The human brain is the most complex mechanism known to man, almost as complex as the universe. At one level, our soul is defined as Conscious Awareness, which now has a neurological definition. At another level, we have both a conscious and a sub-conscious existence, and this too, has a neurological definition. In Neurology, our subconscious self is made up of the Autonomic Nervous System and the Somatic Nervous System.
Declaimer: This article was originally in December 2017, and some of the data points may be outdated
Daniel Kahneman talks of System 1 and System 2. The former is the fast-thinking, intuitive self, which at the beginning is made up of our Limbic Brain (simply and graphically called the lizard brain and the monkey brain), but later learns from education and experience to develop insight. And the latter is the conscious thinker, the ‘human brain’ that does what most other animals are unable to do. This is the Learning Brain, it’s what makes us different from other lesser species. Over time, this learning is transported into System 1, where it becomes instinctive.
System 1 is the older, more powerful brain, which gets the first right of way. When it is agitated, the junior System2 shuts up, in a phenomenon called the “amygdala hijack”. The Amygdala is the risk-reward center of the brain, and when it decides that something is important, all other ‘logical’ processes of the brain will shut down. That is because the brain is designed for life-threatening risks, the only real risk in the jungle. The Brain is not designed to handle ‘limited risks’, which don’t kill you, like huge MTMs in the stock market. This is the source of much of our misbehavior in the real economic world, and our inability to handle uncertainty. The amygdala confuses uncertainty with Risk, and mistakes volatility (which is but another name for uncertainty) for real and present danger. And shuts down our logical processing unit, the part that learns and understands.
We have other layers to our personality. In some ways (Biogenic/ Neurophysiology, usually Limbic/ lizard/monkey behaviors), we are like ALL other people. At this level, we are all members of a single species, with identical brains thinking identical thoughts. The part of the brain that unites us, is the spine. Here is where is housed the instinct of self-preservation, the id.
In some other ways (Sociogenic, usually social/ unconscious/ cultural/religious learning), we are like some other people. This similarity comes from the ‘herd’ we are part of, the sub-species that we identify with. It could be family, religion, caste, village, or nationality. It is made up of our tendency to behave in line with certain social mores, which are learned, but often subconsciously. Neurologically speaking, this comes from the Cerebellum Medulla, which houses the herding instinct. From here comes our social instinct, which is very powerful, although not as powerful as the instinct of self-preservation. All our Happiness is rooted in our social relationships, and not in the pursuit of money/ wealth or material prosperity.
And in how we have learned consciously (Idiosyncratic/ idiogenic, education, experience, insight/ intuition), we are like no other people. This is what makes us human, unique in our ways, and of any interest to each other. Without it, we are just a herd of deer, bound together by an instinct of self-preservation. We can only be called a ‘colony’, or a civilization, when we are brought together by a common desire to ‘organize’, form patterns with our (human) behavior, and build on each other so that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Psychologists are interested in the traits that bind people together, Trait Psychology. The 5 traits are called OCEAN: Openness (to experience), Conscientiousness (as opposed to lackadaisical, careless people), Extroversion (as opposed to introversion), Agreeableness (as opposed to disagreeable people), Neuroticism/ changeability (as opposed to stable people).
The predictors of life success are that you should be Open (helps you to be audacious), Conscientious (and systematic, error-free, persevering, passionate, sticking to deadlines/ commitments), Extrovert (helps build relationships), Agreeable, and mostly stable (as opposed to Neurotic). To build our Life Skills, and manage ourselves, we should gravitate to the correct end of the spectrum on each of the above dimensions.
Different combinations of traits build different kinds of personality. Each personality type is different along other dimensions, showing clearly that mental and other bodily responses are influenced by the underlying personality trait. Caffeine works better with extroverts than with introverts. It slows down to balance the extra effervescence of the extroverts, but it pushes introverts into depressing spirals. In a single study of middle-aged people, the frequency of sexual intercourse is 3.0 per month for introverted men, 5.5 for extroverted men, 3.1 per month for introverted women, and 7.5 for extroverted women.
They communicate differently, extroverts use social encounters by standing closely, maintaining eye contact, they using personal terms/ nicknames. They use black-and-white concrete terms, while introverts speak ‘indirectly’, and tend to beat about the bush.
On top of this, is the idiosyncratic behaviour, which makes us lovable or unlovable. Sometimes, we project different personalities to get work done (in a hospital when we need to get something for our relative, for example), or we work with kids to educate them. If you’re a Professor, but an introvert, you will put on extroversion to communicate. This shows that many personality traits are changeable, with effort. If we use the above rule of thumb to modulate our personality, we will be able to build a flexible tool that can open up different doors to success.
This brings us to Personal Transformation. While Trait Psychology helps us to identify the personality that will help us to achieve our objectives, the topic of Personal Transformation will help us to get there. This is a big subject, full of many mental pathways that help us to modulate our minds to achieve the changes required. Only a little is discussed here.
You need 4 things to collaborate with your mind.
- When your mind thinks you want to do this, it sets up the environment to help you to do it. If you haven’t got what you want but have behaviors you don’t want, you’re not collaborating properly. Negative talk reinforces itself, and negative interpretations of circumstances reinforce themselves as the mind seeks to justify things to you. If you tell yourself that these exams are killing you, then the mind will find evidence to prove to you that they are. And it will procrastinate, delay, and dislike things till it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It does what it thinks you want. You must say that you love doing something, even when it isn’t true. It is a difficult thing to do, but lying to yourself is often a good idea, part of Positive Psychology, and very effective at building equanimity.
- Secondly, you’re hard-wired to seek pleasure and run away from pain. This is well-known, and the ability to seek pain (in tolerable doses) is a big life skill. Delaying self-gratification, for example, is partly a natural, inborn skill, but is something that can be practiced and acquired. This skill has been called the biggest predictor (and earliest indicator, evident even in toddlers) of long-term life success.
- The way you feel about everything is down to just 2 things: the pictures you make in your head and the words you say to yourself. Both of these are within your conscious mental control. Certainly the latter is well within your ability to modify.
- The mind loves what is familiar, it is programmed to go down the same road again and again. You’ve got to make what is familiar, unfamiliar, and what is unfamiliar, familiar. This is the building and unbuilding of Comfort Zones, a key life skill.
Notice that each of the above-required behaviors needs a particular Personality Trait to build on, and deliver back to you another Personality Trait. This is the loop of Personal Transformation.
If all this sounds like ‘common sense’, remember, it is NOT. The human mind cannot process a concept unless it is given a name. Our instinctive thinking takes on a structure when we articulate these concepts and define and outline them. In the case of the mind, knowing something is the first step to changing it. As Economics moves towards articulating this ‘common sense’, it will hopefully become precisely that, i.e. common.