One of the most interesting things about our times is how much is being discovered about the workings of the human mind. I count myself among the many artsy and intellectual types who reject purely functional or biological explanations for feelings as too mechanistic and inhumane (or too inhospitable to my own sense of specialness). But reading and observing my own mind has changed my view.
I’ve been noticing how I make up stories to explain phenomena, blithely believing my own propaganda. For example, I have generated detailed, convincing emotional explanations for some state I am experiencing, such as nausea or fatigue, only to later learn it is a widely reported side-effect of a medication I’m taking. (Oh. Never mind.) I’ve been noticing how when something pushes on one of my sore spots, igniting pain or anger, if I pay attention I can actually feel the amino acids, hormones and peptides flooding my brain, turning what might have been a blip on the screen into a full-scale meltdown. In truth, I’m facing a little disagreement with a friend, but with brain chemical boosters, I react as if I were being chased by a sabertooth tiger.
In Monday’s New York Times, Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, had an op-ed piece about commensurability, “He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t.” It is well worth reading for anyone who wishes to more deeply understand escalating violence in the world. He describes how our minds tend to feel the pain we receive is worse than the pain we deliver, a quirk that can lead straight to mutually assured destruction:
In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.
The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.
The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.
Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.
I’ve just finished reading Gilbert’s entertaining and provocative new book, Stumbling on Happiness, which brings his vast knowledge of behavioral studies to bear on basic questions of human happiness. One point in particular has set me to thinking: Gilbert points out that many of our reactions are based on predictions, which entail imagination (since none of us can know the future). Our predictions are almost always deeply flawed because they are shaped by hopes, fears, omissions and the limitations of the present.
When things are terrible, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the feeling they will stay that way or go from bad to worse, and it will always feel as awful as it does right now. But in addition to being great explainers, our minds are efficient rationalizers. Think back on your own experiences of crisis: the great likelihood is that when you recount them now, you have found some way to rationalize away a hefty portion of the pain you felt at the time.
For example, I almost always say, “That was horrible, devastating while it was happening. But now I see that it made me (better, stronger, wiser or fill in the blank).” People who contemplate losing their jobs imagine they will sustain an incurable humiliation or deprivation. But many people I know have found another job or another way to work, and in retrospect, crafted a soothing rationalization to fit: “I felt like I’d been knocked off my feet, but now I see it created an opening for me to do something much better.”
Gilbert shows how, point for point, others’ actual experience is a better predictor of one’s own reaction than any act of imagination can achieve. Look at the number of people in the United States who are refugees from zones of conflict: the vast majority (including my forebears) found ways to enjoy enough about their new lives that the past receded. Although their terrors can be restimulated, mostly they are not omnipresent. The other day, friends shared stories of Holocaust survivors who, having lost their children to the war, started new families and lived to welcome their grandchildren with sincere joy. Lives lost cannot be retrieved, but for survivors, what we learn from them about resilience is truer (i.e., a better predictor of our own futures) than whatever our imaginations craft from present-time information and emotion.
I like this book for a favorite reason: it confounds my own prejudices and assumptions. Gilbert has helped me to see that my own views about the future are strongly shaped by selective attention. If I marinate myself in stories and images of suffering and despair, my imagination of the future absorbs that flavor. If I look for resilience, I see ample evidence to support its likelihood.
Look at the stories appearing about the reflowering of social and commercial life in Lebanon–the rebirth of restaurants, coffee shops, and other sites of conviviality–now radically disrupted by renewed violent conflict. The plain truth is that not long after space for social intercourse opened in Lebanon, people rushed in to occupy it. The same is true in Israel: after awhile, people return to patronize a gathering-spot that has been damaged by a suicide bomber. Yet if on the day that bombs rained you had asked any of these people to predict how they would feel a few months later, studies cited by Gilbert suggest they would be highly unlikely to predict accurately that they would be drinking coffee and talking in a normal way about the things of the day.
This is an extremely interesting book, wonderfully written and persuasive. And perhaps a useful antidote to escalating brain chemicals as well.