Why We Believe and Do What We Do

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Over the millennia we humans have developed a number of adaptive techniques in our arsenal of perceptions and responses that have aided our survival. Along with things like opposable thumbs is the ability of our perception equipment to rapidly fill in the blanks with limited information. Because careful deliberation of all options at the rate our senses absorb and process things fully would often result in death, the assumption shortcut is a handy survival skill at times.

We are tuned to recognize patterns and rapidly fill in the blanks using our existing experience as putty. Our brains sacrifice accuracy for speed. Recognizing danger or finding food was sometimes built on the smallest of queues. In historical settings, filling in the blanks was highly necessary and often a matter of life or death. As a consequence we have keen sense of anticipation.

Pattern recognition comes in handy in a number of ways. Knowing that animals walk a certain path at a certain time of day in rhythms is extremely valuable over using our feeble nose and claws to scratch out a meal. We have shaped our capacity for pattern recognition over the years into such things as the making spears and hooks, tents and fire. We have the advantage of predictive foreknowledge that we now use to service a variety of our needs. It also offers a number of other perks as well like air conditioning and plastic choo choo trains.

Language itself may be an outcropping of pattern recognition. We associate a certain sounds with objects or events and over time; voila!! Blah blah… As with all the features of adaptive biology, pattern recognition does come with a cost. Two main points on this front: First; we see patterns where they are which is helpful, but we also see patterns where they are not which can be disastrous. Second; because patterns are what we use as a basic survival tool and they are the foundation of our identity, they also motivate us to obsessively defend and preserve them as our comfort zone whether or not they’re toxic, nourishing and/or neutral.

Pattern recognition has been a sort of superhero in human adaptation. We have good reason to consider it our friend, but our friend has some baggage. We associate familiar patterns with comfort. Our tribal affinity is built on pattern recognition. This survival skill extends into where and what to eat, who is a friend or foe, but it can also be a trap. As children we learn to negotiate our world with pattern recognition as the divider between danger and safety, self and other. As a result, we tend to weigh what we have been exposed to in these early days as a “safe zone”, a familiar area. As a consequence, if we’re exposed to a toxic maladaptive relationship climate coupled with shallow thought stopping ideas, we tend to hold on to that as our safe zone throughout life, even though it objectively poisons our potential. In other words; we can be sincere and wrong at the same time. We can be patterned to cycle destruction in our lives and we can be unaware that we are the warden of our own prison.

Our pattern recognition wetware leaves us very prone to confirmation bias. People who are brought up in certain cultures have a tendency to see their culture as the one true, correct, right, wonderful culture from whom all blessings flow, and all other cultures as strange, wrong, unworthy of serious consideration or abominable. Unless we learn to transcend our personal prejudices, they will shape what we see to fit inside their limiting lens and falsely confirm what we already think is true.

Certain assumptions about people the world and events are installed on the surface of our eyes and ears, etc. by our experience, particularly early childhood experience. Whatever happens to go by our senses in the future is shaped by those experiences. Before we render a picture of what we see in our minds, it is reformed to fit our preconceived patterns. We can end up seeing nothing more than a reflection of our early developmental environment, not the real world. Plato described our awareness as a cave[1] we must emerge from. A womb in which some of us float as a stillborn carcass never to emerge and see the light of day.

Our clinginess to the familiar without respect to whether or not it’s nourishing also affects what we pay more or less attention to. In the social sciences there is something called a breaching experiment that examine our reactions to violations of commonly accepted social rules or norms. We get upset when things do not go as we expect them to even if that violation is not harmful at all. Our love affair with the familiar can be fun to watch.

Another cost of pattern recognition is that we also pay more attention to strange things because our sensory equipment is tuned to identify and place new experience in the context of the familiar – the pattern. We get stuck on the unusual because we struggle more to frame it in our personal context. That’s the reason we generally see the likelihood of a plane crash as more frightening than the likelihood of a car crash even though planes are much safer statistically. Our perception is warped by our obsession with the familiar and our need to grapple with the unfamiliar.

In summary, pattern recognition provides us with comfort in the familiar, but it comes with downsides. It leads those of us who have a toxic or myopic familiar environment to be more comfortable reinforcing that toxic swill. Some of us have to collect so many negative social stamps per week in order to fill up their stamp book. Some of us cycle through broken relationships with substances or behaviors. Some of us think our values are what we decided when the truth is they are more often a reflection of what we were exposed to. This doesn’t mean we’re hopelessly locked in a prison of happenstance. It means coasting toward full self-awareness is not an option. We have to work at it because we are geared to project our prejudices on our social landscape and use that projection as a stand in for reality.

Our relationship with the familiar is of course necessary, but the point is, if we don’t get both the strengths and the limitations of any of our human faculties, we’re prone to suffer an inability to use clear vision as the means by which we navigate.

[1] Appeared in Plato’s “The Republic” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave

A Matter of Control

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The idea that we influence others by trying to install our point of view about what they should do has not worked very well for us as a human race so far. Occasionally we have been able to force compliance, but sustained behaviors come from commitment, not compliance. Perhaps we should consider the idea that this energy we spend attempting to edit the behaviors of our peers would be better spent editing our own.

The Language of Life Part 4 of 5

This is part 4 of 5 on a series called: “The Language of Life”.

These are thoughts on how reality and more specifically biology communicates and how this communication relates to everything from our personal lives to what we face on the global stage.

What Biology Says about Relevance

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For any species to continue it must maintain the capacity to adapt to the environment in a sustainable way as well as pass on the ability to sense and negotiate the environment to their offspring. Adaptability takes many forms, but one common thread that runs through the entire body of life is the need to live within ones environmental means – to establish and maintain equilibrium or endure the consequences of disequilibrium.

If a species exploits an environment beyond the environment’s capacity to replenish, it leads to the demise of that same species. While an immediate increase in population might come as a result of some quantum leap in the capacity of a species to exploit the environment to draw nourishment, if that new capacity exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment to renew itself, the stage is set for a population crash, even though that crash may be displaced in time.

Another illustration of the need for equilibrium communicated through biology is the need to provide and receive nourishment in order to continue. Each organ in a biological body scheme must continuously adapt to provide nourishing value to the community of organs as it also draws nourishment from that same community. Because environments change, the need to be flexible is also important. Vestigial organs are those that fade from relevance and eventually existence because they no longer provide anything of nourishing value in the context of the body’s community of organs.

Each species of life is an organ in the larger body of life. The same principle that applies to organs in the body, applies to a species in the context of the body of life. Humanity must recognize and behave as if our place at nature’s table is provisional on our role as cultivators of nourishing value in the context of the body of life. Being aware of this role is not sufficient, nothing short of performing this role will sustain our place in the body of life.

This fact of life is stated plainly through the structure of biology.

The Language of Life Part 3 of 5

Part 3 of 5 on a series called “The Language of Life”. This series explores reality, and more specifically biology, as an engine of communication. Based on the communication made through the cosmos, it explores what it says about who we are, how we can understand and apply this information to find fulfillment and where we might be going in the future.

What Biology Says about Investment

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Not all truth is painless… We have only so much energy to cultivate whatever we’re going to do in life.

We can focus on what can be done, but some of us focus on what we want to do. If what we what to do, no matter how noble or worthy, is not what can be done, we must abandon it or we will end up doing nothing. A fertile climate of soil, seeds and patience can yield an abundant harvest. An infertile climate will never yield, no matter how hard we work. To spend our life trying to cultivate a barren field trades the meaning and life we could have cultivated for whisps of meaningless dust.

The Language of Life Part 2 of 5

Part 2 of 5 on a series called “The Language of Life”. This series explores reality, and more specifically biology, as an engine of communication. Based on the communication made through the cosmos, it explores what it says about who we are, how we can understand and apply this information to find fulfillment and where we might be going in the future.

Our Invisible Friends

imaginary-friend We have to be very careful about the invisible friends we make. The invisible friends, made with words and ideas, stitched together with faith. These abstract concepts that live inside us and yet are, by nature, separate from objective reality because they are only real by virtue of our belief in them. Depending on their nature, they can guide us to cultivate a nourishing relationship climate and elevate us to the pinnacle of ecstasy, or drain us of all vitality and leave us gasping for life. We make them coherent and breathe life into them through our individual collective belief.

The ideas that become real when we respond to our belief in them would die without that breath of life we breathe into them. They ride the thermals of our faith and we put them in castles made of stories. We allow them to govern us as monarchs that must be trusted feared and worshiped to wield the power they do over our lives. Once believed, these abstractions form a lens that bends what we see into their image. A mixed lens of fact and fancy shapes the currents that steer our experience of life.

Abstractions are neither good nor evil, they simply are what they are; the verbal currency we use to give form and substance to our values, whatever those values may be. Hate is one of the fruits of abstraction. Belief in hate can lead us to exact the violent worst from ourselves and spread it like a virus, to beget more hate. The idea that humanity can be carved up with abstractions used as justification to artificially divide the “worthy” and the “unworthy” when the real truth is closer to poverty spawned by apathy dressed in self-righteous abstractions.

Much of what we call religion and politics is built on the currency of abstraction floating on faith. The battles to control the abstract narrative by manipulating the cultural winds of faith can ensnare us in the crossfire of heated poverty inducing battles that are founded on faith and made real by our actions. These invisible friends that ride the thermals of faith and give birth to behaviors can be the source of freedom or enslavement.

Some ideas can combine to become thought stopping prisons made with bricks of abstraction, others can be the source to freedom and greater depth perception. They can help us to know our nature and navigate more effectively through these murky waters of reality. We can use our invisible friends to form nourishing social bonds, bring vitality to community, protect us, and help us weather the storms and cope with terrible circumstances that might have otherwise been unbearable. They can enable us to embrace beauty, truth and many other heights and forms of intimacy and ecstasy.

Let’s choose our words wisely with an eye toward how they collectively serve to bring about constructive and nourishing behaviors that help us grow and realize our full potential. Our words,  combined with our faith in them, are the currency that powers what we do to and for each other. They powerfully shape the nature of the waters in which we all swim.

The Language of Life Part 1 of 5

Part 1 of 5 on a series called “The Language of Life”. This series explores reality, and more specifically biology, as an engine of communication. Based on the communication made through the cosmos, it explores what it says about who we are, how we can understand and apply this information to find fulfillment and where we might be going in the future.

The Roots of an Intentional Life

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When we consider the wiggle room we have at our disposal to shape our experience of life we can easily get lost in our own little words. If we do not evaluate the real situation and employ our full capacity to influence our lives, then the possibilities may go uncultivated. Like a fallow field, what could have been possible in our lives might remain unrealized because we never cultivated our choice from thought to reality. This article explores a few ideas on how we can exercise influence in our lives.

It’s possible for us to have partially or completely broken relationship with our self. Self-awareness depends on understanding our nature and some of us never get past the words we use to describe ourselves to look at the reality of what we express through our behaviors. The truth about who we are is revealed through our behaviors. Our words may or may not be accurately descriptive of the values we express through behavior.

It is quite possible to be highly knowledgeable at the same time unaware of some or all of the communication we make through our behaviors. A father might say “My family is the most important thing to me”. He might passionately believe that statement is accurate. He might also spend most of his time working for material possessions beyond his family’s needs, and spend most of his time with friends and hobbies while ignoring the relationship needs of his family. Another person may not recognize the way they conduct their spending, the way they talk, or any other number of behaviors communicate value.

The bottom line is our real values are communicated through our behaviors. An accurate view of self-awareness can only be drawn from an unvarnished assessment of  our behaviors, not our ideals or what we would like to think. Without behaviors as the standard, our lens of self-awareness is broken.

The various tools at our disposal for perception are limited. We must make inferences about the world from a fairly small sample of reality. This can make it difficult to see ourselves and easy to be short sighted when it comes to understanding who we are. A serious gage of what our behaviors say about how we value ourselves and others is the first step toward making real choices about cultivating an intentional life.

We all know that whatever already has happened again and again in our lives is more likely to happen again unless we apply a sufficient discipline to override the pull of our habits on our lives. In addition to assessing the nature of our values through our current behaviors we also need to look at how deeply rooted those behaviors are so we can make a proper choice about what it will take to shift them if we decide to. One way to take the wind out of our sails is to start blowing in every direction. Working on too many fronts can derail any meaningful change. If we want to make numerous changes we must prioritize and recognize the level of persistence and energy we will need to employ to make the changes.

To reach the fullness of our potential we must use intentional choices that express our chosen values at every level. We cannot assume that this is taking place automatically just because we desire it to be so. This is not easy, but it is worthwhile if we want a life of choice. The alternative is to ride the currents of happenstance and culture wherever they take us.

Developing strength of intention and the persistence to overcome behavioral momentum is a must in order to experience something different than what we have now. To understand why the emphasis here is so heavily on the need for self-discipline we can look around: It is not hard to see that even modest measures of self-mastery are extremely rare. The difference between those of us that go in intentional directions and those that do not is how accurate our awareness is combined with a realistic application of our capacity for persistent resolve.