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On Politics and Religion (7/30)
Tackling the big stuff.
Hah, just kidding.
Did you notice yourself having any kind of instinctual reaction when you read that title? Maybe you felt your chest getting hotter in preparation for battle. Or perhaps you experienced a quick surge of dopamine, sitting up a bit straighter in anticipation of what was sure to be a buffet of hot takes?
I imagine it’s more likely that you rolled your eyes and mentally prepared to try to slog through two topics you really didn’t feel like reading about on a Wednesday evening.
It’s funny how the brain primes us. Our reaction to a given situation is often determined almost exclusively by prior experience. As experiences strengthen neural connections over time, the brain becomes more confident in its ‘prediction’ about what an external stimulus represents and how we should respond. These become our unconscious and instinctive actions and reactions.
This is mostly a good thing. It’s the reason we are able to do all of the cool stuff that humans do like complex reasoning and quantum physics and learning to spin basketballs on toothbrushes. Without our brains taking these sorts of predictive shortcuts, we would be forced to use all of our mental bandwidth on simple tasks like tying our shoes. We’d also be much less equipped to recognize and effectively respond to threats.
However, not all of these trained responses are useful or healthy. In optimizing for efficiency, the brain is playing a short-term game of survival that can be at odds with our long-term interests.
As the pseudonymous neuroscientist Dr. L puts it:
Our brains are basically lazy. It takes a lot of energy and effort to make careful decisions based on weighing up various sources of evidence and taking steps to guard against bias. Consequently, they don’t usually bother. A lot of our behaviour is based on simple routines that seem to usefully solve a problem, which we can do with hardly any thought or effort.
For example, you might have learned throughout childhood that conflict avoidance was the best strategy for getting your needs met and evading harm. This conditioned response makes sense in a volatile environment, but it will not serve you well when it comes to navigating relationships in the adult world. We all have blind spots like this — unconscious reactions that have developed and strengthened over time unbeknownst to us.
This is dangerous at both the micro and macro levels. At the micro level, it can lead to self-sabotage in various forms. Learned responses like conflict avoidance can harm our interpersonal relationships, and the brain’s general preference for taking the easy way out can inhibit our development across the board. At the macro level, the thing that worries me most is what Dr. L mentioned: guarding against bias. Living in a world of unprecedented information overload and neverending stimuli encourages the brain to double down on its reliance on automatic trained responses because there’s just too much for it to actively sort through. This prevents us from doing the necessary work of weighing evidence and fighting cognitive bias that Dr. L alluded to, which leads to decisions and outcomes that are problematic for everyone.
Thankfully we are capable of fighting back. The solution lies in cultivating a meaningful space between stimulus and response, creating what you might call ‘awareness’. This is the core function of exercises like meditation, journaling, or therapy; each uses a different technique to help us develop awareness of unconscious mechanisms. This awareness enables us to notice a learned response in real-time, consider it consciously, and intervene with an alternative reaction if we see fit. It is, in my opinion, the essence of free will.
Habits like meditation, journaling, and therapy are hard to cultivate precisely because of the brain’s inherent laziness. As anyone who has tried these tactics can attest, the brain will rebel against any attempts to observe it and interfere with how it likes to operate. It’s a bit like an angsty teenager in that way. But, like an angsty teenager, there are great rewards on the other side of patience and persistence.
After reading over this essay, it turns out that it kind of is about politics and religion and all those other messy, nuanced subjects. They are all alike in that they’re best approached from a place of awareness and conscious consideration rather than blind reactivity. Our brains will by design default to blind reactivity when left unchecked. Luckily, we have the tools to overcome this harmful tendency — we just need to use them.