Overcoming the Amygdala Part 81


Sanity, from Latin sānitās is commonly defined as soundness, rationality, and health of the human mind and is placed in opposition to ‘insanity’. Thus a person is defined as ‘sane’ if they are ‘rational’. The Latin compos mentis (compos, having mastery of, and mentis, mind) is used in contrast with non compos mentis, insanity, or ‘troubled conscience’. Note that ‘rationality’ is defined as ‘the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic’, suggesting an exclusion of subjective or emotional components. A more liberal definition might include concepts like ‘wholeness’. If we focus too much on logic, we exclude the inner world of human beings and get a distorted picture.

If, like many people, you have been following this series and have been trying to apply some of the data and exercises given, you might feel at about this point that you are going slightly ‘insane’. Don’t worry, it happens to most people when they try to think in what is a completely new way to many. There will probably come a point soon where you’ll experience ‘brain flip’: a sensation of something inside your head twisting about as you suddenly realise how all this works — and how simple it is.

An Analogy

I was 40 years old before I learned how to drive a car. I had always lived in the middle of cities or communities where getting around wasn’t that difficult — public transport systems, family and friends had sufficed up to that point. Whenever as a passenger I watched someone drive a car, I was bewildered by all the things that they apparently had to have their attention on simultaneously: pedals, steering, mirrors, traffic signs, other travellers… It all seemed like a complete overload of inpouring data to me. How on earth did the driver manage that flow of information and yet have enough spare attention to make split-second decisions? And, to my amazement, most drivers were able to carry on conversations while still controlling their vehicles!

Proper, sane thinking is like driving a car. Once you master it, you realise that much of the data that ‘pours in’ is irrelevant; that the key data stand out easily from the rest; and that, provided you manage things so as not to overload yourself, keeping control and being able to make decisions becomes second nature. Driving isn’t quite an ‘unconscious’ action, but a trained-in set of responses which you analytically learn, like playing a musical instrument.

Thinking should be the same.

The trouble is that it often isn’t.

If we stretch our analogy a little, one of the first problems we encounter is ‘fixed thinking’, which would be like a driver who has it fixed in their minds that they need always to be travelling at a particular speed, or in a certain gear, or that they do not need to ever refer to their mirrors, or something like that.

Whenever an observer has fixed thinking he or she tends to look at the fixed ideas not at the data flowing in. So a driver might be focused on the speedometer rather than the traffic around him or her, or on keeping the interior of the car at the right temperature or something other than the vital things needed to drive well.

In terms of thinking, perhaps a woman has the fixed idea that ‘men can’t be trusted’, so whenever her male boss speaks to her she is filtering his words through a mental mechanism which devalues everything he says; or perhaps a man believes that he ‘knows best’ about a sport he’s playing and so isn’t listening to his coach; or a parent might think that the best way to bring up children is with strict discipline and a ‘seen and not heard’ approach which shuts off actually communication with the children.

All these fixed ideas will interfere with the free flow of information and end up warping the person’s ability to observe actual data and therefore to arrive at correct conclusions.

Prejudice — preconceived opinions (fixed ideas) that are not based on reason or actual experience — is a prime dynamic behind actual insane results.

You can see the results of this throughout history — like the refusal in the Middle Ages to see that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system because for it not to be so defied theological stable principles at the time — all the way down to the minute decisions and actions of yourself or those around you today.

Fixed ideas are simply concepts or thoughts accepted without personal inspection or agreement. Hence we get ‘reliable sources’ and ‘authorities’ who ‘know best’. Fixed ideas are uninspected. They block sensible observation. Someone staring at the speedometer is going to miss the red light and oncoming traffic.

They are also a form of mental delegation. If you have a set of fixed ideas, they basically do your thinking for you. You don’t have to do anything but accept their conclusions.

But your amygdala — a separate mechanism, designed to protect you from departures in your environment — is scanning your surroundings and finding that these conclusions, in which you have placed complete confidence, don’t match with what it’s seeing.

Hence your anxieties.

Wrong Ideals

Fixed ideas can become part of our thinking because they seem to be aligned with our ideals. Watching the speedometer means that we are not going to get into trouble for driving too fast; keeping the temperature at the right level in the car means that our partner is less likely to complain; staying in the same gear limits our speed and avoids a traffic ticket, and so on. But these are clearly wrong ideals which we are projecting onto the surroundings.

That leads us to one of the central premises of how to think correctly.

Establishing Correct Ideals

Our driving analogy can help us further here.

How does one establish a correct ideal for an activity, a person, a subject, a thing?

Once we have that sorted out, much of this business of ‘correct thinking’ will not only make more sense, but also come back under your personal control.

You establish a correct ideal by working out what the purpose of the activity, subject, person or thing should be.

For example, the purpose of the driver of a car is to transport people from one location to another safely. Sometimes ‘quickly’ might come into it; at other times, ‘with due regard for the beauty of sites along the way’ might be part of it.

Having set that out — and it’s entirely up to you to set it out — you can ‘project’ that onto the existing situation and find any departures that might hinder its accomplishment — for example, the driver’s eyesight might not be good enough, or their knowledge of gears, or their adherence to the Highway Code, or whatever departure you might find of the five types: something absent or present that shouldn’t be (like the driver is swigging whiskey as they drive), something out of sequence (like the driver checks the mirror after turning a corner), something to do with Time (the driver is driving too quickly) or some kind of lie is apparent (the driver tells you that he doesn’t need spectacles when he clearly does) or some importance has been altered (the driver is obsessed with getting the right radio station rather than watching surrounding traffic).

You can establish a sane ideal for anything by simply asking, ‘What's the purpose of this?’ If an item or action or factor forwards the purpose, it can be part of your ideal.

You want a perfect wife? How do you define ‘perfect’? What’s the purpose of a marital partner in your estimation?

You want a better job? What do you call ‘better’? What purpose are you trying to accomplish through employment?

You want to live an ideal life? What is your purpose? What are you trying to achieve?

Accumulate as many factors as you can which align with the listed purposes, and you have an ideal.

If your marriage, job, life is not achieving its purpose — a purpose decided by you — then something is awry: look for fixed ideas, cognitive distortions, prejudices, hidden biases. You have probably been projecting the wrong ideal onto your existing surroundings.

Watch out for opinion getting in your way.

I once visited a famous painter’s studio in a grand old house. At the top of the house was a huge room with large windows letting in the light. It seemed to me that this was the ideal space for painting — but I discovered that the bulk of the painter’s work was produced in a cupboard-sized room in the basement. What I had taken as an ideal — space and light — was in fact not his actual ideal, which was based more on closeness of tools and materials so that he could work on details without having to get up and move about, thus increasing both the quality and the speed of production of his work. His work adorned some of the most famous books of recent decades and he was a much-sought-after artist. So what you think might be an ideal might turn out not to be so, based on an assessment of the purpose.

You have to look at what the person, the activity, the area is for before you can say whether you have a correct ideal or not.


Take a Look

Look at your own life.

Pick an area which is not too upsetting to begin with. (Emotion can get in the way and cloud your thinking with its own fixed ideas — you can tackle emotional areas once you build up some confidence.)

What is its purpose?

Working back from that, what things are contributing to that purpose? And what things are hindering it?

Trim things around until you have a rough ideal.

Project that ideal onto the area.

Now you’ll be able to spot departures from that ideal much more easily — and they’ll probably be the right ones.

Your amygdala will feel listened to and you may feel considerably calmer.

Stay tuned.

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