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December 27th, 2019
Losing a sense of proportion makes navigating incredibly difficult. To get a sense of this, just think about the person who draws a map of your town or city. Imagine if that person had drawn the map in accordance to their experience of the place. Their own home would probably be quite big, and the route between that home and where that person works would be prominent and detailed, and perhaps a few hangouts and houses of friends would also be large, but what about all the places our cartographer hadn’t been? These might only get the most cursory treatment, if any at all. Now how useful would this map be for a tourist?
It’d be terrible, and potentially even useless.
The structure of the brain demonstrates a similar distortion with the somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex. These are the parts of our brain that register sensations, physical orientation and movement. In the fields of study that involve these brain regions a distorted homunculus is used to illustrate the proportional attention our own brain pays the body.
These homunculi look like action figures whose bodies are tiny, but equipped with gargantuan hands, huge heads and budging mouths, lips and tongues.
The motor cortex in particular devotes an absolutely enormous amount of real estate to the hands. And this makes sense if you consider how drastically humans have altered the natural environment, and you realize that this has been accomplished almost exclusively through our use of our invaluable little platoon of fingers and opposable thumbs. More brain space is devoted to a single hand than the rest of the body below the neck and wrists. This distortion is useful since it’s far more important to have an accurate idea of what’s going on with your hands than it is say, a random patch of skin on the side of your thigh.
We all have an intuitive sense of this – just think of all the movies where a character takes a moment to realize they have a wound in their midsection or leg, as opposed to the instances when you get a tiny paper cut on the tip of your finger.
The sliced finger registers a lot more pain because in some sense it’s a more important part of the body from a utility standpoint. We don’t use a random patch of skin on the side of our thigh all the much when it comes to getting a sense of the physical world around us. Our hands, however, are vital.
We experience a similar and far less valuable distortion. Given all the topics that we think about, or might think about, each one registers some sort of emotion. Some emotions are fairly insignificant, and then there’s other topics that trigger an immense emotional balloon that can expand to overwhelm our sense of reality.
Most modern experiences of fear fall into this second category. We feel enormous amounts of fear that eventually prove to be fairly useless. Often we look back and think
“why was I so scared? It didn’t matter anyway..”
This is an emotional distortion, and it’s part of an emotional system that’s most likely outdated and ill-fitted to it’s modern context. While fear may have been very useful 100,000 years ago, it functions now, primarily as a maladaptation that hampers creativity and potential.
Things like jealousy and anger, which are perhaps a subset of fear probably also qualify as a maladaptation in today’s world. The behavior that we partake in when anger or jealous almost never registers a positive change in our life, while in past millennia, these probably had important, if not vital roles in survival. Regardless of the details of the past, it’s easy to see the relative uselessness of such emotions today.
Our emotional homunculi is an awkward creature in a society full of creature comforts.
But luckily, unlike our somatosensory cortex or a our motor cortex, the emotional distortions and proportions upon which most of our behaviors springs can be drastically edited.
The mere awareness of an emotion is enough to get a handle on its out grown proportion. With a mindfulness practice, our perspective gains an ability to toggle the size of the context.
When something triggers an emotion to suddenly spike out of proportion with the situation, our perspective can “zoom-out” in a sense, counteracting the distorting view of reality created by a lens of emotion.
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