98 people who had no back pain or back-related problems. The pictures were then sent to doctors who didn’t know that the patients weren’t in pain. The result was shocking: the doctors reported that two-thirds of these normal patients exhibited “serious problems” such as bulging, protruding, or herniated discs. In 38 percent of these patients, the MRI revealed multiple damaged discs. Nearly 90 percent of these patients exhibited some form of “disc degeneration.” These structural abnormalities are often used to justify surgery.

This is the danger of too much information: it can actually interfere with judgement. When the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed, a person can no longer make sense of the situation. Correlation is often confused with causation, and people make theories out of coincidences.

When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate.

Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.

What’s the recommendation then?

Ideally you should use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision. But don’t try to analyze the entire information with your conscious mind. Instead, it is recommended to go on holiday while your unconscious mind do the job of complex analysis. Afterwards, whatever your intuition tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.

The easy problems – the mundane math problems of daily life – are best suited to the conscious brain. These simple decisions won’t overwhelm the prefrontal cortex. In fact, they are so simple that they tend to trip up the emotions.

If the decision can be accurately summarized in numerical terms: let the rational brain take over.

This doesn’t mean the emotional brain should always be trusted. Sometimes it can be impulsive and short-sighted. Sometimes it can be a little too sensitive to patterns.

Parting Thoughts: When Should You Trust Your Gut:

#1: When you have a little time at your disposal, supplement your gut impulse with at least a little conscious reflection.

# 2: When you don’t have the time to think about it, don’t take big chances for small gains on your gut feeling alone.

#3: When you are faced with a complex decision involving many factors, and especially when you don’t have objective measurements (reliable data) of those important factors, take your gut feelings seriously.

In fact, different strengths and weaknesses of conscious and unconscious decision-making were revealed in a groundbreaking series of studies by Dutch researchers Dijksterhuis and Nordgren and their colleagues when they tested their Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT).

Dijksterhuis and Nordgren’s UTT research showed that the judgments themselves could be made unconsciously, during a period of time when the conscious mind was distracted by doing something else entirely. Not only that, but also, more provocatively, they concluded that the results of the unconscious decision process were often superior to those of the consciously made judgments.

Therefore, the one thing you should always be doing is to consider your emotions — think about underlying reason behind your feelings. Even when you may choose to ignore your emotions, they can still be a valuable source of input in your decision making.

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