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The Tinkered Mind
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September 28th, 2019
Ever argue with yourself?
Sure. We all do it.
Ever try to convince yourself something?
Sure. Pretty much the same thing.
But. Wait a minute. What exactly does that mean? Why would we ever be resistant to something we want to do?
Surely there is the obvious case of something being socially unacceptable, like when someone cuts you off while you’re late to work and you suddenly wish you could prop up a grenade launcher on your shoulder, shove it out the window and send that senseless bonehead to hell.
We resist such impulses because the consequences are much worse than just dealing with it without doing anything.
(As an aside: it’s amazing how much easier life gets if a person can become genuinely comfortable with doing nothing as a response to life’s meaningless aggravations.)
But there remain other, more subtle circumstances when the consequences are not nearly so extreme nor so obvious.
We might think of a relatively harmless example, like eating a bit too much. Everyone who can, has done it, and most do it very often. The consequences of getting just a tiny bit fatter or unhealthy are imperceptible. And without such a clear signal it’s easy to just shrug off any little annoying thought about health.
Drink is another example. When does it go from just having a few, to a few too many?
The difference is subtle, easy to miss and impossible to actually calculate. Individual tolerance can certainly be calculated but, it’s also a moving target, and bad habits can form even within some sort of institutionally defined ‘limit’, like the limit defined in law for drinking and driving.
Whether it be eating, or drinking, or any other choice of drug, poison or pleasure, anything that lights up the Substantia Nigra in the brain to a greater degree than usual is going to start creating a slippery slope.
This slippery slope becomes a vicious cycle, because every instance of a behavior lays the foundation for the next time that behavior occurs. And if that behavior lights up the pleasure response in our brain, the brain’s sensitivity to the experience re-regulates in order to create a desire for a greater dose and greater frequency.
Ok, that’s the grossly over-simplified neuroscience of it.
But more importantly is: what does it feel like?
Ever hear someone say that sounds reasonable…
Or ever hear yourself say it?
Doesn’t matter what it’s in response to. The question is: what ‘reason’ is behind the sense that it’s reasonable.
Fact is: it’s not a reason at all. At least not in the rational, logical sense.
The reason is a feeling.
That sounds reasonable, is exactly the same as that sounds good.
We experience ‘good’ more as a pleasant sensation more than anything else. We do not use logic to deduce some sort of best option with all possible consequences and externalities appropriately balanced. We rely on an old system of heuristics that isn’t well calibrated for the modern world. It tells us to eat to much, to be lazy, to drink, and when we get a touch of substances that are ultimately very bad for our health, we indulge a little more.
Why? Because they feel good in the moment.
This feeling of ‘good’ becomes the underlying reason that gives birth to all sorts of other ridiculous reasons that form an emotional narrative about how we want to do something. When habits get bad enough to effect our lives in meaningful ways, the maintenance of that emotional narrative often begins to require lying.
The thing is, the lie makes sense to the liar in the context of wanting or feeling a need to do something that the lie is covering for.
Such a lie, is of course first and foremost a self-deception. But it doesn’t feel that way because it’s in the name of something that feels good.
Another way to think about it is with a story like Romeo and Juliet. They’ve each got the hots for each other, but they know their families wouldn’t be happy with it. That asymmetry is at the heart of all the conflict and tragedy for Romeo and Juliet.
We can replace the the object of desire in a story like Romeo and Juliet with something else and see a similar result. When we desire to do something that isn’t in our best interest as per our relationships, family, long-term well-being, we are dealing with the same sort of asymmetry.
That feeling of pleasure overwhelms us in the short term and it gives rise to a phenomenon more eloquently stated by Benjamin Franklin:
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.
And this is at the heart of lying.
The reason for lying is that something feels good, and that prospect of feeling good is closer in time than the negative consequences that might follow.
We are poor long-term thinkers, unless we’ve been lucky enough to develop a strong executive cortex that has strong over-riding connections to these other emotional centers of our brain.
But this shouldn’t be too surprising.
We’re actually just animals. And there aren’t any animals who engage in dynamic long term planning. Everything in the animal kingdom that might look like long-term planning is actually rote instinct. The alternative to long-term planning is this simpler function of just trying to get what’s good in the moment.
A grotesque historical example comes to mind. Before the United States had been fully explored by European descendants, and when the buffalo still roamed free by the millions, the Lewis and Clarke expedition witnessed a great example of this short-term penchant in the animal kingdom. As so happened, they came across a river that was flowing with dead bison. Some strange and unknown incident had occurred upstream that killed all these buffalo, and when the expedition came across them, they also discovered wolves that had so completely gorged themselves on the buffalo buffet that they could not even stand. It’s reported that members of the expedition could walk right up to the wolves and kill them without the wolves being able to defend themselves in any way.
It’s a great example of short term thinking: gorging yourself to such a degree that you become instantly helpless to an enemy you could easily outrun, if not just bite.
It’s fascinating to realize that no animal creates 5 and 10 year plans. They just do what feels right in the moment. And sometimes that looks like long term planning. Like when the temperature goes cold, it suddenly feels right to a bird to take flight and head south. The bird doesn’t decide ahead of time in the same way we decide which seaside village in the Cinque Terra we are going to vacation at next summer.
Most people, most of the time, are still driven by this short-term animal thinking. We order a donut instead of a salad, because it feels right because we know it’ll feel better. Be damned tomorrow, next week and five years from now.
It’s when this dumb autopilot comes into contact with a behavior or substance that will at some point down the slippery slope put us into conflict with our relationships that the lying arises.
The lie is a short term resolution to an unsolvable problem: The lie maintains the status of the relationship that our behavior is in conflict with.
It’s a situation of wanting to eat your cake and have it too. We don’t want to give up the behavior and we don’t want to give up the relationship. The lie seems to solve it.
But in the long run, lies rot relationships at their core, and any semblance of things still looking normal is as superficial as it’s surface appearance.
It’s either one or the other, or both with a lot of pain. And what is the point of a relationship if it’s just a constant source of pain?
Hard to say, and of course relationships of all types can become a bit of a drug like anything else and cause problems in other relationships.
At the end of the day, life is utterly polluted with pleasurable experiences that can become bad habits that can then escalate to toxic behaviors and on and on.
What’s important to take away from that process is that it feels reasonable at each step, no matter how bad that step might seem to someone else. The difference is that someone else hasn’t taken all those baby steps down to that point. Without that subtle emotional slide, it looks like a huge obvious mistake to the outside observer.
The principle extends universally beyond any discussion of lies and toxic habits:
At every moment, the decision that each and every person is making seems reasonable to that person, simply because it feels right.
This is unavoidable, but we do have the ability to hijack it for good. By thinking deeply and thoroughly, we can imagine a new course of action that makes sense from a logical standpoint and hitch a good feeling to it, usually by way of pride or better yet, curiosity.
It’s perhaps fitting to note that the etymology of curiosity comes from late Latin and derives from something akin to ‘care’, as in something you might care about.
And what does it feel like to care about something?
Generally, it’s a good feeling.