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June 1st, 2019
It’s easy to call people sheep, claim that no one thinks for themselves, and that we’re all mindless zombies – there’s plenty of evidence to point at that seems to prove this. This cognitive slumber, however, is a bit of a paradox. A small example to illustrate this is the widespread agreement we have about how rare common sense is. Overlooking the obvious problem regarding the word ‘common’ here, we can ask if this view of other people is simply another example of the cognitive slumber we are trying to pin down. Do people say that common sense is rare because it is, or simply because it’s common to hold this linguistically infuriating belief?
In truth, the only thing that is common about common sense is the common belief everyone has that it’s rare. [As an aside, this whole concept of common sense is easily rectified if we rephrase it as ‘good sense’ which is what everyone means when we talk about common sense. This is just a linguistic aside, however, and the larger point works just as well, and perhaps even better if we spoke about good sense.]
Much of what we do falls within an analogy with an autopilot. The formative moments when aspects of our identity came into being were almost never thoughtful, analyzed and weighted decisions. These moments are forged primarily by the emotional drive of experience. Nothing is better posed to lend credence to this than the language that surrounds trauma. The very word is perhaps first and foremost a signal that a person is a certain way because of some awful experience. We can ask: if a person was incapable of feeling emotion during the trauma, would the effects still carry over into the next day given no damage to the body? The sensible guess feels like it would be…no.
Cognitive slumber is when the mind does not actively analyze and grade the quality of it’s person’s identity as evidenced by the behaviors and actions the mind sees this person doing. Or to put it another way, cognitive slumber is when someone functions solely from an autopilot that was formed by whatever emotional experiences kneaded and molded it into that shape.
The end of cognitive slumber is really just a sweet piece of luck. We cannot really predict the next thought we will have, nor the next sentence in the book we are currently reading, nor what some new acquaintance will say during a conversation. We move through life compiling the emotional experiences of these unpredictable events, each one pushing new shape into the hardening clay of who we are.
However, one of these experiences can pierce the mold, crack the identity, and invoke a kind of mindfulness, a circumspection that causes a person to wonder just how they are put together in order to produce the behavior they see themselves doing.
This may be why it’s nearly universally perceived as a good thing to get a wide breadth of experience, because this quantity and variety makes it more likely that we’ll come across an experience that cracks our basic emotion-forged identity, enabling our executive minds to take more active and productive control, and ultimately resulting in a better more thoughtful future.
This episode references Episode 44: Autopilot
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