<![CDATA[R•Sal•Theory<br />~<br />THE BRAIN <br />THROUGH THE LENS <br />​OF NARRATIVE COMPLEXITY - Blog]]>Thu, 26 Nov 2015 17:16:52 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Truly Giving Thanks: The Difference Between Gratitude & Gratefulness]]>Wed, 25 Nov 2015 01:22:22 GMThttp://www.rsaltheory.com/blog/truly-giving-thanks-the-difference-between-gratitude-gratefulnessOver these past couple of months, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the power & purposes of that ancient emotion, anger. But—as explained in Narrative Complexity’s model of emotion—all emotions are part of a polar pair, and anger’s equally ancient, powerful & purposeful polar partner is gratitude. So, being that it is Thanksgiving & all, this seems like a good time to give gratitude its proper due.

When something (anything of value) is taken from us (or any kind of harm is caused) by someone, we automatically feel some level of anger toward that someone. Conversely, when something (anything of value) is given to us (or any kind of aid is provided) by someone, we automatically feel some level of gratitude toward that someone. 

Anger motivates a desire to exact retribution (seek compensation for the loss), and gratitude motivates a desire to express reciprocity (provide compensation for the gain). In neural terms, these emotional responses gear our actions & behavior toward equally opposite poles. Anger makes our behavior toward its target both more guarded & hostile, and gratitude makes our behavior toward its target more open & cooperative.

If we were allowed to choose between a world full of people who are guarded & hostile or a world populated by open & cooperative individuals, the choice seems fairly obvious, right? Well, we can choose. By expressing gratitude & giving others reasons to express gratitude, we can spread throughout our society exactly the kind of openness & cooperative spirit that we so often purport to seek.

But in our 21st-century culture of rampant “fulness,” one of those “fulnesses” is becoming un-usefully intertwined with genuine gratitude: gratefulness. These days, right after they remind you to be mindful, they usually suggest that
you wash it down with a big swig of grateful. 

And even though the terms are generally considered synonymous, the true emotional, neural expression gratitude is not the same thing as the mindful, new age expression of gratefulness. First, consider one simple difference: we talk about “being” grateful, but one cannot “be” gratitude. We express gratitude. In other words, gratefulness suggests a state of being and gratitude suggests an actual response—a change in behavior toward someone or an act of reciprocity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with aiming for a “grateful state of being,” but neurally speaking, that state doesn’t impact our behavior towards others in those powerful & purposeful ways that true gratitude is designed to do

The Difference Between To & For
In the end, when we talk about being grateful we’re usually just listing stuff that we’re happy about. We’re not grateful to someone, we’re grateful for something. We’re grateful for our fun-filled lives, for our healthy families, for our wonderful communities, for our beautiful bike ride to work, for the chance to work with such great people, for that awesome local organic marketplace, ad infinatum

These are ultimately all things to that we’re generally thanking the universe for (or God, if that’s how you roll). And although this can certainly result in some broadly-targeted neural gratitude toward that universe (or that community or workplace or deity), such a widely-dispersed or broadly-applied neural response simply isn’t likely to be nearly as behaviorally-impactful as targeting specific gratitude for a specific act toward a specific entity.

That’s why our brains evolved to feel gratitude in the first place: to target specifically-directed openness, cooperativeness & reciprocity in response to a specific act of giving or aid by a specific entity. 

All emotions (positive & negative) have a clearly-defined, survival-advantageous purpose. Gratitude’s evolved purpose is to strengthen emotional & social bonds between individuals who might be helpful to each other in the future—to increase trust, openness, and willingness to share, aid or cooperate. 

In essence, gratitude provides our minds with a very basic, but very useful equation for shaping future behavior: trust, help & cooperate with individuals who have given you something of value or provided aid. As human history has demonstrated again & again, successful societies are founded upon & grown via strong alliances. Determining who to cooperate with & learning who can be trusted to help—being able to bond with other humans—are some of our species’ most-vital survival skills. 

Thus, abundant gratitude across all different cross-sections of communities is one of the most-necessary building blocks for a functional & stable society. And those fundamental societal benefits that gratitude provides are not the same benefits provided by that mindful gratefulness for something that you’re simply glad about. 

Gratefulness is essentially neurally equivalent to happiness—which is a wonderful & purposeful emotion in its own right. Basically, happiness is our emotional response to “resource abundance,” and it motivates a greater willingness to expend or invest those resources, to engage openly & take risks.

But the big difference between happiness & gratitude: happiness isn’t directly targeted toward other people, and it isn’t specifically designed to strengthen trust-enhancing bonds with other individuals. As we’ve often mentioned about its polar pairing, anger—gratitude requires a target, someone who has been identified as responsible for the value gain or aid.

Happiness says to your brain: things are good, let’s enjoy it & make use of it & do new stuff with the good things! Gratitude says to your brain: we really needed that thing that they gave or did, let’s do something nice for them & maybe we’ll keep helping each other when we’re in need. Do you see the difference? I’m grateful for. I’m thankful to.

The Powers Of Gratitude (aka, True Thankfulness)
The targeting of gratitude toward others is what gives the emotion its capacity to establish & strengthen cooperative relationships between people within a community. This is why gratitude is a more powerful social & communal tool than gratefulness. 

And this power to be an agent of social change is enhanced by gratitude’s reciprocal nature. Basically, if the emotion is functioning smoothly & achieving its intended result (i.e., it’s not being strongly inhibited by other competing emotions or behavioral triggers) then it engenders an ongoing cycle giving & reciprocal giving that continues to reinforce bonding, trust & future cooperation between the involved parties.* 

In addition, because emotions like anger & gratitude are automatically generated, they also have the power to strengthen or change our overall feelings toward others—feelings like animosity (the roots of hate) and affection (the roots of love). In other words, even if we love someone, when they do something to harm us we still automatically feel some anger toward them. And if they harm us enough over time, our ever-piling anger & pain might cause us to actually stop loving them.

Conversely, even if we hate someone, when they do something to genuinely help us (and we suspect no malicious intent) we will still automatically feel some gratitude toward them. And if they help us enough over time, our ever-piling gratitude & gains might cause us to actually stop hating them. 

The capacity to turn enemies into allies. The ability to change guardedness & hostility into openness & cooperation. Growing love from the soil of animosity. Building lifelong bonds of trust & affection. These are the powers of gratitude.

Risking Gratitude
Of course, all emotions (even the “positive” ones) contain hidden risks within their intended-to-be-useful wiring. For example, the “resource abundance” that triggers happiness & its resource-expending behavior—sometimes we perceive an abundance that’s actually false, or we miscalculate the abundance (or our enthusiasm) and over-expend in the short term, leading to problems in the long term.

The risk in being overly “gratitude-prone” is that misplaced gratitude (resulting from wrongly-identifying the giver, or wrongly-perceiving the giver’s motives) can lead to misplaced trust, which can obviously have harmful results. In other words, even in a gratitude-filled world, some people are always going to be snakes—they’ll take credit for things they didn’t do, or they’ll do nice stuff just so they can do worse stuff later.

Those of us who are more prone to the openness of gratitude are also undoubtedly at greater risk of being victimized by the snakes. Years ago, my own grandfather—in his late 80s & living alone after moving his wife into a nursing home—was befriended by a young woman in the community who began helping him around the house & taking him to lunch. He expressed his gratitude by loaning her ever-increasing sums of money for concocted problems. Soon after, she & the funds disappeared.

It is depressing, but it happens. Gratitude is often seeded to exact subsequent cruelties. But more often, it is not. More often, gratitude is truly what it was built to be: a kind response to a kind act, a charge of emotion that helps build the foundation for future acts of kindness. Ultimately, the benefits of gratitude are worth the risk.

Being grateful is great, and we should all be grateful for all kinds of things this Thanksgiving—happiness is delicious & potent stuff. But seeking targets for our gratitude, reciprocating kindness with kindness, that’s how to genuinely spread the “holiday spirit” throughout our communities. 

Follow the lead of your anger or gratitude—the choices are yours. One way or the other, reciprocity makes the world go ‘round. 


* Another primary emotion (detailed on this chart) that contributes to the cycle of giving—an emotion that might even motivate you to share with or aid a total stranger—is generosity. To explore more about the differences between gratitude & generosity, read Narrative Complexity’s essay on emotions.

<![CDATA[The Globalization Of Hate: Feeding The Merchants Of War]]>Thu, 19 Nov 2015 04:37:29 GMThttp://www.rsaltheory.com/blog/the-globalization-of-hate-feeding-the-merchants-of-warThe merchants of war scored another big win last weekend in Paris​. And their bottomless allies—anger & fear—are storming the planet again. Those ancient, automatic, neurally-produced emotional responses to actual losses & potential losses are coursing through minds & bodies far & wide. From the headlines across the web, it’s clear that those ancient responses are powerfully doing what all emotions were born to do: shape our behavior & decision-making. The merchants of war feed on anger & fear. 

As discussed in Narrative Complexity’s essay on emotions, anger & fear each have very specific purposes when shaping our behavior & decision-making. Anger is experienced in response to an actual loss that has already occurred—basically, something has been taken from you (a thing, a life, any kind of value). The anger’s goal is to seek retribution for this loss (a mechanic we explained in an earlier post). 

Fear is experienced in response to a predicted potential loss that might occur in the future—suddenly it seems very likely that something will be taken from you (a thing, a life, any kind of value). The fear’s goal is to help prevent or mitigate this possible future loss. 

And because these emotions are, indeed, based upon ancient behavioral mechanics that emerged long before the development of complex cognition, they tend to frame their goals in a direct & simple way: by focusing that anger or fear on the most immediate source (or causal agent) of the actual or potential loss. This “Agent of Loss” is essentially the person (or persons, or entity) who has caused (or might cause) you to suffer in some way.

In other words, when a terrorist attack happens & losses are suffered within our community, we obviously see the terrorists (& their supporters) as the Agents of Loss. (And if we’re being overly & harmfully indiscriminate, we might foolishly include a broad category of circumstantially-related individuals among the supposed Agents of Loss—immigrants, refugees, Muslims.) Thus, our anger & fear are directed towards those Agents of Loss and our behavior & decisions are focused on seeking retribution & preventing those Agents from causing us future losses via similar attacks.

And to many of us, that seems to make perfect sense. Which is exactly why the merchants of war feed on anger & fear.

Why That Actually Doesn’t Make Sense  
Anger & fear both initially seek to generate one common response: blame someone (or something​). Before anything else, identify the direct source of this actual or possible suffering—because you can’t seek retribution or prevent losses if you don’t first have a target to act upon.

​And because these emotions originally evolved to serve immediate, vital needs, anger & fear tend to generate immediate & highly-focused responses. This means that the targeting of our anger & fear can also can tend to be immediate & highly-focused.

Unsurprisingly, immediate & highly-focused targeting & responses aren’t always the best strategies when tackling complex problems. This is where complex cognition can help us in refocusing those ancient emotions. And we can thank complex language for complex cognition; words allow us to think, which his how we can usefully refocus our emotions.

If we let our initial emotional responses control all of our behavior, humans would do a lot of really stupid stuff. For example (I’ve used this in a previous post, but I promise to add a new twist…) y’know how you stub your toe really hard on a chair, and your first instinct is often to kick the chair while yelling something profane in its general direction? And then, when you realize the chair can’t actually be at fault for your pain, you start looking around for someone who might’ve forgotten to push-in the chair, so you can target your anger toward them? 

Well, without complex cognition you wouldn’t be able to get past the chair, which might lead to the futile attempt to seek retribution from the chair or to cause the chair equal suffering, which would be really stupid. But sometimes life isn’t as obvious as stubbing your toe on a regular chair. 

Imagine it’s actually a magical chair that’s designed to always slide out in front of you & cause harm. In this case, the chair did cause the loss and thus, smashing the chair to bits seems entirely appropriate & effective. Sadly, being a magical chair, soon after a new one simply appears in its place—sometimes, two chairs even appear in its place, each one seeking their intended harm. Smash! Smash! 

Now those complex cognitive powers must go the extra step: Are the magical chairs directly & intentionally harming me? Yes. Will smashing the magical chairs achieve retribution or prevent future harm? Ummm…maybe? Wait…is there a way to stop the chairs from being made in the first place? How are these chairs really made anyway? How do you figure that out? Didn’t we try to do this differently before and the chairs still kept reappearing? Man, this seems complicated…I think I’ll just go back to smashing the magical chairs.

Terrorists are magical chairs. And although it feels good in the moment, and it seems to fundamentally make sense in terms of targeting your anger at the most direct agent of your loss—ultimately, smashing magical chairs is a pretty bad strategy for solving the magical chair problem.

Confusing Blame & Cause
When our angry or fearful minds seek quick targets for our blame or wariness, they can easily make a critical cognitive error: they can assume that identifying blame is the same as identifying the actual cause of the problem. In other words, returning to our magical chair analogy—identifying that the magical chairs are to blame for your suffering is not the same as identifying how & why the chairs are actually appearing. 

And when tackling complex problems, identifying how & why is the first step toward effectively disrupting the process that’s producing the problem. But sometimes blame for a loss can be so apparently clear, and desire for retribution so intense, that its power can subvert our ability to separate that blame from the actual causes—leaving the vital how & why hidden or unaddressed.

In the case of terrorism, confusing blame & cause has led to a self-perpetuating cycle of suffering & response that simply continues looping around, gaining more momentum as it goes. We blame the terrorists for our suffering & we respond. The terrorists blame us for their suffering & they respond. Anger & fear breeds another round of anger & fear. We all ignore the how & why. The merchants of war feed at the trough.

And thanks to our highly-networked, digitally-interconnected planet that suffering has become global. No matter where an attack actually happens, all of us who see ourselves as aligned with that target find some way to emotionally suffer the loss. When we say something like We are all Parisians, it might seem to be a beautifully supportive sentiment, but such neurally-impactful solidarity can actually influence our own behavior & decision-making in emotionally-clouded & unproductive ways. 

Suddenly, everybody wants to kick everybody else’s ass. Or we desperately want someone somewhere to kick someone else’s ass on our behalf (in retribution for a loss that was actually suffered by another someone else in some other place).

Basically, the anger & fear spreads like a virus across the globe, sneaking its way through all the channels of information dispersion & communication, infecting new soldiers with a powerful desire for retribution & the need for an immediate target—regardless of whether or not the initial loss was actually their loss. Blame begets blame. Anger & fear breeds another round of anger & fear. We all ignore the how & why. The merchants of war feed at the trough.

Globalizing Hate
When we worry about the “flow” of possible terrorists across borders or focus on attacking the most-centralized bastions of terrorism, we’re ignoring the fact that these acts are more & more likely to be committed by homegrown terrorists—small networks of local individuals whose anger & fear are bred through the global dissemination of losses actually suffered somewhere far away. 

Attacking those most-centralized bastions only sends more waves of suffering through the target’s global network, infecting new soldiers with a powerful desire for retribution & the need for their own immediate target.

And creating a massive logjam of refugees (because of an unfounded fear that they carry terrorism with them like a disease) only creates more disaffected, disillusioned, suffering individuals who might become vulnerable to recruitment for nefarious causes. Treating refugees with hostility instead of sympathy also broadcasts more waves of suffering through the global network that breeds homegrown terrorists, helping to justify their anger & fear.

This is how you globalize hate, by creating an ever-growing, self-perpetuating, echo-chamber of animosity & distrust—a cycle fueled by a planet-wide network that broadly & efficiently disseminates every grievance and every act of retribution to opposing armies of sleeping soldiers, a looming mass of hate just waiting to be awakened.

And that hate always requires a precursor: suffering. Suffering is the wizard that conjures the magic chairs, the commander that sends these soldiers on all sides into battle. But the suffering itself does not just emerge from nothing, it is caused. And within our intricately-woven modern societies, the greatest suffering is often caused by the unraveling of that social fabric—across towns, nations, even entire regions of continents. The greater the unraveling, the greater the suffering, the greater the fury. Chaos, destruction & destabilization—those are the true societal agents of the suffering, its creators. 

Dimming The Hate
This ever-spreading instability is the real monster in our tale of global terrorism, this is the cause of our problem—the how & why that continues to go dangerously unaddressed. While we pound away with all manner of munitions, contributing our fury to the center of the chaos, destruction & destabilization, we are only feeding the fire of suffering & subsequent global hate that echoes back into the hearts of our far-away cities.

When we herd & house refugees like infected cattle—instead of boldly, openly accepting the new reality and stabilizing these chaotic & persecuted populations of humans as soon as possible—we are simply allowing (& encouraging) a highly-unstable situation to inflate until explosion. 

Do we really want more people either stuck in the center of the chaos or left dangling in the cold winter of some limbo between everywhere? Does fostering that kind of broad destabilization of huge populations of humans help us to stem the suffering that breeds the hate? Does that course of action in any way help us to stop the magical chairs from reappearing?

Doesn’t it make sense to stop contributing to the chaos, destruction & destabilization in all of those far away places, focus on stabilizing the flooded river of refugees, lessen the suffering where we can, and find ways to rebuild the broken places within our actual reach? It might not satisfy our anger & fear in the same way as smashing things, but it might keep us from having to smash so many things in the first place.

Undoubtedly, the desire for retribution is powerful, but ultimately, the only way to de-electrify that global network of hate is to stop sending new waves of destruction & suffering through its wires. 

What’s that? You say that there’s oil in those far away places? The merchants of war feed at the trough.*


* When George W. Bush took office in 2001, U.S. defense spending was already almost $305 billion annually. When he left office in 2009 total defense spending (Defense Department + Global War on Terrorism categories) was more than $660 billion. Proposed defense spending for 2016 is about $625 billion; the next closet category in 2016 discretionary spending is Education, at $74 billion.]]>
<![CDATA[How To Actually Make Yourself "Smarter" (Hint: Not By Playing Brain-Training Games)]]>Mon, 09 Nov 2015 20:12:41 GMThttp://www.rsaltheory.com/blog/how-to-actually-make-yourself-smarter-hint-not-by-playing-brain-training-games
In post-modern America, just being yourself isn’t enough. You’ve got to be the better you—more fit, more focused, more efficient, more liked, more mindful (ugh). And in our magical world of magnificent new technologies & knowledge, we’ve become more & more obsessed with that ultimate self-improvement: making ourselves smarter.

But when we talk about how to make ourselves smarter (essentially, how to maximize use of our brains) we tend to gloss over a critical piece of the puzzle: what exactly does it mean to become smarter? What would a “fully-maximized” brain really look like?

Put Down The Brain Games & Pick Up The Books (Or Leave The House)
When “brain-training” programs talk about building muscle-bound brains, they typically promise improvements in areas like memory, attention & problem-solving. The basic idea they espouse is that by playing their clever little computer games, you can significantly enhance your neural abilities in all of those areas—thus, making your brain more effective & efficient. 

The capacity of your mind has now been maximized. Three cheers for little games!

And it’s true, those kinds of Lumosity-esque brain games can, indeed, make your mind more capable of confronting your daily challenges—as long most of your daily challenges & life goals involve successfully accomplishing tasks via little computer games. What’s that? You’re not a Korean teenager with a bright future in professional gaming?

In that case, you’re much better off trashing that Lumosity subscription and reading a great novel. Because odds are that great novel was created by a great mind in an effort to more deeply explore some aspect of actual human life. Conveniently, you are living an actual human life—making this new & complex narrative data not only pleasurable to consume, but relevant & applicable to your existence.

Or if you’re really more of a do-er than a reader, you could instead spend that time going out and having a new & challenging experience with real people at a real place in your actual life. Unsurprisingly, your actual life also provides useful data for application in future circumstances within your actual life.

We aren’t going to focus on the numerous scientific flaws in the “proof” behind the ever-growing market of web-based brain-game products—it’s no secret that neuroscientists have been almost uniformly vocal in their criticism of these brain-game’s supposed benefits. As those neuroscientists have noted (and as I explain in Narrative Complexity’s examination of “intelligence”) brain games don’t even actually improve the limited range of neural abilities that they claim to (like memory & attention). 

The bigger problem, however, is that these kinds of supposed brain-training exercises are built on an entirely faulty premise to begin with: that attempting to improve the pure “mechanical” efficiency of neural systems responsible for attention, memory & problem-solving is a truly good way to actually make yourself “smarter.”

Is There Really A Smarter You?
No matter what you’ve heard—your brain is not like a muscle. When you exercise muscles, the actual physical properties of the muscles & surrounding attachments can be usefully improved. For example, their mass, flexibility & tensile strength can all be enhanced through exercise. 

When you “exercise” your brain (essentially, intensely practice specific mental tasks) the actual physical properties of the neurons, synapses & neural structures aren’t truly improved, rather, the neural components’ structures & pathways are altered. Specific data, neural scripts & cognitive rules can be recorded or changed; associations can be created, shifted, strengthened, weakened; connections between certain data can become stronger, weaker, more fluid, etc., etc., etc.

In other words, if we think of the brain as a data-processing machine, exercising this machine does not improve the machine’s innate physical ability to process all future data that it encounters—exercising this machine changes how that machine processes a range of specific future data. This means that applying your mind to new or challenging tasks alters the neural structures & pathways that determine how the brain will respond to certain kinds of future incoming data. 

As discussed in Narrative Complexity’s essay on memory & cognition, our brain’s innate physical processing abilities are primarily represented by: our individual neural networks' data recording & associative capacities, the capacity to manage & analyze fundamental patterns, the effectiveness of the mechanisms that “imprint” new or altered data structures, and the general speed of data-processing. And when we say innate, what we’re mostly saying is inborn & unchangeable.

Yup, you heard me right. All of those neural attributes that ultimately determine whether you’re driving a Ferrari or Ford around in your cranium—all those processing-ability-defining capacities that those brain-game-hawkers are promising to pump up—they’re all pretty much hard-wired in you from the start. (Something reflected in the fact that IQ scores—specifically designed to assess many of these fundamental capacities—tend to remain generally static throughout an individual’s lifetime.)

But before you begin wailing about the incredibly un-egalitarian unfairness of such a premise, let’s take a moment to explore our vehicular analogy with a little more depth…

First, consider that humans tend clump themselves into convenient statistical bell curves. This means that—in terms of our imagined Ferrari & Ford—the vast majority of us are actually driving something more in the middle of those two. And thus, in the end, our successes are much less about the car we’re driving and more about how we choose to drive it

Even in the cases of the Ferraris & the Fords, on a day-to-day basis they’re both nearly equally capable of serving their primary purpose: getting us from here to there. This is the same with our brains. Most of our days & weeks are not filled with tackling highly-complex tasks that require robust, highly-capable neural systems in order to succeed. Most of our days & weeks simply require us to, at most, make difficult (& often emotionally-conflicted) decisions in a range of varied-but-familiar areas of our lives. 

Success in our most-important & challenging everyday mental tasks isn’t about how well you remember things (a capacity that can easily be enhanced by developing a habit of, say, writing stuff down) or how fast your neural structures process data. In your everyday existence, it’s ultimately much more useful to become better at making difficult (& often emotionally-conflicted) decisions in a range of varied-but-familiar areas of our lives.

What we’re really saying here: getting “smarter” isn’t about becoming more innately intelligent, it’s about becoming wiser.

Yes, It’s True, There Is A Smarter You
Life is about action, and actions are about choices. Whether or not an action succeeds in achieving the goal isn’t always entirely about us, but how we choose to act & if we choose to act are still the two main life-success factors that we actually control. 

And if you want to make better choices, you need to: make more accurate predictions about possible outcomes and their actual value to you & your community, improve your ability to effectively discriminate good data from bad, and deepen your capacity for developing more diverse, reliable & creative solutions. These are essentially the mental skills & tools that comprise wisdom.

Thankfully, unlike those innate physical processing abilities, the skills & tools listed above can all be powerfully shaped & enhanced through experience & study. This means that increasing the quantity (& variety) of the interactions, narratives & knowledge that you experience & study—and deepening your immersion in myriad avenues of experience & study—can actually make you wiser (aka, truly smarter).

You want to become smarter? Live your life. But live it fully, broadly, deeply. That better you that all Americans are chasing—the confident, engaged, grateful, contented & smarter human we seek to be—begins with wisdom. Wisdom comes from living

And failing. Embracing one’s existence fully, broadly & deeply necessarily means risking failure. Lucky for us, in terms of making better predictions & developing better solutions, failure can be a fantastic thing. 

Failure is what can spur us to seek out & create those better solutions & new ideas. In neural terms, failure can force us to “re-jumble” the puzzle within our cognitive mechanisms & build new structures that might then handle similar kinds of patterns or problems differently in new encounters—which is how we actually improve our ability to make better & more successful choices in the future.

Wisdom comes from living because, to our brains, living is learning. ​And all good learning is served with ample side-dish of failure. 

Let The Machine Loose
Although a chorus of misguided capitalists, careerists & consumerists would like you to believe otherwise, life is not a zero sum game of accumulation & ascension. The better career, the better car, the better house, the better toys, the better brain. Our lives, and the brains that they define, are complex, ever-changing processes honed & shaped by our experiences. Working diligently (& futility) to polish the gears & wiring that make those lives & brains hum is entirely beside the point. 

Let the machine be messy, smudged, occasionally-unsuccessful—it will still continue humming with mostly adequate efficiency—but don’t be afraid to let the machine loose in the world. Give the machine passions to chase, then chase them far & wide. 

How can you improve your memory & attention? Find a way to become genuinely interested & invested in whatever it is you’re doing, and your focus & attention will follow (and thanks to the way our memory works, you’ll also probably remember the experience better).

How can you improve your problem-solving? Patterns, patterns, patterns—keep finding new ones & new challenges that might reveal them. Seek them fully, broadly & deeply. More diverse, reliable & creative solutions are primarily the result of successfully cross-pollinating a wide range of previously-consumed narratives, ideas, solutions, and failures—a resource that is powerfully enhanced by, wait for it…yes, living your life fully, broadly & deeply.

Experience & study. Despite all the fancy new neuro-gadgetry & knowledge available to us 21st-century humans, it turns out that getting smarter is still best achieved by some pretty ancient methodologies. Which really isn’t so surprising—considering that those methodologies have emerged via hundreds of millions of years of evolution (and Lumosity never even suffered through any of the Bush presidencies).

Sure, embracing life can be challenging (which is kind of  the point) and brain games are like tiny candies (and candy is always good right now). But there’s a whole freaking world of ideas & stories & places & interactions out there in one form or another. If you devour those commodities fully, broadly & deeply, then simply venturing into that whole freaking world (in one way or another) can actually, truly make you smarter. 

And although it may have nothing to do with making you the better you—you might even accidentally enjoy the journey.

<![CDATA[Why Humans Are Seriously Fucking Amazing]]>Mon, 26 Oct 2015 00:45:25 GMThttp://www.rsaltheory.com/blog/why-humans-are-seriously-fucking-amazing
I know, that sounds like another over-heated slice of click-bait hyperbole. (It could’ve been worse—I almost titled this “6 Reasons Why Humans Are Seriously Fucking Amazing.”)  

But it’s true. When compared with every other cellular-based contraption that has attempted to infest this earth during the last 4 billion years, we humans are insanely unique in our creative & deductive capacities. This adaptive, powerful & broadly-applicable intelligence has rapidly-fueled humans’ abilities to: 

• build amazingly diverse & complex tools & systems.
• discover & test the deepest physical underpinnings of our universe.
• work massively, dynamically & complexly together in our efforts to achieve common goals.
• explore & express what this journey means to us.

For nearly all of those 4 billion years that followed cellular life’s first appearance on earth, nothing came anywhere close to doing any of those things at the level of modern humans. And we’ve only been around for about 200,000 years. That’s almost nothing in the evolutionary scale of time. Beyond that, most of those abilities noted above didn’t really start revving-up the speed of civilization until about 30,000 years ago.

Think about that within an evolutionary scale. The earliest chordates, like the first, tiny roundworms—which is where humans’ vertebrate, nerve-based lineage really begins—appeared about 700 million years ago. After all of that time, the full glory that is human civilization has resulted from just 170,000 years of foreplay and a mere 30,000 years of getting down to business. 

This whole outrageous (& now solar-system-spanning) Homo-sapien enterprise has blossomed in an amount of time that represents just .004% of the entire 700 million year history of chordates. In case you’re having a hard time visualizing that, let me help: it would look super-weird on a chart—and to depict an accurate amount of weirdness, the chart would have to be really, really, really big.

Why Am I Pointing This Out?
Reasonable question. I mean, yeah, that’s mind-blowing & everything, but so what? If you read my first few posts, you might’ve noticed that I have some deep concerns about where this whole outrageous Homo-sapien enterprise is headed in the very near future. It appears that the unceasing & explosive progress of human civilization has outstripped our understanding of how that progress is impacting our species (& the life-sustaining conditions of the planet on which we currently reside). 

And here’s the thing about humans: if achieving a goal (like, say, changing the course of civilization) requires difficult actions, we’re most likely to be motivated to take those actions only when something really valuable is at stake. Thus, when most humans judge whether or not a difficult action is worth attempting, our brains are mostly interested in how much those actions are likely to impact our actual lives. 

This means that when we encounter unique, challenging, long-term problems like climate change—whose worst consequences might occur long after we’re already gone—it’s extra-difficult to motivate humans to take those not-so-easy actions required to solve those long-term problems (especially if someone possesses a simple-but-behavior-shaping belief like: I don’t believe the problem actually exists). 

So, if we’re really going to take the actions required to address problems like climate change, we must not only explore (& prove) how our progress is impacting us, but we must understand the genuine value of what it is we’re trying to preserve. In other words, species have of come & gone for billions of years—it’s the very nature of evolution—what’s really so special about humans? 

To answer that question we have to take a step back from all this unceasing, myopia-inducing progress, and we need to look at what makes this ongoing experiment in humanity so truly amazing (& why we should be better temporary caretakers of this ongoing experiment).

6 Reasons Why Humans Are Seriously Fucking Amazing

I couldn’t resist. But now that I’ve engaged your brain’s inner list-junkie (which is really just another version of your brain’s inner rule-building-junkie) we’ll get right down to doling out your enumerated fix. When we talk about what makes our species so insanely unique, we’re talking about how the extraordinarily-evolved systems of the human mind have enabled an entire suite of breathtaking & singularly-Homo-sapien developments, including… 

1. Language - The importance of language in the evolution of human minds & the development our uniquely-human version of consciousness cannot be overstated. For starters, our capacity for highly-complex & dynamic language-use is what allows our brains to generate & manipulate creative, complicated thoughts & problem-solutions. And that’s because (as discussed in Narrative Complexity, Essay #1) all of our thinking & problem-solving is primarily achieved via some form of internal dialogue

Even when a problem is mostly physically-based (like fixing a sink) we are still silently-but-internally talking ourselves through those actions using words that we hear in our mind— turn it that way, okay, is that loose enough? (Unless the actions are highly-familiar & employ well-memorized motor scripts, which allows that internal dialogue to wander amongst other matters while you turn the wrench.) 

Even when someone like Einstein was first contemplating something as creatively & spatially abstract as his Theory of Relativity, he couldn’t have conjured riding on a beam of light without first internally linguistically positing something like— wait, what if you could ride a beam of light, somehow travel that fast? Which was likely followed by more internal dialogue that helped to describe & manipulate Albert’s internal (but visual) spatial representation of the idea that was first spurred by those earlier words.

We think with words—they are the human mind’s most fundamental tool. And yet, this kind of constant word-based thinking is such an innate part of our being that we rarely ever account for the absolute power & necessity of language within the mechanisms of human consciousness. Oh, and without complex language, communicating complicated ideas between people would be, y’know, nearly impossible

So, yes, complex & dynamic language is seriously fucking amazing.

2. Beliefs - We discussed several aspects of human belief systems in a post a couple weeks ago. But to bring any new readers quickly up-to-speed: a belief is basically a high-value & (seemingly) high-validity prediction trope that seeks to identify & judge a key subset of data within a “decision-equation” (essentially, within a predictive narrative). For example: I believe in forgiveness. In other words: in almost any setting, in any decision that can be reduced to choosing forgiveness or non-forgiveness, choosing forgiveness is highly-likely to lead to ultimately desirable results—regardless of specific circumstances. 

Beliefs are the express lane of decision-making. They’re also a powerful way to help confine specific individual behavior within socially-defined boundaries—because we learn most of our beliefs from the people around us, which provides a viral way for socially-defined behavioral boundaries to be spread from mind-to-mind. In part, these beliefs help to shape behavior by generating future-or-current-action-inhibiting emotions like disgust (with others) and guilt (disgust with ourselves) when we witness, consider or commit belief-violating acts.

Ultimately, from a neural point of view, these belief systems (which evolved out of primitive mammalian disease-avoiding disgust mechanisms) provide a highly-efficient & powerful method  for identifying overarching—but sometimes deeply-hidden—patterns in behavior & experience. Discerning these “larger truths” and broadly-applying them to a wide-range of behavior in a wide-range of situations (and our capacity to virally spread these “truths” within a society) has provided humans with an extraordinary, deeply-malleable tool for shaping our actions according to “proven” conventions & for making vital decisions with reliable efficiency. 

Beliefs can provide us with faith in ideas that we “know” are true, but can’t always prove to be true. Which might sound a little crazy (& sometimes it is) but considering everything that they’ve helped humans to achieve (and considering that no other earthly creature possesses them) beliefs are still, undoubtedly, seriously fucking amazing.

3. Science - The same dynamic, modular neural systems that allowed for the emergence of complex (& syntactically rule-based) language have also aided humans in developing a capacity for complicated, rule-based causal logic—a capacity that has powerfully deepened our understanding of how the physical universe works. 

In the beginning, “science” was as simple as discovering, for example, that certain kinds of thin branches grew more flexible after being soaked in water for a period of time. After more experiments produced similar results, this scientific, causal “fact” was added to our knowledge of the world—making it available to be used when solving future problems & creating new tools. 

And what sets this “fact” apart from more random observations or conjecture is that it’s ultimately based upon repeatable & demonstrable evidence. In other words, in test after test, nearly every thin branch from that type of tree became more flexible after soaking it in water for a specific amount of time. These are the roots of the scientific method. And human brains are so well-suited to employ this seemingly-simple method of conjecture, testing & discovery that we’ve used it to learn all of this.

That repeatable & demonstrable evidence is one of the reasons why beliefs & science are often seen as incompatible or at odds with each other (even though they’re both vital neural tools and are actually designed to work in concert). Beliefs are useful because they help humans to identify larger, overarching patterns and make correlations between actions & results based on discerned & observed (but not entirely provable) evidence. Science—and the rule-based neural systems that it employs—are useful because they help humans to identify specific causal patterns and determine direct causal relationships based on that repeatable & demonstrable evidence.

And really, that last sentence is a ridiculous understatement—because it doesn’t speak to the absurdly vast range & number of specific causal patterns & relationships that humans have identified in the world around us (and even in the worlds way, way out there). Science has brought us nothing less than everything we know about our universe today. Without science, we’d know about as much as a chimpanzee (who hasn’t even figured out how to make fire). 

All of which clearly supports the conclusion that science is, indeed, seriously fucking amazing.

4. Technology - Without science there could be no technology, but without technology, science wouldn’t be all that useful. Because humans do almost everything by using tools

When that primitive human learned that soaking the branches made them more flexible, that’s science. When he decided to use those now-malleable branches to fashion, say, a cozy, secure (& possibly buoyant) new bassinet for his baby, that’s technology. He used his scientific discovery to make something

When we think about the “modern world” most of us tend to define that modernity by, essentially, the kinds of technology that we employ. And those of you reading this are likely deeply immersed in an ever-growing pool of that technology—which has been a mostly-good-though-not-entirely-great development along this human journey. But those various aspects of technology’s impact are not what we’re here to discuss right now.

We’re here to point out that humans have been so ridiculously expert & prolific in creating & employing technology that—while other primates can take pride in using specifically-fashioned sticks to retrieve termites for consumption (mmm…yummy)—we successfully landed people on the moon & returned them safely to earth on our first attempt. Obviously, human technology is seriously fucking amazing

5. Culture - It’s cool to make stuff that’s useful (& it’s useful to make stuff that’s useful). But if we modern humans are going to get around to actually being motivated to enthusiastically (or at least reliably) first make that useful stuff & then make use of that useful stuff, we generally need to possess a certain okay-ness & connectedness within our world. 

The roots of those desires to feel good about ourselves & our place in our community come from the myriad emotional judgements that our brain is using to shape our behavior (discussed at length in Narrative Complexity, Essay #2). In the most simplified terms, discomfort or pain is intended to generate protective responses & initiate a search for alternative courses; pleasure is intended to generate performance-oriented responses & focus resources on supporting the current course. 

In other words, working through (& balancing) all that pain & pleasure in a way that beneficially shapes the course of your life is necessary in order to reliable go out and assume your specific (& surely invaluable) role within human civilization. And all of the world-knowledge that science & beliefs have bestowed upon modern humans, and all of those peaks & valleys of an existence can lead us to feel deeply adrift in the sea of civilization.

Culture has given modern humans a broad archipelago of islands in that vast sea, places where we can be nourished, heard, saved. Our culture is the sum of all our rituals, literature, philosophy, art, clothing, jewelry, music, dance, theater, film—every human creation intended in some way to express some personal vision & embodiment of our interaction & experience within this world. 

It is the most poignant quality of our civilization: that we engage in these deep, but seemingly-frivolous explorations & expressions of what this journey means to us. And the poignancy comes from the fact that these cultural expressions of our journey do not seem frivolous to us at all—that they seem, in reality, to drive right to the very center of what it truly is to be human.

Our species should undoubtedly take great pride in all that science & technology have brought us. But in the twilight of our kind, whenever that comes, those that are left will likely revere (& find comfort in) those great remaining artifacts of human culture much more deeply than any of the magnificent tools that they have left at their disposal. 

This profound place at the center of our species, its capacity to explore abstract & existential aspects of being, and its immense power over our psyche certainly makes human culture seriously fucking amazing.

6. Society - Do you know how to build a power plant? Make t-shirts? Diagnose malaria? Fix a refrigerator? Launch a new brand of laxative? Curate a painting exhibit? Teach reading? Tear down a bridge? (You get the idea.) Well, somebody out there knows. 

And if that somebody is living in a well-functioning society, they’ve hopefully found some place where they are being adequately compensated for usefully employing that knowledge & their specific skill-set. After science, technology & culture helped humans to develop useful new pursuits, we needed for people to be able to actually pursue those pursuits. This is where society came into the picture.

Basically, a larger number & deeper specificity of different useful, species-benefitting pursuits led to a greater need for more complex cooperation between people within a community. Thus, humans diversified & specialized their roles, developed methods for spreading role-specific knowledge & skill-sets, cobbled together systems of exchange & interaction that allowed those diverse products & services to be distributed effectively within the community, determined rules that defined how those products & services would be distributed fairly (or unfairly, if that was someone’s goal), etc., etc., etc.

For civilization to actually become civilization, humans needed to develop (& learn to manage) vast, diverse, complex societies. Obviously, some of humanity’s myriad societal experiments have worked out better than others. But considering the fact that we now do live in a truly (& deeply-interwoven) global community, nearly every one of those previous or still-ongoing societal experiments has made at least some contribution to that thing we now think of as civilization.

And if our species couldn’t have gotten to this extraordinary apex in our insanely unique civilization without it, then it cannot be denied: modern human society is seriously fucking amazing.

This Is Who We Are

All of this—all wreaking its great beauty & havoc in just .004% of the 700 million year history of chordates on earth. All of it the ultimate result of 4 billion years of cellular division. We have no idea whether or not this kind of insanely- & suddenly-explosive model of evolution is common amongst this universe, but—if we’re looking at the only model we know—it’s clear that humanity is an extraordinarily-unique (& possibly very-difficult-to-achieve) development in the course of evolution on this earth. 

And yet, there are arsenals of nuclear weapons, armed & at the ready—arensals that could obliterate all semblance of humanity as we know it. The skies fill with gases that are likely to make much of our planet only harshly-habitable and broadly-incapable of sustaining the swarming populations of humans that now exist. Global food chains are at risk of significant disruption. Ever-ingenious bacteria are beginning to overcome our science’s best defenses. The conveyor belt of oceanic currents that has been fundamental in stabilizing the climate during the rise of human civilization is showing evidence of possibly catastrophic stagnation. 

This is where we are in the journey. 4 billion years to get here, 30,000 years of magnificence, and this is where we—the humans of the 21st century—this is where we stand. Are we capable, are we willing to do what our moment requires? This is the question that human history will judge us by.

<![CDATA[We Make Our Own Monsters]]>Mon, 19 Oct 2015 06:45:20 GMThttp://www.rsaltheory.com/blog/we-make-our-own-monsters
Humans have always used violence to express their anger. People shove each other, slap, punch, kill. Each person’s anger is usually directed at some (perceived) cause of their pain (their loss), and almost every occurrence of anger-driven violence is ultimately intended to somehow right the wrong (or balance the loss) that was supposedly perpetrated by that other entity.

In the worst & most extreme cases of this anger-driven violence, the target can be as large as society itself, and the anger grow to be so broad-based & powerful that it becomes, essentially, delusional (motivating recompense that is exceedingly disproportionate to the actual loss or culpability). These are the kinds of circumstances that can be a breeding ground for mass killers, and undoubtedly, such circumstances have been broadly-present throughout America’s history. 

So, when confronting the recent & persistent pattern of mass shootings across our nation, the central question is: why is this happening now, in 21st century America? 

Going Beyond The Guns
The widely-spread & mostly-unchecked availability of the tools required to accomplish mass shootings certainly makes the task of shooting multiple people in a short amount of time much easier than if such tools were not widely available. (Consider: the main reason that these mass murders are not accomplished using rocket-launchers & grenades is not likely because these angry individuals would not want to use such tools, but rather, it’s because such tools are simply not widely & easily available in America.) 

Nonetheless, a large number of citizens believe that the benefit of easily-available, high-powered guns ultimately outweighs the harm caused by broad access to such weapons—and a large number of citizens disagree, which is why we are currently mired in that endlessly-cycling Gun Control Debate (discussed in the previous post). But whether or not the benefit of gun-availability actually outweighs the harm will not be taken on here.

Because, to a great degree, when we ask why this is happening now, what we’re really asking is: why are more of these individual brains choosing to take advantage of this gun-ubiquitousness to commit these very similarly-enacted (& socially-targeted) mass murders with more frequency than in previous generations?

How do these strikingly-alike violent fantasies manifest themselves in these different minds and why are these brains today allowing those fantasies to be enacted with greater frequency? The short answer: as a society, we’re all in this together, and each culture makes their own monsters.

The Birth Of Dark Fantasies
We all fantasize. And although we generally associate a kind of frivolousness with these imaginary flights, they’re actually one of our brain’s most vital & useful tools. They’re also a tool that’s uniquely human (thanks to our extraordinary capacity for complex language, which allows us to internally narrate, conjure & manipulate future imagined sequences).

It’s one of the things that makes humans so great at creating unique & useful solutions & strategies: the capacity to imagine (and thus, internally test, revise & practice) possible future narratives that depict some way to achieve a desired goal. Fantasies & daydreams are like our brain’s way to run test-models of future (& usually situationally-specific) strategies for getting something we want within some future scenario that we expect (or desperately hope) to find ourselves in. 

And it’s not a coincidence that fantasies tend to drift toward highly-desired goals (like, y’know, sex). This happens because, if our brain is using its resources to run test-models of the future, it’s typically most-useful (& most-pleasurable) to apply those resources toward helping to achieve our most-desired, high-priority goals. Of course, our goals & their urgency can vary greatly from person-to-person and day-to-day—so all of us are fantasizing about a whole range of different scenarios throughout our lives. 

We fantasize about financial gains, literary successes, romantic conquests, sporting triumphs, and yes—at some time or another—almost all us are likely to dip into that dark world of our most angrily-motivated desires and fantasize about murdering someone. (If you want, you can pretend you haven’t and just continue reading while wondering why the rest of us are apparently so angry & deeply-disturbed.)

Although all these myriad fantasies can take on seemingly all imaginable forms, there’s one attribute that almost every fantasy shares: we got the idea from somewhere else. In other words, most of these imagined future narratives that we conjure are personally-tailored replays of common narrative sequences that we have previously witnessed or consumed—via real-life experience or studied, vicarious experiences like videos, films or books.

And, again, this is not a coincidence—it’s how our brain is meant to work. We’re sponges. We learn almost everything we know from the world around us. Part of the reason for this ever-constant sponging is to aid us when we encounter unique problems or when we’re motivated to achieve something new. In these cases, our brain is most-likely to search its experientially- & study-fed databanks for situationally-relevant, common (& apparently successful) narrative sequences that we have previously witnessed or consumed. 

Thus, this is the strategy that our brain tends to employ when conjuring those predictively-useful, personally-tailored fantasies: searching that wealth we’ve sponged from our world and identifying the narratives that are most relevant & useful in achieving our desires. We might change certain elements of the fantasy to suit our own needs or tastes—or we might try to match our conjuration to the original as closely as possible—but the general model of the witnessed or consumed narrative is likely to remain intact. (Which is the point, because we’ve identified it as a “successful” model for achieving our desire, and we’re going after that same success.)

You can see where we’re headed with this. One of the most blatantly obvious reasons why this pattern of mass shootings is repeating itself with seemingly greater consistency is because more & more examples of this particular, specific narrative are being fed into our cultural cue. By now there’s a veritable encyclopedia of “delusionally-angry shooter” models that are readily-available & consumable by a wide range of delusionally-angry individuals. 

In addition—thanks to easily-accessible high-powered weapons (which raises the killing-success-rate of such attacks) and easily-predictable media-obsessiveness over the shooters (which raises the infamy-success-rate of such attacks)—this plethora of “delusionally-angry shooter” models provides strong evidence for their effectiveness in achieving a delusionally-angry individual’s desires.

Together, all of this helps to answer the first part of that earlier question: how do these strikingly-alike violent fantasies manifest themselves in these different minds? Delusional anger powerfully motivates outsized-retribution (& a desire for recognition), culture provides myriad successful & consumable models for such retribution, and fantasies employ those readily-available models as mental practice for the retribution. Then somebody goes out and buys some guns (or they’ve already been stockpiling them, which is even more convenient).

Unleashing Dark Fantasies
Of course, fantasizing about doing something and actually doing it are (sometimes thankfully & sometimes sadly) very, very different things. Which brings us to the last part of that earlier question: why are these brains today allowing those violent fantasies to be enacted with greater frequency? 

Even if many of us angry & deeply-disturbed types have occasionally had that brief flirtation with a murder fantasy or two—luckily for us (because, face it, we probably would have failed & been summarily, harshly punished) and despite our strong motivation to act, there were lots & lots of stronger, nearly-insurmountable barriers that never let us get anywhere near actually acting.

In other words, being capable of actually enacting a fantasy requires more than the just the strong (or even the overwhelming) motivation to act—it also requires the ability to overcome the myriad barriers to our action. And ultimately, those barriers to action must be overcome within our neural systems: overcoming action-inhibiting fear of failure or harmful consequence, overcoming or re-prioritizing action-inhibiting beliefs (like killing is bad), developing necessary action-required strategic knowledge & practical skills, cultivating confidence in your plan & abilities. 

Successfully shepherding any complicated or difficult-to-achieve fantasy from first imagination to actual enactment usually requires overcoming some versions of all those kinds of barriers. (Which is partly why you didn’t actually strangle your roommate that one time they did that thing.) And there’s one common requirement to overcoming all of those barriers: time. Which has typically been a good thing, because time also works against the ultimate enacting of a complicated dark fantasy—by increasing the likelihood of “fantasy derailment.” 

In other words, the longer it takes for some delusionally-angry individual to work through all those barriers, there’s a greater chance that something will occur to prevent or derail the fantasy enactment. This includes possibilities like: outside recognition of the delusional anger, leading to pre-enactment intervention; a significant life event that helps alleviate a primary source of anger; committing a lesser act of violence that identifies the risk prior to fantasy enactment. Our lives change over time—and the more time passes, the more they change.

This also means that if a delusionally-angry individual is able to work through those barriers more quickly, there’s a lesser chance that something will occur to prevent or derail the fantasy enactment. Which brings us to another one of those areas where our brand-new-modern-world is turning around to bite the hand that feeds it: the current ubiquity of information & social-group access has aided many of those delusionally-angry individuals in overcoming many of those barriers to action in record time.

Basically, the gestation period required for a dark fantasy to become reality has been greatly accelerated by the ability to, for example, quickly research & study an ever-growing wealth of successful fantasy models (real-life and even game-based)—which helps to develop strategic knowledge & habitualized behavioral responses (and which also aids in overcoming fears & re-prioritizing beliefs by providing piles of evidence that can increase success-confidence & help to alter beliefs). In addition, the broad availability of online social groups catering to every imaginable fetish provides the kind of communally-supportive (or instigative) interactions that can aid in overcoming mental barriers to action & help to accelerate the gestation of dark fantasies.

This is one of the reasons that current (& often misguided) attempts to create a common “profile” for these shooters continues to yield little consistency—because the common thread that has made these mass shootings more consistent & frequent isn’t a particular behavioral or demographic profile that has suddenly grown within our population. All kinds of different people & profiles can become delusionally-angry individuals (neurally-defined psychopaths, experientially-forged sociopaths, sufferers of mental illness, sufferers of life-crushingness)—and these kinds of individuals have been broadly-present throughout American history. 

We’re seeing more individuals actually unleashing these specifically-similar dark fantasies now because the fantasy-founding models for their actions are more numerous, similar & easily-accessible, and because the gestation period for these fantasies has been accelerated by that current ubiquity of information & social-group access. 

Every era of America has contained a diverse population of lurking monsters, but the number, frequency, and the type of monster (& the level of destruction) that is unleashed is ultimately determined not by the monsters themselves, but by the culture that unleashes them. We make our own monsters, and we need to decide if these are the kinds of murderous creatures we want amongst us today.

<![CDATA[Why The Gun Control Debate Could Go On Forever (& How To Avoid That Result)]]>Mon, 12 Oct 2015 18:16:10 GMThttp://www.rsaltheory.com/blog/why-the-gun-control-debate-could-go-on-forever-how-to-avoid-that-result
It happened again. Someone in America with mis-identified, unaddressed mental health issues built up an overwhelming store of delusion, anger and firearms, left their home loaded to unload that anger in a violent, fame-seeking outburst, and used those firearms to murder & maim multiple people in a communal space—people who were simply going about their day.

So America {yawn} goes through the Gun-Control-Debate motions once more: cue familiar routine of outrage & dismay (both for & against), show us the lobbing of statistics like hand-grenades into enemy camp, bring out the shouting pundits who aren’t actually listening to each other & have no intention to listen. And just for good measure, the nation mixes in a less-fevered Mental-Health-Dilemna media cycle, which plays a supporting role in the now-masturbatory examination of the question: “How do we stop this from happening?”

At this point, the real question isn’t “How do we stop these murders from happening?” The real question is “How do we stop this from happening?” This being our endlessly repeating cycle of redundant debating & false examination that continually produces zero actual solutions to the problem of people regularly being murdered en masse by gun-toting, mentally-disturbed individuals who have fallen through the cracks of our educational & healthcare systems. But if we want to figure out how to stop this useless, endless cycle of argument & inaction, we need to understand why we’re stuck in that endless cycle.

A Belief War Is Never Won
First, we should note that our endless cycle has produced at least one useful result—it’s revealed how this mass violence has roots in those two different issues: gun control & mental health. We’ll explore the latter issue in our next post, but the focus here will be explaining why the Gun Control Debate could go on forever (and how we might avoid that undesirable result). 

We’re stuck in this perpetual, hellish cycle because this isn’t really a war of mathematical or purely-causal logic & statistics (elements that are only doomed foot-soldiers in these battles). It’s a war of beliefs—and a belief war is never won. According to Narrative Complexity, our beliefs play a very specific and prestigious role in our emotional, cognitive & decision-making neural systems. This special role in our decision-making mechanisms can give beliefs a unique, almost-unimpeachable power over our choices & worldview—even when the real-world validity of those choices & views appears to be strongly-undermined by new evidence.

And thus, when these epic cultural battles essentially pit two opposing beliefs or belief systems against each other, almost every ounce of discussion attempting to change the opposing party’s beliefs is entirely wasted effort. It’s all energy without consequence. So, what exactly are these beliefs and why are they so powerful? 

As explained in my emotions essay (read the excerpt here), the roots of our modern belief systems have been evolving since the beginning of mammals, and those early systems originally had more-focused purposes (primarily olfactory-based disease avoidance—basically, primitive disgust). But in humans these modern (yet still disgust-based ) belief systems are broadly-applicable, which is partly what makes them so useful & powerful. According to our theory, a belief is basically a high-value and (seemingly) high-validity, broadly-applicable prediction trope that we have discerned & learned through experience & study (and/or have been taught by highly-trusted others): I believe in forgiveness, I believe violence is a necessary evil, I believe cheating is always bad, I believe in God.

Ultimately, each of our myriad, countless beliefs represents one of these reductivizing, broadly-overarching, but specifically defined & applied prediction tropes. These prediction tropes help our brains to identify one key subset of data within a decision-equation (essentially, within a predictive narrative ) and use the isolated judgement of that subset to determine the most beneficial choice—i.e., in almost all decisions that can be reduced to choosing to forgive or not to forgive, choosing forgiveness is highly-likely to lead to ultimately desirable results, regardless of the specific circumstances

Consequently, when a person who “believes in forgiveness” makes a choice that represents non-forgiveness, their violation of this intended-to-be-beneficial belief produces some level of guilt (basically, disgust with ourselves—an emotion designed to encourage belief compliance by making us feel bad when we violate or think-about violating a belief). This is the express-lane of decision-making, a quick & reliable (proven-over-time-&-experience) way to guide an important choice toward a desirable result by identifying & judging a key piece of the equation.

And when we make choices that pit two of our own beliefs against each other, the stronger belief is likely to win out—because, like most of our self-built neural architecture, our beliefs are hierarchal. This means if the experience- or study-based evidence that leads to the belief supports high-value results or goals (i.e., the fate of your eternal soul) and a highly-trusted source (i.e., your parent, preacher or teacher) then that belief is likely to reside high-up in the hierarchy (i.e., above all else, I believe in God ). In addition, if that belief is frequently (& apparently) “successfully” applied over time, that’s also likely to strengthen its position in our hierarchy (aka, make it more likely to be more frequently, broadly & powerfully applied ).

However, the belief wars at the center of the Gun Control Debate aren’t just going on within one person’s mind, this war is occurring between two minds—each trying to somehow get inside the highest levels of that other person’s hierarchy, hoping to revise & rearrange it according to their own design. But these belief-invaders & their statistical foot-soldiers have not been dispatched by a highly-trusted-source, and therefore, they’re powerless against the well-defined & decades-fortified foreign hierarchy that is their target. Why aren’t they highly-trusted? In large part, because the source doesn’t share the target’s beliefs (as explained in our emotions theory—sharing beliefs triggers emotions, like admiration, that engender crucial, trust-enhancing responses like oxytocin-based bonding). 

Are you seeing the impossible-to-break-loop here? When groups possessing opposing beliefs try to battle against (& change) each other’s beliefs, everybody walks into the arena with nerf weapons. Once they’ve all spent a few weeks dispensing their nerf ammunition—and find themselves mystified that everyone is still standing, hierarchies unharmed & beliefs wholly-unchanged—they retreat from the arena, reload their foam weapons, and wait for the bell to ring again, commanding them to drag their passion & toys back into the arena for another pretend battle. In a dark bit of irony, this is one of the reasons why the Gun Control Debate could go on forever: because everybody enters the debate figuratively unarmed.

The Internet Is A Confirmation-Bias Machine
This might seem to make our beliefs nearly unchangeable once they’ve gotten a strong foothold high-up within that hierarchy. But don’t fret. As I’ll show later, although changing those longstanding & high-level beliefs is certainly very difficult, it’s not impossible. Nonetheless, before we explore how we might conquer these problems, we’re going to examine how these problems actually get worse

One of our beliefs’ greatest enablers is something dubbed confirmation bias—basically, humans’ strong tendency to seek out & choose to trust data that reinforces what they already believe. According to our theory, this is mostly a result of that problem we just discussed: when new & belief-contradicting data is provided by a seemingly-untrustworthy source, that data is viewed by our brains as low-validity (and thus, ultimately-powerless). And it’s almost by-default true: if you’re receiving new data that contradicts your beliefs, it has very likely been provided by a source who does not share your beliefs, making both the source & their new data inherently untrustworthy. In addition—since we’re obviously prone to believe in that belief (a confidence built via experience & study)—our belief automatically leads us to view belief-contradicting data with great doubt. 

Thus, humans exhibit confirmation bias, a strong likelihood to seek out & choose to trust data that reinforces what we already believe. Which leads us to something you’ve probably heard of: the Internet. The Internet is a confirmation-bias machine. If you’re looking to find data that reinforces what you already believe (and be honest, that’s what you’re almost always looking for ) then the Internet is, like, the greatest thing ever.

No matter how absurd your belief, there’s seemingly-confirming data out there somewhere (one word: Scientology). And that magnificent World Wide Web has made that somewhere a place that likely resides as nearby as the small smooth rectangle you carry around in your pocket. Although the Internet has undoubtedly enabled many of us to expand our view of humanity though its exotically-diverse lens, I think it’s just as likely that many more of us are using that powerful lens to focus on a narrow-but-deep well of data that merely supports what we already believe—a focus that calcifies those beliefs in our minds and fuels our desire to defend their expression within the larger society.

For many of us who engage in these belief wars, the Internet has become an infinite armory :  a location that houses an endless supply of those statistical & analytical grenades that we earnestly-but-incredulously lob into enemy camps (few of which ever land with anything more than a dull thud). And even though these weaponized statistics & analyses have little impact on our targets, they can still have a powerful influence on us—bolstering our already-strong beliefs with more seemingly-confirming evidence. The big problem here is that a lot of those seemingly-confirming statistics & analyses are merely the result of poorly-collected & -evaluated, generally-misleading data. 

Nonetheless, thanks again to confirmation bias, if we’re seeking to use that bad data to support an already-strong belief, we’re likely to blind ourselves to the (often obvious) flaws in the evidence. It’s the very nature of a belief to seek out & identify the subset of data that specifically relates the belief’s prediction trope, and then ignore the rest of the circumstantial factors when shaping our response (because our brain thinks it’s already efficiently identified the most important, fundamental element of the decision-equation). 

For example, I came across a recent & seemingly-reasonable article (on a stridently non-partisan independent news site) that tried to explain why gun control measures do not ultimately decrease homicides. To support this conclusion, the author cites statistics showing that gun control measures in a few different places were not followed by a drop in the overall homicide rate. To the author (& many of his readers) this clearly helped to prove that gun control measures are not likely to result in fewer homicides. 

Of course, to a skeptic, the enormous flaw in this data analysis is very clear: gun availability is not the only factor impacting homicide rates. To the contrary, homicides are the result of wide array of social, personal & randomly circumstantial factors. (Becoming a vigilant skeptic, by the way, is the best route for avoiding confirmation bias; essentially, allowing doubt supersedes certainty to become one of your highest level beliefs cleverly undercuts the power of all your beliefs, which makes them generally more flexible & malleable.)

Thus, it’s altogether possible that in these few cases, other factors impacting homicide rates (which were not accounted for by the statistics) became worse at the same time gun control measures were enacted. This would mean that, theoretically, it’s possible that the homicide rate might’ve been even higher if more guns had been available. Therefore the gun control measures could have possibly been effective in reducing homicides, but the overall rate still remained static or rose because of the growing impact of those other (& statistically-unaccounted for) factors. (Despite pointing out that poverty rates have a significant impact on violence, the author still fails to see how these kinds of factors undermine his conclusions, which he presents as patently obvious.)

In the end, the ultimate ambiguity in what these statistics tell us makes them useless, insubstantial data—which didn’t stop the author from misleading a whole slew of otherwise-thoughtful readers into assuming that the evidence should be used to help support (or change) their beliefs about gun control.

This is, of course, just one example. But it’s exactly the kind of flawed statistical analysis that Facebook posts are lousy with. And you’ll have to believe me—examining brain research (& trying to sort the good data from the bad) has made me a little obsessed with experiment-design, and from everything I’ve seen there’s a huge pile of bad, misleading data that’s being floated around as “evidence” in our culture’s cornucopia of belief wars. (Much of that bad data is even being purposefully fed into the discussion by those massive corporate entities that have some financial gain at stake in the belief wars.) 

A decent amount of bad-yet-perceived-as-valid data has always been a problem for humans (aiding in the reinforcement of false beliefs), but I think the steady stream of useless (yet impactful) non-evidence that’s provided by our infinite armory (& those massive profit-chasing corporate entities) has made this problem particularly acute in our contemporary belief wars. Which is another reason why the Gun Control Debate could go on forever: because every participant is fortifying their battle positions with heavy doses of infinitely-available bad & useless (but belief-supporting) evidence that they haven't bothered to analyze very carefully.

Behold The Beauty Of Trojan Horses
Who, then, are the main prediction-trope combatants in these belief wars? What are the primary opposing, futilely-battling beliefs in our Gun Control Debate? For starters, there’s that central obvious battle-pair: I believe gun control is good & I believe gun control is bad. These beliefs are likely the strongest source of our confirmation bias when judging new evidence. But each of our actions & worldviews ultimately intersects with a broad web of our beliefs—because specific actions can symbolically represent a number of different things (& and judging the symbolic value of an act is essentially how beliefs work). 

Thus, the Gun Control Debate also involves beliefs like…I believe I have the right to defend my family. I believe I have the constitutional right to bear arms. I believe the 2nd Amendment allows gun-regulation. I believe the government is conspiring against the people. I believe peaceful resistance is the best path for change. I believe hunting is immoral. I believe guns are evil. Etc., etc., etc.  Although each of these beliefs is specifically-defined, they can be applied to a broad range of actions & worldviews. So, when we discuss the various aspects of gun control (bans, background checks & so on) each of those proposed actions or policies is likely to end up battling against a wide array of interconnected beliefs that the action or policy violates in the mind of its opponent. 

At first glance, this clearly seems like yet another obstacle in our quest to settle these belief wars. But that’s the beauty of Trojan Horses—they’re not exactly what they seem to be. The good thing about specific actions & policies engaging multiple beliefs: it increases the likelihood that the opposing parties might find an actually commonly-shared belief somewhere in that web. And this commonly-shared belief can become the Trojan Horse that allows each opponent to slip unharassed into the other’s hierarchy. By expressing & acknowledging together a shared belief (I believe I have the right to defend my family) we can take the first small steps toward building trust, which is the most crucial element in having any kind of productive interaction between two opposing parties—the element that allows our foreign & possibly-unwelcome data to gain a little bit of that validity in the other (& newly-trusting) person’s mind.

In addition, by using this shared belief as the centerpiece of “negotiations” we can discuss specific actions & policies through a common lens (What does it really mean to “defend” my family? Is decreasing weapons in public spaces a way to protect them? How do I help to protect my family when I’m not with them?) In any belief war, the best way to make real progress toward solving the actual problem is by identifying as many issue-related shared beliefs as possible and placing them front & center in every discussion—using those shared beliefs to frame each action & policy, returning the focus to them whenever conflicts get heated.

It also helps if a Mega-Trojan-Horse suddenly appears on the scene, helping to effectively sneak a new belief architecture into an entire network of minds. A Mega-Trojan-Horse must be an individual who is broadly & deeply admired & loved by one of the belief war’s armies—one of its most-trusted leaders of thought. If one of these individuals begins to introduce a shift in specific beliefs (without losing credibility within too much of their army) then this Mega-Trojan-Horse can affect, essentially, a change in doctrine. The speed of change can vary greatly, but nonetheless, such an individual can still begin a powerful, cascading wave of altered beliefs that ripples through a society. (The best current example of a Mega-Trojan-Horse candidate: Pope Francis & his definitive positions on the fact that the planet is melting and the notion that we should try to do something about it.)

None of this, however, is meant to imply that unveiling a Mega-Trojan-Horse or employing those more modest (but elegant) shared-belief Trojan Horses are simple, magical ways to settle our belief wars and spur real changes in our society. These types of strategies are already often applied at the highest levels in difficult negotiating circumstances, and they’re success can be as much about the players involved as the strategies used. But using these shared beliefs is not the approach commonly taken in our everyday cultural conflicts—and, as they say, change begins at home

The bottom line is that if we don’t attempt to employ some of these elegant-but-modest Trojan Horses—and try fighting our confirmation bias with a strong dose of skepticism toward our own beliefs—then, because of the way belief wars are rigged, these battles could perpetuate endlessly. This is another reason why the Gun Control Debate could go on forever: because of our insistent, ongoing refusal to seek out & frame discussions around our commonly-shared beliefs (and our failure to be vigilant skeptics of our own beliefs).

Those reasons, however, are not primarily an unfortunate result of how long-evolving neural systems are responding to our contemporary belief wars—they’re a result of us. Our current lack of self-skepticism and our insistent, ongoing refusal to seek out & frame discussions around our commonly-shared beliefs are the result of a whole bunch of conscious choices that most of us have made while lost in the fog of these never-ending belief wars. And the consequences of those choices—the real-world happenings that emerge in the wake of our inaction—seem to grow more gruesome & dire with every passing year.

After everything that previous humans have achieved, bringing all of us now to this glorious point in civilization—is this really the best we can do? 

<![CDATA[A Brain Not Built For Our World´╗┐]]>Wed, 07 Oct 2015 16:56:53 GMThttp://www.rsaltheory.com/blog/a-brain-not-built-for-our-world
The human brain was not built for this world. Yes, our brains were built for this world, the earth, but not this world—the one that’s slathered in social media, the one that’s suddenly, vastly interconnected in ways that feel powerfully & emotionally intimate, regardless of the connectees’ physical remoteness or previous unfamiliarity. Unsurprisingly, not being built for our world is leading to some unintended, unproductive & deeply undesirable results. 

That’s mainly because human minds were built to interact not only with our environment, but specifically within our communities. We are a uniquely (& uniquely complex) social species, and that sociality has been one of our great advantages. A single person alone stands little chance against the harshness of this planet, but people in communities, people who cooperate and solve problems together—those people are the humans who have constructed all of this.

And during the countless millennia that shaped those interactive mechanisms & wiring of the modern & uniquely-social human brain, those communities looked nothing like the ones that we have now (many of which are literally virtual--something that doesn’t stop them from being actually emotionally impactful). If we compare the quantity & quality of daily human-to-human interactions within primitive (and even not-long-ago) communities to the hyper-connected planet of today, we can clearly see that there’s a massive chasm between these two worlds.

Why does this matter to our brains? Isn’t the human brain’s primary genius its adaptability, its capacity to apply highly-flexible, creative, self-malleable systems that adjust according to the experiences it consumes? Yes, exactly. Systems that adjust according to the experiences the brain consumes

We were built to walk into a room or field, interact with something or someone, analyze that interaction, respond, and (hopefully) learn something from it—so the next time we interact in that place or with that thing or person, our brain will be capable of making a better decision or prediction about the most beneficial way to respond to that interaction. And this was useful because until very recently, generally speaking, we actually lived in these places and with these people and around these things. 

All of that experience-based learning by our ancestors helped them to navigate & respond to the community upon which they depended for their daily (& often life-long) existence. This meant that the emotional responses these humans experienced during these daily interactions had real current & future value—because the emotions helped them to guide their current & future behavior with individuals & within social settings that were likely to have strong short- and/or long-term actual impact on their lives.

In settings like that—where the interaction is face-to-face & within a deeply-interwoven/interdependent community—the choice, for example, to directly insult someone might be derailed by the fact that you’re likely going to need to interact with or rely upon them very soon in the future (possibly unexpectedly). In terms of our brain’s emotional responses, what’s happening in a choice like this is that the guilt generated by saying something mean to a fellow community-member, and the fear of later reprisal at a time of personal need outweighs the power of the anger that motivates the possible insult (which is intended as a hopefully pain-inflicting reprisal for whatever act by the other person caused the initial anger).

Emotions Have Consequences (& Some Are More Useful Than Others)
At their roots, all of these these emotions are designed to do one very basic thing: help us to avoid a loss (pain) or achieve a gain (pleasure). According to our theory, all human emotions are paired in these kinds of directly polar ways. Every emotion is either a pain-based response that inhibits specific behavior in an attempt to avoid some kind of current/future value loss, or a pleasure-based response that encourages specific behavior in an attempt to achieve some kind of current/future value gain. (Included at the end of this post is a chart detailing our theory’s model of the full range of humans’ 13 primary, polar emotional pairs.)

And it’s important to understand that—because the human mind employs a symbolic, associative & experience-defined value system--all kinds of very different categories of value gains & losses can actually create some very similar responses within our brains. When our minds judge (& guide our behavior according to) the pain caused by losing a valuable personal relationship and the pain caused by losing a valuable financial investment, our mind isn’t using different parts of the brain to respond emotionally to that loss. Once you get down to the neural mechanisms that shape responses within our brain, those mechanisms ultimately don’t care about (or distinguish between) the semantic differences between the loss of money or the loss of personal support. All that matters is that we’ve been trained via experience or study to associate some level of value with both of these things. 

To our brains, in the end, a loss is a loss & a gain is a gain—whatever the cause—and thus, the ultimate result of any type of loss or gain is some form (& some contextually-determined level) of emotional pain or pleasure. And this is because, at their roots, all emotions are designed to help determine the properly-calibrated, contextually-defined response to that question: how much does this specific behavior, potential action, current result or other entity’s current/potential behavior or action help me or harm me (or how much is it likely to help or harm me in the future)? And when we possess something like a “sensitive ego” (aka, a more tenuous view of our own value to others) we humans can feel genuinely harmed by interactions that aren’t really of any consequence beyond the insult itself. 

This means that even those momentary-&-ultimately-actually-meaningless emotional responses that today’s humans constantly have within all those socially-networked virtual communities trigger neural responses that aren’t all that dissimilar from the emotional responses triggered all those millennia ago in those much more self-contained & physically-intimate communities. 

The real difference, of course, is in the amount of actual impact that those people & places had & have on those humans’ real lives. And before everybody goes bonkers trying to explain exactly how useful (& emotionally-supportive) these vastly-interconnected virtual social communities can be—don’t go bonkers. Without a doubt, there are literally millions of humans today whose lives have been enhanced & enriched by their interactions within virtual social communities—in many ways that were not possible prior to access to such technology.

But there are billions of us online, and let’s be honest: the vast majority of us are not using our connectedness for such enhancing & enriching purposes during the vast majority of our time spent engaged with these diffuse networks. It might feel like we’re achieving all kinds of pleasure-filled gains (and anger-inducing losses) from these ever-present interactions, but the actual usefulness of that pleasure or anger in shaping behavior is likely not the same as when that emotion is experienced during a similar interaction within your actual community.

This partly goes back to that imagined primitive choice not to directly insult that anger-inducing community member. Anger can be powerful stuff, and it’s meant to be. However, in those types of face-to-face interactions with fellow community members (the environment in which these brain systems evolved) there are lots of other ever-present emotions that are helping to balance that anger in order to achieve the most contextually-appropriate & ultimately-beneficial response. The guilt of committing an “anti-communal” act, the fear of future reprisal at a time of personal need. The anger here is more useful in effectively shaping behavior not only because it occurs within a more life-impacting environment, but because in this environment that emotion is balanced with other emotions—allowing the anger to contribute something to consequent behavior without totally controlling that behavior (which can have some less-useful results).

Amongst today’s vast interconnectedness, that anger has no peers. Not only is there little likelihood that you’re going to encounter that person again unexpectedly or rely on them for anything in the near future, but any target of your anger can be easily & entirely removed from any of your future interactions (by “blocking” or “unfriending”). 

And the online “communities” that most of us inhabit simply don’t seem to inhibit  “anti-communal” behavior in the way that actual community settings do. For example, from experience it seems fairly clear that people are much, much more likely to engage in openly hostile behavior in an online setting than they are in a communal setting like a school parking lot or a public sidewalk—especially when those common areas are part of a smaller-scale community. So when that choice comes to inhibit or encourage an anger response, the vast interconnectedness helps to remove common social barriers that help to mitigate the uninhibited expression of emotions like anger.

Emotions Have Stamina (& Crosshairs)
There’s another potent aspect of anger (& fellow emotions that are aimed at “other entities”)—because of its need for confirmed reprisal of a loss, it tends to hang around waiting for that confirmation. When you spit in someone’s face, you want to see the look on their face afterwards. That’s the payoff. 

Thus, when you send off that angry missive in response to the inane, offensive comment, you want to hear that dismay or submission in some subsequent reply. And if you don’t get that satisfaction, that anger tends to linger a little, awaiting its confirmation of a successful reprisal. (This successful reprisal essentially balances our neural books measuring these kinds of specific gain/loss matters, a mechanism whose survival value is providing a motivation & methodology for maintaining a sustainable quantity of resources--go get something to replace what you just lost, preferably the thing that was actually taken.)

In addition, you know how you stub your toe on a chair, and the pain motivates you to kick the chair while you yell at it? And then, once you realize that’s stupid & the chair can’t actually be at fault for your pain, you look around to see who might be to blame for not pushing-in the chair, giving you a new target for your soon-to-be-vocalized anger? Sound familiar? Pain and the anger that it spurs like to have a target (anger actually needs one), and if you haven’t bothered to apply some more-thorough cognitive analysis to the pain-producing, anger-inducing interaction, your brain is likely to aim that anger at any target that’s conveniently within range. Logic need not apply.

And this desire for a target—the requirement that some other entity be involved in the completion of an emotional judgement and the behavior it motivates—this desire is a part of many emotions in addition to anger (again, detailed in the chart at the end). This means that all kinds of emotions generated via online interaction can linger in your mind once you re-enter that actual world and begin wandering amongst it again—subtly, but persistently, seeking a target & interaction that will satisfy your emotional need. 

You’ve felt it. That pang of whatever hanging on your shoulders as you wander through the day—the result of something said, unsaid, wished-to-be-said, going-to-be-said-later, something that keeps bubbling into your thoughts. The result of that online interaction has lingered, unsatisfied, begging to be given the chance to be made whole, regardless of the fact that this interaction has almost no real value at all in your actual life. 

Returning to that primitively-conjured choice not to insult the offending community member—yes, there’s likely to be some lingering anger from this interaction too. But that anger has a real purpose. It’s going to help shape future behavior in actual future encounters with that person or within similar situations (i.e., an instinctive a wariness in those circumstances that helps to protect against future losses). In addition, even though that anger is likely to linger (because the person didn’t shout the pain-inflicting insult) that brain is likely to continue applying the same cognitive strategies to remind themselves that it was the right choice: “I really wish I’d said something. But…I have to remember, I’ll be glad that I didn’t.”

And there’s a strong benefit in being able to apply those self-controlling cognitive strategies born from communally-based motivators—they make you better at controlling your anger the next time something similar happens, which can make an individual more effective at fully analyzing the ultimate gain/loss value of acting upon their anger. Again, although we’re using anger as our main example here, similar processes apply to every emotion, and all emotions create more useful results when effectively balanced with other situationally-applicable emotions (a balance that’s typically & powerfully undermined by the vast interconnectedness). 

Emotions Are Crucial (& We Must Use Them More Wisely)
In the end, as we’ve described, one of the primary things that our brains aren’t usually learning from these myriad, ongoing online interactions is how to effectively balance our specific emotional responses according to those communally-based motivators. Ever wonder why suddenly everybody seems so OFFENDED by everything? Why “making-a-mountain-out-of-a-mole-hill” seems to be the driving force behind every current “media cycle”? Why we all seem to view each other as “us” or “them” these days? Might that not reflect a shift in behavior predicated on a deepening inability or unwillingness to balance our emotional responses in ways that help us to interact more effectively & cooperatively as a community? Isn’t the sudden inability to govern ourselves cooperatively at the highest levels (one word: Congress) simply a reflection of how that cooperative capacity has diminished even at the lowest levels of our communities?

Emotions are some of our brain’s most vital tools. They provide the equations that our minds’ use to assign value to every action, interaction and result that occurs or is predicted to occur. They powerfully shape our behavior and choices both in the moment and in the future. But they weren’t built to effectively learn from, balance and respond to dozens & dozens of ultimately meaningless encounters day after day after day. Those encounters represent an enormous pile of useless, context-less, misleading and overwhelming experiential data. And despite the survival-disadvantageous nature of this data, because our brain employs systems that adjust according to the experiences it consumes, that enormous pile of bad data can still have an equally enormous impact on how it shapes our overall behavior.  

The human brain wasn’t built for this world. And as the planet melts beneath our feet—a clearly-foreseen catastrophe that remains woefully unaddressed because of our inability to effectively communicate & cooperate—we have to wonder if this might finally be the time to start considering what we’re doing to ourselves.